by Steve Fayer
But tell me a happy story," his great-granddaughter said."Don't know no happy ones," Ditch Pollard said.
The child, like most six-year-olds, took comfort in heroic myths progressing in a linear fashion that never did exist in the real world. He had tried to prepare her with stories that did not end well, stories that were his own childhood in disguise. But the girl had refused to absorb the sadness. She had known losses. What she wanted was fairy tales.
"Once upon a time," he began. "There was a princess who lived in Slaters Ridge. "In the Catskill Mountains. In the state of New York."
"What color was she?" Callie said.
"Color don't matter."
"Okay, she was the color of coffee in which some fool had poured too much cream."
"Well, maybe more like honey. A honey-colored child."
"Prettier than you, girl."
"Nobody's prettier than me."
"Her name was Calliope," he said. "From the Greek language. A slave name. The old masters showing off their classic education, you might say, and making a joke by naming those whom they considered lesser humans with the names of muses and other gods and goddesses."
"You are already making this a sad story," the child said.
"Am not," he said. And grew silent.
"This princess," Callie said. "Her name sounds like mine. And my name is not joke-y."
"That's the thing," he said. "You take someone's joke, and you turn it into your own music. You tap your feet to it. You dance on it. And you come up with a beautiful riff, you come up with a name like Callie."
"So once upon a time there was a beautiful princess," he said. "Skin the color of clover honey. With a name handed down from Olympus."
"A heaven," he said. "Somewheres down in the south of Europe."
It was an old and by now rehearsed pattern of call-and-response. The old man soon to celebrate his ninetieth birthday. The child fearful of losing him.
"Or maybe it was a mountain," he said.
"Like these mountains?"
"Well, these mountains are Dutch mountains. Before I was talking about Greek mountains. You know where Greece is, don't you?
"You fry things," the child said.
The girl slept in his arms. He had held children, and then grandchildren against his chest. But this first great-grandchild, unlike the others, seemed hell-bent on erasing the years that stood between them. She flirted with him, breathed into his neck in her sleep, snored lightly there, compared her own fair skin against the wrinkled chestnut hue he owned, traced the cords of muscle that stood out on his bone-thin arms. rubbed her face on the calluses of his hands. With her father long gone, she was using him, Ditch thought, in the long and tangled process of learning womanhood. He hoped the child's beauty would be employed someday only to break men's hearts, that it would not be a curse to her—burdening her with the overblown expectations of others, making out of her a grown woman drowning in admiration, and bruised by the ugliness to which she would be inevitably attracted.
He would not live to see that. She did not know this. Only sensed it in the way children understand their own vulnerability.
Ditch Pollard hoped that she would know in the moments when she was unloved and in disrepair that she had been loved, and had trusted a man in her life who had not betrayed her. That would be the sweetest way to immortality. Or so he told himself.
Once upon a time there had been a beautiful princess, he dreamed. In the town of Slaters Ridge. And her skin had been the color of chalk. Her hair as dark as a black woman's hair, and almost as tightly curled. The princess was white. But even before history was written down, her ancestors had lain with Africans. Sheba was one of her great great grandmothers. And this princess of a girl had given the eye to a boy with chestnut-dark skin, a nod to her history and his.
It was not the usual fairy tale. And he wished Callie would hurry and grow up so he could tell it to her before his own breath stopped. The father of the princess hated people of color and would have shot-gunned the chestnut-skinned boy without a by-your-leave if he knew that boy had the eye of his elder daughter.
In the mid-1920s, he had been the only black child in the high school. Being only one, he was not deemed much of a threat. Taught Yiddish by the Jewish couple with whom he and his mother roomed, he was the town's good-natured joke. While his mother worked in the Sullivan County laundry, the boy labored at odd jobs—on a good day he could make a dollar and a half—helping to cut ice out of Stump Lake in the deep winter, digging ditches for the town when some of the old mains burst, mowing hotel lawns, sculpting hedges designed to keep out people like him.
There were no girls of color in the town. Only a few women of his mother's age come up from Georgia to the laundry. Except for the offices of his own right hand, he remained a virgin, clothed in an innocence of which his mother, an AME regular churchgoer, was particularly proud.
The chicken farm where he roomed with his mother was two miles up the road that led from the village to the ridge. The road led past the Pearl farm, the house a relic of the mid-1800s, paint peeling, main beams rotting with a tendency to sway just so you could notice in a late summer storm. Behind it, stood a stout oaken barn, sheltering five or six milk cows. On the side of the barn, was a chicken coop, with the standard assortment of birds for that time, White Leghorns, the big egg producers, and Barred Rocks for meat and brown eggs, and beyond that a clear, spring-fed pond surrounded by a stone wall.
He passed the Pearl farm at least two times a day.
On rare occasions, he walked the hill after school with the Pearl's oldest daughter, Laurie. Sometimes accompanied by her younger sister, Alexandra, a girl of twelve or so, barely budding.
Ditch had a good mind for things mechanical. He thought that was why Laurie Pearl decided he could be trusted with her father's new Kodak camera. He soon learned it was not just the camera she would trust him with. She would put in his hands her own good name. And the good names of several others, male and female, in their small high school class. It would be in the barn of the Pearl farm—and in the abandoned settlement not far up the road—where their lives would take an unanticipated turn.
Callie shook him awake. "What about this child on the mountain?" she said. What about Calliope?"
"She swam every day," he said. "In the magic river called Neversink. And the child's long hair braided with cowrie shells streamed out behind her, the cowries protecting her, you know, and paying her way."
"Was it good hair?"
"Good like mine?"
"Yes, good like yours. Fitting to her honey-color."
He paused while she let the scene play in her mind. "She don't have clothes on," Callie said.
Ditch did not want the conversation to go in a direction he could not control. He had heard of old men who turned to sex talk with children. He did not want to be one of those old fools. "She does, too, have clothes on," he said. "A princess knows enough to cover her nakedness."
"So you can't see her titties," the child said.
"What's this about good hair and bad hair?" he said.
The child looked him over. Her great grandfather had skin dark as chestnut. His hair, what little he had left, tightly curled to his skull.
"I got good hair, my momma said. Other people, they got bad hair."
"White folks have good hair," the child said. "Like me."
The girl's hair was dark silk. He combed it with his fingers. The feel and scent of the hair was as erotic as the breasts which he dared not reach for.
"Different," Laurie Pearl said.
"I want you to touch me all over," she whispered.
Ditch fled the barn. At age sixteen, he knew how the world worked. Ever since the end of the Great War, it seemed whites were beating on niggers all over the country. As if the energy stored up to fight the Hun had not been totally expended, and was turned now to fight the colored.
Even more powerful, however, was the fear of God's rules. His Christian faith was strong. And fornication no matter the color combination was an insult to the church and to its African Methodist Episcopal God. Not a god invented by Greeks. But the genuine article. At least that is what he had been taught.
The Yiddish-speaking Lithuanian couple, the Mintz's, with whom he and his mother boarded, believed in no God. They believed in free and unfettered love, lived in sin in a community that seemed to shrug off the couple's defiance of social codes. Socialists, communists, were not that unusual among the Yiddish-speaking immigrants from eastern Europe. He had picked up their language, entering a universe of curses and creative insult, a world of undisguised physical function and bawdiness. In its rhythms, it seemed opposite to the language of his mother and her friends, their soft-spoken southernness laced with plantation idiom from a world of servitude only half a century dead. But despite the Jews' privilege of their white skin, beneath the rivers of sound even as a child he had observed widely divided but parallel courses. If Jews insulted, colored folks signified. If blue-collar Jews self-deprecated in their name-calling, it was not a far leap to his mother sniffing at "house niggers." If Molly Mintz made fun of "the goyim," he also heard his mother's coded back-of- the-hand talk about "Mister Charley and Miss Anne." His mother, Truth Pollard, had come up from Georgia, the daughter of a couple themselves conceived in bondage. His father had disappeared in the environs of Stone Mountain, done in or done gone, his mother said. Either fate not unusual.
He thought he could broach the problem of Laurie Pearl with Molly Mintz, their landlady, freethinker and freelover that she was. More than once, Molly had told him she loved him like a son. But what if he was wrong about her? What if whiteness bred loyalties he did not yet understand? Would Molly turn him in for the crime of thinking miscegenation? Or, at the least, would Molly get Laurie in trouble by telling on her to Sam Pearl, a shotgun wielding fool in bloused trousers and high Russian boots, who had made clear his contempt for every colored man and woman who had come to work in the town.
The night Laurie offered herself, Ditch ran from the Pearl barn into the woods that grew high above the farm. He heard Laurie calling into the darkness, calling his name, a damn fool thing to do given that her father Sam Pearl was probably somewhere on the property. As he made his way through the old growth forest, silver and dim in the starlight, he felt his knees trembling. It was not fear of the night. There were no bears, no coyotes, no wolves remaining in these Catskill forests, not here in the foothills. And he convinced himself it was not fear of Sam Pearl who crazy man as he was would probably not pursue a nigger boy in the woods in the dark. He trembled because he did indeed want to touch all those secrets she had offered. There was a dark place in the center of his soul. And Laurie Pearl had walked into that center, her wonderful breasts pushing against the whiteness of her middy blouse, her nipples erect and visible even through the opacity of her underwear.
Ditch Pollard was shaking with desire.
He had warned Callie. She had a habit of raiding his collection of stones and pebbles worn smooth by the action of the Neversink River nearby. The child always sucking on a stone as if it were a hard candy, rolling it from side to side in her mouth, inserting it into the gaps from which baby teeth had disappeared.
"I am going to die," the child screamed. Her eyes were bright with terror. She jumped into his lap, attempted to burrow beneath his outer self, perhaps imagining herself small enough to hide so deep in a wrinkle that death would not find her.
"Nobody gonna kill you," he said.
He patted the wing bones in her back. "How's that?"
"I swallowed the stone," she said. "The stone I had in my mouth."
"Given your long-lived ancestors," he said. "You got approximately one hundred years before you croak."
"But it will grow into a rock inside of me," Callie said. "And then into a mountain. It will take me over."
He made a deal with the child. They would examine her stools for the next day or two. He assured her that she would pass the stone easy as pie.
"Yes, like corn."
On the second day, she called him into the bathroom. The crisis was over. But the idea that she took death so seriously stayed with him. The child was not too young to fear for her life. He feared for it as well. But it would not be a polished pebble cast up by a magic river that threatened her. It would be this village. The high ridge that loomed over it, making everyone feel small. The child's mother was already lost, nodding in some doorway in far-off Brooklyn. So it was her grandmother, his daughter, who looked almost as old as he and creaked when she walked, a woman with bones as brittle as bad concrete, who had taken charge of the child. So Callie had a right to fear. Those charged with the child's caretaking stood on the universe's edge, divers on the high board.
If he could make it through one more decade, the girl would then be sweet sixteen and although still vulnerable, not as vulnerable as in the here and now. He could keep her away from tobacco and alcohol, and other more mind-bending substances, could teach her that the forces set to work in her body were always to be respected, but not always heeded. And you cannot make a contract with life, he wanted to tell her. Or one with another human being that will hold up for eternity in God's court. That river must be plumbed with care. But getting carried away was of itself not evil. He certainly had been carried away. More than just once, or twice. It was all complicated. And sometimes it hurt his head to think about it. Words that he required were buried somewhere inside his skull, and refused to make themselves available.
The camera was an up-to-date 1926 model made upstate in Rochester, a brand-new Kodak Autographic. It unfolded from its flat leather case into what looked like a steam locomotive, the bellows pulling out to form the engine. It was one of the most beautiful devices he had ever seen, unblemished chrome and stainless steel, the lenses highly polished. Even the instruction booklet seemed a work of art. A few days later, Laurie Pearl again put it into his hands, asked if he could learn to operate it. He was afraid of Laurie Pearl and her erotic aura. But he could not resist.
"Could you take my picture?" she had asked.
Yes, he could learn to take her picture, he told her. Then I will get some film this week, she said, and then ran off into the gathering dark, her white middy blouse half-pulled from the waist of her skirt, her figure receding toward the Pearl house as she cradled the camera in her arms.
Callie was obsessed with color. The child was making him crazy.
"Black people ain't black," she announced at table. "Black people is brown. Or coffee-colored. Or honey-colored. And any fool can see that black people has been mis-named."
The child could not be silenced.
"I ain't never seen a white person, either," she said. "They pinkish, or greyish, or brownish."
"Well, don't worry about it," her grandmother said. "The older you get, the less you will bother to see. It just gets easier."
"You're fooling with the child's mind," Ditch said. He turned to Callie. "If you're smart about it, you'll grow up to see more than any of us ever saw."
"Will you be there?"
"I'll do my best," Ditch Pollard said.
At first, it was only Laurie Pearl. And the photographs were formal, entirely innocent. She dropped the rolls off at the drugstore in the village. And a week or so later, the prints, fairly large, were returned. Later, it proved impossible to offer the negatives to the eyes of others. Laurie sent away to Rochester for chemicals, and he developed the negatives, and made prints in a makeshift darkroom in the house where he had been raised.
The equipment was not cheap. The Kodak film tank alone cost $6.50; the fixing and washing tank another 2.50. Then there were the powders, developers, fixers, developing clips, a darkroom lamp with a 5/8 inch wick. Where was she getting the money? Stealing it, she said. From her father.
Another commandment violated. Somewhere along the way he had passed the point of no return.
Callie had the habit of doing her business with the door flung wide for all the world to see. It was her way of establishing intimacy he thought. And to show her trust. And maybe deep down to flirt. Watching the child pee, her legs straddling the old wooden seat, triggered a protectiveness in him. Nothing so vulnerable, he thought. Most of the women he could number in his life, they also sooner or later opened this door. He remembered Laurie Pearl, crouched in the grass in her father's high meadows, looking up at him, bold and shy at the same time, as if to say, see, I deny you no secrets.
"You wipin' the wrong way," he told the child. "Front to back, not back to front."
He was convinced her girlfriends had picked him because he could not tell. Because if he did, some outraged vigilante might put a bullet in his skull, the way he imagined his father had disappeared on Stone Mountain. The very fact of his testimony that he had seen them all in their total nakedness, that he could tell in detail the sex games played, could with his eyes closed disclose the location of moles, scars and in the case of one girl—strawberry marks—in their private places, would seal his fate.
But in the beginning it was just Laurie, the girl unbuttoning the top button of her blouse. Just one button. Hell, that might have been all it took. She was not the smartest woman he would know in his long life. But about being female, no Cleopatra or Josephine could outdistance her. One button. It was more devastating than stepping naked out of the barn hay. One button. Filled with dizzying promise.
All that fuss over a white girl. The problem was there were no girls of color. In the isolation in which he had been raised—even girls of his own color were exotics.
Calliope looked at him. Between them, there were always unspoken questions, operating on a wavelength denied to others.
"Thinkin' about being young," he said.
"Granma said when you were young, you were 'a dog'."
"Granma don't know nothin'."
"Says you were a roguish fellow."
He pondered on that for a minute.
"A dog and a rogue. Goes hand in hand, I guess."
"I saw your picture," Callie said. "Black nappy hair, all over your head. And you weren't bent over."
"I wasn't old," he said.
"I like you old," the child said. "I like you old. And I like the way you smell. You got kind of a buttery smell about you."
Ditch Pollard laughed out loud, then took a while to get back his breath.
"Wasn't that funny," Callie's grandmother said, calling in from the kitchen.
"I got a house full of women," Ditch said loud enough so all could hear. "I got a daughter who shows me no respect and a granddaughter who's flown the coop. And the only one makes any sense at all is the six-year-old."
"Then let her cook your dinner," Callie's grandmother said. "And iron your underwear, old man."
"Got two social security checks coming into one house," he said. "And I am surrounded by women poor in spirit."
A pan banged in the kitchen. Callie crawled into his lap, put her finger against his lips.
"I get the message," he said. "In fact, I had got it before you decided to quiet me."
It was Laurie Pearl who had stopped his lips with her own. He had stood like a fool, his arms stiff at his sides, until she lifted his hands, and placed them against her face.
A week later, she took him to the settlement, that collection of twelve cabins built around the time of the Civil War the girl had said, buried deep in the woods, an abandoned place unknown to him, shaking his boy's confidence that he knew the territory of Slaters Ridge, every boulder and underground spring, and suddenly finding within a quarter mile of a road he walked daily a village within the village, cabins prim and proper marching in order down to a pond, an outhouse for each, set far enough back from the pond so as not to corrupt it and the well with its rusted iron pump and handle.
Laurie Pearl forced the old hinges of one of the cabins and drew him inside into a dankness that smelled like evil. He was fool enough to believe that God was watching, that fornication of any kind would command a terrible price, and that letting this white girl touch him in the way she was doing was preparing his place in hell.
The problem with being church-raised he thought was that instead of accommodating the forces at work in the world, you end up in a whirlwind of myth and superstition, a universe of opaque fogs and transparent illusion constructed by an all-seeing magician. Hell, his great-granddaughter's name was born of that same impulse, of myth and needs so old that the mysteries got told and retold, passed on from first generation to last, from continent to continent.
"I saw Miss Laurie Pearl in the village last week," Callie said.
"She's so old," Callie said. "And mean. Like the witch that melted."
"You got to talk nice about people," the child's grandmother said from the kitchen. "So they'll talk nice about you."
It was not a life's lesson in which Ditch believed. He grunted his disapproval. The child followed his lead.
"Old white people don't look good," Callie said. "Miss Pearl looks kind of ashy and sick. And she talks like she got a coffee grinder stuck in her throat."
Callie's grandmother charged in from the kitchen. "What a terrible way to talk about people. Girl, you should show some respect. There's no knowing what they been through, these people you telling tales on."
Callie crawled onto Ditch's lap. "Poppa Ditch is beautiful," she said. "Like me."
"Girl is full of herself."
"You keep telling that child she's beautiful and someday there will be hell to pay."
"Always is," he said.
In the cabin, a moment after she touched him, he lost control and ejaculated into her hands.
"There now," Laurie Pearl said.
Then she did an extraordinary thing, lifting her hands to her nostrils, breathing in his scent. And then another extraordinary thing. Miss Laurie Pearl lifted her blouse and rubbed his semen into her belly.
Young fool that he was, he had always considered his ejaculate a kind of pollution. She seemed totally unaware of the danger in it.
"Next time," she said. "I want you to put yourself inside of me."
"Can't do it."
"Oh, I think you can."
The girl undid the buttons of her blouse, and moving her hands behind her back, undid the fastenings of her undergarment.
The nipples, pale pink, the color of her lips, stood straight out, pointing in his direction.
"I am getting so wet," she said. "My drawers are soaked."
He believed they were already condemned, and that if this thing went a step further they would be eternally doomed. That's how well-churched he was.
"This is a sin," he said. But as fearful as he was at that moment of God and of her father, Sam Pearl, who both seemed of a sudden to combine into one entity, his Johnson again came to awful and riotous attention. He had fantasized so long about Laurie Pearl's breasts. And there they were, the devil's toys, just a hand's length away.
"You thinking about old times," Callie said.
"How you know that?"
"You were smiling," she said. "With your eyes closed."
"I was laughing at myself," he said. "You get old, you get a lot of funny memories."
"You were dreamin'," Callie said. The girl frowned, then looked around as if she were preparing a great secret. "Old men supposed to be taking care of their children, not sleeping their lives away."
"Sounds like your grandmother talkin'," he said.
At first, it was just the girls arranging themselves in what were suggestive positions—these school friends of Laurie Pearl's—in front of this black boy. He pretended to a professionalism that was patently fraudulent, selecting f-stops and shutter speeds according to the Kodak manual, setting the shutter by pressing lever E, exposing film by pressing lever C.
A few weeks later, the girls giggling and conspiring in one of the cabins at the settlement, lined up like dancers, their backs to him, then turned one by one to reveal their almost bared breasts.
The one named Myrna began pointing at his arousal. They asked to see what all the excitement was about. He fled the cabin. Left the camera for Laurie to retrieve.
A year later, in the back of Sam Pearl's barn, Laurie whispered to him that she was pregnant, carrying his child. Ditch wanted her to have his baby. They would go to Canada, he told her. Instead, she took the train to New York with Myrna. Myrna's boyfriend was a second-year medical resident. He knew about the goings-on in the cabin. The boyfriend had been invited up there. And had posed for some photographs with Myrna, photos that Ditch knew they had buried under one of the buildings. It was Myrna's boyfriend who performed the abortion. And later became one of the two doctors serving Slaters Ridge.
Ditch's own opinion had never been asked.
"You killed my child," he said.
"Our child," Laurie Pearl said.
Ditch shook his head. "I never took you for a coward."
"Nigger, I was not afraid to have your child."
Ditch waved her off. He did not want to hear any of this hypocrisy.
"Me they would not kill, she said. "You, that's a different story."
He did not believe for a moment that she had destroyed the child in order to save his life. If the devil had taken the shape of a woman and descended on a mountain village, he had come as Laurie Pearl. Later Ditch had the courage to admit to himself that he was relieved. He was certain he would have broken his own mother's heart. And did not know until Molly Mintz had confessed it to him in what she knew to be her final days that Ditch's mother had known all along. The daughter of slaves up from Georgia had said to Molly that the white girl was not good enough for her son. And she had refused to tell him that Laurie Pearl was somehow his better, when she was not. Or that her son's Johnson was unworthy when it was not. Oh, dangerous it was. And probably unholy. But she was not about to kowtow to anybody. She had worked too hard, had been too infected with Molly Mintz's freethinking and her own Methodist Episcopal sense of herself to tell her son that these people they lived among were somehow superior.
Fact was her son deserved better than this white girl. She was not a Christian for one thing. Was common for another. Next thing to a streetwalker.
Ditch Pollard never lay with Laurie Pearl again, never touched her or sought the comfort in her body. She would teach some other boy to make photographs, and one day Ditch would dig up the pictures buried in an old paint can up there in the settlement. But he was out of that game. Laurie Pearl, the first love of his life, had murdered his baby.
It would take a long lifetime before he would even consider trusting one of them again. Even Molly Mintz, whose color he often forgot, he could not, would not, trust with his soul. Always seemed to have some high-sounding motive. But sooner or later, if you let them, they killed what you loved. And they called you a name.
"You grinding your teeth," Callie said. "Again!"
He unfolded himself out of his sleeping chair, took Callie by the hand.
It was time to make their daily errand into the village. Child would eat virtually nothing except macaroni and cheese. Not the homemade pasta his daughter turned out, and the fresh grated cheese. But pre-packaged stuff, with Lord knows what kinds of chemicals to harm the child's growth.
The two were a familiar sight, the skinny old black man, knees and elbows all knobs, and the fawn-colored child, driving him forward with her own elastic energy, passing the village's year-round Hasid families in their somber black dress, pausing to speak a few words of Yiddish here and there, the little girl's accent almost as good as his own. In her innocence and parochial world view, she believed that all black people moved through a sea of black-clad Jews, that the world itself was a flexible creation, changing shape and form, according to the language you used to address it, that food changed its taste depending on the word you used for it, that words that were bad in one language were often pleasantly disguised in another, and that politenesses varied, that some words and phrases curtsied while others danced.
Old-believers in black, newcomers speaking Spanglish and Spanish, were the girl's dictionary.
At the post office in the center of town, Ditch held Callie up to their box and she spun the combination with authority. Two letters only, a bill from the electric company and a solicitation from the NAACP, an organization he had favored ever since they had fought for an anti-lynch law in the 1930s.
From her window above the shuttered dry goods store, the crone, Laurie Pearl, saw Ditch Pollard parading through town with that great granddaughter of his, on his arm. They had not talked for at least a decade, although they breathed the same mountain air, she and Ditch Pollard. The old woman determined to make it to the street to confront him with her sorrow.
In the store where he had worked half a century previous, a place once catering to secular Jews from eastern Europe, now re-named the Spanish-American Market, he and Callie picked out a crown roast of pork. The child probably would not eat it. But loved the look of it and believed it was appropriate to her own royal status. At age six, Ditch's princess-child had already mastered more than a few phrases of Yiddish, Hebrew, and Spanish. She thanked Mr. Eddie Hernandez in his native language for the bag of M&Ms; he had conferred upon her. And then moved to the dry food shelf and selected two boxes of macaroni and cheese.
"I like what you did to the store," Ditch said. "Got some bright lights in here, finally. An old man can now see the merchandise which may or not be a boon to business."
Hernandez smiled. "Mr. Pollard, those lights were put in twenty, maybe thirty years ago, long before my time."
"Just yesterday," Ditch said. "Place used to be filled with ladies spouting Yiddish, squeezing melons, sniffing the rear ends of fresh-killed poultry. Couple summers, one of the Pearls, Miss Laurie Pearl's nephew, her sister Alexandra's boy, worked with me here, picking orders for the bungalow colonies and hotels which in those days were still crowded with summer people. Old Studebaker truck. No sane man would drive a truck like that these days. Shake the kidneys loose from their moorings. But seemed good enough back then."
The boy had loved making deliveries in that old truck. They had more than once shared a swig from Ditch's bottle of rye whisky under the seat, and a cigarette or two along the way. He had been a good kid all in all, and seemed not to have been a victim of the craziness that afflicted most of the Pearl family. But Ditch never told the boy that he had once bedded down with the boy's aunt. And that the boy had lost a colored cousin to an abortionist's knife.
The wildness in the Pearl blood had been passed generation to generation. He had watched the growing up of Laurie Pearl's daughter, Rhoda, the red-headed child who several months pregnant had gone off to New York and married at eighteen, and in recent years had gotten herself a cancer.
She had returned just the year before, gaunt, hollow-eyed, to visit her mother. To Ditch's dim eyes Rhoda was still beautiful. But the pangs of guilt he felt about her persisted. He had in an oblique way led her to the photographs when she was just fifteen, using her cousin who helped him on the truck to set that all in motion. And had convinced himself that it was to protect her from the wildness, to disgust her and open her eyes to the evil around her. Instead, it had set her off. If he dared be honest about his motives, it was revenge on old Sam Pearl for his bigotry. And perhaps worse—retribution on Laurie Pearl for killing his child. He had manipulated so many lives, making himself more a god than old Calliope had been a goddess. So he had arranged for Rhoda to discover her mother's nakedness, the young Laurie Pearl captured by a Kodak Autographic playing the whore in one of the cabins of the settlement. And had set in motion events which eventually led to Rhoda's estrangement from the cousin whom she had loved.
He felt responsible even for Rhoda's cancer. When one corrupts another human being, he believed there might be no end to the corruption. Happy people don't get sick as much as the sad and depressed. If you created their unhappiness, then you bore a heavy responsibility.
Callie offered him an M&M.;
God's justice was often confusing. Given his track record, he did not deserve the affection of this child. Yet, there it was, the crowning gift of his life. If only it could be accepted without harming any more of the world that seemed to revolve around him. Callie's mother was already a walking tragedy, whoring for drug money on the Brooklyn streets. He hoped that was the end of it. The end of divine payback for his own sins. And that the child, Callie, would be spared.
"Eat some more candies," Callie said. "Makes you walk faster."
Ditch smiled. They were approaching the dry goods store where Laurie Pearl had once worked, and above which she still lived. Callie wanted to pass the store as quickly as she could. Laurie Pearl was her bogeyman. Most of her nightmares involved Laurie. As did some of his.
"Miss Laurie Pearl," Ditch said, with a small nod. He held the child's hand tighter as the old woman appeared in the doorway.
"Gone," she said. "Gone."
"You lost something, Miss Pearl?"
"Dammit, Ditch. Don't play any fucking games with me."
"The child," Ditch said.
Laurie Pearl turned to study Callie. "She's a girl. She'll be up to her neck in shit before she knows it."
Laurie Pearl grabbed the door frame for support. "Rhoda's gone. Killed herself last night." The old woman sat down in the doorway, resting on the stone sill. Ditch knelt beside her. "We killed Rhoda," she said softly. "We killed my baby girl."
He had wanted to tell Laurie Pearl that every day he mourned his own living granddaughter, murdering herself in Brooklyn. But he dared not at that moment impose his own pain. In its suddenness, Laurie Pearl's pain was so pure it was impossible to share.
"What she mean?" Callie said as they walked back to the house.
"Just an old woman," Ditch said. "Her mind don't click together all the time."
"She an ugly old woman," Callie said.
"You can't be so quick to judgment when you lookin' at the remains of a person," Ditch said. "She was a little girl, just like you once. And a beautiful young woman. But you hang around long enough, you get car-wrecked, you know."
"You old," she said. "And you beautiful."
He knelt down to the little girl.
"I want you to remember all of your life how important you are."
Learning what to forgive, and what not to forgive is God's game, he thought. You do the best you can in the beginning with all these hormones running around, and one day your life's end has snuck up on you and if you are lucky to have lived long, and fortunate to have some of your intelligence still intact, you have the time to attempt to figure out the unfigurable. Somewhere out there in the universe is the spirit of his unborn son, a child the color of coffee corrupted with cream, and he wants to apologize to that child that he started him on his way and was not there to see him through. And now, there is Rhoda, set adrift by her own hand. What will he say the next time they meet? May you rest in peace, girl. May no country nigger come bearing photographic gifts, intent on visiting your mother's sins upon your head.
And to Molly Mintz he will say: I was wrong not to trust you. But based on the evidence I had in hand, it was the right thing to do.
"I can't wake him up," Callie said.
'He's just playing," her grandmother said. "Just shake him gently."
The little girl and the old woman stood for a long time watching the rise and fall of his thin chest. Only Ditch Pollard knew he was beneath the Neversink, pursuing the muse with her cowrie shell braids.
"He's breathing good," the girl said.
"Too mean to die," her grandmother said. "Just an old dog. Chasin' his dinner in his dreams."
Calliope giggled. "He a rogue, all right." And then she laughed out loud.
Steve Fayer has published fiction in Bellevue Literary Review, The Falcon, Jewish Currents, Natural Bridge, New York Stories, North American Review, Potomac Review, Potpourri, and Saranac Review. His work as a documentary writer for PBS has been recognized with a national Emmy for Eyes On The Prize and a Writers' Guild of America Award for George Wallace: Settin' The Woods On Fire. He is also co-author of Voices of Freedom, a history of the civil rights movement [Bantam,1990].