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Summary: ''This starts with the happiest I ever was, though it brought down suffering on everybody near me. Short as it lasted and long ago, I've never laid it all out yet, not start to finish. But if I try and half succeed, you may wind up understanding things, choosing a better road for yourself and maybe not blaming the dead past but living for the here and now, each day a clean page.'' April 28, 1956, was the day Blue Calhoun met a sixteen-year-old girl named Luna. And for the next three dec ...show moreades, their love has borne consequences of the most shattering -- and ultimately, perhaps healing -- kind for everyone they know. As Blue recounts the years and their events for us -- fervently, tenderly, knowing full well his own deep responsibility -- we are made witnesses to a story of classic dimensions, a story of love and suffering, family and friendship, death and redemption. ...show lessEdition/Copyright: 92
This starts with the happiest I ever was, though it brought down suffering on everybody near me. Short as it lasted and long ago, I've never laid it all out yet, not start to finish. But if I try and half succeed, you may wind up understanding things, choosing a better road for yourself and maybe not blaming the dead past but living for the here and now, each day a clean page. At least you'll see how certain things in my long life have gone down fast as one of those Japanese domino shows where two million pieces trip each other in hot succession and set off the unexpected jackpot -- an exploding mountain or a rocket blast that hurls men farther than they've yet gone, to Neptune or worse.
The time I'll tell about ran its course when I was thirty five, then thirty six. Till then I'd lived a fairly normal life, if normal includes some badly drunk years -- and I think it does in America still. So honest to God, I doubt you need to know much about me before the latter half of that day when everything started streaking downhill. Of course I'll add the odd event that feels worth knowing or tells a good story. Stories are something I'm better at than life; and that one year was built like a story, whoever built it. It had a low start that stoked up fast to such a heat that hinges on doors were melting away; and pent up people were tearing loose and running for what looked like daylight till, at some weird invisible signal, everything started cooling again.
And everybody slowed to average speed and drew deep breaths to treat their burns and wonder if they could stand the sight of each other's faces from then till death or just for that day. Some said Yes; a few said No; and everybody thought I'd caused the wreck, which may have been true. Even my mother, a certified saint, called me out to the country house and said ''Now, son, you've ruined two lives -- your own blood child and the girl you claimed to love so strongly. How do you plan on living the rest of the time you've got with that on your mind, that blood on your hands?''
Blood was a figure of speech at the time, and she well knew it. I'd almost certainly killed four Germans in the Second War but nothing since. So I said what I believed was true, ''Look, Mother. Nobody's dead.'' I was technically right.
But her deep blue eyes never flinched, and she said ''Far worse than dead -- far worse.''
Then I saw that the thing I dreaded had happened. I'd badly harmed three worthwhile souls that trusted me; and I knew no way on Earth to mend them -- not till your and my past months together, thirty years on. Know this first though (it's some of the worst you'll know about me) -- I drove myself back home from Mother's that late spring night in a tardy frost with my face grinning each mile of the way. I could see it in the mirror, dark as it was. My body was still that pleased with the memory; it still is today. Maybe my mind and heart just figured I'd taken enough from God or fate, my family and the U.S. Infantry -- not to mention the Nazis -- to earn me some substantial relief and nourishment. Whatever, I flat-out gorged myself for twelve full months. So here much further on in time, I'm hoping to make my slim amends by telling this history that's all but true.
I'm Blue Calhoun as you well know; and wild as I've been, I still like the sound. The full name's Bluford and the middle name's August, but there can't be more than ten people left who know that much about me still -- to the world I'm Blue and have always been. Except for the war and the times I was wild -- and our hard time overseas just now -- I've mostly stayed near my birthplace: a capital city, Raleigh, N.C. When I was a child, Raleigh called itself ''The City of Oaks.'' But don't try to find an oak these days in the criminal mess that money and the chloroformed City Council have made from innocent fertile dirt and what grew in it.
I'm drifting already but here's the start. As I said, I'd climbed the sizable hill of my thirty fifth birthday -- a rough time for men, the downhill side. I think I was sane; people from all walks of life assured me I was not bad to see. I'd been stone sober for nineteen months -- the longest ever up to that point -- and as it turned out, I've stayed sober the rest of my life to this night now. I worked the best job I'd had in years; and to my knowledge, no part of my life was starved or frozen. I didn't stare off at sunsets and grieve. I thought I cherished my only spouse, born Myra Burns, a friend since childhood and your grandmother that you'd have prized.
We'd been married for fifteen years, and Myra had tried her absolute best. As you well know we had a daughter that I near worshiped named Madelyn (called Mattie or Matt from the day of her birth, according to how we felt at the moment). Matt was the finest influence on me of anybody yet. I owed her the world and was aiming to give it, minute by minute from here on out -- upright kindness and every decent thought and act I could see she needed. But then that one day fell down on me from a clear spring sky, no word of warning. It tore the ground from under my feet, and everything round me shook the way a mad dog shakes a howling child.
April 28th, 1956 was an early scorcher; and I met my fate when a girl turned up in the midst of my job. The place I worked was on Fayetteville Street near the Capitol building -- Atkinson Music Company, a long narrow store with high old ceilings, gentle light and air that smelled antique and soothing. Up front was the sheet music department, then the phonograph records and concert tickets. From there on back it was musical hardware of every description. First the small things -- fiddles, accordions, ukuleles, flutes. Then you worked your way through banjos and mandolins, the big band instruments, tall gold harps and sets of drums you prayed your neighbors would never buy. Then you finished up with Steinway grands, Hammond organs and one enormous church size console with pipes enough to sweep back the roof and blow you skyward if a person that knew how to play it lit in.
I truly liked the actual job. For a man with no enormous mind and what he thought were normal ambitions, it offered a peaceful eight hour day, a respectable paycheck every two weeks and music around him, dawn to dusk -- real music made by live human beings, not piped-in syrup. As for making music I myself never got that far past whistling, despite my mother's early dream that I wind up as what she called ''a poet of the keyboard.'' I took piano from the fourth grade on into early high school when baseball got me, but I seldom practiced and learned next to nothing except what music really is -- far and away man's best creation -- and how it can help when nothing else will.
When I flunked out of college at nineteen, and hadn't begun to lean on liquor, I and my thumb made numerous tours of the U.S. east of the Mississippi. In those free years I'd often end up wet or cold in the night with nobody near but a small harmonica that my dad gave me when I first pushed off. However gruesome or lonesome I got, there were very few times when even a talentless boy like me couldn't improvise a song or hymn and wind up glad to be on Earth plus ready to sleep. But I quit that too when I came back and grounded myself.
To this day now I regret that laziness. Even more often after I got married, I'd sink very near the floor of this world -- the black sub basement -- and every one of those desperate times, I'd hear some mangled piece of my mind start begging for music -- any music on Earth from nursery rhymes to opera on the radio that all but etches the window glass. If only I'd learned some lapsize instrument like the guitar, I might well have spent less time in Hell than I've since done.
Speaking of Hell, on the day in question, the whole world still wasn't air conditioned. And dim as it was, the store was stifling. Business was slack, the staff was mostly dozing upright; and I was on the verge of sleep behind the pianos. Then the street door opened and played its chime. A woman walked in, broad in the beam. The sun on the glass was blinding bright and I'm nearsighted, so I couldn't see her face right off. I gave her no thought anyhow. Somebody up front would help her if needed, and I could still doze.
But in maybe a minute, a voice sang out -- a woman's unashamed high sound in one long line of a song new to me, then a laugh and silence.
I thought right off how strange it was that, after these months of work among children blasting away on saxophones and pounding drums, I'd yet to hear a human voice sing so much as part of a tune and it sounded grand. I stepped forward five yards and tried to see if that broad woman had done us the favor -- she plainly had the chest to do it. It took a few seconds to realize she was more than one person. There were two females and they must have walked in single file. The other one looked like a slender child and was close beside the broad one at the sheet music counter. One of them must have been demonstrating the tune of a song she didn't know the name of. The singing voice had sounded grown, and I edged onward another few steps before I saw that the child was still -- still as a post and watching me. And not a child.
I was pulled right on another few yards. The girl never blinked or turned aside. I was maybe twenty feet away; and her look was so strong, I had to glance down. On the showcase beside me was a pear-wood mandolin perfectly made. I strummed it once and tried to pretend I knew how to tune it. When I had it sounding halfway right, I looked again. Now the girl was smiling, and her mother was striding on towards me as if I'd made some last mistake.
The mother was ten feet off, and mad, when I recognized her as somebody I'd known centuries past in grammar school -- the very same scared old-time girl was hid in this stout woman's body. I held up a hand to slow her and said ''Rita, old flame, you've kept your figure.''
No brick wall could have stopped her faster. Her three chins shivered and her eyes went flat but stayed right on me. Then her thin mouth said ''I'm way too stout and I don't know you.''
I said ''I've known you, down to the ground, for thirty five years'' (not strictly true, more like twenty nine). By then the girl had come up behind her but I still watched Rita.
And Rita kept hunting my face for a sign. Old as I was and badly behaved, I hated to think my face had aged past recognition.
That instant a stock boy passed, bumped me and said ''Old Blue.''
Rita said ''Blue?''
I held in place.
''Not Blue Calhoun?''
I nodded and grinned. ''-- His cold remains.''
She stood a second, then made a little graceful skip and a glide, then took my hands. ''If you're cold, child, then cool my skin.''
She was hot as a stove and had always been, even in the old days back in school. I could still see her eyes the day she quit the seventh grade -- all of us knew she was far gone pregnant (she'd failed a grade and was one year older).
I let Rita hold me as long as she would, and I looked beyond her now towards the girl. She was tall for what I guessed was her age -- seventeen or a little more -- and she had great handfuls of dark brown hair that looked as pliant and strong as cable. In the midst her skin was a perfect white; and her eyes were bluer even than my mother's, so deep you thought they were purple or navy. Her lips were full and wide -- wider still since she went on smiling.
Then Rita faced her. ''Luna, say hey to one fine gentleman.''
I couldn't think why Rita said that much. But it touched my heart -- whether I was any sort of gentleman or not, she'd likely known few in her hard life. I'm always too susceptible to joy, and I was scared I'd pour out a tear there on the spot where the staff could see me. I was also scrambling back through memory, trying to know what kindness I'd done to Rita Bapp (I suddenly knew that was her maiden name).
Young Luna said ''Hey --''
It hit me bullseye, square in my chest. I put out my hand and said ''Luna what?''
The girl looked puzzled but Rita said ''Tell him Absher -- Absher. I'm a widow, Blue.'' Then she sailed right on. ''This boy -- Bluford Calhoun -- in this nice suit: he gave me an arrowhead the last day I saw him. Recall that, Blue?''
I suddenly did -- the best belonging of my whole childhood, a spear-point big as a pullet egg that one of my uncles brought me from Mexico after he'd fought some banditos down there with the National Guard. I'd had it with me the day our class got final word that Rita was out; and when she looked my way that noon as she emptied her school desk forever, I wrapped the point in a sheet of lined paper and held it towards her. I couldn't think what on Earth I meant, but Rita Bapp reached out and took it last thing and left. Today I nodded and said to her bright eyes ''Sure, I recall. I hope it helped.''
Rita said ''Oh more than you'll ever know. My son's got it now, or he will once he's out; and Blue, he needs all the help he can get.''
I thought I'd read a few years back that Rita's son had gone to prison for something earnest like killing a highway patrolman or worse. Luna though -- was she Rita's daughter or what? The girl's face and body were so much finer, I was trying hard not to meet her eyes. So I said to Rita ''I know you're proud of this girl here.''
Rita glanced at her, then back at me. ''You truly think pride's called for here?'' She seemed dead serious.
I said ''Absolutely, you've outdone yourself.''
Rita still didn't smile. She asked how many children I had.
''A daughter -- just one child, age thirteen.''
''Ain't they a heartbreak?'' Rita said.
Luna said ''Mother --'' and looked to me.
So I said ''Maybe I've had better luck.''
Rita smiled. ''You always had scads of luck.'' She took Luna's elbow. ''Here, look at this man. I knew him back when he was bad off as me; and he's bettered himself -- fine job, nice shoes.'' That was not strictly right, but I didn't stop her, and she looked my way. ''You tell her, Blue. I've about give up.''
I'd been a fair joker most of my life, and I tried to think of some funny advice. But while I waited my eyes caught Luna's again and held. From the day I was born, I'd also been a soul that loves women -- most everything about them, day and night -- but for all my past adventures among them, I'll have to say I never felt so caught before. Not trapped but held. My whole body felt like a child a-borning, pushed helpless down a dim long tunnel towards strong new light.
Suddenly Luna said ''Come on.''
I barely heard her and I understood less. Come where, for what?
Luna said ''Please --'' and Rita slapped her arm.
So I pulled my mind back into my body and said ''Set eyes on your mark and run, girl -- run.''
Rita nodded like I'd offered a blessing.
Luna tried not to smile; but those slant eyes -- that looked out at you from a cool dark recess far in the woods, that deep at least -- those eyes couldn't hide the powerful joy she took in watching me hang out there in the helpless air beyond her. She said ''Yes sir, I'll run when I can.'' By now her eyes burned nearly too high.
I could see she was serious as any bonfire, but you can't say that to a near rank stranger as lovely as night. I was just guessing but I said ''You were singing up front just now.''
Luna didn't quite blush but something way inside her huddled, and her eyes nearly shut.
Rita said ''Best voice you ever heard. Sing him a song.''
Honest to God I thought to myself Don't, girl, please don't. I'm doing so good in this new life. If that was prayer it got a quick answer -- No no no. At the time I didn't think who from -- fate or worse -- and I'm still not sure.
Luna gazed at the ceiling, her mouth came open, her chin rose slightly; and out rolled the first slow line of ''Abide With Me'' --
Abide with me; fast falls the evening tide.
It was nearly everything Rita promised. But I still had memories in those days of how my mother's voice had sounded when I was a boy across her lap in the white porch swing on summer nights with always a moon part-hid in the elms --
Moonlight shines tonight along the Wabash;
Through the fields there comes a breath of new mown hay --
and other such magic. Luna Absher ran my mother's voice a beautiful race and barely lost.
When she finished she looked down at me and said ''Thank you, sir.''
I couldn't think how I'd earned her thanks. But like a green fool, I said ''You bet.''
Before I could beg the girl's pardon for that, Rita stepped on past me. She said ''I'm hoping you sell used Autoharps.''
Autoharps were rare back then, in the piedmont anyhow -- a strange combination of harp and guitar that lay on your lap or was propped upright against your chest. You mostly found them up in the mountains with blind old women that sang like fingernails scraping on slate. In younger hands they could sound like news from behind the moon, that keen and silvery. I looked to Luna and said ''Oh yes -- auto, steam driven, neon lit: harps in every shape and size.''
Truth to tell, there was just one Autoharp; and it was new -- inlaid with mother of pearl and jet -- but when I brought it out from the storeroom and held it towards Luna, she accepted it calmly as her rightful due and took the hymn up where she'd left it --
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, oh abide with me.
At the end to hide how deeply she'd touched me, I said ''You get our best discount.''
Rita said ''We'd better or you lose a good sale. This girl is headed somewhere, let me tell you. She'll be so famous she'll send you business.''
But when I quoted a price that truly was under cost, Rita said ''Lord God --'' and staggered a step.
Luna faced her mother, took a real pause and said ''I earned every penny of this'' -- she didn't say how. Then she met my eyes, held right on them and -- when I thought one of us would break -- she finally smiled, though she wouldn't play the popular song she'd sung up front. She said ''That would be sacrilegious now.''
But still her eyes were close on mine, and I had to wonder where sacred began and stopped in her life.
The rest of the day, I felt fairly normal. Business picked up. By closing time I'd sold not just the Autoharp but a metronome and a spinet piano with a nice commission. So I didn't have much time in those hours to think about Rita's growing child. Still I'd been a salesman of one sort or other for many years, and faces and names are our life blood (nobody but criminals want to be strangers). Naturally that whole afternoon then, Luna Absher's face would drift up into view and wait, smiling or saying again how she thanked me.
And though I hadn't been able to coax her to play a popular song on the harp, I kept on hearing the actual sound of the one she sang -- ''Abide with me; fast falls the evening tide.'' I couldn't think of those last three words without the cold shakes in that hot day. For several years I'd understood what short lives most of my male kin got (most of them drank liquor hard as me). So sure, once I'd passed thirty five I felt every day the pull of an evening tide on my tired mind and my long legs that for nineteen months now had walked a neat circle.
I drove straight home at six o'clock. We'd lived for years in my parents' house where I grew up. When my father died, Mother pulled up stakes, went back out to the country place (her dead parents' home) and left the big brick house for us on Beechridge Road -- crape myrtle bushes the size of trees in every yard, a lot of healthy mischievous kids with their comfortable parents. And as I turned into the drive that evening, there was Madelyn on her parked bicycle, talking in earnest to a loud boy from the next street down. By my strict standards he was more than a year too old for Matt -- that saddle of bumps across his nose and the hair on his legs.
But he wasn't all dumb. However drawn he was to the scent, he gave me a quick wave and trotted off. (If this is getting too tame to read, bear with me a minute. I'm trying to lay out the day and night that changed my life and all lives near me from then till now -- three full decades, no gentle stretch -- and the clues to even a normal day are in the details, the nods and moans that most people miss, being blinder than any blind beggar with a dog.)
Anyhow I sat in the car a minute and watched my child. Since her mother's hair was a dark blond and mine nearly black, we'd never known how Matt came by her splendid chestnut ringlets. But her deep blue eyes were straight from my mother (it took me awhile to notice how their eyes all but equaled Luna's in darkness). And now she was thirteen, all the rest of Mattie was rushing to be a woman, too fast for me. She was poised so near the edge of that peak, it was scarey to see her -- the peak or the pit, Heaven or Hell. Her body was that near ready to break on the visible world and start its full grown fun and work. Natural and due as it all was, it hurt me more by the week to watch her. She meant that much to my head and heart. I used to have two pictures of Mother in high girlhood, a local beauty. I'd study them in my own early years and try to picture my mind inside her, waiting for whatever life her body would choose to give me.
And lately as Matt was rushing on, I'd catch these glimpses of her alone and realize what a sizable thing I'd partly made and how many times I must have crushed her, what permanent sights she'd stored of me in my worst drinking and doping days (barbiturates) and how I'd never catch up now and pay her back with appropriate care. Hardest of all to face someway -- she'd never blamed me and never given the trace of a hint of whatever mess she'd seen me do. I'd try to press my eyes through her mind and find the hurts I needed to ease; but once you have your own first child, you'll know how I failed.
Mattie was as loyal a Catholic as her mother. Of course I wasn't (native Catholics in the South back then were scarce as good sense and regarded as weird, if not suspicious) -- and the main thing on her mind this April were the coming events at parochial school. She'd all but finished the seventh grade, and in a few days she'd wear a long white dress and veil and march up the aisle with other girls to crown the Virgin Mary with flowers. She'd only just got to the point of guessing that, while I'd go to church with her and her mother, I couldn't share her feelings on the subject -- Christ and his mother and poor St. Joseph, the old spare wheel, were as urgent for Matt as nourishment. More so at times but it got her through.
In all my desperate former days, I'd prayed to what most people call God -- the standard moody Santa Claus that does, or doesn't, love the world. Every now and then I'd get some help that seemed like an answer but nothing steady enough to win my long term worship or endless thanks, not then at least, in that much trouble. But Madelyn got more answered prayers than the average pope (she got me sober for one main thing, or so she believed and I didn't doubt her). That achievement marked her as thoroughly strange in my glad eyes -- grand but strange and almost spooky except when she laughed, which was luckily often.
So as I sat behind the wheel that April evening, Matt stayed on her bike and watched me seriously.
Finally I smiled, beckoned her near and turned my cheek out the window towards her.
She rolled over slowly, gave me a rub with her own dry cheek, then sat back to watch me another long while. I met her eyes and waited her out till she finally said ''May Day please -- you'll be there won't you?''
I nodded I would and thought I meant it.
She rolled in closer and leaned to my ear. In all her life I'd never seen her whisper to her mother, but she made me the gift of numerous secrets. Now she said ''You think I'm truly worthy?''
I understood but I said ''What of?''
She looked behind her -- we were still safe alone. So she whispered again ''You know -- this crowning.''
I knew that the nuns had leaned hard on her for the past three years -- pure, worthy and even spotless were words with a white hot meaning for Madelyn. But proud as I was of her looks, her brain and her generous heart, I sometimes knew she was being tormented past her years with the hopeless dream of spotlessness. So I spoke out plainly. ''They ought to be crowning you -- you've won it.''
She thought about it anyhow and looked again for signs of her mother. Then she shook her head like she watched a spreading stain inside that even I could never be shown.
Wild as I'd been for much of my life, I wanted to rush Matt into the car and flee west with her that minute for good. I'd wanted it more than once here lately. And now she looked so ready to save herself and me that I might well have said ''Let's go'' and vanished with her.
But Myra suddenly stood on the side porch, fanning her neck in the heat and smiling.
And what I saw that instant -- plain as a flare at night -- was Luna Absher, back of my eyes in the evening tide.
In those years TV still hadn't totally captured Raleigh. So after supper on a warm spring night, you had a whole different set of choices to make -- old time choices and not so bad. You could visit the neighbors and talk on their porch, they could visit you (neither one of you phoned, just turned up raw). You could ride the family up to Five Points and eat hand dipped ice cream at the drugstore or sit in an air cooled movie theater, watching or dozing. If the heat was heavy, you could drive awhile longer out to the country and sit with your mother or just roll on through narrow roads and deep night shade with no sign of lights to warm you up, telling each other the news of the day, which was generally tame but occasionally funny.
On the night in question, the heat was letting up by eight; Mattie was upstairs doing her school work, and Myra's sewing machine was bearing down on the famous homemade May Day dress. I'd finished the newspaper, knew there was nothing worth hearing on the radio and really didn't feel like riding out as far as Mother's and answering every question she'd stored since my last visit. But I still felt normal -- remember that. I didn't feel miserable, tired or trapped.
I knew I wasn't deprived of love, I wasn't roadhogged by sex as badly as in younger days, and I had no sign of the craving for numbness that ran my young years down the rathole of liquor and pills. At eight o'clock though, for no known reason, I hollered upstairs to Myra and Mattie that I was going to drive downtown and buy us some magazines at the newsstand run by the blind. If either one had asked to join me, I'd have calmly said Yes. But this one night they each requested their favorite magazine and said hurry back, be sweet -- stale prayers.
Since you weren't here in the 1950s, I doubt you'll believe how good it felt to drive through the streets of a shut down city with your windows open and not once think of danger or death. To be sure in those days Raleigh was smallish -- fifty thousand, give or take -- but that was a lot of people then; and noon or midnight, the streets were safe. Worst thing you'd see was a harmless drunk, the black transvestites in long red wigs or an old white girl too eager to share the leavings of her native charms. Otherwise you moved through the darkest streets like somebody welcome on this Earth and urged to stay by people that had their own safe homes and clean warm beds. Even the free-roaming crazies, with dressed up cats in baby buggies, went home to their mothers at night or some other kin.
Nowdays for instance no blind person could hope to sit alone in a nighttime newsstand and not get held up, whipped or shot. But till far on down in the 1960s, every weekday night of the year, Miss Alma Nipper was there on duty in the midst of Raleigh by the old post office. Nothing less than a smile ever crossed her face as she heard you tell her what you'd selected, from The Wall Street Journal to the timid peep magazines of the time. She'd count your handful of change in an instant and say either ''Thank you'' or ''Three cents more'' -- with paper money she trusted the public and still seemed to prosper. Unless you were blind too or otherwise afflicted, she'd leave you feeling lucky to have two working eyes and also much less nimble than she at walking life's various windswept tightropes.
That night as I browsed through the loaded racks, for some odd reason I picked up that day's Raleigh Times, the evening paper that wasn't worth reading and we never got. On the back of the single flimsy section, my eye caught a small headline down low -- high school girl wins music scholarship. It said that Luna Absher, a junior at Broughton, had won a fifty dollar scholarship to music camp this coming June in the Blue Ridge mountains -- it gave Rita's name, no father was mentioned, and then an address behind Peace College in a section of town that was starting downhill.
That caused it, that instant -- plain as that, that sudden and reckless. Luna's face rose up again in my sight -- clearer than even today in person -- with body heat and a curling odor that reached my skin. And this time I didn't hear the sound of her song but the baffling thanks she'd mentioned more than once when I'd done nothing, good or bad, in her direction. I recited the names of my choices to Alma, and she shot back the cost plus tax. Then while she made change from my five dollars, she said ''You're the dad to a lovely girl.''
That was a shock and I must have balked.
Her smile slacked off and milky eyes rolled up in her head. She said ''Am I badly mistaken?''
I said ''Oh no'' and thanked her sincerely before I wondered how she knew about Madelyn, or was she wrong for the first time yet? I said ''I'm buying this Photoplay for her; she loves Hollywood.''
Alma said ''She's a starlet.''
I suddenly thought Alma must be Catholic -- you Catholics know each other better than howling Baptists -- but my new mind was hurrying on. I said ''Then we may see you May Day.''
She looked confused -- what was May Day please?
But whatever thing was hounding me had turned my body hard away with the strength of great hands. I wished Miss Alma pleasant dreams and trotted on.
Once I cranked the engine and aimed the wheels, the car took over and moved itself at legal speed through streets that were stranger than they'd ever been -- to me anyhow, a native son. The shortest way would have been no more than a five minute drive, a long mile from where I'd parked to Rita's street (I kept thinking of it that way -- Rita's house). But maybe the car went a roundabout way, or maybe some other hand entirely was holding me back in hopes I'd cool.
I seem to recall I passed the locked gates of Oakwood Cemetery where my father was buried long since on a knoll below the Civil War vets, both sides, gray and blue. The site was now in a Negro section way off any course I should have taken to get home or wherever else I was steered. And I even had a quick idea of climbing the iron fence and finding Dad's stone in the heavy dark, but I'm almost sure I barely slowed. I know I passed a lighted phone booth and thought Call Myra and tell her you'll be back directly.
Then the car turned into her street -- Rita's street still (I didn't let myself think Luna). What was the number? My mind was blank; there were no street lights. Most of the houses were already dark and shut for sleep but on I went. The pavement was broken and, by the time I was almost down at the black dead end, I hit a pothole that shook me so I stopped and spoke out loud in the car -- ''What in the name of Christ are you after?'' Though as I say, I was far from believing, I seldom used Christ's name in vain. It was not vain now; I was that concerned.
I even thought Find a drink -- anywhere, any kind. Back out of here, son, and steady your nerves. The thought slid off me like harmless rain. By then my eyes had opened to the dark. And there in the midst of the narrow street, something made me switch off my lights. On the right twenty years ahead was a dim gold shine. I fixed on that till suddenly down the length of my spine from some trapdoor in the quick of my brain fell a rush of desperation so hot I had no choice but to curb the car before I passed out. Slowly I got outside, then stood and tried to breathe.
The air by then was cooler still. So I propped there, leaning hard on the door and waiting to calm. It was maybe thirty seconds till I heard anything but the creak of my engine and a small bat hunting. Then in a space just a notch above dreaming, I heard what seemed like a slow set of chords -- almost wind chimes, that high and pure, except there was not so much as a breeze. I knew. I knew who they came from and how they were made, and I dreaded the news. That pitiful light was on Rita's porch, and the music had to be coming from there.
I sat back sideways on the car seat with my feet outside, and I tried again to picture a drink. Young as I was, I was still the man who'd bribed the guard that oversaw me in the worst drunk tank of the State Hospital to buy me small cans of shoeshine wax. I'd set a can on the ward radiator; and when the wax melted, an eighth of an inch of alcohol would suddenly rise to boil away. I'd stand there eager as Judgment Day and suck that bitter blessed drug before it could vanish and leave me pounding my head on concrete one more time. In fifteen minutes from where I sat in my car now, I could find a bootlegger or a friendly druggist, buy me a pint or a few capsules and have my mind turned safely in on my sick soul before anything worse got a real grip.
Tonight though drink meant less than God, who was thoroughly gone. The same strong hand that drew me here was hauling me still (and I don't mean to claim I was forced -- the hand was all but surely my soul, my own faulty mind). I stood back up and walked towards the light. Every step of the way, I told myself Go home; you're grown. Your life's back on its own two rails and aimed for home. Go home, son -- home. And I tried but couldn't make myself say my wife's name or even my child's. Myra and Madelyn might have been dots on an old lost map that failed to guide me. My mouth was stuck half open in a smile.
They had a porch as wide as the house, which was two rooms wide with six steps up. Both front windows were open but dark. And all I could see from where I paused was some kind of motion on the dark right side, a swaying shadow and no more music. I tried to think out what I knew -- no husband or father mentioned in the paper, I was almost sure the older son was still in the pen, this had to be Rita or Luna herself or maybe both. Or was I lost on some other planet this much like Hell? I tried not to grin.
Understand, I'd known several women in my youth -- more than several and it's nothing I brag on, oh far from it. I'd fouled my marriage vows more than once in our early days when I was confused, and all Myra knew to do was watch with a bone white face and steady eyes. But I'd taken real pride in good behavior these last few years. I'd even half convinced myself that the storm-tossed Blue had come to rest in a peaceful port. But now all that seemed gone for good -- and sweet good riddance. That April night it felt like the trip took at least an hour from my car door to the foot of the steps. And by the time I got in reach of the feeble light, I felt myself on the boundary line of a whole new country with a thick black ocean between me now and the home I'd left just to buy magazines. I said to myself You're not gone yet. You're on the safe side.
But Luna's voice said ''I dreamed it was you.''
It burned but not because it scared me. The time those five words hit my ears, I knew I'd waited all my days -- and double my nights -- for that one message from that one throat. I took a few steps and then I saw where she really was.
Far on the right she sat in a porch swing, hardly moving; and what looked like the Autoharp was up at her breast -- it had been her music that brought me on. What dim light reached her showed just her face and the color she wore. This was long before phosphorescent dyes were used on clothes, but that spring night Luna Absher's clothes seemed live and pouring out rays -- a deep vermilion.
I got somehow to the bottom step and said ''I knew you had a good voice, but you never told me you were this fine.''
She waited, pushing back on her heels till her face was dark. ''I'm not fine,'' she said, ''not a bit.''
Like a child I pointed behind me towards town -- the evening paper, the news on her. Then I said ''Congratulations, Luna.'' I hadn't said her name till then, and it shocked my ears.
She was still far back in the shadows, past seeing. ''They took several pictures; must not have come out.''
''They spelled your name right.'' When she didn't seem to answer, I said ''Where's your mother?'' I thought I meant to congratulate her too.
''Gone to the doughnut shop, I bet. She says I won't talk to her enough. So she sits down there on her nights off, drinking coffee till they close up.''
I said ''Then tell her Blue's proud to know she's done this well. I understand how much she's paid --'' I stopped, unsure of what Luna might know about older days.
She waited silent, then stood and walked towards the top of the steps. The light was behind her now; and her face was hid again, however badly I needed to see it.
But enough of her was lit at the edges, and now I could see she was neater dressed than she'd been in the store -- a straight-cut linen dress, dark as I said, with the color bleeding out in the yellow light, swimming on the evening. She wore no stockings, her feet were bare, and the crown of her head was almost flaming. I had no idea what would come next.
Luna said ''Doesn't everybody?''
She'd thoroughly lost me. I said ''Beg your pardon?''
''Pay,'' she said. ''You said Rita paid. But people in general pay for things, don't they?''
I was still no closer to understanding. I said ''I don't often steal things, no. Not anymore.'' I thought of the bad days strewn behind me, and more words came of their own accord. ''I've paid heart's blood -- sure, child, I paid.'' I must not have heard my tongue say ''child.''
But Luna said ''I'm sixteen now -- sixteen and two months last Thursday night.''
''Got your driver's license?'' These idiot words were pouring out -- surely Rita couldn't pay for a car.
And Luna knew better than to answer that. She slowly turned, went back to the swing and settled herself with the self respect of a practiced lady. Then she said ''Nobody's here. You can stay if you want to --'' It sounded as high and clean as her song in the public store (the afternoon seemed ten years back). And what she meant was surely politeness, Rest yourself.
There were no porch chairs though, and she was square in the midst of the swing, so she must have meant me to sit on the steps.
I climbed to the top and was halfway seated, ready to ask about her harp.
But then she said ''You got your license?''
''Ma'm?'' I was utterly lost by now.
''You're bound to be a legal driver.''
I tried but couldn't hear a smile in her voice. I said ''Best driver in the tri state area'' -- I didn't even know what states I meant.
''How about we cool down then on the open road?''
I actually went so far as to make one serious try at holding us back. I said ''How about you play me a song?''
She seemed to take me up for a minute -- she reached in the dark, found the harp, held it against her chest and strummed the same set of chords I'd heard from the car.
When she stopped I said ''Come on -- one song.''
And with no more urging, she played a verse of ''Beautiful Dreamer'' perfectly.
All through, I waited for her voice to start; but she got to the end with just the harp.
I said ''Near perfect but again now please -- and sing it this time.'' I realized I'd issued an order like father to child, but I left it there.
And she started over but where the words would normally start, she stopped in midair and said ''I'm stifling. Let's find me some air.''
A half hour later we were parked on the far outskirts of town, eating ice cream at a dingy drive in. Since it was a weekend night, I'd driven that distance so we wouldn't see any kin or friends. And sure enough the lot was empty except for us and a carload of school boys younger than Luna. All we'd talked about on the ride were things we passed on the street and her music. In a lot of ways her questions and answers were simpler and even more innocent than Madelyn's. Music was so far all that brought out Luna's age and outlook, and even then she seemed not to know much or care about popular music, the truly dumb songs of those late '50s -- Matt knew far more about them than Luna. Luna finally said ''See, it's just my dream -- music lasting all my life.''
So I had to say ''Where will this dream take you?'' I meant the thing she'd called a dream as we left town -- to sing elsewhere (she'd mentioned New York, Tampa and Hollywood).
She went on drinking her jumbo Coke, not facing me.
I'd finished my coffee and was watching the side of her face, maybe too hard and steady. It was that good a sight.
So still not looking, Luna put out a hand and said ''Slow down'' -- no smile now; this was no place for jokes. She took a long bite; then said ''It's no kind of dream, if you need to know. It's what will happen and no way to stop it.'' She looked as likely to fail as a bullet in dead straight flight.
I tried to respect her. ''Then I'll know a star.''
Apparently that was worth facing me for, even me (as old as her dad -- wherever he was, above ground or under). Her face was solemn as Justice in a courtroom, and her voice went low. ''Mr. Blue Calhoun, you know a star -- no waiting required.''
And then she began to dawn on me. I mean that literally. Up till then her voice, that strong dark hair, her eyes and her odor had fired the obvious parts of my body, the ones that lead most men astray -- I'd used her that way once already in my mind, no fault of hers (and from here on out, at whatever age you read these lines, you're going to have to brace yourself -- truth, as I mentioned, is all I'm after, that and your mercy). But now here well past nine o'clock on a warm spring night in the midst of an asphalt parking lot with garbage and dogs and teenage cacklers staring our way, I watched this gift rise up for me at a two foot distance across a car seat.
I had no idea what the gift was (beyond a body I ached to touch). And I sure God had no idea who sent it. But for then and a year of months ahead, I never doubted it was some kind of blessing. I had no notion of how it would change my life and family or who it would harm and how long it would last. I just knew this -- one human being was here for me, the right one at last. She would do things for me, unheard of before (and that didn't only mean for my body). I'd help her more than anyone yet, past her best dreams. In no time now we'd be one new thing -- body and soul -- and God damn the doubters.
Through however long the process took, Luna sat very still, not quite watching me. Then she finally said ''Homework now.''
I must have looked stunned -- it was Saturday night.
''I'm an honor roll student like the newspaper said.''
I didn't know if she meant to stop me. But for fifteen seconds I thought I just might cool down to safety and drive us both our separate ways, polite and finished forevermore.
But she said ''Mr. Blue, you know as much about music as you claim?''
She was still dead earnest but I had to laugh. ''I don't recall I've claimed a thing.''
Luna said ''Hold your horses -- the place you work, the way you showed off on this harp'' (I'd strummed a few chords).
''I love it, sure. I'm a helpless fan.''
''You're about as helpless as a Sherman tank'' (the big tanks then).
I suddenly knew she was perfectly right. Never in all my days till now had every volt of my main strength -- a strength I never knew I owned -- stood up in me and howled its name. The thought of any promise I'd made outside this car was long since gone. What I needed to do first -- and here I doubt I was that unusual for men my age -- was find a dark back road right then and try this out, this brand new chance the world was giving. And Luna's eyes were still on me as flat as a doll's -- no Yes or No. How much of this did she understand? My hand went out to the engine key, and I heard myself say ''Home or what?''
''I told you,'' she said.
She waited what felt like a lonesome month. ''If that's what you heard Luna say, sure -- straight home, right now.''
I almost thought the Luna I'd known these seven hours had vanished and left this mystery here, better than any question yet that I'd been asked. I started to say ''You say right now --''
She stopped me fast, her hand on my mouth.
We'd never touched, her skin felt normal; but all these years on -- and all that pain -- I can set myself in a quiet room, take two seconds to bring her face up out of my mind, and there will be her feel again on my dry lips -- the strong smell of a clean child's skin that's run too hard in the darkening yard but dreads to sleep.
I almost didn't know our house when I got near it. It was past ten thirty; the upstairs was dark. And I went on beyond the drive and had to back up. Till I cut the engine, I hadn't thought of a story to tell. Maybe because of my worst years, Myra seldom pressed me for a list of my actions (they might alarm her). But I might need some slight explanation of where I'd been since eight o'clock. So I sat in the drive and tried to think -- names of my men friends at work, car trouble, Mother. Nothing clicked. Forget it; fly home blind. I was that relieved, that sure of myself.
She was in the den -- Myra in her blue housecoat, sewing by hand in too weak a light; and when she saw me, she halfway smiled.
At least I had the magazines. I set them down on the table beside her and leaned to watch her patient fingers.
Finally she said ''Pearls, just seed pearls -- this is her veil.''
At first I couldn't guess what she meant -- pearls, her, veil? But then I recalled and reached to touch the warm surface of one of the seeds.
While my hand was still there, Myra took my fingers and pressed. ''Welcome back,'' she said. ''It's still tonight.''
I understood -- Myra used to beg me, drunk as I might get, to be home safe in bed by midnight. And bad as I got, I seldom refused her that much at least. Now I checked my watch and, not pretending, whistled low at how late it was but said no more.
Myra said ''Hungry?''
''Thank you, no. Is Mattie asleep?''
Myra's eyes had barely met me still. Looking down she said ''Long since. She sent you her love.''
That sat me down on the piano stool across the room. ''Sent me her love?''
Myra faced me then. ''That's the way Matt put it -- 'Send Sky my love.'''
Sky was the nickname Matt chose for me because I was Blue. I suddenly felt like a killer caught in crossed floodlights with blood on his lip. ''Where's she think I'm going?''
Myra said ''Search me'' but then half smiled. ''I guess there's something we better talk over -- it's nagging me.''
Myra had never caught me fresh-guilty. Any lie I told her about my body and its few betrayals never came to light till days or weeks later. Again I couldn't think of a decent way to hide. So I just said ''Shoot.''
''You saw her this evening with Talmadge Alphin?'' She waited for me to nod that I heard her. ''He's on Matt's mind pretty much all the time.''
I waited for more but she went back to sewing. ''That's all? -- her mind?''
''Blue, I'm slaving on this white dress for our one child to wear in church; and dogs are already ganging our yard, dry humping each other.''
If Myra had pulled out a roll of pictures of me and Luna dark on Ridge Road an hour ago, I couldn't have been any worse amazed. She was no big prude. And when we were starting life together, she'd sometimes say sweet things to my body. But I'd never heard such words as these on her lips before. The pressure inside my head zoomed down and I nearly laughed. ''Myra, I'll grant you poor Tal's too loud; but I don't see him as a gang of rank dogs.'' I could see her blush but she didn't agree. So I said ''Once Talmadge left her this evening, Matt came to me and made me swear to be on hand when she crowns that statue.''
Myra looked up finally. ''It's not just a statue. And what does that prove for her future life?''
I thought about it. ''It proves Matt's aimed in a clean direction anyhow.''
''She's thirteen years old; she could turn any way.''
I couldn't believe this. Myra, for all her Catholic schooling, had never showed this brand of fear (and that was a time well before you needed to guard your children like cash in the road). I pointed towards what I always called the Magic Department -- a corner cupboard where Myra and Madelyn kept their creepy Catholic magic. There were pictures of various groggy saints and a boneless Jesus, a statue of Mary broken three times and badly mended so her eyes were crossed. But the focal point was a ''genuine'' relic of some old priest the Mohawks butchered two centuries back. Myra and Matt were praying the pope would canonize him; and what they had, embedded in the midst of a plastic star, was a barely visible flake of bone that for all they knew belonged to a cat.
When I'd thought awhile I said ''Miss Myra, welcome to Earth.'' I was trying to smile.
And she gave in. She almost laughed, then looked me over for a long slow minute. She lacked my mother's X ray eyes or maybe she knew to blind herself at certain times.
So I didn't cringe like a crook in a lineup. Truth was, I didn't even feel like the man that had gone with Luna. He'd hung back with her when she left the car, and her strong mind had somehow sent this imitation Blue Calhoun to stalk through life in his former home. I chuckled and said ''I'm tired as man's first wheel at least.''
Myra said ''Me too,'' then finally laughed and corrected herself in a high class voice -- ''I also, sir.''
Single file we climbed on up to sleep.
I confounded myself by sleeping deep with no known dreams, from the second my head touched the pillow till I woke at four thirty when Myra slid out quietly to pee. Right off I knew I'd satisfied my tiredness but would have to lie there two more hours or make a big scene by rising early. I also knew I shouldn't think of Luna, and I knew my reasons. It was Myra's bed, the room we'd shared since before Matt's birth. I didn't mean to bring in a stranger, even in thought. I might be back in my old bad life or launched on a new one, worse than any. But the least I could do in my wife's presence was control my mind. I also didn't want to rouse myself and then make Myra play the part of a teenage girl, with musical gifts, to my stiff body.
But Myra stayed gone a good while; and my mind claimed the rope I'd given it all that evening. So I lay there on a pillowcase embroidered by a woman I owed my existence to (Myra had played the lion's share in hauling me back from self destruction), and I lived through every instant again of Luna Absher taking me in. A virgin woman that showed how near she was to childhood by all she did and said to please me -- watching me every move of the way in near full dark, then asking politely if that was right or if this felt better, done this way? And when I finished, hadn't she said the strangest thing I'd ever heard at any such time -- ''I'm glad to oblige''?
Had she obliged me? God knew she had -- to the dry hid sockets. But was it for life? And hadn't I broken in quick and bloody on too young a girl and marked her forever? Had I fed my soul one more mean drug, finer than liquor or any pill since, that I'd never quit? And whatever answers those questions had, hadn't I already swamped this house -- this home we'd almost learned to balance -- and drowned it deep? Weren't Myra and Madelyn already gone from me at least, past watching me, not to mention forgiving?
Then Myra was back, settling the covers lightly around us.
She plainly thought I was still asleep, but I knew her head leaned close over mine -- I felt her clean breath. And something made me whisper one sentence. ''I'm scared as hell.''
Myra waited a long time before she leaned back to her own place. ''I know you are.''
''You can't know why.'' Lord, what was I after -- piling fire on her kind head?
''You're lonesome again. I can feel it, strong.'' Lonesome was Myra's explanation for ninety percent of this world's woe, and these years later I don't contradict her.
Far as she went that night, she was right; and I dreaded now she'd reach to touch me. I was scared if she did, I'd board her and take my hot little piece, to calm my brain. And in my fouled up head, I thought that would hurt her even worse -- coming to her that soon after Luna.
But she didn't reach out, though she didn't lie down. In a while she said ''Oh Blue, you can do anything. You can be anything you want to be -- you've got that strong in these last months. Why not be glad of what we've got?''
I'd understood since age maybe twelve that any man who's fed and warm and dry at night and lives near a woman that likes his presence is a miserable baby to cry for more. I wanted to say it out for Myra -- ''I'm thoroughly glad.'' But then I knew a worse thing still. There that instant awake in the night, I was gladder than I'd ever been in my life. A girl I wanted like clean sunlight had reached inside my chest just now, dark hours ago, and gripped the cold remains of my heart. I hoped I'd done the same for her. And I meant to keep that steadily happening all the rest of my and her days.
I've said how seldom Myra pressed me, but now she spoke in the night again. ''Blue, listen, friend -- just relax and live. We've got time now.''
And then I knew she was dead on right -- I was glad, there was time, but all because of this new reason I'd hid from her and would keep hid for good. So I actually reached to touch her shoulder, and I said ''I'm glad. I'm truly glad. Now finish your rest.'' I thought I meant it as gently as if she was my child too, just taller than Matt. I was already crazy but calm as any saint they had in the Magic Department.
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