SYLVIE stood at the hot sink, straight and firm. The window to her left still let in daylight; but she’d already lit the hanging lamp, so she worked in two lights—day and oil—washing in silence.
Rob came up behind her in sockfeet, silent, and stood two feet away and said, half-whispering, “This is my night. Now. My night’s coming on.”
He had not surprised her and she didn’t turn, She washed a gravy boat and said in her normal voice, “A whole lot of nights here lately been yours.”
“But now I’m grown.” He moved a step nearer—just into the edge of Sylvie’s odor, clean and her own but harsh, guarding, thrown out around her in defense of a center of precious life.
She still didn’t turn, though she’d finished the dishes. She kept her hands in the thick dark water and said, “Just sliding through school to the end on grinning and singing—that makes you grown?”
“No,” Rob said. “But something else does—” He’d kept his voice low, but now there was laughter all under it. “Look here,” he said. He stepped back a little, to give her room to see.
Sylvie turned—what seemed refusal, anger, in her face (the blue-black skin, the yellow eye-whites) was plain exhaustion; she was thirty-three: what she’d laid out by day for this one family for twenty-odd years had not been replaced elsewhere by night. She had lived alone a good while now, since her mother’s death; and her company was brief. What was offered her now after twelve hours’ work was a white boy just past seventeen in white shirt, white trousers, white sockfeet, grinning wide—he’d pulled a starched end of his shirttail through his fly and it stuck out, a waggling prow, beneath his laughing. She had watched him prance through similar jokes all the years she’d known him; had bathed the flesh behind the cloth dummy hundreds of times. Sylvie wanted to smile but she closed her eyes and turned her back on him and sidestepped away to dry her hands.
Rob was left with no witness. “This needs pressing,” he said.
Sylvie looked again and laughed. “No such thing,” she said. “It need a rest.” She had always liked him; he had not yet harmed a living soul; the sleeves of his clean shirt were wet to the elbow. “Fool, you don’t put on your shirt till you finished shaving. Talking about grown! I done the last rescue I’m doing on you till you learn manners.”
“Please, Sylvie,” he said. They both were still smiling.
She shook her head No.
Rena called “Oh Rob” from the front of the house.
Sylvie pointed to the voice and lowered her own. “There’s your presser,” she said. “I’m leaving here.” Still smiling, she stripped off her apron and hung it, took up her bucket of old bread and scraps and went out the backdoor before Rob could slow her.
He knew he had lightened the end of her day—she had left like a girl—and he cared enough for her to be glad of that; but he wished she had left him good luck for tonight (she had luck to give, though none of her own). He adjusted his shirttail and buttons to follow her; he’d force her to stand and confer a grudging blessing through the mocking smile that knew him as well, as long, as any.
But his Aunt Rena stood behind him. “Let me see you,” she said.
Her round face crouched. “You’re not ready.”
“I never said I was.”
She looked to the loud clock on the kitchen mantel. “We have to leave here in fifteen minutes.” She saw his shirt. “You have ruined your shirt.”
“It’s water,” he said. “Is Mother coming?”
Rena came forward to him and felt the damp sleeves. “You’ll get rheumatism; this has got to be pressed. Sylvie’s not gone, is she?”
“Yes ma’m,” Rob said. “Is my mother coming?”
Rena’s hand was still on him, the flesh of his full wrist. “You know she can’t.”
“You could stay with Papa.” Rob had stepped back from her. The daylight had failed; he was mostly dark.
Rena tried to see him, a hunt in spring dusk for the one face she loved but had never allowed herself to trust, knowing it must leave; now she knew she’d been right. “Rob, Eva has asked me to go for her. I’ll represent her. People understand.”
“I don’t,” he said.
“You will,” Rena said. “Time’ll see to that.” She took off her light coat and went to the cookstove and laid a hand on it. “Good,” she said. “Hot. I can press that in no time. Hand it to me, quick.” Hard as her hands were, she’d burned herself.
Rob obeyed and waited on the back stoop quietly, accepting her service—determined to refuse her present offer of which this was only the millionth earnest: the whole remainder of her life, time, strength. He would thank her and leave. Or endure this evening, a last hostage to her, his silly commencement—songs, speeches. Commencement truly, of flight toward his life from this dark web of feeders. Soon, soon. His whole body, beautiful and rank with the power of his father and mother, burned to go with a rising roar. He could not believe the house did not hear him—his dying grandfather, his trapped happy mother, Uncle Kennerly and his feist-wife two houses down the street, his desperate aunt ironing twelve feet behind: I do not thank you and I will not stay.
But by half-past ten he had drunk enough lightning to ease the pressure (he had chipped in two dollars the day before, and they’d sent Bip Rollins out the Raleigh road to the best bootlegger south of Petersburg; Bip had hauled back a gallon); so his chief aim now was to fulfill the claim he had made to Sylvie—that the night was his. The object of the aim was completion of his body, use of it all; the means at hand was the girl beside him, Min Tharrington. It was not that simple to Rob now though. He imagined he loved her. She had asked him the question for more than a year— was he serious toward her; what was his plan?—but tonight with the force of his life behind him (seventeen years and two months, lived out minute by minute), the aching needs of all his grand faculties, the freedom of drink, he felt he was ready to answer Yes: he planned on her. “Let’s breathe,” he said. He meant fresh air. They were at a dance by Stallings Mill Pond, a squat little barn of a house thick with smoke and two girls’ sick.
Min nodded consent (would have nodded consent to inhale torchfire); and they went out through cheerful drunks and glazed chaperones, past a few cars ringed with still harder drinkers, to the edge of the pond. She knew they were young; that marriage, at best—what she thought of as life—was some years off, after Rob had grounded himself in money. And she also knew he had never said one word to feed her hope. All the kissing she’d yielded had been yielded to his honesty—his frank unspoken requirement for warmth, lip on lip, which he took or accepted with laughing courtesy, stopping always at the bounds beyond which, however she wanted him, he’d have broken her trust, entered rooms within her which she still well knew were not habitable safely. He had never made her say any kind of No. All of which made her feel thanks and longing hut chiefly worship. He seemed to her simply—as he’d grown all his life in her presence and sight—a form of the one precious heart of things, the satisfied whole toward which parts yearned, requiring and utterly worthy of homage (a born Presbyterian, still Min felt that, and much of her life moved round it; but she could not have thought it out in order or said it). She thought they would stand now and mention the few stars, then move to the usual rock nearby and sit and kiss.
Rob said, “Do you want me to say I love you?”
“I never asked that.”
He wanted to say “You sing it like birdsong”; but what he said was “Please answer me.”
Min did not try to see him; she needed calm. She looked at the pond. A fish jumped once—or a small comet fell: the dark was that thick. She could not see at all. She said, “Any person likes to hear that, sure. I can be set up by meeting old stinking Aunt Cat in the road and hearing her say she’s loved me forever.”
“I’m white,” Rob said, “and I bathed this evening.”
The words seemed to come through a smile so she laughed. Then she turned and touched him—her hand on his arm.
“Don’t do that,” he said, “till you’ve answered me.” He pulled back from her.
“You’re enjoying this, Rob—too much, I think; your own private part. Well, I’ll leave you to it.” She took a step back toward the other drunks.
“You leave now, Min, and you’re gone for good.”
She turned and said “Yes.”
“My answer. My answer is Yes.”
Rob stood awhile, accepting that. Then he said “Come on.”
By then Min could look. He faced the pavilion and carlights struck him. He bore, all on him, the promise of harm. He was rushing now. She could not see the reason (being younger than he, not living in his home); so she thought what, two minutes before, would have seemed beyond her power—This is for him. I am, not in this. She also thought that drink was the cause, but she did not believe it enough to obey him. Nothing in his voice or his outline on the dark gave her anything to trust. “I’m leaving,” she said.
“For good, remember.”
Min gave a little laugh—immensely expensive—and said “So be it” and walked toward the lights. She believed him entirely. His only lie had been just now—the offer to say what could not be forgiven: deceit, for a purpose. All the way uphill she tried to imagine another day, this night survived; but every small hope that rose was stunned by knowledge.
Sylvie’s dog didn’t rise—too late for that—but gave a formal display of threat from her hole in the dirt.
Rob went up to her—to the sound, in darkness—and knelt and put out his hand to find her, the snarling muzzle. Then he thought of her name and said it—”Rowboat”—and ringed her mouth with his fingers tightly.
She had not smelled him for maybe twelve years (then Sylvie had been sleeping in the kitchen at the Kendals’—Mr. Kendal’s first seizure—and had brought Rowboat with her, a neat year-old); but she bore him now and, when he released his grip to stroke her throat, she consumed his odor with quick old gasps but never licked him. Hot, dry.
“What you guarding?” he said.
The sound of a door, a silent wait, no trace of light. A man’s voice said, “You Rowboat. Who you got?”
Rob said “Me” and stood.
“Shit on you.”
Rob laughed and came forward. “Rob Mayfield, Slick.”
“Well, Jesus,” Slick said.
“No, Rob,” he laughed. “Not even a Christian.” He had reached the foot of the four steps and bumped them but waited there.
“What you after?” Slick said. “It’s Friday night.”
Rob said, “I was after Sylvie’s place. I thought this was hers.”
Slick waited. “Is.”
Rob said “Where is she?”
“Right behind him,” Sylvie said.
A fourth voice—behind them all, dark, a woman—laughed once.
Rob said “Hey, Sylvie.”
“You done graduated?”
“Yes,” he said. “Finished school forever.”
“What else you finished?” Sylvie said and also laughed.
“Not a goddamned thing,” Rob said.
She said “Shame.”
The voice that had laughed first came nearer to Sylvie. “Who you hollering at?”
Rob sat on the bottom step to hear himself named. He was suddenly tired.
Sylvie said “My baby. My darling boy,” but she laughed again.
The woman said, “Let me see him, come here, boy—”
Rob could hear they were slightly less drunk than he, but he stood and waited for word from Sylvie.
Silence. Nothing but all their breathing, snoring from Rowboat, a chuckling bird they’d managed to waken.
So he said “Can I come in?”
The woman said “I told you.”
“Shut up,” Slick said. “None of this yours.” Then he said to Sylvie, “I thought you was off work.”
But Sylvie said “Sure” to Rob. No offer of a light to help him up.
Rob thought of his Uncle Kennerly’s saying—”They’re blind to a tumble-turd crawling cross your dinner but can see your britches swell in pitch-black night”—and began to climb, one step at a time, the thin planks swaying treacherous beneath him; the sound up ahead of bodies retreating inward, to wait. His hands out, blind-man, struck the dry door-frame. He hauled himself up onto what seemed the sill; then he wished he had gone on home—safe bed—or had laughed off Min’s highhorse. Failed and sick.
“Step in,” Sylvie said.
There was a light, low and sooty, in a corner. It showed a small table and two women standing by the table—or their dresses: there were two dresses surely; the shoulders and heads rose well into darkness. No sign of a third—Slick’s voice; where was he? Rob thought, “I’m dead. I have walked into murder.”
The woman said “He hungry.”
Sylvie said, “Been hungry since he born. Too late now though. Stove cold as me; Rowboat eat my scraps.”
Rob said “I’m fine.” He still held the doorframe. “Where you hiding Slick?”
“You sick,” Sylvie said. “Grown man—and you sick.”
Rob nodded. “Dying.”
“Don’t be sick in here.”
“Sit down,” the woman said and reached behind her, drew a straight chair to light.
“Can I, Sylvie?” he said.
“You behaving?” Sylvie said.
He extended his arms to the side, palm out, as though good intentions—helplessness, in fact—were visible.
“Come on,” Sylvie said.
Rob thought he would never cross the twelve feet of floor; it multiplied beneath him. He wanted to find Slick—or the hole at least through which Slick had vanished—but needed all his vision and balance for the journey to the chair: rest, however threatened. So he chose something round on Sylvie’s table—mysterious but shining enough for a beacon—and swam toward it. He was in the chair, his hands on the table; the shining thing was a glass bowl. He leaned. A fishbowl. He waited. The fish waved by—glinting, gold. Mine, he thought, Money. He looked back for Sylvie. “Is this Money?” he said (he had given her a goldfish years ago— seven? eight? for Christmas maybe?—and had named it at the time).
Sylvie seemed to nod.
He leaned still nearer. It seemed worth tears. The old fish endlessly rounding its world; a gift from his childhood when all outward gifts had been clear signals, smilingly flown, for visits in the midst of the busy absence of Father (gone, all questions muffled), Mother (in total service to her father). The floor of the bowl was white creek sand from which rose various dark arms of color—shards of glass, bottlenecks; a wilderness he’d made for Money and long since forgot: a fragile gift, perfectly intact. He turned again—”Sylvie, I still give you this.” He meant it as the one good deed of his day.
The woman said, “He Money but he don’t buy me.” Her laugh was a powerful promise of harm.
Rob searched round for Sylvie—vanished like Slick. He looked to the woman, who had come no closer but was clearer now that his eyes had settled to the light in the room. “You know me?” he said.
“All your life,” she said.
He studied her for age. When he first had entered, she’d seemed as tall as Sylvie. Now she seemed a girl—small and breakable, maybe younger than he: light skin, unlined, that stretched on her bones like an unsewn cloth. At the end of one bare arm, her hand worked steadily—opening outward, then silently clamping and knocking her thigh. “How you know me?” he said.
“Your daddy,” she said.
“I seen your daddy.” For an instant, her hand stopped its valving and pointed, vaguely toward town.
“Where is he?” Rob said (he had never seen his father).
“Your eyes,” she said. Again her hand stopped and passed across her own eyes, smiling now.
“That’s all you mean?”
She studied him, unanswering.
“Who are you then?”
“Sylvie’s cousin. Flora.”
“How come I don’t know you?”
“I left this place before you could see good. Leaving it again tomorrow too. Baltimore.” The name renewed her fading smile.
“Then why are you here?”
“My son. He live out with Mama in the country. Making him a visit.”
“How old is he?”
“Fourteen,” she said. “Bo Parker. You know him?”
“Never did,” Rob said.
“He’s growing,” she said.
“I’m grown,” Rob said. “Me and Money here—full-grown, ain’t we, Sylvie?” He asked Sylvie, both in the bafflement of drink and the hope that he’d make her appear now to help him. He did not search round but no answer came. So he had to face Flora again—”Get Sylvie.”
“I’m sick. Please get Sylvie now.”
Flora frowned and said “Don’t puke in here,” but she turned to the far dark corner and said “You Slick. Get Sylvie.”
A dim narrow bed; a black shape rising; Slick’s voice rusty with stupor and anger—”Who need her?”
“Shit on him,” Slick said and fell back down. The bed again vanished.
But when Rob’s eyes opened again, it was round him— a deep clean featherbed piled up around him. He put out slow hands and felt at his sides—iron rails, no Slick, no Sylvie, still dark. He strained to hear—silence, eventually a weak snort filtered up from Rowboat. The rafters above him were still oiled with lamplight. He looked no farther, not from fear now or sickness (they both had passed; how long ago?) but from peace. Sad peace. He only thought of time, his familiar sadness since the age of five when he first saw clearly that he’d been left alone (or with Rena and Sylvie—the same as alone, since he neither wanted nor needed them or any of their offerings, though he learned to thank them and laugh in their presence). All this time I have got to get through. His life (it would never occur to him to stop it; his gifts for joy were natural and large). He could not know he was still child enough to be desperate—no sense of the hope of change or reward, only the iron conviction of entrapment: Here I am, and will stay. How? How? He’d thought for four years now, that the means of escape—or, if not the means, -then at least an ointment—was the touch of bodies other than his own, the right to search particular bodies that swam up toward him in the barren days, bodies he’d endowed with the power to save him, should he touch them entirely, know them at their own extremes of need. He had still not tried—Min had faced him beautifully; he honored her choice but would keep his word and quit her— and now he could only think of rest. Sleep. Home. He could not sleep here; Aunt Rena would be wild with worry already. Could he rise and stand and find his grandfather’s car and crank it and see it safely home, for however short a time (he remembered, and intended his promise to leave) ? He made a first try—his right hand gripped the siderail again and he pulled once upward. Too weakly; he fell back. A squealing of iron.
A face bent over him—Flora’s, her teeth; was she grinning or grinding them? He felt her breath before he heard words —clean and wet. The smell was from elsewhere on her— high and raw.
“But not high, huh?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I needs my fare back to Baltimore then.”
“You’ll get it,” Rob said. “Woods full of money.”
It was a grin—broad. “You couldn’t, could you?”
“Can’t help you,” he said. By then he was smiling, the first time in hours, since taking his diploma.
“Well,” Flora said. Her hand was still working at its little chore. She took a step forward till her thighs touched the rails; then she sat beside him—not right against his body but near, by his knees. “Forget about the money—you still couldn’t, could you?”
Rob thought that he couldn’t but found—in the long slow following time—that he could, very well.