by Robert Witt
Paul leaned against the window on the passenger side and watched as Jamie buttoned his shirt. The moonlight spreading softly over them enabled Paul to study Jamie, a big man, a husky man, even starting to develop the requisite pot to show that he drank his share of beer. Paul smiled as he thought about the name. A man almost thirty still using the childhood version of his name, the fate of boys who remain in the area where they have grown up.
“Was it good?” Jamie spoke with the characteristic drawl of the southern Kentuckians who live in the country.
“It’s always good with you, Jamie.”
“Thank ye.” Jamie took a pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket. “Say you’ll be here now till after Christmas?” He held a tiny blue-yellow flame to the end of a cigarette.
“Yes. It’s our Christmas vacation. I’ll be here until after the first of the year.”
“Oh, well, guess I’ll be seeing lots of you.”
“I hope so.”
“You’ll be out, won’t you? From time to time.”
“Then I’ll see you.” Jamie straightened in the seat, held the cigarette before him, and pondered the glow for a moment. “Ah, I want to ask you something.”
“I know after that first time I promised I’d never ask for money again. . . .”
Paul exhaled, sat up, and faced toward the front.
“And I’m not gonna ask you to give me any money, but I want to ask you to loan me some. I’ll give it back to you. I’ll sell my tobacco soon after the first of the year and I’ll give it to you then.” Jamie ground out the words like one shelling an ear of corn by hand. “I need some now bad and I ain’t got it. I ain’t asking you to pay. Nothing like that. I’ll give it back . . . soon as I sell my tobacco.”
Paul turned to look at Jamie. Despite the size and the moustache he seemed suddenly to have become a little boy, begging for a toy he desperately wanted. “How much?” Paul tried to keep the exasperation out of his voice.
“I don’t know exactly. “’Bout a hundred, I guess.”
“I want to buy my son a Christmas present and I ain’t got the money. I had it. I’d saved it up. But I had to have my truck worked on last week. And now I ain’t got it.”
“What do you want to buy him?”
“A bicycle.” Jamie turned to face Paul and enthusiasm permeated his voice. “I don’t know if he can learn to ride it. But I think he can, and I’m gonna work real hard teaching him. I think he can. And then he’d be more . . . more like other boys his age. He can’t learn a lot of things. I know that. But I think he can do it and I want him to. And I want to give it to him for Christmas. I guess he won’t get much else. Pore little feller. Nobody loves him but me. His mother sure don’t. She walked out on him when she walked out on me. Said she didn’t want him. Just like that. And Mama, well, course she cares about him, but she don’t love him. I can tell.”
“Her grandson? Surely–“
“No she don’t and Dad don’t neither. You see they never did like Jeannette, tried ever way they could to keep me from marrying her. And they blame her for the way he is. They think of him as her son, not mine. And because he’s . . . he’s different from other children–“
“They don’t love him.” Paul nodded.
“Yeah, not really. They say they do, but I can tell.”
“I knew you had a son, but I don’t really know anything about him. How old is he?”
“Going on ten.”
“What’s his name?”
“Marty . . . Martin.”
“Martin Wilson, that’s a nice name. What, ah, what’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing’s wrong . . . he’s just kind of . . . well kind of slow. He can’t learn things very good.”
“But I think he can learn to ride a bicycle. He wants one. I don’t know what give him the idea, but he’s been talking and talking about it. And I sure want to get it for him for Christmas real bad and I don’t know anywhere else I could get the money right now. So if you would, I’d sure appreciate it. I swear just as soon as I–“
“Of course I’ll give you the money.”
“I’d sure appreciate it. It means a lot to me.” Jamie relaxed in the seat. “I figured you being a college professor and all you’d be able to let me have it.”
Paul laughed. “School teachers are always poor. Ah, I don’t have much money with me, just about twenty dollars or so. I’ll have to wait until I can go to the bank and write a check.”
“Just whenever you want. Course I’ll need it by Christmas Eve at least.”
Paul thought for a moment. “The banks are open here on Saturday mornings, aren’t they?”
“I can go in the morning. You want to meet me somewhere?”
“Sure. I’ll just meet you at the bank. Which one do you go to?”
“Citizens National. Want to meet me in the parking lot in back?”
“Whatever you say. What time?”
“Late morning, say eleven.”
“Fine with me.”
“I’ll see you then. . . . Well, I suppose I’d better go.” Paul fingered the door handle.
“Yeah, me too. It’s gettin’ late.”
“So . . . ,” Paul opened the door, “the parking lot at Citizens National at eleven.” He climbed out of the pickup.
“Yep. I’ll be there. I sure appreciate this.”
“I’m glad I can do it.” Paul stared at Jamie for a moment before closing the door. He had known Jamie for a year, had been out with him several times during that period, but he had never seen this aspect. How little we know, he thought as he said goodnight and closed the door. He turned to his car parked beside the pickup, opened the door, and slid in. He always followed Jamie out of town whenever Jamie blinked the taillights three times, but they always sat in Jamie’s truck because Paul drove a small car with bucket seats and a console between them. Realizing that Jamie was waiting for him to start up, Paul turned the key and revved the engine. Jamie’s truck started immediately and the lights came on. Paul followed Jamie as they emerged from behind the small church and drove down the hill to the highway. At the highway, though, Jamie turned toward town and Paul in the opposite direction. Paul would drive away from town for a few minutes giving Jamie time to get close to town before he turned and headed that way, too.
When Paul turned into the parking lot, he noticed that Jamie was already there. Parking a few spaces away from the pickup, he got out and held up his hand. Jamie returned the gesture. Paul pointed toward the bank and mouthed, “Just a minute.” Jamie nodded, and Paul started for the rear entrance. He was startled by the low hum of an electronic organ in the distance. Stopping he glanced around, looking finally toward the small chapel across the street which had in recent years been built behind the funeral home there. A man stood holding the door open, gazing into the parking lot beside the chapel. Paul followed his stare and saw that the lot was full. Funeral, Paul thought, respice finem. He continued toward the bank. As the man pulled back and closed the door, the irritating hum vanished.
Paul wrote out a check hurriedly at one of the tall desks and turned to hand it to a woman who, it seemed to Paul, had been sitting on the same stool in the same little booth for at least twenty years. She had cashed his checks when he was in high school, college, graduate school, and now that he was a faculty member. She asked a polite question about school, which Paul answered briefly. He wasn’t certain that she realized he was no longer a student, but supposed it didn’t matter. Hurrying to the back of the bank, he pushed through the glass door onto the parking lot. Hesitating momentarily he glanced toward the truck and then strode across the lot.
“How ye doin’?” Jamie drawled as Paul opened the door.
“Fine. How’re you this morning?”
“All right. Get in.”
Paul looked left and right and then climbed into the truck. Taking the bills, five twenties, from his jacket pocket, he held them toward Jamie. “Here you are.”
“I sure appreciate this.” Jamie took the bills and without counting them stuffed them into his pants pocket. “I sure do. And I’ll give it back. I swear that.”
“I . . . I’d like to give you that. It’s a present.”
“Nah, nah. I’m not gonna take it from ye. It’s just a loan like I said. I’ll pay it back. But I will have to wait till I sell my tobacco.”
“We’ll talk about it then, O.K.? I hope Marty will like his bicycle.”
“Oh, he will. He’ll be so happy he’ll just about go crazy. He’s been talking about it so much. It’ll make him happy even if he don’t learn to ride it.”
“I’m glad.” Paul started to open the door.
“Say, you wanna go with me to get it?”
Paul’s eyes widened as he faced Jamie. “Well, I . . . suppose. I mean, yes I’d like to. But . . . but do you . . .”
“Sure. C’mon.” Jamie leaned forward and started the engine.
“You sure you want me to go with you?” Paul asked as Jamie maneuvered the truck onto the street in front of the chapel.
“If I didn’t, I wouldn’t’ve asked.”
“But . . . you know how it is here. How people talk about me.”
“Yeah, I guess. Don’t bother me.”
“Here, to most people, I’m . . . the town whore–worse than that, something they won’t even name. ‘Afflicted,’ as the older women euphemistically put it. I’m sorry. You don’t want to hear this.”
“Don’t matter to me. If it bothers you so much . . . well, I mean you don’t have to come here, do you?”
“No. . . . Yes. It’s my home. Whatever bad times I may have had here, it’s my home. And my family’s here. I love them and want to be with them whenever I can, especially times like this–Christmas, Easter, so on. Besides,” Paul looked at Jamie and felt the glow within his own eyes, “if everything wasn’t as it is, I would never have met you.”
Jamie smiled. “You know, this town’s full.”
“Yes, Christmas shoppers.”
“We ain’t never gonna find a place to park.”
“Where’re you going?”
“They have a few spaces for customers at the back of the store. You might try that.”
“Oh yeah. I’d forgot.”
After several more minutes of inching through the traffic, Jamie swung the truck into the small alley beside the Western Auto store and found a parking space at the back. He and Paul left the truck and entered the building through the rear door. Two or three people sauntered about, looking at various items, but none seemed ready to purchase anything so the salesman, an older man, could give his attention to Paul and Jamie immediately. He was visibly shocked when he realized they were together, but he said nothing and proceeded with them to the front where the bicycles were parked. Jamie looked at several different models. Paul tried to stand back and play no part in the decision, but Jamie kept asking his opinion. Finally together they selected a Schwinn, bright red with white trim. The salesman pushed it to the cash register area at the back and figured the bill–$89.25. Jamie pulled the bills from his pocket and for the first time counted them, placing them one by one on the counter beside the cash register. The salesman scooped them up, recounted them, placed them in the cash drawer, and handed Jamie three quarters and a ten. Stuffing the money into his pocket, Jamie took the bike, and pushed it toward the door. Paul hurried ahead to open the door and hold it while Jamie picked up the bike and carried it through the door and down the steps to the pavement.
After they were resettled, Jamie started the truck and headed up the alley. Waiting several minutes to find an opening in the traffic, he finally pulled onto the street and crawled through the few blocks to the bank. “You gonna be out tonight?” he asked as he stopped in front of Paul’s car.
“Ah, no. I’m going to Centerville tonight to visit a friend. I’m sure it’ll be rather late before I get back.”
“I’ll be seeing you soon then.”
“I hope so.” Paul pulled the door handle. “I hope Marty will like the bicycle.” Paul started to climb out.
“Oh, he’ll luv it. I’ll say he’ll be just about the happiest little boy around on Christmas morning.”
Paul smiled. “I hope someday I can meet Marty.”
“You wanna see him?”
“Of course. I’d love to.”
Jamie thought for a moment. “What’ll you be doing Christmas morning?”
“I’m usually tied up on Christmas morning with the family, until at least after Christmas dinner.”
“What’ll you be doing in the evening?”
“Ah, you mean afternoon?”
“I mean long about one or two o’clock.”
“Oh, I’ll be free then. And by that time eager to get out of the house.”
“How about if I bring Marty to town then and meet you ’bout two?”
“Great. I’d love to see him. Where shall I meet you?”
“Don’t matter. How ’bout on the square?”
“Fine. Two o’clock Christmas afternoon on the square. And if I don’t see you before then, have a Merry Christmas.”
“Yeah, you all have a good Christmas, too.”
“Thank you.” Paul closed the door, slid into his car, and watched as Jamie swung around the parking lot and pulled out onto the street again.
Allenvale was one of those once picturesque little towns which, in the name of progress, constantly labor to become non-picturesque. The large white courthouse, once the dominant feature of the town square, had been demolished and a modern City-County Building constructed on a different site. The square was now an empty space with four sentinel-like stop signs and parking spaces. As Paul approached the stop sign facing in his direction, he saw Jamie’s truck in one of the spaces on the other side. He stopped, then turned right and then left into the parking area and wheeled into the space beside the truck.
“How ye doin’?” Jamie asked as Paul opened the door. “Scoot over, Son, and make some more room.”
“Fine. How’re you all?” Paul climbed in and closed the door.
“This is Marty. Marty, this is Paul. He’s a friend.”
“Hello, Marty. It’s certainly nice to meet you.” Paul looked carefully into the boy’s upturned face. He was a pretty child except for the vacuous stare. Paul studied the face searching for Jamie. He saw something of Jamie, but the mother had obviously given him dark hair and brown eyes, causing him to miss Jamie’s honey blond hair and clear blue eves.
“Son, can you say hello to Paul?”
“Hello, Paul. Do you know my daddy?”
“Yes, I know your daddy. He’s a fine fellow, isn’t he?”
“He’s my daddy.”
“And I bet you think he’s the greatest.”
“Son, tell Paul what you got for Christmas.”
The boy became animated. “I got a bicycle. My daddy give me a bicycle. It’s great big and red and, and–“
“Your daddy gave you a bicycle? Well now, that’s really a nice present, isn’t it?” Paul glanced at Jamie and smiled. Jamie’s eyes were twinkling.
“My daddy give me a bicycle and it’s great big and red and–“
“Have you been riding it?”
“Yes. I been riding my bicycle. I been riding and riding.”
Paul looked at Jamie with a question. “With me holding it up,” Jamie replied. Paul nodded.
“Do you know my daddy?”
“You’ve already asked him that, Son.”
Paul laughed. “Yes, I know your daddy, and I think he’s a fine fellow just like you do.”
“My bicycle’s big and red and I ride and ride.”
“Do you like riding it?”
“I like riding my bicycle. I ride and ride.”
“He’s right about that. I couldn’t hardly get him off of it to come to town.”
“Well, I’m happy that you like your bicycle and that you like riding it.”
“My daddy give me a bicycle. Do you know my daddy?”
“Son . . .”
“You want to see my bicycle?”
“You want to see me ride? I ride and ride and it’s great big. You want to see my bicycle?”
“Why, I’d love to, and I will sometime.”
“You want to see it now? Daddy, I want . . . him to see my bicycle. Can he see my bicycle?”
“His name is Paul.”
“I want Paul to see my bicycle.”
Jamie glanced at Paul. “You got time to ride out to the house with us?”
“Well, ah, ah, I suppose. But I don’t think, ah–“
“I want you to see my bicycle.”
“It’d make him happy if you got the time.”
“Well . . . I have the time, but what about your folks?”
“What about ’em?”
“They wouldn’t be expecting me.”
“No. But that don’t matter. You can meet them, too.”
“If you think it’s all right. But I’m afraid–“
“Sure it’s all right. We’ll just run out for a little while. I’ll bring you back in.”
“O.K. If you say so.”
“Do you know my daddy? My daddy give me a bicycle.”
“Son, you’ve told him that a dozen times.” Jamie straightened in the seat, started the truck, and backed out.
After about ten minutes the truck approached the New Hope community. Paul frequently marveled at the names of these little communities, consisting of a few scattered farm houses, the inevitable church, and in some a service station/grocery store. The names always seemed to be New something or the other–New Hope, New Bethel, New Roe–usually names from the Bible or at least with religious overtones. At any rate, almost everyone in the county was identified with one such community or another. “Do you know ole man Jim Carver?” someone would ask. “Yeah, he lives down about New Bethel, don’t he?”
Jamie turned off the highway onto a side road and after less than a mile stopped in front of a small square frame house. Paul noted that it was neatly kept as he opened the door and climbed out, holding the door while Marty scrambled out after him. Once on the ground Marty took Paul’s hand. “I show you my bicycle,” he said and led Paul around the truck toward the house. Jamie fell in beside them, and the three walked abreast toward the house. Marty still held Paul’s hand. Just before they reached the steps, the front door opened and Mr. Wilson stepped out. Paul guessed he was early sixties, but he looked seventy.
“Dad, this is Paul Stuart. He–“
“I reckon I know who he is.” Mr. Wilson’s tone made Paul aware that it was December even though the day was bright and mild. “Marty, go in the house to your granma.”
“I show him my bicycle. He see me ride and ride.”
“I said go in the house to your granma.”
“Go on, Son. We’ll be in in a minute.” Jamie was staring at the ground. They remained silent as Marty released Paul’s hand and climbed the steps. When he reached the porch, he turned back and looked at Paul. “Do you know my daddy? My daddy give–“
“Go in the house, Marty, right now.” Mr. Wilson snapped the last two words.
Marty turned and walked to the door, then turned back to Paul. “Goodbye, Paul.”
Paul looked up quickly. “Goodbye, Marty. I enjoyed meeting you.”
After Marty closed the door behind him. Mr. Wilson began again. “I reckon I know who he is and I reckon I know he ain’t welcome here.”
Paul stared in horror.
“We’ve heard talk, plenty of talk.” He riveted his eyes on Paul. “I reckon as a matter of fact we’ve heard talk about you ’bout all your life. And I don’t mind standin’ here tellin’ you to your face, you ain’t fit to be around decent folks.”
Paul dug his nails into his palms and chewed his lip inside his mouth. He wanted to turn and run, but his muscles were so taut he felt as though each one would soon snap.
“Now Jamie’s a grown man, and I can’t no longer tell him what he can and what he can’t do. But this is my house, and I shore can say who’s welcome here and who ain’t.”
Paul, finding that his muscles would cooperate, wheeled and walked briskly to the truck.
“Dad, you can’t talk to him that a way. That ain’t no way to talk to nobody. You don’t know this, but Paul–“
“Jamie!” The urgency in Paul’s voice turned Jamie around instantly. “Drive me to town . . . please.”
Jamie turned back to his father, his face revealing how desperately he searched for the right thing to say. After a moment, though, his entire body drooped, and he walked slowly toward the truck. Paul climbed in immediately. Jamie opened the door and looked at Paul before getting in. Turning back, he stared evenly at his father for a moment but then dropped his head and climbed in. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.
“Just drive me to town, please. Get me away before he can say anything else to me.”
Jamie slammed the door shut, started the engine, made a u-turn in the road, and drove away. Paul looked back and saw Mr. Wilson still standing in the same position as they drove out of sight. They rode in silence up the side road and for a way on the highway. Paul sat with his elbow on the arm rest and his head against his hand. Occasionally he massaged his temples with his thumb and first two fingers. Finally Jamie spoke. “I am sorry. I had no idea–“
“Not your fault.”
“I can’t believe that my own father–“
“It’s not your fault. Don’t worry about it.”
“I feel real bad. I wouldn’t’ve had that happen for anything.”
“It’s just that . . . well, you have to understand, they’re real religious people.”
“Yes, I can tell.”
Jamie glanced quickly at Paul but then faced the highway again. “And, and they don’t understand . . . a lot of things.”
“And people hate what they don’t understand. I know.” Paul inhaled deeply and straightened up. “Let’s don’t talk about it, O.K.? Let’s forget it.”
“I’m sorry. I wish there was some way to make it up to you.”
“Forget it. That’s best. I like Marty. He’s very nice and very handsome. You must be proud of him.”
“He’s my son, and I love him.” They were approaching the square, and Jamie slowed the truck. “You helped make him happy on Christmas, and I’ll never forget that.”
“I’m glad I could be of help. I like him. I’m sorry that I won’t be able to get to know him better.”
“We can still get together. This don’t change nothing. I guess we can’t go out to the house, but I can bring him in and we can go places.” Jamie stopped the truck beside Paul’s car.
“No. After today I think we had better continue our clandestine meetings only.”
“There ain’t no reason–“
“Just blink your taillights three times if you want me to follow you.” Paul scrambled out and slammed the door, but opened it almost immediately. “I’m sorry, Jamie. I didn’t mean to sound angry with you. As I said, what happened is not your fault. You’re a good person, and I like you very much. You don’t know how thrilled I was that you wanted me to meet Marty . . . and your folks. But . . . well, I just couldn’t take any more confrontations like that. I want to see you whenever I can, but I think we’d best continue meeting on the back roads. The next time it might be one of your friends or someone here in town or–I don’t know. I’m upset now. I just need to be by myself for a while. I’ll see you later, O.K.?”
Jamie nodded. “I’ll see you real soon, Paul.”
Paul turned left off Main into the parking lot of the Famous Recipe restaurant. Making a circle, he eased the car into a space facing Main Street. Switching off the ignition he glanced at his watch–almost twenty after eleven. He wondered if Jamie would still be out, probably so, but still Paul was annoyed that he hadn’t been able to get out earlier. He had told Jamie when he was here in March on spring vacation that he would be back on Good Friday for the Easter weekend. Jamie said he would be looking for him. Terrible to have to rely on chance encounters, yet Paul dared not call Jamie at home nor even write him a letter. Paul jerked up in the seat as he recognized Jamie’s truck coming down the street.
“How ye doin’?” Jamie asked as Paul slid his window down.
“Fine. How about you?”
“Aw right. Thought you weren’t gonna make it in tonight.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry to be so late. But I got tied up at school this afternoon and couldn’t get away until late. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry ’bout it.” Jamie glanced at his watch and then stared into space for a moment. “You gonna be here tomorrow night?”
“Yes, I can be.” Paul had planned, as usual, to visit his friend Rick in Centerville on Saturday night. But he knew Rick would understand if he called and explained.
“How ’bout if we go out tomorrow night?”
“That’s fine with me. I’ll be here.”
“I got to get something done out at the place. This week’s been the first time this spring the ground’s been dry enough to work. Course you know I’m at the plant all day during the week, so what farming I do I got to do after work and weekends.”
“And I got to get a lot done tomorrow, so I’ll have to get up real early. If I go home now, it’ll be twelve before I get to bed.”
“I understand. Go home and get some rest. I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“You sure it’s all right. I mean if you wasn’t planning to be here–“
“I’ll be here. I don’t have any plans.”
“All right. It’d be a lot better for me. . . . How’ve things been goin’?”
“Fine. Just as usual. How about with you?”
“Yeah, ’bout as usual. Well, I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“O.K. I’ll be here. Good to see you.”
“Yeah, good to see you, too.” Jamie pulled away and circled back to Main Street. He held up his hand as he came back by the car.
Paul returned the gesture and watched as the truck wobbled over the divide and smoothed out on the street. Paul kept his eyes on the truck until the taillights disappeared. He was thrilled just to see Jamie. It didn’t matter whether they went out. Of course, Jamie thought that was all Paul wanted. Not ready to go home, Paul decided to drive around and drink some of the beer he had in the trunk. He didn’t go home until rather late and, as usual, slept late the next morning. His mother had already started preparations for lunch, but she fixed a light breakfast for him. She continued working at the stove and one of the counters as Paul ate. His grandmother stood at the sink washing dishes. Roger Harrell, Paul’s stepfather, worked on Saturday’s in his insurance office.
“When will your semester be finished?” Mrs. Harrell asked.
“Second week in May–Mother’s day.”
“Oh yes, I remember.”
“How long will you get to stay with us then?” Mrs. Follis, Paul’s grandmother, turned from the sink to ask the question.
“Probably about two weeks.”
“Oh good.” She turned back to the sink.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to it.” Yes, Paul thought, two whole weeks to meet Jamie whenever he wanted. “Anything exciting been happening?” He directed the question to his mother.
“You know nothing exciting ever happens in–listen.” She held up her hand for silence.
Mrs. Follis froze with her hands just above the dishwater, and Paul held his cup just over his saucer, not daring to set it down and cause a clinking noise. He heard the faint wail of a siren.
Mrs. Harrell listened carefully for a moment and then turned back to the stove. “Ambulance,” she said.
“Turn on the radio.” Mrs. Follis still held her hands above the water.
“No, Mama, they don’t tell you where the ambulance is going. That’s for the fire truck.”
“Oh, that’s right.” She plunged into the water again.
Paul marveled now, though he had taken it for granted when he was growing up here, that whenever a siren sounded in Allenvale most of the people in town could hear it, identify it as police car, ambulance, or fire truck, and would likely know the person who occasioned it when they heard the name. Paul continued to sip coffee and smoke cigarettes for some time, luxuriating in the security of home and parental attention. When Roger came for lunch, Mrs. Harrell asked if he knew about the ambulance. Roger said he had heard the siren but hadn’t heard yet what had happened.
Since Paul had eaten late breakfast, he went to town to buy Easter flowers for his mother and grandmother while the others were having lunch. He spent the afternoon at home, but during most of the time he thought about Jamie . . . and Marty. Marty haunted him. He wanted to see the child again, give him a present, do things for him. Jamie had returned the hundred dollars in March. Paul tried to get him to keep it, but he was insistent, so Paul acquiesced. Now, though, Paul wanted to give Marty a present. He would ask Jamie tonight if there was something Marty wanted. He would also ask if Jamie were still willing to bring him in to town for Paul to see. Maybe Sunday afternoon before Paul left to return to the university or, if not, sometime while Paul was here in May. They could go somewhere and have ice cream, at least maybe one of the drive-ins. Or perhaps Marty would like to ride in Paul’s car. Paul wished for the night so he could go park and watch for Jamie.
Afternoon sloped into early evening and finally Mrs. Harrell called Paul to dinner. He was glad because soon after dinner he would leave for town. Jamie might not be around until later, but just being there waiting for him was exciting for Paul. They got all the way to dessert before anyone thought about it, but then Roger remembered. “Oh, that ambulance you heard this morning?”
“Yes.” Mrs. Harrell cut a sliver of cake with her fork.
“A boy got killed. He was plowing and the tractor turned over on him.”
“Who was it?” Mrs. Harrell asked.
“A boy lived out at New Hope–“
Paul gasped and stared at Roger in horror, but quickly picked up his coffee cup and pretended to drink.
Roger looked puzzled for a moment and glanced cautiously at Mrs. Harrell. She avoided his eyes, staring determinedly at her plate. “A Wilson boy, the one who’s got that child that’s not right,” Roger explained.
“Oh, Jamie Wilson. Oh my, that’s terrible,” Mrs. Harrell said.
“Who? Who did he say?”
“Jamie Wilson, Mama. He married that Martin girl, Jeannette Martin. Oh, what is her father’s name?” She turned to Roger.
“That’s right. Henry Martin’s daughter, Mama. You know Henry Martin?”
“Oh yes, known him all his life.”
“Well, this boy that got killed married his daughter. But she ran off with another man, went to Indianapolis, left him with that child that’s not right.”
“And he got killed?”
“Not the child, the child’s daddy.”
Paul could take no more. He had sat in stunned silence since Roger said New Hope. But now he felt as if the walls were collapsing and he was being crushed underneath. He had to get out. He rose quickly, almost tilting over his chair. “Excuse me,” he muttered and hurried toward the hall.
Mrs. Harrell looked up in surprise. “Aren’t you going to finish your cake? Don’t you want more coffee?”
“No.” Paul called over his shoulder and rushed into the hall and to his bedroom. He paced the room, alternating between wringing his hands and beating a fist into his palm. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t. Roger was mistaken. He had not heard correctly. Or his source was wrong. Jamie’s not dead. That’s impossible. Paul was supposed to meet him later tonight. Paul would go to town and after a while there would be the truck and Jamie. He can’t be dead, Paul thought, he can’t. It has to be a horrible mistake. Paul had to ask someone else, had to have it from another source. But who? Could he call the house? Hah! The funeral home? No. They would recognize his voice and later joke about it. Who? Who? One thing was certain–he had to get out of the house. He was suffocating and he felt feverish. Hurrying back to the dining room, he stuck his head in the door. “I’m going out. Goodnight.” He pulled back and started away, but Mrs. Harrell called him, and he returned to the door, standing just outside the room.
“Are you going to Rick’s?” she asked.
“I . . . guess, probably.”
“Is something wrong?”
“You seemed upset.”
“Just in a hurry.”
“Well, I won’t keep you. Oh, are you planning to go to church with us in the morning?”
“I’ll call you earlier then.”
Paul said goodnight again and rushed from the house and drove to the square. As usual on a Saturday night many young people were driving around, back and forth from one end of the town to the other–nothing else to do after dark in Allenvale. Several boys drove pickups, and Paul strained forward eagerly every time he saw one. But it was always someone else. Paul didn’t know what to do. He tried parking in several different places but was unable to remain for more than five minutes. So he drove, but he was afraid to leave town, just in case. The back and forth routine was maddening, and he varied it as much as possible, though never getting more than five or six blocks from the square. He drove by the funeral home several times but saw nothing that would either confirm or disprove Roger’s news. He still had beer in the trunk, so he got it and began drinking, hoping it would calm him. But it seemed to have no effect. Finally he thought about Mr. Sawyer, the manager at the little late night market. Mr. Sawyer had always been friendly–he had been one of Paul’s Sunday school teachers in Paul’s Edenic days–and he always knew about everything that happened in Allenvale. Paul drove quickly to the market and noted with relief that no other cars were parked there. He sat in the car for a moment taking long deep breaths and then as casually as possible entered the store.
“Why, Paul Stuart, how’re you?” Mr. Sawyer leaned against the counter next to the cash register.
“Fine, thank you. How are you?” Paul walked past the register and pulled a pack of cigarettes from the rack.
“Oh, can’t complain, I guess. What brings you to town, spring vacation?”
“No, just here for the weekend–Easter.” Paul flipped the pack of cigarettes on the counter and handed Mr. Sawyer a bill. “Uh, I heard somebody got killed on a tractor today.”
Mr. Sawyer looked quickly at Paul out of the corner of his eye but then turned to the register with the bill. “Yeah, terrible thing, terrible. Young person like that.”
Paul forced out the words and then braced himself. “Who was it?”
Mr. Sawyer avoided Paul’s eyes and counted the change into his palm. “Jamie Wilson. Thought maybe you’d heard.”
“No, I . . . I . . .” Paul bit his lower lip.
“Yeah, terrible thing. Funeral’s tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow!” Paul stared wide-eyed. “But wasn’t it just this morning that . . . that . . .” Paul swallowed. He felt as if there were no fluid of any kind in his face or mouth or throat.
“Yep, this morning. But his folks want him buried on Easter. They’re real religious people. Be tomorrow at two o’clock here at the chapel. Course he’ll be buried out at New Hope.”
Paul nodded, stuffed the change into his pocket, and walked slowly toward the door.
“Thanks, Paul. Come again.”
But Paul didn’t answer. He continued the slow gait to the car, got in, and mechanically performed the functions as he started the car and backed away. He felt absolutely nothing. As he pulled onto the street he turned away from town. He intended to drive far away, somewhere, anywhere. But after less than a mile he turned the car around and headed back for the square. He began again the parking–driving–drinking routine, which he continued until he drank all the beer. He had to have more, something stronger. Allenvale, of course, was dry. He checked his watch, decided that his folks would be in bed, and drove to the house to get a bottle of Roger’s scotch. Returning to town, he performed the same ritual until his was about the only car on the streets. Finally he drove home and parked the car.
Even though quite drunk he was careful not to bump into anything in the house. The last thing he wanted was to face his mother. He undressed and fell into bed, but despite the liquor he lay for a long time staring into the darkness. Eventually, though, the liquor pulled him into a nightmarish sleep, worse than the sleepless reality.
Paul awoke with a jerk, his head throbbing. He checked his watch, a little before nine. His mother would soon call him. He knew that he had to go through it all–breakfast, church, Easter dinner–without showing any emotion. Oh, God, if there were only someone to talk to. But there wasn’t. So Paul wore through the activities, saying as little as possible and avoiding everyone’s eyes.
At 1:57 Paul swung the car into the Citizens National parking lot and twisted into a space facing the chapel across the street. Even though the sky was overcast, he wore sunglasses. The chapel was red brick with thin square white columns. Several men stood on the porch, sharply divided by age. Paul recognized one of the younger men leaning against a column as a man he had once seen in the truck with Jamie, but he didn’t know the man’s name. How terrible not even to know Jamie’s friends. Slowly the men began filing through the door. The day was unseasonably warm, but it was too early for the air-conditioner to have been turned on. Paul noted that some of the windows were open and turned on the ignition to press the button which allowed the window beside him to whir down. At first he heard only the whine of tires on the pavement as a car passed, but this noise was soon replaced by the buzz of the imitation organ.
Paul slumped in the seat and leaned his head against the headrest. He tried to visualize the scene inside. Suddenly he thought about Marty. Would he be there? Would he understand? Do you know my daddy? God! Marty. No one to love him now that Jamie’s gone. Nobody loves the afflicted. Paul jerked up in the seat. He could take Marty, love him, give him a good home, send him to special schools, buy him things. Paul slumped into his former position. They’d see the child burned before they’d let Paul have him. Paul became aware of the voices which had risen above the hum, mostly thin, shaky voices of the older women. He focused on the words.
Yes, we’ll gather at the river, The beautiful, the beautiful river–
Gather with the saints at the river, That flows by the throne of God.
Paul straightened in the seat, then leaned forward resting his head on the steering wheel. “Oh, God! Jamie. God! Will we . . . will we meet?”