(This is the complete story I promised a day or two ago. Written in early 2000, it is my first actual attempt at writing short fiction as a “serious” writer — i.e., not a piece of juvenilia written when I was in grade-school. That said, the story is a reworking of a concept that I did write in grade school, which was in turn based on a song of the same name by The Hooters. That song, a R&B tune in waltz-time, is my favorite of theirs. I submitted this story to three markets, I think, and while it was rejected by all three, one of those rejections was the next-best-thing: the standard form-rejection with a personal note by the editor scrawled on the margins. Now I think that the story has a bit too much of a “Stephen King” feel, but I’m still a bit fond of it even if I’d write it completely differently today.)
Most young people like me have a place like that, I suppose. A place we go to think about how wonderful the beautiful people have it. A place where we dream and plot how we’re going to someday be better than all of them put together. A place where we fight dragons, rescue damsels, and plan our revenge on a world that values Sonny Bortman and that arm of his over people like me. It’s a place where every nice girl who falls to Sonny’s spell realizes how much better I am, and it’s a place where my little brother and my little sister and me still have a Mommy, and where Daddy still smiles and talks to us. Yeah, the kids like me all have a place like that. Mine was a graveyard.
The best place to begin, I guess, is the day I learned to dance. It was October, and I walked to school with my little brother and sister, Billy and Hannah, to school. In Corley’s Crossing all the kids go to the same building, an ugly thing made of brown brick in 1886. That’s right, 1886. Those people who like new buildings don’t live in towns like Corley’s Crossing. Why should they? We don’t need ’em, as Daddy would say.
I took Billy and Hannah to their classrooms on the first floor and then headed for mine, which was on the fourth. As usual I had to walk past all the kids older than me to get to class. Some days I was able to get to the room quickly, without being noticed by any of the guys who were on the lookout for the soft kids or the fat kids. Other days I wasn’t so lucky. Most unlucky days, my books would get dumped (all of them, since only the grades above me got lockers). Worse days were when I would get tripped, because I would also get kicked on the way down and the way back up. And the worst days of all were when Sonny Bortman was up there, surrounded by drooling girls and his buddies. (Any kid Sonny’s age and size and as dumb as he was was one of his buddies.) He wasn’t us there every day; most days he hung out in the gym getting strong for the next game or something. Sonny’s locker was right next to the fourth floor washroom. You never went into that washroom, not even if you were on the fourth floor when the third floor washroom was locked (which was most days). You didn’t go in there, period. Unless Sonny Bortman grabbed you, maybe by the shirt collar or the back of your overalls. Unless he dragged you into that shit-smelling darkness where the only light came from two bare light bulbs and a single barred window ten feet from the floor, and your screams only echoed off the marble floor and cinderblock walls while Sony Bortman undid your pants….
That morning, he wasn’t there. The only bully up there was a stupid ox named Eddie Fulton. Dumping my books was the only thing he had ever thought of. If I saw him coming, which I did that day, I shifted my books so that only one or two would actually fall, and these would be the ones that weren’t stuffed with homework papers. I could almost deal with Eddie. After he went by laughing, I retrieved my history book from the floor and headed for English class.
I don’t have any good subjects, but English is my worst. That year I had Mr. Duchamp, who was the meanest teacher in school. He hated children, and he didn’t give much sign that he liked English much either. It’s funny how some people end up doing what they hate. I had him first period, and when I walked in and took my front row seat he glared at me the whole way. He was a very fat man, having gained a ton since he got out of the Army, so his shirts always looked like they were going to burst. His round face was always red and his hair would probably have caught fire if sparked, there was so much grease in it. Like every morning, Mr. Duchamp’s fingers were stained with nicotine and ink from a typewriter ribbon, and as usual his trash can was full of crumpled-up sheets of paper, some covered with typing, others blank. I often wondered what it was that he couldn’t get right. But whatever it was, he sure blamed us for it.
So that day it began when I dropped my pencil. Twice. This made Mr. Duchamp very angry, and he stopped class to yell at me in his wheezing voice, stopping for breath every fourth word. Then he made me go to the blackboard and diagram every exercise sentence, yelling at me every time I made a mistake, which was a lot.
I’ll spare you the details of Geometry, Science, and Study Halls, since they were mostly the same as English with different teachers. Lunch was its own horror, and as usual I didn’t eat. If I brought lunch from home, it got stolen. So was my lunch money. So I had thought it would make Daddy happy a month before when I told him I didn’t need to eat, he could save the lunch money. All he said was “You can afford to skip a few meals.” And I wasn’t even fat. That day when I got home there was something new: a bottle of the real stuff my Mr. Jack Daniel. Now Daddy could stop buying that stuff that Mr. Beech made in his basement. Yeah, no lunch money made Daddy real happy, all right.
History class was your typical thing: everyone thought it a hoot when they could recite all the Presidents from Washington to Roosevelt (the second one), and I couldn’t get past Franklin Pierce, Democrat, 1853-1857. On to gym class.
It was softball that day, since the World Series was on, though I certainly couldn’t tell you who played. We picked teams, a normal ritual: two guys picking the best players, then the not so good ones, then the ones who really tried hard. Then me. The captain didn’t even look at me, he just said “Right field.” Whenever you were bad at softball you went to right field. The problem, which I didn’t bother to point out, was that every kid on the opposing team saw me out there and hit lefty, whether that was natural or not. So I still chased fly balls and threw them really short of the cut-off man, we lost 50-2 or something, and then I got towel-whipped in the locker room. Then school was over and I walked home with Billy and Hannah. First we headed for Dawson’s; there were some things I had to get.
The center of town, Corley Square, was built around a triangular piece of land, so I wondered why they didn’t call it Corley Triangle. Anyway the town’s buildings were there: Dawson’s General Store, where the old timers gathered around to listen to KDKA Pittsburgh or Old Man Smith talk about how he survived Pickett’s Charge. Inside was all the stuff we needed in Corley’s Crossing – clothes, food, you name it. It was quite a thing when the big truck rolled in on Route 18, two Tuesdays a month. That’s when we got new things brought in – and sometimes someone would order something from those two guys in Chicago. But not very often. If it wasn’t already in Corley’s Crossing, you didn’t need it.
We went to the store and I got the flour, the soap, and the other stuff. I liked going there, even though Mr. Dawson didn’t care for my family, because I liked the smell of the pipe tobacco the old timers were smoking. I liked to listen to their conversation.
“Shame about Isaac Willis.”
“What shame? Black folks don’t know how to farm.”
“Reckon they did a good enough job farmin’ on them plantations.”
The sound of spitting. “Cotton’s different, and you know it. Cows is different from cotton.”
“Six cows dyin’ in one year? That ain’t normal.”
And so on. Most farmers around there had livestock, and some of it died each year. It wasn’t anything special, although six cows in one year was pretty bad. I paid up and we headed out into the Square. Another building had the Post Office, a smaller store that sold fabric and things for the ladies (owned by Mr. Dawson, who thought his current building was getting too small for the woman stuff) and the Valley Bank. That’s also where the town switchboard was. On the third side of the square was the Morris Hotel, which actually did have a few rooms. But mostly it was known for the downstairs. Daddy spent a lot of time there playing cards with whoever might be there. And drinking.
Of course, there were a few other streets with houses and such, and the First Presbyterian, though it didn’t really matter if you were Presbyterian or not. Catholic folks went a bit farther up the road, to the church with the steeples and the loud bells that never rang. So I took my little brother and sister and headed through the square, past the big bronze cannon that had last been shot at a bunch of Rebs who had tried to break through Old Man Smith’s line (so he said) and past Dawson’s onto Route 18, heading east. (Route 31 went south, to Maryland, I guess.) The road went downhill – there’s lots of hills in that region – until it came to a stone bridge that crossed the Tassanaqua River. There’s a sign there, one of those blue ones that honors the spot where Major Harrison William Corley had led his men to safety from the Rebs, in three wooden boats, across the Tassanaqua. That’s our fame, right there, where our town got its name. But even I know that the Tassanaqua ain’t the Delaware, and you ain’t about to find Major Harrison William Corley in any history book. We’re the only ones who need him, I guess.
So we got to the bridge, and my heart stopped. It was the only way home, see. And there in the middle of the bridge was a bunch of older kids. And it the middle of them was Sonny Bortman. A couple thoughts went through my head: Maybe if we hide they’ll go away.
“Well, if it isn’t Lard Ass.”
You know, it’s funny how bullies have this sixth sense. They know when their prey is close by. They can smell your fear. And as you’re standing there, looking stupid, trying to figure out an escape, they’ve already spotted you. The way Sonny Bortman spotted me just then. As for the nickname he had for me, well….to Sonny Bortman anybody who was not an athlete was a Lard Ass. Now I really wanted to get away. I thought of running, or the really crazy idea: The Tassanaqua can’t be that cold yet. The water’s fast, but Percy Fuller was a real bad swimmer….
“Are you taking your babies home, Lard Ass?” he called. “Your little baby brother and sister?” He was already coming closer, the same happy smile on his face that he always had when he saw me coming. His buddies were already behind me, to keep me from running, I guess. Now Sonny stood in front of me. I could smell his breath, and it was a smell I knew very well, though not from Sonny. Right then, he smelled like Daddy.
“What a cute little brother you’ve got.” He said everything with a grin. “Just think, boys! If Coach hadn’t called off practice, we’d have missed Lard Ass here.” His buddies laughed at that, and so did his little flock of girlfriends. Suddenly he stopped smiling. “So, does your little brother know how to swim?”
“Don’t do it, Sonny.” I tried to sound threatening, which was stupid because I knew that Sonny wouldn’t be afraid of me at all, and I couldn’t sound anything but scared. All I could do was tremble as Sonny grabbed Billy by the shoulders and picked him up. Billy screamed, and Hannah – who had more guts than either of her older brothers – ran over and tried stomping on Sonny’s toes. This only made him laugh. “Hey, keep a leash on your sister, Lard Ass, or she’s going over next.” Still holding my brother, he took two steps toward the railing of the bridge.
“CAR!” yelled one of Sonny’s girlfriends. He put Billy down again but kept a grip on his shirt as a car, a big Studebaker, came around the bend and rumbled across the bridge. I was praying that the car would stop, but the young couple inside only smiled and waved and kept going. I glanced at the car’s rear as it pulled away. Maryland plates. Out for a drive. My heart sank as the car, my salvation, disappeared around the bend, heading into Corley’s Crossing. Sonny laughed and hoisted my brother up again. More screaming from Billy and Hannah. He carried Billy to the railing and held him up, high, over the railing. Thirty feet below my brother’s kicking legs the water of the Tassanaqua rushed along, very fast. I thought of the flat stretch of river half a mile downstream, where Percy Fuller had come bobbing to the surface….
“Stop it!” I screamed, and tried to run at Sonny. One of his buddies was right behind me, and he grabbed my shirt, keeping me from going anywhere. All of his friends were strong. I wriggled and fought, but it was no use. I screamed every foul word at Sonny I knew, and with a drunk for a Daddy, that was a lot. A sly sort of grin came to Sonny’s mouth.
“Kiss your Mommy with that mouth?”
I froze. No one ever mentioned her. Not since last winter, when Daddy had driven the car onto a patch of ice. He still hadn’t got a new car. He hadn’t got a new Mommy, either.
“Hey, Sonny, pickin’ on little kids ain’t our style.” It was one of his girlfriends talking. Helen Davis, her name was. Prettiest girl in school, and Sonny wanted her, he wanted her real bad. She hadn’t given in yet, so basically anything she wanted, he did. He gave her a glance, like he was going to tell her off. She just glared back at him as she puffed one of his Pall Malls. Then he grinned at me and carried Billy back over to where Hannah and I were standing.
“I guess it’s your lucky day, Lard Ass.” He grinned again. “Your brother didn’t have an accident, and you don’t have to do your homework tonight.” I should have seen it coming, but I only froze as he ripped my books – all of them – from my hands and threw them, as hard as he could, over the bridge and into the Tassanaqua. He had a great arm, Sonny Bortman. Whether it was a football or my schoolbooks. He was still laughing when they went away. I was so shocked it took me a few minutes to start crying. My first lucky break of the day was that Sonny and his friends didn’t stay to watch.
So we went home – or at least most of the way. We lived way up in the hills above the river valley, above Corley’s Crossing. It took about an hour and a half to walk the six miles, one way, every day, more than that in winter. But on this day I stopped short of home, at the spot where Coburn Lane turned up the hill toward our house a half-mile up.
“Aren’t you coming?” Hannah asked. I shook my head. “You’ll get in trouble,” she cautioned in that sing-song voice little kids use for saying just that.
“I’ll be in trouble no matter when I get home,” I said. “Billy, do the chores. Hannah, help Daddy with dinner.” They shrugged and kept walking toward home; I knew they’d be fine. I continued on up the hill, walking in the crisp October air toward Dandridge Knob, the highest hill in the area. Nobody but me ever went up there. You know, it’s funny how folks dream about going to places that are far away, but they never see places just a few miles from their own doorstep. I lived all my life in the shadow of Dandridge Knob, and yet I was the only one who ever went all the way up. I walked on, after the paved road gave way to dirt and gravel. It was quite a climb, up that old hill, but the forest was beautiful. It had been a warm autumn up till then, so the leaves were only beginning to turn. But up here in the hills, the leaves were already in full color. Big city folks say that turning leaves are like fireworks. I wouldn’t know, but I bet fireworks are sure pretty.
As I walked, the forest thinned out, and then it ended completely. There was another half-mile or so to the top. Up there were meadows and fields that in spring and summer were covered with wild flowers, but now they were just tall grass. As I got closer, I saw the three giant apple trees, each a radiant orange that looked like fire as they caught the setting sun. The air up here smelled fresh and pure and young – different from the old air in Corley’s Crossing. I headed for the trees.
The road – which was now just two wheel ruts – swung around in a loop, for some reason, and then headed toward the top again. At that time of day, at that time of year, it was almost as if the road went right into the sun itself. The road went right up into that big ball of red fire, and at the top it was so bright that you could see for miles and miles. Down there, the way I came, you could see parts of the Tassanaqua as it wound through the valley. There was another river whose name I didn’t know, a bit further away. In a very far valley you could see Everett’s Corners, the closest town to Corley’s Crossing. I’d been there once. Yes, it was some view from up there on Dandridge Knob. But the view wasn’t why I came.
Up there on that lonely hill, in the lengthening shadow of the three oaks, was a church. Not a church anybody ever went to anymore; nobody went there. It was a ruined building, just four walls holding up what was left of a steeple. Some spots you could still see flecks of white paint, but mostly it was worn away. The grass grew two feet high, right up to the walls of that old church. I walked up there and looked at the front of that lonely building, whose front door was hanging on by the one hinge that hadn’t rusted through completely yet. Inside you could see rotting pews and what was left of a brass baptismal font. That was about all I knew of the inside; I never went in. Rusty nails, and all that. I guess you could say that even there, alone, I was a coward. I headed around back of the church, where an old iron fence, rusting away and half toppled over, wrapped around the church graveyard.
There were maybe thirty stones there. Some of them had been worn clean, so you couldn’t read the names. The others were jostled about, leaning as though they’d fall over one day but hadn’t quite got round to it. I suppose they’ll eventually get to it; nothing stands up forever. Anyway, this is why I liked to come up to the top of Dandridge Knob. I suppose you think it’s weird, me wanting to hang around where a bunch of dead people were; well, I sure wasn’t having a good time with the living. I liked to look at those old stones, to read the names on them. I tried to picture them, to think what their lives had been like. Pretty hard, I guess.
Here was Jonathan Ellers, 1832-1864. One stone for him, none others named Ellers. In fact, I didn’t know of anybody named Ellers anywhere in Corley’s Crossing. Jonathan must have been the last one. Here was an entire family: Eli Walling, 1803-1866. Wife Caroline, 1807-1860. Son Samuel, 1824-1862. Daughter Ophelia, 1828-1849. Daughter Cordelia, 1830. An entire family lived and died, and now they were buried there on top of Dandridge Knob. Almost all the men buried there died between 1861 and 1865, and most died in their twenties and thirties. Even I knew enough history to know that this was a Civil War graveyard. There was one stone that was quite a bit bigger than the others, and this one was the least weathered. It was carved out of black stone – granite, I suppose. The others were all white limestone or something. There was only one name on that stone, the family name: Dunmore. No other names. I wondered how many Dunmores were under that stone.
I sat there in that lonesome graveyard as the sun dipped toward the horizon. I watched a lot of sunsets up there. The one that night was as pretty as any, I suppose. Usually I went home just after the sun dropped away completely. If I stayed longer there wasn’t enough light to see my way. But that night I knew that there was going to be a full moon, or close to it. As long as it wasn’t cloudy, and there weren’t any in sight. I thought I’d stay a bit later than usual, maybe to see the first few stars. I also knew that the later I stayed, the more likely it was that Daddy would either be passed out or gone to the Morris. I was in no hurry to get home.
So that’s how I remember it: when the second star appeared, I heard the footsteps behind me. A crunching on the dried grass, a snapped twig or two. I froze, knowing that if I tried to hide I would only make noise and betray my hiding place. So I shrunk down, behind the tombstone where I was. This one was pretty big, so I would be able to hide behind it for a little while. It was in the shape of the Cross, and it was the only one up there shaped like that. Pretty strange for a church graveyard. The name on it was Aloysius Moss, 1801-1868. He was the oldest one buried there – I mean, the last one to die. Below his name something was carved in Latin. I suppose he was the church’s last Parson.
I sat in the shadow of the Parson’s Cross, listening to the approaching footsteps. My heart was pounding and my tongue dried out. My skin got all cold, and I began to shiver. The only thought in my mind was that Sonny Bortman had followed me up here. God knows what he would do to me in the dark in a forgotten graveyard. I pictured things that he would never do in a school bathroom or on the bridge over the Tassanaqua with his friends watching….It had to be him, come to find me. He had followed me, wondering where I was going, what I was doing. The footsteps came closer, closer. I knew that soon, very soon, I would hear his cheerful voice calling out: “LLLAAARRRDDD AAASSSSSS!” And I would see Sonny’s smile, that nice smile of his, in a graveyard in the moonlight. But I saw none of these things; the footsteps stopped, just a bit away. Then, as I held my breath, I heard a clicking noise – then again – then again. I should have recognized that sound, but to hear it there, at that time, made it unrecognizable. And then a tinkling sound as the music box played its tune. The clicking had been Whoever winding it up. That was when I knew it wasn’t Sonny Bortman; the kid had a stone ear. The tune was familiar, and as I tried to place it I heard, first, humming – a girl’s humming. And then, as I hid behind a stone cross under which a Parson had been sleeping for eighty years, I listened to a girl begin to sing:
“Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
Which I gaze on so fondly today,
Were to change by tomorrow, and fleet in my arms,
Like fairy gifts fading away….”
I can’t imagine anyone’s voice being that pure, that beautiful. It could only be one of those – what did Mr. Duchamp call them? — Seraphs of Heaven. As she sang her song, I knew that I had to try and look at her. Thinking to be easy and lithe on my feet, I turned and stood, moving as slowly as I could. I didn’t want to scare her….but then I received a reminder that I rarely get what I want, and I seem to always get what I don’t. The base of the tombstone on which I was leaning had already been crumbling, and under the weight of my foot it finally gave way. The stone itself didn’t fall, but it might as well have. The noise seemed to echo for miles, and my heart stopped. For some reason I tried to go silent again, which was stupid I suppose. She called out then.
“Who’s there?” She had a beautiful voice that sounded like it should be forever raised in song. I could tell that she was young. I had a quick thought that she might be one of Sonny Bortman’s girlfriends, but surely none of them would hike up here, and there was really nothing to be gained by hiding. So I stood up and looked. That was the first time, and the last, in my life that my breath was taken away.
She was a little taller than me. In the fading light her hair looked golden, but I couldn’t be sure. It fell softly around her shoulders in loose, soft curls. Her skin was very fair, and her lips were full and red, as red the only ruby I’d ever seen, the one Mommy still has with her. Her eyes were as black as the coal the Daddy dug out of the ground. She was wearing a gown of white cloth. It might have been silk, I guess. What did I know about cloth?
“You look scared,” she said. The only sounds I could hear were her voice, the music box, and my own pounding heartbeat. “You shouldn’t be scared. Not here, not now.”
I stood there for a few seconds before I found my voice. “I’m not scared,” I choked out. My voice was never impressive, but right then it really sounded bad. High pitched, scratchy – nothing impressive at all. “I just never see anybody up here.”
“You’re never up here this late,” she said back. “Nobody ever comes up here this late.”
“I usually go home before the sun goes down.”
“Why didn’t you tonight?”
For some reason I wanted to tell this girl everything….and yet I knew that I shouldn’t, not yet. I just shrugged. “I guess I didn’t want to go home yet.”
“That is sad,” she said, and I could hear sadness in her voice. “No one should want to stay up here, in a graveyard in the dark, instead of being home.”
“You don’t know my home.” I probably sounded meaner than I should have. “But why are you here? Don’t you have a home?”
She didn’t answer. Instead, she picked up the music box and closed it. The song ended in the middle of a phrase. “I suppose you’ll be leaving now,” she said finally.
“I still don’t want to go home,” I said. I didn’t want to be alone again….and for some reason, I didn’t want her to be alone.
“Why?” She gazed, unblinking, at me. Again I felt a bit defensive, and again I shrugged.
“My Daddy will be mad at me when I get home. I have to wait until he’s asleep.”
“Does he beat you?” Somehow she seemed to be looking into my soul….
I shook my head.
“Does he ignore you?”
Blood rose to my cheeks again. She was still looking straight into my eyes, and I had to look away. I didn’t have to say anything. I had already answered her.
“That is even sadder,” she said. “Daddies should be perfect.”
“Is yours?” I didn’t regret asking this.
“He was,” she said simply. I felt a little bad then. If he was dead, which is what she seemed to be saying.
“I come here a lot,” I said, wanting to talk about something else. “But I always go home earlier.”
“That is smart. Bad things happen after dark.” She turned and knelt down at one of the graves. “Bad things,” she said again. I heard her whisper something else, something I heard as “That is when they come for you.” But she fell silent. After a moment she rewound the music box.
“I should probably go home now,” I said. Truth was, I felt a little uneasy right then. There was something about this girl.
“Why did you come up here?” she asked, giving no indication of having heard me speak. She sat down there in the grass looking at the front of the stone before her. The name had long since worn off; only a Cross in relief remained.
I should have gone home, but here was someone talking to me. So I sat down beside her and told her everything, all the stuff that had happened that day, from Mr. Duchamp to Sonny Bortman. I told her a lot about him, stuff I haven’t even told you.
“I’ve known people like him,” she said when I had finished. “They make the world a hateful place.” I nodded. Now there was no light save the moon and the stars, no sound except crickets and the hooting of the owls. I really needed to be getting home, but still I sat there. Time just didn’t seem to matter while I sat with her. After a few minutes of silence that was perfect she reached up and set her music box on top of the gravestone. Then she stood up and offered me her hand. “Will you dance with me?”
It was a strange question, and perfectly natural. I took her hand and stood as she lifted the lid of the music box. As the tune began to play, I said weakly, “I don’t know how to dance.” She only smiled as she silenced me with a finger to my lips. Wordlessly she took my hand and placed it on her hip and then took my other hand and held it at arm’s length. In this way she guided me through my first waltz. My feet stumbled a bit, but gradually I think I figured it out. How strange, I suppose, waltzing in a graveyard to the tune of a tinkly music box, but to me it was an orchestra in the finest of all dance halls. So I danced for the first time, there, under the stars.
We waltzed until the music box slowed and stopped. We both knew that I had to go home, and neither of us spoke of it. I kissed her hand – it seemed the right thing to do – and then, without saying anything, I turned to go. When I was a short distance away from her, I heard her speak again:
I told her my name, and then I left. I knew I would be back the next night.
The next day was pretty normal, I guess. I took Billy and Hannah to school, having managed to mostly avoid Daddy. He had already left for the Morris when I got home, and luckily for me he went straight to bed and slept well past the time we left the house. When I got to school, I ran the fourth floor gauntlet without even getting my books dumped, which was amazing in and of itself.
Mr. Duchamp came to English class looking like he was under the weather, which was born out when he grabbed a pile of books, handed them out – I got Tom Jones – and barked, “Read!” Then he sat down and said not a single word the rest of the hour. When I left his room I saw that he was sweating a little more than usual and that he had cut his neck shaving. I could see the little scrap of toilet paper down by the collar of his shirt, his blood turning it purple.
I got through the day as usual; I got towel-whipped in gym class, and all the rest of it. I also got punished by every teacher for having lost all my books, and I got double homework. (And Daddy would be receiving a bill for the books. Good. I always got the mail before he did.) I didn’t care, I didn’t even pay attention. I could only think of Emily. It made for some embarrassing moments when I got called on in class, but I was used to that. I was happier thinking of Emily than anything else. Is that love?
On the way home nobody was on the bridge when we got there. It had been one of the rare days when I didn’t run into Sonny Bortman. The two times I had seen him I had managed to get away before his sixth sense keyed in on me. My luck that day was something, all right. When we got home I helped Billy and Hannah crash through the chores, and then I went up to the Civil War graveyard.
The light was fading when I got there. Emily was nowhere to be seen, so I waited a while, watching what was left of the sunset. The sky went through every shade of red I could name: amber, maroon, crimson….I guess more than that. I don’t know too many shades of red. And then, just as the last sliver of sunlight slipped away leaving behind a series of deepening blues, I heard footsteps behind me.
“Hello,” she said, saying my name. “Hello Emily”, I said back. We talked for a few short minutes while I told her more about Sonny, about Daddy. And then, again, we waltzed. As the night went on and on and we danced and danced, the tinny tune of the music box faded away to the back of our minds. In its place was music: the sad song of the graveyard. I felt it moving through me, and so did she. We were children, her and me, and love was ours. The first love in all the world.
And then I kissed her and I went home.
I went up to the graveyard almost every night to see her. I asked for her last name, which she told me: her name was Emily Fielding. I think there’s some Fieldings in one of the valleys around. Not in school, though. But there’s a lot of folks not in school. She didn’t want to tell me where she lived; she said her home was worse than mine. What a thing that must be….but I didn’t really care. I just wanted to love and to dance with Emily Fielding.
It was during this time that Mr. Duchamp came down with a blood infection and died. Very surprising but I didn’t care – he was a lout. It gave me secret pleasure that whatever he had always been typing would never be finished. Doc Napoleon decided that he’d cut himself on the neck too many times with a dirty blunt razor. Such a shame, everybody thought, until they finished putting the dirt on the grave. Then back to normal, especially for me. Mrs. Nelson, who took over for him, hated me and as far as I was concerned picked up where Mr. Duchamp left off.
The next week – it was Thursday – I went up to the graveyard and waited, watching the sunset. Before the sun was gone, I heard he footsteps. Eagerly I jumped up and turned around and yelled, “You’re early!”
“Early for what, Lard Ass?”
My heart froze. Sonny Bortman had come to Dandridge Knob.
He stood about twenty feet away, grinning his usual grin. How I hated that grin! With his left foot he kicked absently at a toppled gravestone. Obadiah Milton, 1811-1862. He had his hands stuffed in the pockets of his letter jacket.
“I always wondered what was up here,” he said. “Now I know. A bunch of dead folks and a church. Interesting.” For a second he sounded like he might actually be interested. He grinned again, and the moment ended. “Say, Lard Ass, is your Mommy up here?”
Now I had been tormented by Sonny Bortman all my life, and I had never stood up to him. Not once. But at that moment, he was in my place. I came here to get away from him, from everything. In that moment Sonny became an invader in my home. The anger was like nothing I had ever felt before. It burned in me like a gasoline fire.
“You followed me up here,” I said, my voice finally finding the tone I had wanted all those years. “And you know where my Mommy is, you son of a bitch.”
His smile vanished, just like that. “I came up here for the hell of it, Lard Ass.” He kept his hands in his pockets, but I could see that he had balled them into fists. “Finding you is my good luck. And I do know where your Mommy is. Helen and I made it there.” That was when he jumped forward. I could see poison in his eyes. This time he meant to do far worse than throw my schoolbooks into the Tassanaqua.
He had to jump a few gravestones to get at me; that slowed him down. I grabbed a thick stick that was at my feet, knowing that I only had one chance….and there it was. A set of gnarled tree roots that he wouldn’t have known were there grabbed his feet, much as they had grabbed mine the first time I’d been up there and I hadn’t been running. Those roots brought him down right in front of me. To my great good luck, he struck his head on one of the stones (Josephine Manley, 1823-1848). It didn’t knock him out or anything, but it gashed up that face of his pretty good. I took the opportunity, and swung my stick and hit him as hard as I could on the back of his head. Next to Emily’s voice and our music box, the grunt Sonny gave just then was the most perfect sound I ever heard. Then I ran, hard, going around the church and heading for the road down the hill. I never ran so fast in my life. My legs felt like they were powered by the sun, or something….In my mind I apologized to Emily, because I wouldn’t see her that night.
But then I was grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground. When I turned over there was Sonny’s bleeding face. No grin this time. Just his teeth, bared in hate.
“You think you’re going to outrun the best quarterback Corley’s Crossing has ever seen?” He was almost shouting; spittle dripped from his mouth as he said each word. He ended the sentence by punching me in the stomach. He was strong, Sonny was. My breath was almost gone.
“You think you can hit Sonny Bortman?” Another punch. The wind did go out of me then. And the pain, oh, the pain….
“I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, you son of a drunk Lard Ass.” He said nothing more; he just pounded me with his fists. He hit me in the stomach, the chest, and the face and head. My nose and lips bled, my ears rang. I knew I’d have a black eye. I tried to keep silent, to be a man; but finally I had to yell. I couldn’t help it. At least I tried to yell.
When he finally stopped, he turned me over and shoved my face into the ground. The dirt and the grass gave me lots of new little cuts. Then he was gone, and he didn’t say another word. He had to get hom and get his rest. Big game tomorrow.
I don’t know how I got up. Not a single part of my body didn’t hurt. I began to stagger home – when I noticed how dark it was. The sun had gone down a while ago. I didn’t want to turn and look, but I had to. I had no choice.
There was Emily. She had seen it.
I couldn’t stay. My love had seen me, the true me, the failure. I couldn’t look at her. The tears stung my swelling eyes, but I let them come as I ran home.
When I got home I cleaned up – I used the whole bottle of Calamine – and went to bed. Daddy wasn’t home, of course. He probably didn’t even miss me. In bed my body stiffened up – it would be a sore few days. But since it was me, no one wonder where the bruises came from. My reputation had its good points.
So I lay in bed, listening to the breeze rustle the leaves. I cried a lot, my thoughts going from hatred of Sonny to the disaster of having seen Emily. My tears soaked my pillows, and my nose ran. Just my luck. The hours passed and I didn’t sleep. All I could think of was Emily. I got beat to within an inch of my life, and all I could think of was a girl. Is that love?
I don’t know what time it was that I heard the scratching at my window. I kept it open until November usually; I liked a really cold room. It was a faint scratching, then not so faint. A bug, or a bird maybe. Then I learned her voice say my name. I opened my eyes, and she was there. Emily. And she was inside, not outside the window. I could only blink in disbelief. The moon must have been really bright, because she seemed to be glowing. She came around the bed and knelt down beside me. She placed her hand on my forehead and I thrilled to her smooth, cool skin.
“May I?” she asked as she drew back the blankets. I couldn’t even consider saying no. In disbelief I watched as she crawled into my bed. Then I was in her embrace. Her touch was like ice, but it was a cool night. “He is an evil person,” she said. “I would give anything for that not to have happened to you.” I lay perfectly still as she ran her fingers the length of my body. With her other hand she placed the music box on the shelf above my head. “You won’t have to worry about Sonny Bortman tonight,” she whispered as she lifted the lid of the music box. “Not anymore.” Our song began to play as her lips met mine. Very strange feeling, with a fat lip. I trembled as she gently pulled my underwear aside, and she held me even closer. She kissed me again, and then she taught me something that was not a waltz. That night we danced a different dance.
She was gone when I woke up. At breakfast Daddy looked at me but didn’t comment. The same thing happened at school, where everybody was excited about the game that night against Mocksville. I walked through the day in utter ignorance, not even noticing when they laughed and pointed. Nothing mattered to me anymore. Not even Sonny Bortman, who came to school looking somewhat pasty, like maybe he’d eaten something rotten. That night I went straight up to Dandridge Knob and waited for Emily. When she came, we danced and danced, first the waltz and then our newer dance, the one I had learned the night before.
On Monday I got to school and learned that the football team had lost big on Friday, their worst loss in years. Since I really didn’t care, it didn’t bother me. If anything, it made me happy. Enough of these guys had bullied me that I was actually glad they lost – especially when I learned that Sonny Bortman had played the worst game of his life and had left the game sick before halftime. In fact, he was still sick, because he wasn’t there that day.
For some reason, Daddy didn’t go to the Morris for three days straight, so I couldn’t go to the graveyard. He just sat in his chair, a glass in his hand – sometimes full, more often empty. A few times I saw him reading a book; it was Huck Finn. Mommy’s favorite book, which she’d read to me several times. I remembered then that next week was their anniversary. Sitting there, alone, quiet, sober – I felt sorry for him for the first time. Emily came to my bed that night, and I told her about it. She said how sad it was, that Daddy’s heart was with Mommy and he would never be okay until he went to join her. “Sometimes people can’t love others when their first love is gone,” she said. That made sense, I guess.
When Daddy came to breakfast the next morning, he just sat and stared at the table. He didn’t look well; he was pale and he hadn’t even changed his clothes from yesterday’s. It didn’t bother me when he left the table after eating half his eggs; after all, I could only do scrambled. He liked them up. Another example of my uselessness.
As the week went on a dark mood seemed to set in at school. Sonny Bortman, everybody’s hero, wasn’t getting any better. Doc Napoleon was stumped, though he did think that it was the same blood thing that had done in Mr. Duchamp. Probably a mosquito; they’d been bad this year, supposedly. On Wednesday, thirteen days after Sonny had beaten me, Doc Napoleon sent an urgent request to Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Philadelphia for specialists. They were going to have to take him somewhere. Everyone in school was, of course, praying for his quick recovery. Everyone but me, that is. He had it coming.
Daddy finally went back to the Morris a few days later, still looking unwell but not able to resist the pull of the bottle, and all his were empty. I went to the graveyard then. Emily and I sat for a long while, talking about nothing in particular. Then she asked me if Sonny had given me any trouble.
“No,” I said. “He hasn’t even been in school. Turns out he’s very sick.”
“That’s good,” she said, sounding satisfied.
“Nobody else thinks so.”
“This way, he isn’t doing anything to you, my love.” After that we waltzed in silence while the stars twinkled above; somehow the cold air of late October felt perfect when I was in her arms. But for some reason I found the silence uncomfortable. So I spoke again.
“Will you tell me about your family?”
I felt her shift, sort of stiffening a bit. But she kept on waltzing.
“My Mommy and Daddy are dead,” she said. Her voice sounded very small then.
“Oh,” I managed to say as blood rushed to my cheeks. “I’m sorry,” I added, feeling very inadequate.
“You wouldn’t have known,” she said as she stepped forward and laid her head on my shoulder. Her skin was so cool, and yet being with her made me feel so warm…. “You should come live with me,” she whispered. “I am all alone.”
I stepped back and looked deep into her eyes. “Who takes care of you?” I asked.
“No one,” she answered, telling me what I already knew. Her voice was sad, so sad; a tone of urgency crept in. “I am alone, my love, so completely alone. Won’t you come and live with me?”
Such a strange thing. She was giving me a chance at everything I had ever dreamed of – someone who would love me and only me, someone I could love in return. Someone that no person, not any one of the Sonny Bortmans of the world, could take away from me. I was offered the chance to leave the world behind and take refuge from it in Emily’s arms. But I thought then of my family. Billy and Hannah still needed me; maybe even somehow Daddy did as well.
“I can’t.” My words were lifeless, falling like a limb from a dead tree. “My family….” I began, but trailed off. In that moment when the chance was offered, I couldn’t bring myself to hate Daddy, or to leave him so alone. “I’m not alone yet,” I finally choked.
I thought that she would be angry or hurt. I expected her to cry, to slap me, to turn away in rage, anything. She did nothing of the sort. She only smiled, her sad lonesome smile, as she cupped my face in her hands and touched her forehead to mine.
“You will be alone,” she said, using my full name. “And I will be here when you are. You’ll come to me.” She kissed me, and then she turned and walked away. A mist was forming, up there on Dandridge Knob, and into it Emily Fielding vanished. And then I went home.
When I got to school the next day everywhere I looked I saw crying faces. The entire school was in mourning, and it took only a few minutes for me to learn why. It turned out that they wouldn’t be taking Sonny Bortman to Pittsburgh after all; he had died during the night. Rumor had it his body had been white and dry when his Mommy went in to check on him. They ended up canceling school that day, which made me happy since it was Friday. There was talk about a quarantine, if it was spread by the mosquitos. But nobody else had it, and lots of folks had been bit. Anyway, I didn’t care. I took Billy and Hannah home and started some chores. Daddy wasn’t up yet; it must’ve been some night at the Morris. I looked in on him, sleeping away….
I checked the icebox and found some stuff that we would be needing, so I grabbed some money from Daddy’s dresser – he let me do that for groceries – and then I headed back into town, to Dawson’s. Of course, when I got there the old guys were sitting outside. Their pipes filled the air with smoke, and of course, their discussion was about him.
“It’s a damn shame.”
“He was a good boy. Strong.”
“Great arm. Could’ve made the Majors.”
“Yes sir! We’d’ve had one of them scout fellas right here in Corley’s Crossing.”
“Not now. Damn shame.”
And so on. I went to the counter to pay. Mr. Dawson was wiping his glasses on his apron – fool thing to do, the apron was filthy – when he saw me, sighed, and waddled over to the cash register, a giant machine made of gleaming brass.
“So, old Jack still sends you for everything but his whiskey, eh?” Jack was my Daddy, but his name was John. Mr. Dawson didn’t even try to hide what he thought of him. “Not a proper thing for a young one like yourself.”
“I can manage.”
“Sure.” He was taking his damn time ringing this stuff up. “Too bad about the Bortman kid, eh?” He clicked his tongue.
“You guess?” He looked at me through those thick glasses. “The kid’s dead, boy!”
“Sonny and me didn’t get along.”
“Sonny and you didn’t get along.” He sounded almost mystified. He shook his head. “That’s too bad. He was a fine lad. Eight fifty seven.” I handed him the money and headed for the door just as the siren sounded. When I got to the door I saw Sheriff Swaine drive by, heading for the Tassanaqua Bridge and probably beyond. Moments later, the town ambulance went by the same way. In the passenger seat, I could see, was Mr. Gibson. He was the retired Doctor – Doc Napoleon had replaced him – and now Mr. Gibson only went along on ambulance rides if somebody was dead, to sign the papers and such. First Sonny, now someone else – a busy day for Mr. Gibson. Of course this supplanted Sonny Bortman as the topic of old geezer conversation.
“Wonder who it is?”
“Could be Ralph Crutchley.”
“Yup. Old Ralph is gettin’ on in years.”
“Wife died four years ago.”
“Yup. Poor old Ralph.”
I went home and found that it wasn’t Old Ralph Crutchley. Sheriff Swaine was putting Billy and Hannah into his car; Mr. Gibson was pulling the sheet over Daddy. I walked up to the Sheriff, who took off his hat. Respect, I guess.
“I’m sorry, son.” The Sheriff spoke in a slow drawl, to keep from having to spit out his tobacco. Funny that there was Daddy, dead, and I was thinking about the Sheriff’s tobacco. “Found by little sister there. She called us. Too bad you didn’t. Hell of a thing for a little girl to see. We’ll be taking you to your uncle’s house.” That would be Uncle Virgil, Mommy’s brother. “Don’t know how long you’ll stay there. Up to Judge Rineheart. Come on. Get your things later.”
I looked up at Sheriff Swaine. He was getting old, he’d fought in some war in France, and I knew he didn’t give a damn about Daddy.
“I want to see him.”
I could see in his eyes that he didn’t think that was a good idea, but he just nodded quickly, like the idea was distasteful and he wanted nothing to do with it. I didn’t care. I went over to the stretcher and stood there as Mr. Gibson lifted the sheet. I looked at Daddy’s face.
They say it looks like sleep, but there’s something more – it looked permanent. Looking at him I saw that he was really gone. Daddy just lay there, but I knew he was someplace else. He was very pale, almost white. I suppose it could have been some strange blood disease – but I knew better. I saw the two little marks on his neck – but looking at his face, I knew that he was finally with Mommy again.
“Come on,” the Sheriff said. “Need to go. Forms to fill out. Gotta wake up Judge Rineheart.’ So I went with him, and Billy and Hannah, to Uncle Virgil’s. It was a while away, a couple towns over. There was a nice funeral – they put him next to Mommy. I guess they were going to put me in a different school, where they could hate me in a different way.
A month went by, I guess. Maybe more, maybe less, I don’t know. There was a mosquito scare, but nobody else got sick and there were a couple of frosts anyway. I paid even less attention to the classes than I had at Corley’s Crossing. The other kids, saying things like “He’s got no Mommy or Daddy,” didn’t matter at all. Hannah stopped speaking to me entirely; she was blaming me for Daddy’s death, and what made that hurt was that in a real way she was right. Nothing mattered, because my heart was in a graveyard on a distant hill. On the morning I decided to go, it snowed for the first time, but it didn’t matter. I took Billy and Hannah to school and said Goodbye to them. They really didn’t need me. Only one person did, and I was going to her. It was a cold walk, and it took the entire day. I ate something I’d bought with the dollar I’d stole from Uncle Virgil. I hope he doesn’t mind. The sun had just disappeared when I came at last to my true home, Dandridge Knob. I knew where I’d find her.
“You’ve come at last!” She smiled through her tears.
“I had too,” I replied. “It was you, wasn’t it?”
She nodded. “Are you mad?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. :I couldn’t be. Not at you, my love.” I stepped into her embrace. “Take me with you,” I whispered into her ear. “I’m ready.” She lifted the lid of the music box, and we danced one last time before I joined her forever. Her lips – warm and ruby red – moved to my neck. It only hurt a bit, for a moment. And then she took me down, down to her home. There we slept for all the days thereafter; from there we rose at night. Sometimes I missed the Sun. Sometimes I missed Billy and Hannah, though I was able to follow them a little bit as they grew. They turned out fine; some do escape Corley’s Crossing. Others make it their homes in life and in death. I was one of those, more so than most.
Always, though, I missed Mommy and, now, Daddy too. But in Emily’s arms, there in the dark under the earth or up there as we danced, I found true warmth that most people like me never know. Of course, that strange blood disease came and went throughout the county. It had to. But somehow it only struck the ones who needed it. (And the occasional cow or goat.) We had our sustenance.
When we sleep during the day, sometimes I awaken and look up. I can see through things now. I look up and read the letters carved on the front of the stone, which had fallen face down years ago. No stone will ever bear my name, but I didn’t need it. The one above is memorial enough.
Emily Fielding, 1842-1860.
We all have our places. Mine is a Civil War graveyard, touched by golden rays of the setting Sun and the silver beams of the Moon. There, for all time, she and I waltz in the dark….