I was out in our front yard playing cemetery, the game my mother learned me, where you dig holes in the ground and you bury burnt matches in little empty matchboxes, then you make little crosses on top with some more of the burnt matches, then you say a prayer over them like they was dead.
Danny and Kate was snoozing up on the porch and my brothers'd gone off with the Beezley boys after lunch with their homemade fishing poles to try and catch whatever they could for supper. The days was really getting warmer now and I could hear my mother singing through the open windows as she was sweeping the floors downstairs, sweeping them for the second time that day. "All this sand," she complained, like the sand we dragged in on our feet was an enemy always invading the house she could hardly keep up with.
In spite of everything, it was good to hear her beginning to sing again.
I'd just started patting down the dirt over the umpteenth grave I dug when I caught something moving out of the corner of my eye. Glancing up, I saw a boy a little older'n me going by in the road. I did a double take seeing it was the exact same boy on the Snarp's porch the first time we all went down to the river that day, the one with the big teeth that stuck his tongue out at me. He went by in nothing but barefeet and an old pair of raggedy overalls like he wasn't looking at anything, but I could tell he wasn't missing a trick. I saw the overalls was made of pillow ticking same as the ones my brothers wore and figured the Snarps must be on relief too.
I went back to start digging another hole and in a little while I looked up to see him come by on the road again from the other direction and this time take a gander in the yard. When he saw me looking he swung his eyes away real quick, trying to look like he ain't been looking at all. He had mousy hair the same color as me but his stuck up in the back like a rooster's comb. He had a shuffly walk with his head tilted to one side and his shoulders shoved back with one arm swinging loose and easy.
He went on by and I went back to my digging, thinking good riddance, I wouldn't want to know somebody stuck their tongue out at you, when the next thing I knew there he was standing over me, his face creased up, his hands plunked on his hips, looking me up and down with a squint-eyed sneer. My heart began to beat.
Close up, it looked like his teeth was so big he couldn't get them inside and shut his mouth all at the same time. All of a sudden without no warning, he spit between my legs and I stared down at the glob of spit, my heart going faster. Then with a hitch of his foot he screwed his bare heel into the dirt, squashing the little mounds of the graves I dug with their crosses on them. I saw his toes and ankles was freckled with old dirt, the edges of his feet all tough like an elephant's skin I saw in the movies once. He had rings of dusty sweat in the creases of his neck too, his wet hair plastered to his forehead like he been running.
"I'm Earl Snarp Jr.," he said.
I stared at him. The smell of him reminded me something of our outhouse.
"Whatcher name?" he said, "Pissant?"
I looked up at him quick, I wondered how did he know about my wetting the bed at Aunt Maggie's?
Never once taking his eyes off of me, he squatted down beside me. I stared around, looking if I could see my mother but all I could hear was her singing in the parlor as she swept. Danny and Kate was still dead to the world up on the porch.
"What're you doin?"
My tongue felt like a sack of relief potatoes in my mouth.
"Can'tcha talk? What're ya, a dumbie?"
I shook my head.
"So, whatcha doin?"
"Playin cemetery," I whispered and looked down at the ground.
"What kinda dumb game is that? Where'd you learn a dumb game like that, pissant?"
I looked towards the house again. I could hear my mother singing, "Some one of these days yer gonna miss me, honey . . ."
"Me mother learnt me . . ." I whispered, wishing I was in the parlor singing with her right that very minute.
He stuck a hand behind his ear, squinting like Slap, only you could tell he wasn't deaf. "Hah? Hah? Speak up, can't hear ya."
I repeated what I said, trying to talk louder, my voice croaking like a frog.
"Looks like a dumb game to me, buryin matchboxes." He pointed to the fresh grave I just dug and said, "If this hole's yer ass, tell me where your ass is."
I shrunk inside, knowing he said a bad word and didn't know if I should answer him or not.
"C'mon, c'mon—If this hole's yer ass, where's yer ass?"
But I was more scared not to answer him, so finally I pointed to the hole I dug.
He let out a yelp that made me almost jump in the air and reaching back, he gave me a hard smack right on the hiney, hooting, "This is yer ass, dumbie! You don't even know yer ass from a hole in the ground!" Then he jumped up and ran across the yard, whooping and laughing and ran down the road towards his house.
I stared after him, my mouth hanging open til I couldn't see him anymore.
When I looked back at the house Danny, hearing all the noise, was blinking awake and staring out at me, and Kate was beginning to stir. My mother was standing in the screendoor with the broom in her hand, looking out. "Who was that just out here?"
I shrugged my shoulders, my hiney still stinging.
"Dint I hear somebody laughin?"
Kate, hearing her voice, started to whine and my mother came out and picked her up off the floor. I stared at all the smashed graves he dug his heel in.
"It was a boy," I said finally.
"He said his name was Earl."
"He's one of them Snarps live down the road."
"What was he laughin at?"
I didn't dare tell her.
"He was jist laughin."
"Was he nice?" She was bouncing Kate up and down and looking at her just to look at her.
"Ummm," I said, that was the same as not saying nothing.
She was nuzzling her face in Katie's hair now. "Well, if he's nice maybe he'll come back again and play with you another time."
When she said that I quick crossed all my fingers on both my hands praying I hoped not.
None of us saw Charley come hobbling over the beach, least of all myself as I sat pretending to dig away in the sand, wishing, foolish as I knew it to be by now, I'd find cobblestones underneath and suddenly everything'd be Mifflin Street again.
He probably came onto the beach from the woods at the foot of the bluff directly behind us, and with our backs turned we ain't spotted him at first.
Close up he was taller and you could see how skinny and bony he was, with a sharp nose and face like my father, his hair slicked back the same as him, his red hair looking almost pink in the bright sun. I saw he had freckles too and that his skin was the color of the wax candles in church. I knew now he wasn't no boy because you could see he shaved, but I still couldn't tell if he was old or not. From under the dining table one time I heard Mrs. Beezley tell my mother Charley'd been "born that way," and I looked sideways at him trying not to stare at his one arm bent up at the elbow and hugging his side, with the hand pointing straight out, the fingers curling down and back like a hook. The lame leg he dragged along after him in the sand gave him a stooped, stumbly kind of walk making the crooked arm he held up in front of him look just like a broke wing. He looked like the stork brung babies I seen in the comic strips.
Despite the heat, he had his shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck and even the long sleeves buttoned to his wrists. He came and stood about a yard from where we were sprawled in a little circle and my brothers grew quiet, watching him as he came up like they weren't paying too much attention but I knew they were watching everything about him. They kept looking down at themselves like they were annoyed he caught them in their underwear.
Slap was the only one grinning at him like he always did with everybody, like the whole world was his friend, as my mother said. But the two oldest were watching him curious but careful because he was a grownup in a place and at a time of day where grownups, even our father, hardly ever showed up.
Because I was with my brothers, I wasn't very scared and since we weren't in the woods but out in the open on the beach I knew we didn't have to worry about what Mr. Beezley said about being in the woods with Charley. He nodded first to Frank and Frank nodded back. He nodded to Buster but Buster just glared at him. I could feel his eyes going over us one by one without them seeming to, and although I didn't know what it was about the way he looked at us, it made me feel funny. Yet, he knew our names. I wanted to know how he knew our names to write them down in the newspaper and hoped one of my older brothers'd ask him.
When he finally opened his mouth, his lips that were thin as a hair barely parted.
"You boys havin a good time?"
Slap and me looked to the oldest and when Frank cocked his head to one side and nodded, then Slap did too, grinning even more'n before. But I could see Frank was as squirmy all of a sudden as Buster and me was, digging his bare toes in the sand to hide it yet stealing peeks like Buster was at Charley's twisted arm and leg but pretending like they weren't. Then wouldn't you know that Slap piped up with, "Does it hurt you when you walk?" saying it like Charley had on Ginger Mahoney's high heels like I had on that day when Slap asked me the very same thing.
Charley looked at him, then looked away and didn't say nothing. He kept swallowing like it hurt him to swallow, his Adam's apple jumping up and down just like my father's when my father got jumpy. Looking at him, there was something buried about him, his voice was flat as the ground, there was something like a funeral about him, like our Uncle Digby the undertaker, his eyes were just like Uncle Digby's, serious and dignified, like he was there and wasn't there all at the same time.
Them eyes was climbing all over us again.
"Any you boys got any problems? I can help you, you got any problems."
He was looking direct at Frank and Buster. Them two stiffened their spines like they did when we were company at somebody else's house. They stared at Charley like he was talking Chinee, then stared out over the river. You could see they were still feeling funny Charley seeing them in their underwear. But Slap didn't care, he was looking from them to Charley and back at them again, his mouth half turned up in that way of his when he didn't hear what was going on. I looked at Charley and wondered what he meant, asking did we have any problems? Did he mean my father not having no job and being on relief? Did he mean not having no money to go to the movies? Something about what he said, the way he said it, despite the day, made my belly go cold.
He swallowed, his Adam's apple going again. He cleared his throat. "Didjou see I wrote about you in the paper?"
Buster squinted, even more suspicious-looking than he been before. "How'djou know our names?"
I was all ears. Charley swallowed hard this time. "I got some from Father Mack, I got the rest what he dint know from Mrs. Beezley . . ." He stopped and cleared his throat again. ". . . I know she's best girlfriends with your mom . . ." His voice trailed off like his words were going down in the ground again, they were so gravelly and low.
Buster snapped, "We know she knows our mom!" saying it like he was real mad Charley wrote our names in the paper. He stared out at the river again, that mad look darkening his face. Charley saw it too and looked down at his shoes like Buster'd accused him of something terrible. I wondered was Buster mad because Charley might write our names in the County Seat Weekly that we been down the river when we wasn't supposed to be and them swimming in their underwear and Mrs. Beezley see it and tell our mother.
Then all of a sudden Frank, that been getting more and more fidgety, jumped up like he couldn't sit still another minute, and blue as he was from being so long in the water before, raced across the beach and dove into the water. Buster, looking relieved somebody made a move, chased after him, yelping, then Slap shot up like a spring and he ran too, jumping in the water feet first. Soon the river was filled with their shouting and splashing, Frank right away slicing off, doing his sidestroke Brother Beezley learnt them, and Buster cutting out right along after him.
I stared down at where I been digging for cobblestones, afraid to look up, even more aware now my brothers were gone of Charley standing there. Like Slap, I was dying to know did his leg hurt him when he walked, and how did he tie his shoes or button himself with just one hand, did his mother do it for him? And was it him peeking out of the bushes that day we saw the naked man and lady in the woods and my father learnt my brothers to doggie paddle? But I dared not ask him.
"You got any problems?"
At first I didn't think he was talking to me, grownups didn't always talk to me, even a grownup that's cripple, when you are so little and close to the ground it's like big people don't see you and you don't count.
"Someday you got any problems you tell me."
His voice coming again, real quiet, quiet as if he was talking somewhere underneath himself. He was standing right over me, putting me in a shadow, his eyes as washed out as the sky. His mouth'd move but them eyes of his was speaking more'n his words and I wasn't sure of what they were saying. I didn't answer him, not understanding the question, or the one he wasn't saying. I thought of what Mrs. Beezley told my mother, she better keep an eye on me with Charley. I would've loved to ask him did he know what she meant, here he was standing right there, looking down at me in the sand . . . My heart began to beat . . .
"You get in here!"
It was Frank yelling to me from the water far out near the sandbar that he'd swum to first, beating Buster that was still walloping the water, trying to catch up. I jumped like a trained dog, hearing my older brother's voice, bossy, just like our mother's could be sometimes, and my father's most always.
"You git in here or you're gonna git it, boy!" He was shaking his fist now standing up on the sandbar, the flying drops of water hitting the sun.
Charley's eyes were still watching me. They had a look in them said, Don't pay him any attention. There was something damp and gray in his eyes, like something buried and hid, something you might see back in the swamp or like the strange things we had no names for we'd sometimes find under the rocks here at the beach. They had a look the way I felt when my brothers razzed me for playing dressup.
The cold feeling came back in my belly.
"Hey! Are you comin or do I have to come and drag you away?"
He sounded like he meant business this time so I scrambled up and hurried down to the water where, what was nervy for me, I waded right in up over my knees. The others were batting around and hollering out by the long sandbar you could hardly see, now it was near high tide.
I turned and shaded my eyes and watched the shore. Charley wasn't where he was when I left him and I wondered how he'd managed to get away so quick with his leg and all when finally I spotted him, dark as a shadow limping against the glare of the sand back in the direction of the woods. I watched until he disappeared into the leafiest shade, the exact same place where I saw my father changing that day, his pale red hair, out of the sun now, gleaming like it was all icy fire in the shadows.
When we got back into the woods where my brothers had their clothes stashed, they found they were all knotted up so tight it took them a long time to untie them. Frank said, "It must of been them guys call theirselfs the Swamp Rats playing us a trick," but Buster, furious as he picked the knots out of his undershirt, said, "No, I know for sure who done it and I'd like to kill the sonuvabitch if I could jist git me hands on 'im!"
Slap wanted to know who was he talking about, but even though I knew right away who he meant, I wasn't so sure. Charley ain't looked strong or mean enough to tie knots that tight, what with his lame arm that couldn't even button his own buttons I bet. I saw boys anyhow other times we were down here were always prowling through the woods. In fact, I saw two older ones sneaking through the trees earlier, before Charley ever showed up, that looked like the same boys we saw when we were coming that first time to the river that Brother whispered were Swamp Rats, the one with snag teeth and dirty yellow hair and the other one squint-eyed with pimples and a dog with ribs sticking out sharp as razors—So maybe Frank was right.
But that was nothing unusual, seeing boys in the woods, and since I didn't know for sure who might've done it I kept my mouth shut, just like we all did about Charley when we got home, once their hair and their underwear dried out so they could lie to my mother and say they ain't been swimming if it turned out to be one of them times they had to lie—figuring, without ever having to say it, there are things there is no use telling older people, specially mothers and fathers, things I was beginning to learn we all knew in some deep place between ourselves but didn't have no words for, some place that was dark and deep where there wasn't any words anymore.
Now with the electric off and no radio for my mother and me to hear our stories on I played more and more outside. I was all alone in the yard playing with my oil truck the next time Earl Snarp Jr. came by, walking that funny way of his, lifting one leg higher'n the other, his one arm swinging wide while the other one he held stock still at his side. Like Ronnie, it was like he waited til he saw nobody was around and before I could get up and run in the house he jumps over the hedge bold as brass, snarling at me right off, "Whatchou doin, dressin up in girl's clothes for?" He had that sneery grin on his face and a look like he knew already why I did it, no matter what I said.
I wasn't going to say nothing but he kept glaring me down.
"We was just playin dressup," I said in a voice so low he went, "What? What? I can't hear you!"
"Like it was Halloween," I said, only a little louder. And he went "What? What?" like no matter how loud I talked he'd say what? what? so because of that I wouldn't answer him again. When he squatted down next to me I wanted to leap away for fear he'd smack my hiney like he did last time.
He still had on them raggedy overalls made of pillow ticking but this time he had on sneakers that were as wore as Slap's and smelled just about the same too.
"Whatchou doin playin with that girl nextdoor?"
I didn't answer him.
"I seen you go by dresst like a girl with that girl nextdoor."
I said, "He ain't no girl, I thought at first he was Shirley Temple but he ain't no girl, he's a boy, so there!"
He hooted, then yelled, "Shirley Temple! That's a hot one! How you know he ain't Shirley Temple, you see he got a pecker?"
I felt my cheeks turning red as a Philadelphia cop car, not knowing exactly what a pecker was but suspecting it must be something like a dunkey.
But this time I wouldn't answer him at all, the nasty thing, and he reached over and with a look daring me to say something, started pushing my oil truck through the dirt without even asking if he could, but soon gave up on it, saying it wasn't much fun pushing something around with a busted wheel. He said it wasn't much fun just sitting around with a dumbie like me either and even though I did dress up in girl's clothes and played with "that sissy with the Shirley Temple curls," still and all maybe he could learn me something, maybe if I came down his house he could show me a thing or two but said he didn't have any high hopes, seeing's what a dumb pissant I was. He said it like he was doing me a big favor but ducked his head and wouldn't look me in the eye when he said it, like I just might say no.
I couldn't think of anything I wanted to do less in the whole wide world then go to his house, but I was so surprised he asked me and he looked so funny when he asked me, almost like he was ashamed to ask, even though I didn't want to, I said I'd have to ask my mother first, hoping from the earful she got about the Snarps from the Beezleys that she wouldn't let me go.
He got a nasty look in his eye and said, "Well, gwan mama's boy if you gotta go ask her." Then like he was reading what I was thinking, he snarled, "I don't care one way or the other—who wants to hang around a dumb pissant like you anyhow?" But I could see, like with Charley on the beach, his eyes wasn't matching what his mouth was saying.
So I was stuck and couldn't get out of it and when I went in the kitchen to ask her, she was ironing with the old rusty irons she was heating on the stove that my father found working on the garbage truck and brought home to her now there wasn't no electric. Now there was no radio either I knew how much she missed not only our stories but the music too, so she was humming to herself as if to make up for it, while Kate was taking a nap on the couch in the parlor and Danny was playing in the middle of the kitchen floor with his fire engine and all the busted toy cars my father threw off the dump truck for us.
When I asked her could I go play with Earl Jr., she raised her eyebrows, saying, "Them Snarps down the road?" I nodded and she said, "What's he like?" I was too ashamed to say how he smacked my hiney so I didn't say nothing. She set down her iron and went to the window to take a squint at him. He was standing with his hands on his hips in the side yard where I left him and when he saw her looking he looked away real quick like she caught him standing there just waiting his chance to steal something.
"He's got a sneaky look," she said, crinkling up her eyebrows. "And they ain't Catholic neither." Neither was the Beezleys but I held my tongue. Seeing his overalls she said, "They're on relief like us," and when she said that her eyes got a softer look.
Turning back to her ironing board by the stove she picked up the iron heating on the metal plate on the burner and replaced it with the cooled down one, saying, "Well, I know you ain't got nobody to play with, so you go play with him if you want. But Babes says he has a awful mouth so if he starts cursin or if he gets too fresh you come on home, you hear?" Then she held up a finger at me. "And don'tchou eat nuthin in their house, Babes Beezley says Mrs. Snarp ain't none too clean."
I promised I wouldn't, wishing with all my heart she'd said I couldn't go so's I'd have an excuse. And as I went out the front door instead of the back to stall for time, as I was crossing the porch I made up my mind to lie and tell him she said I couldn't go, even though God might strike me dead for it. But as I was coming down the steps I saw he was looking off in the woods towards the Mahoney house and he had such a hangdog look like people do sometimes when they don't know somebody's watching them, I didn't have the heart.
Earl Jr.'s two sisters and two brothers, all younger'n him were sitting in holes in the front yard the chickens'd dug from scratching themselves, the littlest girl, about Kate's age, squeezing a rag of a doll with its stuffing falling out. Being on relief too, I wondered did Mr. Snarp get it for her on the dump truck like my father got Kate's. Their faces was the color of oatmeal and they stared at me with their mouths hanging open as we crossed the yard, like I was somebody just fell off of the moon. Chickens were jumping in and out of the windows of the old 1929 Dodge that was up on cinder blocks like the car was their chicken coop.
The man I saw out in their yard banging with a hammer under the hood of the Dodge the first time on our way to the river turned out to be Earl Snarp Sr. that was sitting up on the porch now in an old broken down easy chair with the springs poking out the bottom. He was reading a comic book and drinking beer out of a jelly glass that was so greasy the beer was flat as your feet, as my father used to say when he drunk and there wasn't no head on his beer, he would sprinkle salt in it to put a head on it but maybe Mr. Snarp didn't know that or else didn't care if he had a head on it or not. He had a red face, either from the sun or from the beer or from both, and was barefoot, his feet looking about the same shade as Earl Jr.'s that first day I saw him, like you could grow potatoes between his toes. He was wearing a pair of pants all bunched up at the middle and so stiff with grease they looked like they could've stood up all by themselves. On his head was an old captain's hat so greasy the crown of it just shined. His lips were moving slow, he was concentrating so hard on his comic book, which I saw as we passed him going into the house was an old Action comics with Superman, he didn't even see us going in. I saw their porch floor was in worse shape'n ours and had boards missing you could fall right through if you weren't careful where you were stepping.
Inside, the floors were all congoleum wore blacker even than ours was, with wicker furniture in the front room where all the wicker was busted and nothing matched anything, not only there but everywhere else in the house, like they picked up whatever they had wherever they found it and stuck it in the house whether it went with anything else or not. Pictures of movie stars and President Roosevelt cut out from calendars and magazines were tacked and pasted all over the walls like they tried to make everything pretty whilst at the same time trying to hide the old peeling wallpaper and all the holes in the walls. In one corner of the parlor was an old-fashioned radio with the speaker on top like a big horn but it wasn't playing and even though there was a floor lamp with a battered paper shade there was an oil lamp on the table beside it, so I figured their juice must be turned off too. There wasn't no screendoor or no screens anywhere in the windows so the house was as buzzing and full of flies as Gottlieb's store and had a soury milky smell everywhere you sniffed.
Mrs. Snarp was out in the kitchen leaning over the sink pumping water from a pump just like ours. "Any Kool-Aid, Floss?" Earl Jr. hollered at her, calling her Floss and not Mom, like he was making fun of her. I thought she must be going to holler at him like I knew my mother would've if any of us was that fresh and called her Nor', but instead Mrs. Snarp turned from the sink and when she saw me she stopped what she was just about to say and stared at me. I saw now besides the one tooth hanging down in front one of her eyes was crossed like some people have a cast eye my mother called it. She asked me what my name was and when I told her, I was so tongue-tied I had to tell her twice before she understood me and when she did she bust out laughing, showing all of her long tooth, cackling, "Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse," over and over, laughing like I didn't know if she was laughing at me or what. Then right away she started in asking me all about my mother and my father and all of us kids and did I have any dead brothers or sisters, squinting up her eyes like that was what she wanted to know more'n anything else. Nobody ever asked me a question like that before, I was so surprised all I could do was mumble, "Not that I know of," though sometimes when he teased and made fun of me I sure wished that Buster was dead, but I knew that was a sin to wish for that so I didn't mention it.
All the while Earl Jr. was going into the icebox and bringing out a big old mayonnaise jar of red Kool-Aid and slopping it into two jelly glasses on the kitchen table, each one as greasy as the glass his father was drinking his beer out of. There was an open can of evaporated milk on the table the two holes in the lid covered with flies like black scabs, and the wore-through oilcloth that was stacked with dirty dishes wasn't much better, it was more black with flies'n white with oilcloth.
I thought of what my mother told me and wondered how I could get out of drinking the Kool-Aid. But before I could say yes or no Earl Jr. slapped one of the glasses in my hand, saying, "C'mon out back." I followed him out through the shed where we sat ourselves down on the backsteps that swayed under me and was just as rickety as the front ones. I looked around and saw their backyard was filled with as many old washing machines and junk as the front yard was, and there were more chickens running around loose in the back there that ran up to us soon as we came out the door, thinking when they saw us we had something to feed them. But Earl Jr. kicked his feet out at them, and they all went squawking and flapping off, their feathers flying. I saw their outhouse looked in worse shape'n ours and was leaning to one side so much I'd've been scared to death to go in for fear it'd topple over once you had your pants down.
The Kool-Aid felt as warm as the day so I figured there mustn't've been no ice in the icebox, and the jelly glass was so dirty I was afraid to drink out of it, but I saw Earl Jr. that'd already gulped his down without even once coming up for air was looking at me kind of funny. "Ain'tchou gonna drink it?" Just to be polite I took a sip. It was strawberry, my favorite, and so loaded with sugar, more even than we ever put in our Kool-Aid at home, it didn't matter to me anymore the glass looked like it'd never been washed, I just shut my eyes and swigged it down as fast as Earl Jr. swigged his.
Just then out the backdoor comes Mrs. Snarp with a big grin on her face, saying to me, "I wantcha to see my baby." I saw Earl Jr. make a face. I looked up at her as she stood over us on the top step, looking for the baby and when she saw me looking she grins even wider, showing her tooth, then pulls out from behind her a picture in a cardboard frame and flashes it in front of my eyes and like to scare the daylights out of me when I saw what I first thought was a picture of a little monkey with its head turned to its side turned out to be a photograph of a baby laying in a little white coffin. Its head was resting on a white satin pillow with satin ruffles all around and it was wearing what looked like a long white nightgown like it was ready for bed, its little hands were folded over its chest on a frilly white blanket like it was praying and there was a tiny sign at the head of the casket I could spell out, read, "ASLEEP WITH THE ANGELS IN HEAVEN."
"Little Edward, one month old," she sighed, staring down at the picture with her one cross eye like the baby in it was still alive. "We took him in the car in his last little crib all the way up to the photog'pher on Broadway in Camden just to have it took special."
I didn't know what to say but like I tasted the Kool-Aid just to be polite, I looked at the picture again even though it gave me the creeps, the baby looked like such a little shrunk thing.
"Little Edward," she said. "Gone but not forgotten."
I see her mouth quiver and I looked away, not knowing what to do, and all of a sudden spied four pairs of eyes peeking at me around the corner of the house and looking saw it was Earl Jr.'s sisters and brothers trying to get a gander at me. When Earl Jr. spotted them he flapped his arms and kicked his legs out at them just like they were so many more chickens and all them eyes disappeared around the side of the house so fast you wouldn't believe it. Earl Jr. growled out, "C'mon, you," and grabbing me by the arm he all but dragged me across the yard, kicking chickens out of the way as he went, hustling me off back in the direction of the swamp so quick I hardly knew what was happening.
Even though I didn't want to I followed him partly to get away from the picture of little Edward and partly because of the way he did it, like there wasn't any question but I would follow him. Another thing was, by this time he wasn't acting like he was going to haul off and slap me in the hiney again so I wasn't half as leery of him. I told him, though, I didn't like going back in no swamp but he said don't be such a scaredy cat, "You bin playin with Shirley Temple too much," and even though hearing that got my goat, I didn't say nothing. Even more'n my two older brothers, he had a way of saying things like he was positively absolutely sure of it, no ands, ifs or buts about it, no matter what you said he'd be sure to top it, so I knew I might just as well save my breath and go along.
Now it was warmer the swamp had a terribler smell, the punk'd shot up at least ten times taller'n me so that the place seemed a lot darker'n it was the time I came back here with my father and Mr. Beezley. I kept a sharp eye out for snakes and things, keeping close behind Earl Jr. that seemed to know pretty much where he was going, like he been back here hundreds of times. He was moving along at a pretty fast clip so I had a hard time keeping up with him. He looked like he wasn't at all worried about stepping in any quicksand and didn't seem one bit bothered by the slithery things that were slipping and sliding off on either side of the muddy path as we came up on them. He didn't seem bothered either by the zillions of birds all of a sudden batting up in front of us with shrieks that just about made my heart stop. I still didn't like the place one bit but I was feeling less nervous being with him, he looked so much like he knew where he was going and didn't seem afraid of nothing, like he was right at home here.
"Was he nice?" my mother asked.
"Yes," I lied.
"Is their house clean?"
"Yes," I lied.
It was like she was Sister Joseph Mary in the catechism class at Sunday school.
"You dint eat nuthin in their house didjou?"
"No," I said, which I knew wasn't a for real lie since drinking strawberry Kool-Aid wasn't the same as eating something.
"Did he curse and use bad words?"
"No," I lied again, lying because a part of me was scared if I told her the truth she wouldn't let me see him anymore.
I saw him pass the house, making sure nobody was out front, like he usually did if he came down for me. At first I pretended not to see him. Thinking of all he got me into the last couple times I went off with him, I was determined I would stay in my own front yard from now on. But the next time he makes a pass in front of the house, I look at him and see his loose lopy walk and see him jerk his head at me, grinning and showing all of his teeth, he became like a magnet again to me, pulling me out to the hedge, where I could smell among the leaves the tiny blossoms that were all so milky sweet.
"C'mon, pissant," he whispers, "I got something real good to show you."
I don't know how it happened, I knew I should have my head examined, but suddenly seeing that look on his face, all of my determination of only a second ago went right up in smoke. I ran around back and told my mother I was going up his house and she gave me a look but let me go, reminding me again if Mrs. Snarp offered me something to eat not to eat it, and not to be late for supper. I ran out front again and as usual never asked him where we were going, I just fell into step beside him, following wherever he took me like I always did.
Instead of heading for the river or the swamp he lit out for the part of the woods led off to the ferry, which I wasn't too crazy about, afraid he might be going to bust more car aerials. We weren't very far along before I heard somebody coming up ahead on the path and my heart stopped, thinking it might be them Swamp Rats but it turned out to be somebody just as bad. It was Lenny the Lenilenape pushing his baby carriage through the trees, heading for the dump probably. I was all ready to duck into the bushes to hide, thinking Earl Jr. would want to hide too, but instead he just kept right on going, looking at Lenny bold as brass when we got up close, like he was daring him to recognize us or say something about us sneaking up on his shack. When he rattled right on by us with his black eyes flat on the ground like he wasn't seeing anything let alone us two, I was as surprised as I was relieved.
Where we were going it turned out wasn't the ferry but the clearing with long-haired Indian grass over it like a carpet, and honeysuckle and huckleberry bushes, and all the trees so thick around it the sunlight came down through the leaves hardly at all. The minute we got there Earl Jr. flung himself on the ground and stuck his nose in the dirt, sniffing like a dog'll do. I gaped at him like he'd gone crazy, particularly when he started rolling over and over, his eyes shut tight, his face split up the middle in a goofy grin like he been waiting all winter just for this minute as he rolled one way then another, then rolled all around in a circle like he couldn't get enough of it, getting himself so covered in mud and dead leaves and dry grass sticking to him it was like all that was another pair of overalls covering him.
"Don'tchou jist love it! C'mon, rabbit," he hollered, "Git down here and gitcher bottom dirty."
I guess from my eyes he could see I didn't love it as much as him, not enough to roll around in it like a dog scratching its back or a chicken taking a dust bath. He gave a whoop and jumped up and did a hoppy little dance from one foot to the other before he flung himself down on the ground again and started rolling and rolling all over again, rolling his shoulders and letting the dry pine needles scratch his back for him.
Finally when he had enough of it he sprawled on his back with his arms and legs flung out and stared up at the branches that were all black with new leaves, his chest heaving up and down. I could see the blood running in his face and down his skin was the same color as the wild roses I picked in May and stuck in milk bottles in front of the statue of the Virgin Mary in my mother and father's bedroom. Not wanting to get my bottom dirty, I stood watching him, peeping around me sometimes like I was a bird watching out for eyes, but what I was doing was watching him mainly, wondering what it was he brought me back here to show me. He saw me watching and turned his head and looked at me with a tease in his eyes like he could see how jumpy I was. "Will them Swamp Rats come back here?" I asked him, peeping around and peeping around.
"Nobody comes back here, nobody knows where this place is, it's so far off the beaten path I betcha even Lenny the Lenape don't know where it is, don'tchou worry, rabbit." He gave me a wink and like he can't wait another second he reaches in the pocket of his overalls and pulls out one of them little square books like what I saw in the five and tenny with cowboy stories of The Lone Ranger or stories of Buck Rogers, only not as thick, where if you flipped the corner edge of the pages you'd see The Lone Ranger riding Silver or Buck Rogers whizzing through space in a rocketship. With a sly grin, he pats the grass, motioning for me to sit down beside him, so I stopped my peeking around, worrying was the Swamp Rats sneaking up on us, but I only squatted down, I wouldn't sit. What I saw was the cover of the book said ALLEY OOP with a cartoon of Alley Oop in his leopard skin holding his big club in front of his cave just like I saw him in the Sunday comics and wondered why Earl Jr. was so excited about that since Alley Oop wasn't never one of my favorites like Mickey Mouse or Blondie and Dagwood.
"Me ole man's got a stack of these hid under the mattress and in the bottom of his bureau," he said, saying it like he was real proud of his father, and real proud of himself for having snitched it, and when he said it I all of a sudden saw my father's bureau drawer with my Grandpop Lithwack's gun hid under his underwear.
When Earl Jr. opened the book my eyes popped, seeing Alley Oop's girlfriend with a bone in her hair saying in the balloon over her head was that his club under his leopard skin and Alley Oop saying in his balloon yes, it was, only it wasn't, it was his dunkey that was big and fat as the man's with the big ears in the woods that time. The more he turned the pages the more excited Earl Jr. got, his lips moving quicker and quicker reading the balloons, like I saw his father's lips moving when he was reading the Superman comic book on their porch that time, Earl Jr. grinning and turning every so often to say to me now, "Looka that, jist looka that, will ya?"
I ain't never seen anything like it. I looked and what I saw was Alley Oop doing things with his club he never did in the Sunday funnies, I never saw no books like that in my father's bureau drawer, I only saw the pistol hid under his underwear. It was all drawn so big and loud. Alley Oop's girlfriend didn't have no dunkey, it wasn't grown in yet like Kate's wasn't grown in yet, and Alley Oop's was like his club, if it was me I knew I would be hollering, only she wasn't hollering, she had a big grin on her face and where her dunkey should of been it was like the electric socket I stuck my tongue in up on the second floor on Mifflin Street and the blue sparks shot out like the big drops shooting out the top of Alley Oop's dunkey was sparks . . . dark hers was, dark as the dark between my father's legs when I peeked that time and wasn't supposed to, like when Slap bent over and showed us it up in the toilet, a brown eye staring out at us, only she had straggly hairs like spider's legs crawling all around where her dunkey should've been and his dunkey was a pole big as his club in the big thick lips with long whiskers all around, it was shiny and greasy as Lenny the Lenilenape's mouth, and thick like the big-eared man's in the woods, a greasy club there were big drops of sweat coming out of, like in the Sunday funnies when Alley Oop got mad or ascared big drops of sweat shot out of his head, like he would never stop, like he was a volcano, spouting and spouting in big drops like his sweat, like the blue sparks from the socket, like the blue from the muzzles of the shotguns the New Year's shooters were shooting, like my father knocked flat on his back after shooting it, the barrel of it blue as my Grandpop Lithwack's pistol, like Alley Oop's big drops were bullets shooting into her . . .
I looked and looked but didn't know what it meant in words but knew, in that deep dark place where there weren't no words, just what it was, like Charley on the beach asking did we have any problems and like the big-eared man all bare in the woods, it both scared and excited me all at the same time.
Then Earl Jr. flipped the corner edge of the pages with his thumb to show me, "See?" he said, and I saw Alley Oop moving like a cartoon in the movies and saw his club that wasn't his club slamming up and down with the big drops of sweat popping out the side of his head and his girlfriend grinning like her face would break.
Earl Jr. went through the whole book one more time, teasing me every other page, saying, "Do you know what this is, do you?" and I had to admit I didn't. I saw now the pages were smeared with thumbprints bigger'n his, and where you flipped the edges of the pages it was all grubby and wore. Finally when he had his fill of it he slid the book back in his overalls and lay down on his back in the grass, propping his hands behind his head, grinning and looking up at the trees like the Alley Oop book was up there in the leaves with its cartoons still crossing in front of his eyes.
Even though I was beginning to imitate him in little ways, in the way he walked or the way he said things, most things he did I wouldn't do, even so easy a thing as laying back on the ground, afraid of snakes or frogs or bugs, not to mention turtles. But the grass here looked so soft and quiet, it was all so dark and quiet here, except for the birds you could hear but couldn't see off in the dark branches, everything was dark but just light enough with the sun coming through the leaves in spikes of light skinny as the trunks of the sassafras scattered in amongst the bigger pines around the edge of the clearing . . . I was just about to slide down when all of a sudden Earl Jr. was up like a shot unbuttoning his bib as he darted into the bushes where he shoved down his overalls and squatted behind the huckleberry bushes.
I gaped at him, surprised he didn't care if I was there or not and even though I knew there was nobody around but us and the birds, I still peeped over my shoulder to see if anybody'd snuck up in the meantime and was spying on us, like Charley maybe, looking to find some news to write about in The County Seat Weekly. Then I heard Earl Jr. tearing off leaves from the bushes, and when he stood up he just let his overalls drop to his ankles and stepped out of them and came back dragging them behind him by one strap, grinning and saying, "Them prunes from relief run right through me."
Since he wasn't wearing no underwear, I looked and saw his face and neck and arms were all brown, but where the overalls was his skin was white as the whitest cream, like my father in his sawed-off workpants that day at the river when he told us not to look but I looked anyway. Earl Jr. saw me looking and I looked away real quick but he grinned a bigger grin, saying, "You can look, if you want." He gave his hips a little shake and it shake his dunkey like a floppy bell, then he started prancing around over the grass in his hoppy little dance. I turned my head a little towards him, watching him slantways like he was a light too bright to look at, watching him shaking himself and prancing around. Every place he put his barefeet down he left dark prints of them in the Indian grass.
When he had enough of dancing he flopped down again beside me and rolled over on his back, lacing his hands behind his head and staring up again at the branches that were so thick they were like a roof of leaves and pine needles over us. I could see the little pimple marks next to each of his little fingers, he already told me how him and his brother Walter were born with an extra little finger on each hand, twelve fingers in all so that the midwife had to cut off the extra ones, leaving the little pimples. "Six fingers runs in our fambly," he said, like it was something to brag about, like Ronnie was always bragging he was named after two famous movie stars.
"Grass feels so good," he whispered, shutting his eyes and wriggling his whole self up and down against it, like the grass was fingers scratching his back. "Ummm . . ." he sighed, like my Aunt Nell sighed whenever she asked one of us to scratch her back, "You oughta take yer things off'n try it . . . ummmm . . ." he went, humming like bees in his mouth, and rolling over on his belly he started wriggling himself from head to toe in the grass, like Danny rolled on his belly in the bed at night before he went to sleep.
But I was shy about taking my clothes off, like I always felt funny to pee in front of him, like I always felt with anybody, and never did, except with Slap when he sat with me in the outhouse. I would never dream of dropping my pants in front of him like he did in the bushes just then, doing it as if it was nothing, as if it was the easiest thing, just like the Beezley boys did, but my brothers would never do it neither—I looked around me and even though a part of me still knew there wasn't nobody there but me and him and the birds and the trees, it was like my mother was standing right there, it was like my father was standing right there too, watching and shaking their finger, saying, Don'tchou dare.
By this time it was like he could read my mind, though. "Whatsa matter, you scare't?" saying it quiet enough, saying it like he knew it'd get my goat. I looked away from his eyes and rubbed my fingers in the grass that was silky as hair and softer'n anything I ever touched. "Scare't?" he said again, quiet and sly, and got me so worked up, which is just what he wanted, I didn't know where to turn because I knew he was right. But like everything else, I wouldn't do nothing that first time, if he was a magnet pulling me, there was an even stronger magnet inside of me pulling me back.
But seeing he liked to dance so much I jumped up and starting to hum "Jeepers Creepers," I did a little dance for him like I used to do for my mother in the parlor on Mifflin Street, swirling myself around and around. He pitched his head up on his hands, his eyes bright and grinning with a look of surprise. I didn't care if he gaped at me and wasn't sure if he was laughing at me or not, I didn't care, I was just so happy to dance for him, I was just so happy to have somebody to dance for again.
Other times we went back to the clearing he brought Maggie and Jiggs and Blondie and Dagwood and Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse that he snitched one by one from under his father's mattress or out of his father's bureau drawer and kept hid in his overall pockets til we got to the clearing. So that after that I never saw them comic strips the same way again in the Sunday papers.
We'd look at the books a couple times, sitting side by side in the grass, our heads so close together they'd bump sometimes, our heads so close together I could smell the sweat of his hair. After he flipped the edge of the pages at least a dozen times to see Mickey Mouse's hiney bouncing up and down on top of Minnie Mouse that still had her flowerpot hat on with the daisy sticking up out of it, I'd do a dance for him. And sometimes if he didn't have them off already so's he could lay in the grass and feel the grass under him, he'd drop his overalls and do a goofy dance for me like he did that first time. He would shimmy his hips like a hootchie-kootchie dancer I saw in a Mae West movie me and my brothers saw by mistake once at the Lyric that my mother said we shouldn't've seen, she said Mae West was a tramp because she bleached her hair, like my father said my Aunt Theresa was a tramp because she did the same, and hollered at Frank for letting us see it. Earl Jr. would be rolling his eyes like Mae West and shaking his hips, his dunkey growing like mine did when I woke up in the morning and had to pee real bad, shaking and shaking himself, that got us both to laughing before he flopped on his belly in the grass to catch his breath—And no matter how dirty he was he had that smell of the salt in the air when a storm blew up that Sam Beezley said was the smell of the sea blowing up from the bay that reminded me I must ask Earl Jr. where was the sea—And now that I let myself get closer to it, he had the smell too of the Indian grass that was all mixed up with the smell of his skin and the smell of his hair all sweaty from dancing and plastered in dark curls around the back of his neck.
Dancing for him more and more, little by little I took things off, first my blouse, then my undershirt, him egging me on all the time. Even so, safe as I knew the clearing to be it was so far back in the woods and hid, there was still that fear in me the Swamp Rats'd come crashing through the trees or Lenny the Lenilenape would come sneaking through the grass on his belly to take our scalps, or my brothers or the Beezley boys'd sneak up and be peeking at us and run home and rat on me to my mother and father—or just as bad, Charley hiding there so's he'd maybe have something to tell everybody in The County Seat Weekly—Afraid even more'n that that Earl Jr.'d laugh at me because even though he always had a grin in his eyes as he watched me dance, I wasn't never sure was he jeering. But finally I came to see it wasn't a grin to make fun of me, I saw he was watching me the way he watched Mickey Mouse or Minnie Mouse or Blondie and Dagwood in his father's comic books, his mouth hanging open showing his big teeth, and breathing through his mouth, his eyes as round as Little Orphan Annie's, I saw it was an enjoying himself grin, so that soon I was able to dance around over the Indian grass with nothing on, not even my maryjanes, and felt the grass underneath my feet all soft and springy, it lifted up my feet and helped me dance and made my dunkey grow without my having to pee. And if I closed my eyes as I twirled around and around, singing "Jeepers Creepers" or "A-Tisket, A-Tasket, I Lost Me Yellow Basket," singing to him as much as to myself, singing like I used to sing to my mother, I imagined the grass was hair I was dancing in, like I was dancing in long green hair, like the Indian grass was the long green hair not only in the clearing but over all of the ground everywheres all over the world.