The food cheered him. Spread across the kitchen table’s faded oilcloth and overflowing onto the cabinet counter were fried and baked chicken, ham, and barbecue, and an assortment of vegetables and pickles. The barbecue was homemade: lean pork cooked over coals, highly seasoned, and sliced. He hadn’t eaten barbecue that good since leaving North Carolina and settling, 50 miles from its northeastern tip, in Norfolk.
The hostess beamed. “What are old neighbors for if not to take care of somebody come back after 30 years—Law’, so long—at a time like this?” she replied. She bounced from her chair, surprisingly agile for a plump woman past 70, and stepped into the kitchen, then returned with a large pot of coffee. “Let me heat your cup,” she said. “And while you keep on eating I’m going to get something and show you.”
Their small table had been brought from a bedroom and placed in the hallway at the kitchen door. Other people, perhaps 20, ate in the dining room and parlor, at the big walnut table and at odd ones collected, along with chairs, over the neighborhood. Among them were his mother and two remaining brothers, one younger, one older; he had come from farther than they and arrived later.
Soon the hostess was back. “You recognize this?” she asked, holding a lamp before him.
“I ought to,” he said. “It’s that old foxhorn you used to blow to call us—him and me and your two boys nearest our age—when we didn’t come home from the woods soon enough to suit you or somebody at our house. Well, now, it makes a fine lamp.”
Pleasure shone in her face. “H. J. ‘s wife had it done,” she said. “She got the idea from a picture in a New York-or-somewhere catalogue. I’m mighty proud of it. It was Papa’s horn to start with. Papa loved to go fox-hunting. You could hear him miles away, blowing up his foxhounds.”
The horn was more polished than he remembered it— slicker than when she had kept it on a nail in a back-porch post and when, probably, her father, astride a saddled mule, had put his whiskered lips to it, as he had put them also to a pint bottle of whiskey equally needful for his and his companions’ pursuit through fields endangered by, besides the night’s darkness, gulleys and barbed-wire fences, and certainly more elegant than when a cow had worn it. Its bell was set on a varnished base, its tip held a socket and bulb, and above it billowed a plastic shade decorated with pink-coated riders upon bounding horses following high-class hounds: art that, wherever its merits were, and however it satisfied an elderly woman’s romantic notions, didn’t have much to do with the fox horn’s employment in a country sport.
“Old Man Bailey McLeod had him a pack, too,” he said. “They used to tell it on him that he would make out to his wife like he was going to run some dogs; then he would throw three or four into the trunk of his old Studebaker and drive off into the night—not for fox-hunting, though, but tom-catting; and they claimed that he would get so absorbed in what he was about that he might go for days without remembering to let those poor starving beasts out of his automobile.”
There was a commotion in the parlor. A middle-aged couple, younger than most of the others assembled, had come in. The hostess called while hurrying to them, “Rest your wraps on those newspapers spread on the front bedroom floor. It won’t hurt a thing if they’re wet.”
The newcomers added a lemon cake to the collection of desserts on the kitchen sink’s drain board, placing it among a chocolate cake and a plain one, a bowl of ambrosia, half a dozen pies, and a casserole of persimmon pudding.
He savored the barbecue. If any was left and offered to him, he would take it home that night. The hostess, having seated the middle-aged couple at a card table on the closed-in side porch, went through the house with a plate of hot rolls, and he took one when she reached their table. They also were homemade.
Sitting again, the hostess said, “The both of you, you didn’t pay any more attention to me blowing that fox horn than Miss Alice, bless her soul, did to Mister Bailey’s tricks. My boys, now, they knew what was good for them and what they better do. But the two of you never were ready to leave those woods.”
He nodded. “We knew there wouldn’t be time enough,” he said.
“Yes, ma’am. Time enough. We knew time was running out on us. For one thing, Professor Jonah P. Moorehead wasn’t going to let us sit forever in the 11 grades of the Depotville Public School and have a reason for being home. But, more than that, we could hear the bulldozers coming—them and the concrete-mixers and real-estate salesmen.
“We knew there wasn’t going to be time enough to fish out the deep holes in Pettygrew Creek, and to explore the rabbit paths out toward the brick yard, and to learn where the holly and running cedar and mistletoe were so we could mark the places in our minds for Christmas, and to comb the old fields, where they washed, for arrowheads and pottery, and to load up our billy-goat wagon at the walnut trees near the Cartwright farm and our sacks at the scaleybark stand off Buffalo Road and our buckets at the plum thickets and grape vines and blackberry patches all over, and to check out the squirrel nests and bee hollows and muskrat holes, and to go through the worn-out mills and crumbling slave cabins and haunted houses and old graveyards, and to find the liquor stills, or what was left of them after they were pulled, along the reed-swamp ditch, and to search out the buzzard roosts and snake pits and boar wallows, and to see again where the old stage road went and if the bloodstains were still on that big rock beside it where those lovers were supposed to have died when their horse ran away and they were thrown from the buggy, and to take a swim at the Ossipee Creek dam and maybe grabble below it for a bass, being sure a cottonmouth wasn’t sunning on a low limb, and to see if the bridge had washed out in a storm where they were putting a sawmill up Dog Branch.
“We knew time was running out. The sawmill gave us our first idea. After they cut the road to it, we could hear what was coming down it.
“And I’ll tell you something else, something worse. We could hear the boots pounding and the tanks rumbling 3,000 miles away—the reverse of their echo, which probably isn’t in Roget’s International Thesaurus or the Oxford English Dictionary. That’s what we could hear the clearest.”
He finished his coffee. They would have to leave soon.
“You could hear a terrible lot then,” the hostess said, “not to be able to hear the fox horn.”
“Well, ma’am,” he replied, “there were still some more noises that interfered. I realize now we heard those rockets swooshing over the Bulge, and the medics when they got to him, and later on the doctors at Camp Butner Hospital and the others at the Veterans Hospital in Roanoke with their electric-shocking machines and lobotomy-operating kits. And I’m persuaded I heard myself getting drunk aboard ship, on brandy and straight-A from sick bay, steaming in from Okinawa, when the mail caught up with us at Pearl and I got a letter from home saying he was missing in Europe when I figured he already had beat me back. Goddam.”
The hostess frowned. “At least he didn’t cuss like that,” she said. “I told your mother this very morning, first thing I told her when she came in was that he was the sweetest of all her four boys—and my three to boot, counting the babiest, if you want to know the truth.”
“You told her that or she told you?” he asked. They laughed. “But then it was mainly so,” he said, softly.
She became solemn too. “You know, I forgot completely about his disappearing in Europe,” she said.
“For a month or so,” he reminded her. “By the time I got home he finally had turned up in Butner, in the psychiatric ward there, with his leg still in a cast—less than 30 miles from right here in Depotville, from home.”
Both fell silent. The State of North Carolina had taken over the Butner medical complex from the Army, he reflected. A man he had worked with on a newspaper had written a funny book about being in the alcoholic-treatment ward there. Butner was built during the war, near Durham.
“I know you’ll miss him,” the hostess said at length. “So close together in age and all, like my two you played with. And just about inseparable. And then together at college. But it’s good you could get to see him often at the Veterans Hospital in Roanoke these last years, even if Roanoke is nearly all the way across Virginia from where you live in Norfolk.”
“Seeing him there,” he said, “was when I missed him more than I ever will now.”
Two children crowded past the little table where he sat with the hostess, finishing his lunch. Chocolate smeared the children’s faces, and they were being sent to wash it off. The bathroom was on the back porch, having been added a generation after the house was built. When they opened the back door, the sound of driving rain came in.
“I wish it didn’t have to rain so,” the hostess said. “This funeral is sad enough without rain.”