An Excerpt from the novel Haints
Even before he got dropped off at his parents’ house, Bobby Malone had begun to worry. The streets near the square were deserted, and all the streetlamps were out, leaving the familiar neighborhoods in darkness. The once-familiar neighborhoods. They were different now, he could tell that much from the low, limited sweep of the automobile’s headlights. Portions of the town lay in ruins, as if certain blocks had been shelled by artillery. Buildings he’d known all his life had vanished from the landscape, or had been reduced to skeletal outlines against the moonlit sky.
He tried to tell himself he was imagining things, that the night was playing tricks on him. After all, there was no rubble in the roadway, which would certainly be the case if the town had truly been hit. He knew what it was to stalk the outskirts of a bombed-out village, where wreckage and debris almost always made the dirt streets impassable. This was something else, it had to be. But still he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had somehow brought the war home with him.
Neither Corporal Berman nor his chipmunk of a wife noticed the change, but they’d never seen Lincoln before, even in daylight. Berman had just finished his hitch in Germany where he’d been a file clerk for two years, and now he was on his way home to Decatur, Alabama, to farm soybeans. He hadn’t gone to Korea like Bobby. Maybe that’s why Berman had felt obliged to offer him a ride from the base.
“Take care of that hand, Private,” Berman had said as Bobby climbed from the back seat, dragging his duffle bag out to the curb. Berman’s wife turned her head toward Bobby from the front seat and stared at him through the window, but she didn’t say anything. She’d said very little all day. He figured she was mad that Berman had spoiled their reunion by inviting a stranger along for part of the trip home.
Mary Jean would have come to pick him up, he felt certain, if he’d had the guts to ask her. But he hadn’t even told her he was on his way home. He hadn’t told her about his accident, either. He’d certainly thought about it, first lying on a cot in the M.A.S.H. unit at Panmunjom, then in a lumpy hospital bed in Tokyo. But somehow he’d never mustered the energy to attempt a letter. He wasn’t sure he could write legibly with just his left hand.
The house was unlocked but dark. He stood in the front hall and listened, thoroughly, as the Army had trained him to do. His parents weren’t home. He gently set his bag beside the stairs and stepped back out onto the porch, avoiding the boards he knew would creak. That was his habit now—-moving through darkness as silently as he could. He stood at the porch rail and scanned the houses across the street. Not a light on anywhere along the block. He wondered if his watch had stopped, or if he had somehow lost his sense of time. It should have been no later than seven o’clock, but the empty streets and darkened houses gave everything the feel of midnight.
The cool night air drew him down into the yard, and he walked to the edge of the sidewalk and stood there, forcing himself to relax. He was a civilian now, safe at home, that’s what he needed to remember. Standing in the open on a moonlit night didn’t have to be terrifying anymore. But it was. He could adjust in time, he knew that. He could relearn how to stand unprotected without any fear of snipers, and how to stroll through tall grass without testing for trip-wires. For now though, the feeling of exposure made his heart pump faster, and the quickened beat of his blood made his wrist throb. He looked down at the white bandage glowing in the darkness. He suppressed the urge to cover it up. Two months ago, a bandage that clean and bright would have been sure to draw fire. Here in Lincoln it would only draw condolences.
Condolences meant conversation. People would ask him what had happened, and he hadn’t decided yet what to say. The loss of a hand ought to carry some drama with it, but that hadn’t been the case. There had been nothing noble, nothing brave or inspirational in any part of the story. He had simply been on patrol in cold weather when the guy behind him slipped on an icy rock and fell, discharging his rifle. The bullet passed through Bobby’s wrist from side to side, pulverizing the bones and leaving his hand attached only by a couple of strips of skin. Nothing to do but hack the rest off and staunch the bleeding. Adios, amigo.
He thought of Herb Gatlin. When Bobby was a boy, Mr. Gatlin had been the only person he knew who didn’t have all his parts. Bobby and his friends sometimes debated which option would be worse—losing a leg or losing an arm. Bryce Hatton always argued that it would be worse to gimp around on just one leg, like Mr. Gatlin, but Bobby had believed losing an arm would be far worse. He believed it more than ever now.
In terms of function, there wasn’t much difference between losing a hand and losing an arm, he had discovered. Either way, he couldn’t throw a baseball, or cut his own meat, or play his guitar, or shake hands like a normal person would. He couldn’t be a surgeon, or a policeman, or even a ditch-digger. He couldn’t use certain tools or operate certain types of equipment. He couldn’t shift the gears on a truck. He couldn’t even tie his own shoes.
All the everyday things wives asked husbands to do would pose insurmountable obstacles for him. Hanging a picture, building a doghouse, clipping a hedge. Changing a baby’s diaper. Mary Jean would discover a million things he would never be able to do for her. If, in fact, she chose to stay with him.
Something flickered at the corner of his vision, and Bobby turned toward the western sky. Two powerful arc lights swept back and forth, their beams crossing randomly and bouncing off the bottoms of the clouds. He’d seen plenty of lights like that searching the skies above Korea, usually accompanied by sirens. There, the lights meant trouble. Here in the States, they barely meant anything at all. A new department store was holding a grand opening, or an automobile lot was having a sale, or a carnival had come to town.
He tried to gauge the distance. Probably only a mile or so out the highway. Maybe two. But what was out there? Not much, that he could recall. Just a lot of pasture and farmland. And the Starlight Drive-in. Sure, that had to be it. Something was going on out at the Starlight. Maybe a special double-feature or something, with a raffle for door prizes.
Whatever it was, he knew his parents would be part of the crowd. His father always said the only way to run a successful business in a small town was to be involved in the community, and that meant showing up at every Little League game, every high school play, every holiday parade, every fireworks display.
Maybe Mary Jean would be there, too. Maybe his parents had taken her to see a movie to welcome her into the family. Never mind that his mother thought Mary Jean was a slut for getting pregnant in the first place.
He tucked his bandaged stump carefully into the front of his uniform jacket and set off down Garden Street toward the intersection with Route 431. In a matter of minutes, he had turned the corner at Robert E. Lee Elementary and entered the highway just ahead of Dead Man’s Curve. The searchlights continued to swing wildly about the sky.
He’d barely walked a hundred yards along the main road when he was overtaken by a pair of headlights from behind, from an automobile creeping cautiously around Dead Man’s Curve. His first impulse was to take cover—-too many nights on guard duty had conditioned him to be wary of any stranger approaching in the dark. He stepped off the shoulder of the road and positioned himself behind a telephone pole, not hiding, exactly, but allowing himself some measure of protection until the vehicle had passed.
It didn’t pass. The sedan cruised to a stop alongside him. Bobby stepped out from the pole and peered into the old DeSoto. The passenger-side window was down, and he could see that the driver, a man, was alone. He couldn’t make out the man’s face.
“Evening, Soldier,” the man called through the window. “You been doing the Lord’s work?”
Bobby didn’t know how to answer that. As near as he could tell, the Lord had bypassed Korea altogether.
“I’ve been in the Army,” Bobby said. “I just got my discharge.”
“You fought communism,” the man said.
“Yes sir,” Bobby said, though even after losing his hand in the effort, he still didn’t know what communism was, exactly.
“That’s good. That’s serving your country,” the man said. “One nation under God.”
“Yes sir,” said Bobby. Something about the man’s voice sounded familiar.
“Get in, boy,” the man told him. “I’ll take you where you’re going.”
As Bobby opened the door, the dome light switched on and he got his first clear look at the man in the driver’s seat. He appeared disheveled, the way a soldier on patrol looked after sleeping in his clothes for a few days. His sweat-stained shirt was untucked, with the sleeves shoved above his elbows. His thinning hair was matted to his scalp, and Bobby noticed smears of dirt on his face and the backs of his hands. The sudden light seemed to have startled him, and he raised his forearm against the glare, as if shielding himself from a blow. More than anything else, the man looked exhausted, and Bobby might have taken him for some kind of fugitive if he hadn’t recognized who the poor fellow was. It was his minister from the Baptist church, Reverend Tyree.
“I’m just going a little ways down the road, Reverend,” he said as he climbed inside the car. He awkwardly closed the door with his left hand, extinguishing the overhead light.
“To the drive-in, I’ll bet,” the Reverend said as he pulled back onto the highway.
“Yes sir, that’s right,” Bobby said. “Looks like big doings there tonight.” He wondered if the Reverend recognized him at all from the church Youth Group. Probably not. He’d always had the feeling that the Reverend’s mind was somewhere else during those weekly meetings.
“It’s the place of judgment,” the Reverend said, his voice wavering slightly. “The Whore of Babylon rises from the bottomless pit.”
“Sounds like a good one,” Bobby said, though he wasn’t too keen on religious films. If he had to get stuck with one, he hoped it would be an action movie like Quo Vadis and not one of those sappy tearjerkers like The Song of Bernadette. Of course, either way there would be a lot of unfortunate dying. He felt a little skittish about that these days.
He half expected the Reverend to ask about his hand. Bobby figured he must look like Napoleon with his arm tucked in his uniform jacket the way it was. But the Reverend didn’t seem to notice. Maybe his mind was already distracted with other people’s problems. He might well have been coming home from helping out at the scene of an accident. Or maybe he’d had an accident himself. It was certainly possible, judging from the look of him.
“I lost my right hand,” Bobby told him.
Reverend Tyree turned and looked at him, long enough that the DeSoto drifted off the shoulder of the road. Bobby grabbed the wheel to keep them out of the ditch, but even then the Reverend didn’t stop staring at him.
“It’s waiting for you in paradise,” the Reverend said, and then calmly steered them back onto the pavement.
Bobby released his grip on the wheel and took a breath. These spiritual types could be a little too unfocused, too easily distracted, it seemed to him. One foot planted on earth, the other off tap-dancing in the Great Beyond. That’s why he’d hated it when fundamentalists got assigned to his unit. They were always blathering on about God when they should have been scanning the trees for snipers. Bobby was a believer himself, but he understood that sometimes you just had to deal with the task at hand. He didn’t know how some of those guys even made it through boot camp. He wouldn’t trust them to sort screws at his father’s hardware store. Always daydreaming about the afterlife. Of course, that kind of distraction was excusable in the Reverend. His job was to keep his distance from the everyday world.
So his hand was in paradise. Bobby tried to picture that, but it seemed too strange. How could it be waiting for him? Did God keep it in a box or jar somewhere with all the other unclaimed body parts? Would he have to rummage through them all to identify which one was his? Or was it resting on some heavenly tabletop, drumming its fingers, waiting for him to show up? Would Jesus just casually give it to him when he got there, or would there be some kind of ceremony, forms to fill out, red tape? And what if he didn’t even make it to heaven? Would his hand be stuck there forever, alone, the only part of him good enough to make it through the gates?
He decided not to say anything else.
They crested the last rise above the drive-in and Bobby could see that the Starlight was packed. The screen was alive with movement, but no movie was playing, and Bobby wasn’t sure at first what he was seeing. Then he realized that a boxing match was underway, and a carefully placed spotlight was casting giant shadows of the boxers as they danced around one another in the ring. Parked automobiles lined the fringes of the property, leaving the center of the field open for the mob of spectators. The two arc lights on the flat roof of the concession stand continued to sweep the sky.
Reverend Tyree pulled the DeSoto onto the gravel apron at the entrance of the drive–in and let the engine idle.
“I appreciate the lift,” Bobby said as he shouldered the door open. Again the dome light illuminated the Reverend’s face, but this time he didn’t flinch.
“They shall make war with the Lamb,” the Reverend said, “and the Lamb shall overcome them.”
“That’s a good thought, Reverend,” Bobby said as he stepped out into the night. “But those North Koreans don’t know much about the Lamb. We might be better off with Eisenhower.”
The Reverend said nothing, and Bobby wondered if he might have offended the man. But he couldn’t help what he knew, and he knew the communists wouldn’t lay down their arms in the name of Jesus. If he were old enough, he would certainly vote for Eisenhower. Sometimes it took a hard-line soldier to straighten things out. He closed the door and patted his farewell on the roof of the DeSoto, then headed up the path toward the ticket booth. The Desoto continued idling at the entryway. Maybe the Reverend was thinking over what Bobby had said.
He was happy to be out of the automobile. Even with the windows rolled down, something in the seats or the floorboard had given off an odor he didn’t care for, something that reminded him of his hospital stay, the smell of bad meat doused in alcohol. He didn’t know how the Reverend stood it.
As he approached the ticket booth, he pulled his wallet from his hip pocket and looked inside. He was pretty flush right now—the army had covered all his expenses, even after he got shot, so he’d saved most of his regular pay. Now he had a good-sized chunk of start-up cash–though he wasn’t sure what he might be starting up. A mortgage, maybe, if marriage was still in the picture. If Mary Jean didn’t want him anymore, he’d just give it to the baby for a college fund or something. Surely there was enough to make the kid’s road a little easier, however much it was. He’d never actually counted it. Knowing the amount would have made it seem smaller. In any case, he could spare a few bucks for tonight. Harvard wouldn’t miss it.
He made out two figures in the ticket booth, a man and a woman, though it was too dark inside to see their faces. The grounds themselves were bright as a ball field with all the drive-in lights, so his own face was clearly illuminated. The woman leaned in close to the screened window to scrutinize him.
“My God, Bobby Malone, is that you?” Her voice was too shrill with excitement for him to recognize, but it wasn’t Mary Jean’s, he knew that much. The side door of the booth burst open and she came running around the corner toward him, her arms wide. It was Patty Hatton, Bryce’s wife, the smile on her face the first sure sign that he’d actually made it home alive. She flung her arms around his neck, and he bent forward to keep the pressure of her hug away from his right arm.
“Hey, Patty,” he said. He turned his face toward the other figure in the booth. “Hey, Bryce.”
Patty released him abruptly and stepped back. “That’s not Bryce,” she said quickly.
The figure in the booth slid the screen aside and stuck his head through the opening. It was Andy Yearwood.
“Hey, Bobby,” Andy said. “Welcome back.”
“Hey, Andy.” He looked back at Patty. “Do you guys work here now?”
Patty shook her head. “Andy’s just helping out for tonight.” She paused to smooth out the pleats in her skirt. “I’m his date.”
“You’re working the ticket booth on a date?” he asked.
“Mr. Parsons needed help at the last minute,” she explained. “The regular girl’s mother wouldn’t let her come in tonight. They’re strict Baptist.”
None of this was making any sense. “Where’s Bryce?”
Patty looked down at the ground. “A lot’s happened lately.”
“Bryce sort of killed his cousin Walter,” Andy told him. “He’s under arrest.”
“Me and him are through,” Patty added.
“Well, I sure am sorry,” Bobby said, which was at least partly true. Walter had been a solid left-fielder and a good teammate, so he hated to hear that he was gone. Things had gone all to hell around here while he’d been in the Army.
Patty’s face brightened. “Have you seen Mary Jean yet?”
“No, not yet. I thought maybe I’d find her out here tonight.”
“That’s a good bet,” Andy said. “The whole town’s turned out for the show.”
“She’s here, all right,” Patty said, still beaming. “I saw her myself. You go on in and find her. You two have got lots to catch up on.”
Now that he knew Mary Jean was here, he didn’t feel in such a hurry to find her. What would he say, after all?
I’ve killed people and been glad of it.
“So what’s the deal here tonight?” he asked. “Why so much interest in a boxing match?”
“That’s the world’s heavyweight champ out there,” Andy told him. “Jersey Joe Walcott. He’s taking on all comers.”
“For charity,” added Patty.
Bobby looked across the crowd to the makeshift ring at the far end of the drive-in, where a large black man was now pummeling a stocky white guy. The white guy looked like he didn’t know much more about boxing than how to take a punch.
“That’s incredible,” Bobby said. “How the heck did they get the heavyweight champ to come to Lincoln?”
“Tom Parsons set it up,” Patty told him. “He’s donating the proceeds to help folks rebuild after the tornado.”
A tornado. So that’s what had happened. But leave it to Tom Parsons to try to make things right. When the Masons had run low on funds Bobby’s junior year, their baseball team would have gone under if Mr. Tom hadn’t stepped in and bought them all uniforms and equipment.
“How bad was the damage?” he asked.
“The square got hit pretty hard,” Andy said. “Church street, too. But your dad’s store came through pretty much in one piece. Just lost a front window and a couple of displays.”
“I’m sure Mary Jean can fill you in on all the details,” Patty said. “But you need to find her first.” She turned him around and gave him a playful shove in the direction of the milling crowd.
“I can pay,” he said, holding up his wallet.
“Can’t take your money,” Andy said, grinning. “This here’s a drive-in. You’re on foot.”
“Thanks,” Bobby said, slipping his wallet back into his pocket. Patty gave him a final pat on the shoulder, and he set out for the concession stand to start his search.
Funny that neither Patty nor Andy had asked about his arm. Maybe it didn’t stand out the way he imagined. Of course, Andy had always been fairly clueless, so that was no real test. And if Patty’s choices in men were any indication, she wasn’t the sharpest bayonet in the barracks herself. But Mary Jean would notice at once. He just hoped he would see her first, before she had a chance to hide her reaction. Then he would know what she really felt.
He hadn’t seen a mob like this since maneuvers at Fort Bragg. The outfits were more colorful, but there was the same excitement, the same bloodlust in the air. He looked again toward the ring just as Jersey Joe Walcott landed an uppercut on the stocky amateur that sent the man staggering backward into the corner post. He fell forward onto his face, and someone rang the bell. A cheer went up from the crowd, mixed with a few sympathetic groans. While a couple of attendants, one black and one white, scrambled into the ring to pull the fallen man to his feet, Mr. Tom—Mary Jean’s uncle– stepped up into the ring with a microphone.
“Let’s hear it for Wade Miller, folks!” he said. “And if a man’s willing to take a drubbing like that, you know he’ll do right by you at his automobile dealership!”
The crowd applauded for Wade Miller as he was helped down from the ring. The attendants then sat him on a square wooden table to be examined by Mary Jean’s father, Dr. McKinney, who shined a penlight into his eyes and waved his fingers back and forth in front of Wade Miller’s face.
“Next up to face the Champ is Lorne Carmichael!” announced Mr. Tom, and the crowd erupted into fresh cheers. “Y’all can visit Lorne anytime at the Pants Barn out on Highway 64!”
A small colored boy climbed into the ring with a cup of water and handed it to Jersey Joe Walcott. Then the boy leaped into the air and swung wildly at some invisible foe while Jersey Joe drained the cup. People in the crowd laughed. The Champ handed the cup back to the little boy, who then crossed to the other side of the ring in a series of short hops and crawled out under the bottom rope.
Meanwhile, Lorne Carmichael pulled himself up to ring level, squeezed his three-hundred-pound frame between the ropes, and sat, panting, on the stool in his corner of the ring. Was free publicity for the Pants Barn worth such public humiliation?
He knew the answer to that, of course. His own father might well be somewhere in line to take one on the chin for his hardware store. Wasn’t that what Bobby had been fighting for, after all–free enterprise? The chance to get ahead by doing whatever it took. Competition was a privilege, Coach Lindsay had always said. His drill sergeant, too. Hard work and sacrifice, the good old American way. Those North Koreans had no idea what they were missing.
But Bobby knew what he was missing. A goddamned hand.
He moved up beside the concession stand and eyed the people milling around the service counter. Several faces looked familiar, but he couldn’t call up any names. Just as well. One thing he’d liked about the army was not having to talk to anyone, even the guys he knew. Silence had been a virtue there, especially among the enlisted men.
He moved around to the far side of the stand where someone had put up a homemade tent. It was a laughably bad piece of work. Whoever had thrown it together had used the wrong materials from start to finish. Rain would pour through it like a sieve. The staking was all wrong, too—a sudden gust would carry it off like a big box kite. And the colors were anything but camouflage. Madame Zubu the Mysterious, in bright red and yellow letters. She sees all, she knows all. A tent like this would be a death wish anywhere within ten kilometers of Panmunjom.
But Korea was behind him now. That’s the part he had to remember. The problem was he didn’t seem to know who he was anymore. A couple of months ago, he’d had a solid grip on things: he was a soldier with a girl waiting for him stateside, and when his hitch was over, he’d be back in his hometown, smiling at customers in his father’s store and building a life for his new family. But that clarity had all disappeared with the accidental pulling of a trigger. Who was he now? Maybe he ought to ask Madame Zubu the Mysterious. Maybe she could gaze into his future and tell him what kind of person he would have to learn to be. Of course, the way his luck had been running, she was probably a palm reader.
He turned from the tent and shouldered his way through the crowd, protecting his arm as best he could from inadvertent jostling. The throbbing was getting worse.
Lorne Carmichael crumpled to his knees and rolled slowly onto his side. Mr. Tom bent down to check on him, then patted him on the shoulder and said something to him out of range of the microphone. Bobby could see blood pouring from Lorne’s battered nose. Mr. Tom stepped over to the Champ and held his arm in the air to signify another victory. The two attendants climbed back into the ring, but they couldn’t get Lorne to his feet until Jersey Joe himself lent a hand. The three men eased Lorne out of the ring like he was an enormous egg. Humpty Dumpty, Bobby thought. The crowd offered catcalls and tepid applause.
Bobby thought he recognized the white guy supporting Lorne’s left side. Moody Smith, it looked like. Years ago, when Bobby was a kid, he and his friends had thought Moody Smith was Popeye the Sailor, though he couldn’t imagine where the idea had come from. Maybe they’d made it up. The guy did kind of look like Popeye, which was certainly no compliment. He also looked like the kind of guy who could take care of himself in a fight. The kind of guy who wouldn’t slip on an icy rock with his safety off.
“The next challenger,” Tom Parson’s announced to the crowd, “is best in his weight class! At three feet seven inches and weighing in at nearly forty pounds, Jerry Lee Statten!”
The colored attendant swung the same little boy up over the top rope into the ring. This time he was wearing a child’s set of boxing gloves. Laughter rippled through the crowd. Jersey Joe Walcott met the boy at the center of the ring and crouched down to eye level. The Champ bobbed his head a little, blocked a couple of wild swings, then suddenly dropped his guard. The little boy wound up his arm like he’d probably seen in cartoons and gave Jersey Joe a pop on the chin. Jersey Joe flung his arms to the side and fell over backwards on the canvas, down for the count. People began to whistle and applaud. Mr. Tom held the little boy’s arm in the air. “The new champion!” he announced. The little boy scampered to the edge of the ring, ducked under the rope, and leapt into the colored attendant’s arms. The man was probably the kid’s father, Bobby realized.
He needed to find Mary Jean.
The best place to begin was ringside, with her father, but the last thing he wanted right now was to deal with Dr. McKinney, who didn’t like him at all. The Doc had opposed their engagement even after he found out Mary Jean was pregnant. He wanted his daughter to marry somebody with a position in the world, some blueblood, maybe, with four middle names and a monocle. Mary Jean’s mother had been more willing to reserve judgment, like she figured it was okay for him to start out in the stockroom as long as that wasn’t where he ended up. Of course, the verdict was already in on that account–Bobby’s career path would have a low trajectory at best. There just weren’t many lucrative job options for a one-handed man, except maybe pirate. Maybe he could ask the Doc to get him a good price on a hook.
He decided instead to circle the perimeter, check out the long curve of parked automobiles that lined the outer fringes of the Starlight. After all, a pregnant woman couldn’t stand very long in such a raucous crowd– she’d have to have a place to sit. Mary Jean was probably watching the spectacle from the front seat of her parent’s new Packard, the one she’d written him about. Her father had ordered it special, with all the options. But what color had she told him it was? Something gaudy. Yellow, maybe.
He worked his way over to the edge of the crowd, keeping his head down to avoid any ill-timed reunions with his old high school classmates or regular customers from the store. His uniform would have made him stand out if anyone had been paying attention, but tonight the focus was on the heavyweight champ and his parade of punching bags, so Bobby was able to amble through to the parking row unnoticed.
A number of people were viewing the show from the relative comfort of their automobiles, especially the elderly and families with small kids. Bobby had barely started down the row when he spotted his father’s Studebaker just a few yards ahead of him. Even in the uneven light of the drive-in, the car looked dirtier than he’d ever seen it. Apparently, his father wasn’t such a stickler for its appearance without Bobby there to wash and wax it for him every week. His mother sat in the passenger seat nibbling on a popcorn ball, while his father hunched forward over the wheel like he was driving through fog. The last time he’d seen them they’d been in this car, watching him wave goodbye from the bus station in Lewisburg, and for a moment it seemed like he’d never been away. Then, of course, he remembered, and it seemed more like he had never come back.
He passed directly in front of the Studebaker, his eyes focused on the tire-flattened grass at his feet. He listened for the sound of a door opening, or a light beep of the horn, or a sharp rapping on the windshield, any response at all, but there was nothing. A few cars further along the row he paused and turned around. His parents were still staring straight ahead, watching the ring, the crowd, the heavyweight champ. They had both looked right through him, as if he were a ghost.
Maybe he was. Maybe Bobby Malone was gone for good, nothing left but a husk, roaming the old haunts out of habit. And what better place to come back to than the Starlight Drive-in? This was where he’d impregnated Mary Jean.
He continued along the row, following the curve toward the huge screen of shadows. As he neared the back of the lot, he had his first clear view of the automobiles on the far side of the ring. Among them were what appeared to be two late-model Packards, both with yellow bodies and black tops, parked side by side. He crossed the soggy ground beneath the screen and eased his way carefully toward the two vehicles from behind, the way he had been trained to approach anything that might represent a danger.
One of the Packards was empty.
The other held a disappointment.
Mrs. McKinney was sitting alone on the front seat, her head tilted forward, as if she were napping. For a long minute he stared at the back of her puffy hairdo through the dirty rear window, weighing his options. He briefly considered tapping on the passenger window to ask her about Mary Jean, but reconsidered. Mrs. McKinney always had a draining effect on him, and if he tangled with her now, he’d have no strength left for Mary Jean.
Then a dark thought hit him. What if that wasn’t Mrs. McKinney in the car? The back of a head wasn’t much to go on, and he’d heard that women always started to look like their mothers at some point. Maybe Mary Jean had changed her hairstyle. He couldn’t walk away without checking.
He moved up quietly alongside the passenger door and peered in at the woman in the front seat. It was Mrs. McKinney, all right, decked out in her usual country-club best, a formal-looking blue dress this time, with polka dots the same bright yellow as her automobile. She wore pearl earrings to match the double strand around her neck, and both her wrists were crowded with gold bracelets. She looked entirely out of place for a boxing match. But she wasn’t asleep, as he had first thought. She was staring down at a baby swaddled in a pink blanket in her lap. Bobby stumbled backwards against the front fender of the other yellow Packard. Mrs. McKinney glimpsed the movement at her door and jerked her head up, eyes wide and mouth open. Bobby quickly folded his left arm over his chest, the better to hide his amputation. Mrs. McKinney blinked a few times, then slowly rolled her window down.
“Well, Bobby Malone,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered, straightening to something like attention. He thought he smelled barbecue.
“We thought you might be dead,” she said, her tone pointedly neutral.
“Not quite,” he told her.
She looked him up and down, her face slightly puckered, as if he were a dog tracking mud through her living room. “How long you been home?” There was an accusation in the question.
“I just got in a few minutes ago,” he told her. “I came out here to find Mary Jean.”
That was the right answer apparently, and Mrs. McKinney’s face softened.
“Mary Jean’s been through a lot,” she said, leaning toward him and lowering her voice.
“Is she all right?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I couldn’t even say. You wouldn’t believe what all’s happened around here lately.”
Bobby stepped closer so he could see down into the Packard.
“Is that the baby?” He could feel the sweat breaking out across his forehead and on the back of his neck.
She lifted the bundle slightly by the crook of her arm. “This is Mary Jean’s little girl, Stella Lucille,” she said, more to the infant than to him. Half of the baby’s face was obscured by an upturned fold in the blanket, but the part he could see looked pink and fragile. Her head was barely bigger than a softball, and her skin was so translucent he could trace her veins. Her hands were the only other part of her that lay uncovered, and he could see that her fingers, so incredibly small, were curled into the tiniest of fists. He’d never seen a child so brand new.
Mrs. McKinney looked up at him as if deciding something, and then smiled. “Would you like to hold her?”
Of course he wanted to hold her, his baby, his Stella Lucille, but he had only one arm, and if he said yes, he’d end up spilling all his secrets. He couldn’t let that happen just yet.
“Some other time,” he said, shifting uncomfortably.
Mrs. McKinney regarded him for a long moment. “This night air isn’t good for her lungs,” she said finally. “And I’m sure you have other people to see.” She stared impassively through the windshield as she rolled her side window back up.
She was angry now, and Bobby understood that. What kind of a man wouldn’t want to hold his own child? She’d given him the benefit of the doubt until that moment, and all he had done was reinforce her darkest suspicions about him. He was, after all, the louse who had stopped writing love letters to her pregnant daughter, probably just when Mary Jean had needed him the most. That was a towering sin of omission. Maybe later Mrs. McKinney would be open to an explanation, but not now. Now he needed to face Mary Jean herself, learn what kind of damage he had done to her with his silence, see if he could square things. See if she even wanted him to square things. All this time he’d worried she would leave him for losing his hand. It hadn’t occurred to him that she might leave him for breaking her heart.
He nodded his goodbye to Mrs. McKinney and turned away, toward the boxing ring this time, where Jersey Joe was now launching into a flurry of body blows that sent his latest challenger, Harlow Knowles, of Knowles Wrecker Service, cowering into a corner. The crowd was more raucous now, less tolerant of defeat, and it howled without mercy when Harlow fled the ring. The night itself was charged in ways Bobby had learned to recognize–at Inchon Bay, and Seoul, and Panmunjom, and all the rest. Mary Jean would be perilously near the heart of it, somewhere close to her father.
As Bobby threaded his way toward the ring, the crowd thickened, becoming more boisterous, more intimately massed together, everyone straining forward to hear the crack of bone and see the spurt of blood. The Champ was either tiring or becoming bored, because he now engaged his succession of opponents with a cold efficiency, dispatching each one in a minimum of effort, no further pomp or ceremony. The crowd seemed to prefer it this way, clamoring louder as the body count rose. Tom Parsons no longer bothered to climb into the ring to introduce the dwindling line of contestants, but merely announced the names from a folding chair at ringside, with the young colored boy straddling his shoulders. Bobby pushed ahead toward the table at the losers’ corner where Dr. McKinney examined, bandaged, and dismissed the parade of beaten boxers.
As he worked his way through the tightening knot of spectators, he looked back toward the concession stand, which was still mobbed with unruly kids and disinterested teens. The line of fortune-seekers outside Madame Zubu’s tent had lengthened, and now wound like a serpent through the larger concession-stand crowd. He scanned the distant blur of faces for Mary Jean, knowing he could pick her out as easily as a lighted candle in an empty room. She was nowhere at that end of the Starlight, and he felt an inexplicable sense of relief.
But something else caught his attention, something that sparked the soldier in him back to life. His first impulse was to call out a warning, but he knew there would be no point. The Starlight was too noisy, and it was already too late.
The speeding DeSoto had already roared through the entrance gates and splintered through the corner of the ticket booth, spinning the small structure on its foundation and toppling it into the weeds. In another instant the automobile would slam into the side of the concession stand, the side where Madame Zubu had pitched her tent.
That instant developed like a snapshot in Bobby’s mind, one he could examine and evaluate without losing a single tick of the clock, as he had done many times on patrol when his unit had come under fire. Maybe that was a talent all combat soldiers shared—the ability to suspend the normal flow of time, to slow it down to a manageable crawl, parcel it out into as many pieces as necessary, and dwell with each fragment in the space of an ever-expanding moment, absorbing the crucial details of the scene.
Patty Hatton stood in the gravel lane, her hands covering her mouth, staring at the overturned ticket booth. Andy was nowhere in sight.
A score of people along the entry lane, those who had lost interest in the exhibition and had retreated to the outer fringes to throw back a few shots with their friends, now turned toward this fresh commotion, most of them in time to leap aside as the DeSoto barreled past. Some were too slow, or too unlucky. A bald man in overalls froze in place and got clipped by the front fender, which sent him tumbling headlong into the shadows. Another man turned the wrong way and then tried to change direction, but went down beneath the bumper. The DeSoto rolled over his leg at the knee, crushing it so quickly he didn’t even have time to grimace. A young woman smoking a cigarette got jerked aside by a punk in a motorcycle jacket, and both of them fell face first in the gravel. The first few screams started up.
A few people at the concession stand saw what was coming and tried to scatter, but too many others were hemming them in. A few clawed their way savagely past their neighbors, while others flailed like swimmers struggling in a riptide and made no progress at all. Someone tripped over one of the stakes at Madame Zubu’s, sending a shiver of motion through the flimsy tent.
Reverend Tyree gave no indication that he saw any of these people at all, neither swerving to avoid them nor swerving to strike them down. Instead, he stared straight ahead, his hands gripping the wheel, his body leaning forward, toward a moment of impact.
At the last instant, he slammed on the brakes and cut the wheels hard to the left. The Desoto swung sideways and skidded through the last cluster of spectators, slamming into Madame Zubu’s tent and crushing it against the cinderblock wall of the concession stand. The wall crumpled inward and a portion of the roof collapsed, sending one of the giant searchlights sliding over the edge and down onto the roof of the Reverend’s automobile. The light sprayed a stream of blue sparks and then went out. The other light tipped onto its side, redirecting its beam to a narrow line of stunned faces in the crowd. A man behind Bobby, from the area of the ring, cried out, while everyone else fell silent.
But the Reverend wasn’t through. The DeSoto had stalled out after hitting the building, and now he attempted to restart it, cranking the ignition in long, grinding turns. The engine failed to catch on the first two tries, and Bobby wondered why no one had yet dragged the Reverend from the car and snatched the keys away from him. Bobby would have done it himself had be been closer. Even with one hand.
On the third attempt the engine caught. The Reverend forced the car into gear, grinding the transmission, then accelerated away from the concession stand, strewing rubble in his wake and sending the broken searchlight crashing to the ground. The rear bumper of the DeSoto snagged on the ruined tent, dragging it and whatever had become entangled with it out toward the middle of the drive-in. The crowd scattered again, more nimbly this time, clearing a broad path between the stand and the boxing ring, where the Reverend now seemed to be headed. Bobby wanted to move closer, to put himself somehow in the Reverend’s way and stop whatever madness was taking place, but the people around him surged away from the ring, carrying Bobby with them. If he’d lost his footing, he would have been trampled in the rush. As it was, the crush of bodies around him aggravated his wound, and the throbbing became almost unbearable.
He twisted back toward the ring to check on Mary Jean’s father. But the Doc had cleared out already, leaving an unconscious fighter on the table at ringside, and Bobby still saw no sign of Mary Jean. The Champ stood in the center of the ring, his gloved hands on his hips, staring down the approaching maniac. Moody Smith stood beside him, looking equally determined to hold his ground. But the other attendant, the colored man, leapt over the front ropes into the matted grass beside Mr. Tom, who was just rising from his chair, the child still on his shoulders. Mr. Tom barked something that Bobby didn’t catch, but the man ignored him and charged toward the Desoto as the crowd continued to part. Bobby thought the man would be killed for sure, but at the center of the drive-in, when the machine was nearly on top of him, the man dodged to the side. As the DeSoto rolled past, he threw himself onto the fortune-teller’s tent, ripping it free of the bumper.
The Reverend kept his focus on the ring and continued to accelerate down the widening lane. By the time the DeSoto had closed to the last twenty yards everyone but Mr. Tom and the little boy had managed to dive clear of its path. But Mr. Tom made no effort to get out of the way. Maybe he didn’t understand what was happening, or maybe he was just too old and worn out to dodge cars with a boy on his shoulders. Maybe, like Moody Smith and the Champ, he was simply the sort of man who didn’t give ground. Bobby had seen that in the Army—guys who would stand there, calm as bathwater, in the face of enemy fire. Sometimes they got their heads blown off. But sometimes they were the only ones cool enough to draw a bead on the enemy and keep a position from being overrun. Guys like that were crazy, but good to have around. Mr. Tom had that same unshakable calm about him, even when it was clear what was coming, and as the DeSoto plowed ahead, he turned back toward the ring and shoved the little boy high in the air, up over the ropes, where Moody Smith stepped forward and caught him. An instant later the DeSoto slammed into Mr. Tom from behind, pinning his lower body against the corner post of the ring.
The structure buckled in the middle, which knocked Moody Smith and the kid to the canvas and pitched the Champ into the ropes on the back side of the ring, but the corner post held, and the DeSoto went from thirty to zero in less than a heartbeat. The Reverend pitched forward into the windshield, cracking it wide open.
Mr. Tom grabbed onto the top rope with one hand and swatted awkwardly behind him with the other, as if the DeSoto were some pesky dog nipping at his heels. His face was half turned, and Bobby was relieved to see no pain there at all. The spinal cord was probably severed. But Mr. Tom did have a look Bobby recognized, that mix of surprise and acknowledgment that comes when the only thought left to think is suddenly, blindingly obvious: So this is how it ends.
Bobby forced his way out through the numbed crowd and started toward Mr. Tom, not to save him, because he knew that chance was gone, but to pry the machine away, if such a thing were possible, and ease him down into the grass, free from all this spectacle. It was the only right thing anyone could still do for him.
Moody Smith, apparently acting on the same impulse, scrambled out under the ropes as Bobby approached the ring and put his shoulder to the front fender. “Hang on, Tom,” he growled, then strained hard against the full weight of the DeSoto, and before Bobby could position himself to help out, the old man had lifted the wreck and moved it back nearly a foot on his own. That was enough, and Bobby hooked his good arm around Mr. Tom’s chest to keep him from falling over as Moody Smith slumped back against the edge of the ring, breathing hard.
But as Bobby dragged the dying man clear of the wreckage and laid him down in the wet grass, the driver’s door of the DeSoto creaked loudly open and Reverend Tyree climbed out, blood running down his face, staggered but still strong, clutching a three-foot length of iron in his right hand.
The crowd, still stunned by so much mayhem, began to close around the Reverend, but recoiled again as he swung at them wildly with the iron bar.
“Woe to the inhabitants of the earth and of the sea!” he proclaimed, brandishing the bar over his head like a holy relic. “For the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath!” Bobby straightened to face him as the Reverend lumbered forward. Moody Smith was on the far side of the DeSoto and in no position to help, so Bobby was on his own.
But as he raised his own right arm to absorb the first blow, he realized that the Reverend wasn’t even looking at him. His eyes were fixed solely on Mr. Tom, stretched out and bleeding on the ground between them.
Bobby could have stepped away. Tom Parsons was done for, he knew that. But he also knew that was irrelevant. He grabbed the Reverend’s arm on the downswing and diverted the blow into the soft earth beside Mr. Tom’s head. The Reverend wheeled on him at once and swung the rod savagely upward, catching Bobby beneath his chin. He fell backwards, a white flash filling his head. He heard watery sounds, and saw hazy, moving lights, and when Bobby’s eyes came into focus again, Reverend Tyree was standing over him, ready to strike him dead. But before the rod came down, another man stepped in from the side, the colored ring attendant who had charged the DeSoto, and he smashed the Reverend in the temple with what must have been the fortune-teller’s crystal ball. The Reverend fell against the DeSoto and slid to the ground, his eyes open and swimming, the iron rod still in his hand.
Bobby’s head ached and he couldn’t move his jaw. As he propped himself on his good arm and looked around, the crowd began to come alive again, closing in on the injured and the dead. Dr. McKinney slipped into the small clearing from the side of the ring and knelt in the grass beside Tom Parsons. He bent over Mr. Tom and unfastened the lower buttons of his bloody shirt, tugged it free of the waistband, and pulled it gingerly aside. The poor man was split open, and Bobby could tell by the look on Dr. McKinney’s face that there was nothing to be done. Blood spread through the white linen of Mr. Tom’s pants all the way down to his knees. The Doc put a hand on Mr. Tom’s shoulder and said something to him, too low for Bobby to make out over the noise of the electrified crowd. Mr. Tom said something back to him, and then, though it made no sense at all, he laughed. He actually laughed. Even in Korea, Bobby had never seen a reaction like that. Then Mr. Tom leaned his head back in the dirt and became totally still. Bobby knew what that meant.
Now Mary Jean pushed her way into the clearing, but she stopped short when she saw her uncle and had to steady herself against the battered corner post of the boxing ring. The sympathetic anguish on her face was beautiful.
Bobby had his wish, he got to see her first, clearly and completely, before she realized he was there. She looked tired, and frail, and frightened, and all he wanted in the world was to have her look at him now with some portion of that same weight of love and understanding.
Bobby’s right hand began to throb, which was impossible because it wasn’t there. Phantom pains. He was supposed to be past that. His nerve endings should have learned to adjust by now, to stop lying to him about the loss. But fire still burned in every finger, he could feel it, and he held his bandaged stump before his face, trying his best to stare his way through the mystery.
And then she saw him, realized for the first time that he was here, home from the war. Home from the war, but damaged, mutilated, crippled. The horror of it filled her face, and his heart sank, but only for a moment, because there was more to it, much more, the horror wasn’t for herself or for her own cascading disappointments, but for him, for the pain he’d endured, and the fears he’d suffered through, and she rushed forward with a terrible cry and threw her arms around his neck and hugged him there on the ground and sobbed and sobbed and told him that she loved him.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Clint McCown grew up in the South. He chairs the creative writing program at Beloit College and has twice won the American Fiction Award for his short stories, which have been widely published. He is also a screenwriter for Warner Brothers. He lives in Beloit, Wisconsin.