Ask any man what the only good thing about George County is and he will likely tell you this: the only good thing about George County Mississippi is that it's so full of flat nothingness that nobody, not even Jesus, can sneak up on a body.
By the old pump shed, near where the holy yokes leaned, the late winter grass was worn down as old brown velvet. Slick and near napless, the path seemed straight and narrow as any good preacher might preach, for behind the trail sat his mother's house, spread out and pieced together, misshapen as sin. If ever there was a clear picture of salvation in Hezekiah Sheehand's mind, the worn-down strip of dirt stood to paint it. His brother strapped to his back, he reached around and patted the five-year-old's leg and wished Yellababy could smell the warmish winter air and appreciate it, or even notice the odor of goose shit muddying up the ground and make a face at that, but smells were beyond Yellababy's realm of understanding, as were most things the rest of the God-fearing world took for granted. Hezekiah knew this and kept on walking, his eyes down to the brown velvet path of salvation the whole while.
Behind him, the house squatted low beside a cherty road that wound through George County, Mississippi. Hot as hell in the summertime, with a wet steamy heat that soaked the skin and soured the clothes, the place seemed a final haven for mosquitoes and candle moths and cicadas 'til late at night, when finally-around ten or eleven o’clock-even the bugs tired out. Winters were better. Damp, but nicer. No bugs then. Just hoarfrost that crunched underfoot and icicles that pointed down to the porch where the guts of sewing machines and boxes of carburetors were stacked next to dead car batteries and bent buckets and glass-globed lanterns empty of oil.
Inside the house his mother was up and stirring, tagging clothes for resale, for the winter season was almost over and even dirt-road women were growing anxious for spring. Earlier, while still undecided about whether or not to go for a walk, Hezekiah had shared the doorway with her, their hip bones touching at uneasy points of contact. Wind had brushed through the opening and there'd been a flutter and out the corner of his eye he'd seen a tag pinned to the neck of the dress she was wearing. Twenty-five cents, he read. He'd decided he would go then, realizing she was modeling her goods and that as soon as he stepped off the porch, she'd find herself digging through the cardboard boxes of shoes in search of a pair that came close to matching the faded shade of the dress, and still this wouldn't suit her.
"The bus has come and gone," she had said to him while they stood inside the doorway, her arms crossing her stomach, his arms matching hers. Hezekiah had grown taller through the winter months, equaled out in portions of healthy weight and broader shoulders and larger hands and feet. The playing field was level now, he stood nose to nose with her, and knew it.
"And I werent on it," he had answered, matter-of-factly. Neither had his sister, Arena, but this had not been mentioned.
He glanced to the side, in avoidance of those blue eyes trying to stare a hole through him, and saw the corner table housing religious statues. Marys and Josephs and one or two Queen Elizabeths were huddled there, price tags fastened around their plaster necks with pale rubber bands. Hezekiah saw the craggy pink plaster face of Saint Joseph, one eye cast lower than the other as if the human hand painting it had slipped or misjudged the application, or, perhaps, grown lazy. That solemn orb seemed dead as a button, waylaid by false expectations and disappointments, more than a little sad, and Hezekiah could not help wondering why folks with religion always looked so bitter when all they had to put up with was thievery of the Sunday School money, or possibly the devil.
"Where you think you’re goin to?" his mother had said, quietly. Her bare feet planted on the damp wooden floor.
"Maybe Chalktown, I was thinkin," he had answered, hoping for an instant that Virgin Mary might be murmuring a prayer from a point he couldn't see.
"No sir, you aint," she said.
"It's spring almost and I don't see why not."
"Because of school's why not. I thought Mr. Calhoun told you about that county car out here lookin for you."
He had. But Hezekiah had been marking his days of truancy with a red crayon he kept hid underneath his bed. Upon waking, he'd counted them up and done the math and come to the belief that he had three-or was it two?-days left. While he stood in the doorway and felt the uncommon warmish air, he drew inside his mind a map of George County. The small towns inside that map: Lucedale, Agricola, and Basin and the river that ran within spitting distance of all of them: the Pascagoula. The roads that ran alongside, and the houses situated on those roads. All the people inside those houses. The map became bigger and bigger inside its grid. And once it stretched beyond his mental margins he tried to imagine somebody at the county seat suddenly taking notice of one dirt-road boy skipping school, making a game of the system, but he couldn't. It would be like looking for one fly amid thousands buzzing the fat carcass of a cow.
"George County aint got the money to waste lookin for me," he said.
"Well," she said. "I think you’re wrong there. The man in that car yesterday werent out here shoppin. He was pretendin was all. Studied that holy yoke for a minute." She pointed to:
The eyes of the lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good. Poverbs 15:3.
His father, Fairy, had left the r out of Proverbs, and no one had bothered to repaint it. The ox yoke leaned against the pump house, marked down by fifty percent. "He stayed for most of an hour and never parted with a dime."
"I’m goin anyhow," Hezekiah had said, looking at her, noticing the slack skin around her mouth and the brittle sheen that lit across her forehead and the almost transparent covering of skin at her temples. Blue veins traced upward into her blond hair, where one shank had worked loose from its pin and settled over her ear. He felt a momentary pity for her that shifted something inside his lower gut. She was a formidable woman who was unraveling at her seams and it was this thing that made him want to walk away and never look back. There had been a sound then, a low troubled moan, and he had glanced down to his brother, stretched out on the floor atop his blanket. "I think I’ll take him, too," he said.
"Suit your own self, then. I think you’re askin for it, though. And I aint one to grieve when a person gits what they got comin."
Susan-Blair had walked away from the doorway then, and the dress tag quit its fluttering and Hezekiah went about the business of getting ready.
The kitchen was an unsightly mess. Stacks of dishes, all different makes and models, filled the counter space. Paper plates wearing leftover food, stacked by the sink. Three metal coffeepots set to the stove. She'd dirty one and go on to the next, he figured. What with her present occupation, there seemed no likely end to the supply, either. The milk had gone over so he filled a fruit jar with water, another with apple juice, and shoved four cans of Vienna sausage in the front pocket of the old haversack. Leg holes had been cut into the drab olive green and once his brother had been fitted into it, he would be carried out of the place. High time, too. Hez had gone to his back room and fetched up three clean diapers, stood looking at them for a long moment before picking up two more. No way a shitty bottom would set a curfew to his day.
On his way to the front room, he had stooped and turned off the gas heater in the hall and then gone to the kitchen stove and checked the registers. As much as he hated them, he'd not wish her, or his sister, to be a victim of leaking propane. He glanced around. Unless a messy house could suddenly acquire the ability to turn lethal, no one was likely to die before he made it back home that evening. Hezekiah left the room.
Yellababy had seemed tuned to some advent of change, for he stiffened once and pulled his arms to his chest and rolled his eyes and tried to speak. It was wasted effort and Hezekiah knew it, but he was stopped in his tracks by the color of his brother's eyes: the clearest blue he'd ever seen. And large and thickly lashed in hair so white they seemed dusted with gold. He unfolded the haversack and spread it on the floor and folded a blanket and set it to the seat of it. Through the maze of dresses and past the table full of somebody's cracked china and the naked dolls Hezekiah used to think looked like the real thing, until he saw the real thing and realized the dolls, even busted up, looked better, he saw his mother standing inside the wall of clothes. He bent and with careful hands worked his brother's body into the pouch, seeing the shafts of his mother's legs, stubborn and fixed inside a sea of handed-down dresses suspended from the ceiling. I guess even as a baby I seen her legs before I seen her face, he thought and then he whispered into his brother's ear in a quiet and determined voice, "And now here you are bound to do the same ."
The path led to his nearest neighbor's house, a place smaller, but ordered and clean, heaven-like, even though a colored lived there. A drift of vapor lifted out the stovepipe in the man's tar-paper roof and Hezekiah smelled bacon and biscuits and coffee and eggs, a potent blend that made his mouth water. He had not figured breakfast into the beginning of his day, but wished that he had.
The Calhoun place had rambly roses winding around the front fence posts and while no cows grazed beyond the wire, the colored man cultivated the acreage as though God Almighty might be planning on dropping two or three of them down from heaven at any given moment. Field hay had been mown and cubed and bound in silvery twine. Four bales were stacked near a gate, graying in increments that brought to mind things old and of little use, yet held on to for reasons sentimental. A ladle was there, as well as a tin bucket, and Hezekiah knew the man had made himself a recliner of the hay and had sat there during the day previous, staring at the road.
The geese were outside honking in the sunshine. Hezekiah watched as their long necks dug in under their wings and chucked up feathers to shapes resembling vertical white spears. When they raised their heads their feathers smoothed down slick as ice while their webbed feet steadied them in the mud next to Marion Calhoun's truck. Warm air rushed across Hezekiah's face again and he judged the day to be glorious and warm, and the geese seemed in agreement, for in one unified movement, like dancers on a stage, their necks accordioned out and they broke into a brilliant honking chorus.
"Well, there you go. Anybody with half a brain knows geese don't stir when there's to be a freeze."
His brother bucked behind him, afraid, and Hezekiah reached around and soothed him with one large hand to his leg and listened to Yellababy's blaablaablaa and felt his brother's damp hair along the backside of his shirt.
"It's okay. Shush now. It's just them geese," he said. Thinking the whole while: I guess folks with more brain power than his would rightfully be afraid of all that damn noise.
The geese had begun to bother Hezekiah, too, the way they appeared as wild as renegade dogs, and just as mean. The way they took pleasure in cornering snakes, or mice, or anything smaller and weaker, to a point of no extrication and making a party of bringing on death. Two of them were roosting on a greasy tire shaft underneath his neighbor's truck, their dirty heads still as statues, their black eyes glittery and narrow and in perverse contrast to the sky, which had turned up a notch to full-blown light. Bright blue slashed through the trees and across the yard pointing pearly streams of light in the direction of his colored neighbor. There's the way, Hez. Ignore them geese and head for it, the light seemed to be saying.
Walking the path burdened, but not overly so, he felt his brother settle behind him, lulled by the rhythm of movement. Yellababy's back was to Hezekiah's. What's he looking at, I wonder-the mud? the low pond? the path winding behind us now? Any of those things will do. Just as long as he aint looking at the house where we come from where Ma's eyes are peering out through curtains that aint even hers. That used to belong to somebody else.
Hezekiah Sheehand could see his nearest neighbor leaning on the gray-white fence post, his dark brown face still as a rusted-over weather vane, his arm stretched out along the top of the wire they'd both worked hard to stretch.
His mother said poor judgment had froze the nigger up, put a stop to his dreaming, and it was just as well, but Hezekiah held his heart against that reasoning. The colored man was simply a colored man, stalled and waiting, as most were inside the year 1961. And in Hezekiah's opinion this was cause enough to be constrained and careful and quiet as a mouse.
* * *
Now Marion Calhoun knew this for a fact: the Sheehand place was pure white trash and looked it. A shameful blight for all of Agricola, Mississippi, had not Agricola with its wandering dirt roads and switchbacks not been full of exact replicas that poxed the county. Looking across, seeing those mean geese and the leaning holy yokes and the upside-down bicycles and the towers of tires, was not the half of it, either. The house itself, if one could even call it a house, was an abomination to the senses. Made up of the strewn guts of other busted-up houses, it sat in a slut-like pose, multicolored in hues no painter would be likely to claim. His place was no more than a hundred yards away, settled on a spot of land surrounded by a beautiful field full of easy-waving Jap grass. A field with its shoes off, Marion liked to believe. A field just sitting there minding its own business. He looked across and blinked and searched out the line of trees in the distance where the river ran. They were covered in morning mist and shrouded in gray. He looked to the east and then the west for a plume of dust that signaled travelers coming his way from the corner store, and didn't see any. All he could see was the Sheehand place sprawling beside him like a fast-eating cancer.
Now, Marion Calhoun knew this as well: he had a gift of acting stupid while actually being world-class smart. The weight of his knowing this thing chafed him, and stuck in his craw sharp as a fish bone, seeing how the world was just plain full of stupid people who didn't, or couldn't, know the difference. So when Hez wandered across a yard that used to be Marion's and yelled out, "How you doin, you sad ole man!" he just balled up his hands inside his pockets and let him be, thinking, Now this here Hezekiah has the gift of acting stupid as well as being stupid and me knowin this thing is enough to let the insult ride.
A dark man, with age on him, Marion peered across brown-eyed and quiet, thinking about things, his shoulders humped inside his faded blue shirt, his hands twitching once against a pocket of pennies. He finally looked at Hezekiah, who was nearing the halfway point between the two properties.
Hezekiah walked the path taller these days, but in much the same way he'd done since he was a three-year-old, just out of diapers. He had toddled then, dirty and snot-nosed. Sixteen years old now, Hez swaggered beneath a burden these days, cleaner around the face and ears, but weighed down by the cripple. Marion watched him reach around and pat his brother's leg while he walked and the way the boy's hand stayed there even after the child had stilled. The tenderness was not lost on him, and Marion wondered over it. He saw the bruise to the little brother's arm, but didn't wonder too much over that one. Marion studied the two boys for a long minute before bending his head to spit.
"Christsakes, Mayurn," Hezekiah said. "Susan-Blair's got her busy eyes on me. And I tell you what." He pointed his finger for emphasis. "There's not a day goes by that I aint more and more convinced I’m not born to those two. If I could ever find the durn birth certificate, I bet I could prove it, too." Hez tugged at chest straps with bulging upper arms and hands that looked too rough and conscious of humanity to not be middle-aged.
"I see you aint learned to listen worth a lick."
"I listened." Hezekiah grinned.
"In one ear and out the other."
"I listened, though."
"You gonna get caught goin truant and then what? What you planning on doin once they pick up your scrawny ass and take you to county lockup? I bet you aint thought that far down the row yet, neither."
"True. I aint." Hez smiled and his blue eyes crinkled, happy and worry-free.
"How's Yellababy?" Marion reached around and played with stiff fingers that seemed oblivious to touch. The bruise to his arm was ugly yellow. The color of a vegetable gone bad.
"Same as yesterday and the day before that and last year and the year before that." Hez turned around so the man could judge for himself and then at the silence, turned back around again. The five-year-old made strangled, gurgly sounds. Hiccupped once."How'd he bruise up?"
"Ma says he rolled into the anvil." Hezekiah's eyes were sweetwideblue and trusting. "I swear to Jesus, Mayurn. There are times if I could get my hands on that durn Billy Reuben I would surely clean his clock."
"You would, would you?" Marion realizing the boy's heart was good as gold, but upstairs he was barely brighter than white flour.
"You bet your black ass, I would."
They both glanced upward to the sky, Hezekiah judging the sky to be inordinately blue for February. A few soft luminous clouds done up in pink and white swirled near the horizon.
"Looks like one a them big-ass suckers you buy once a year at the fair, and then don't dare eat because the durn thing's so pretty," he said.
"You gonna end up a hunchback for sure toting him round like that. He's full-blown five now, and too heavy."
Hez shrugged. "You don't seem to mind me luggin your load of feed into the barn ever time you come back from Lucedale. You don't worry much then."
Marion spit across the fence, the boy's logic reasonable.
"So I guess worryin depends on what you need doin at the time. Or maybe what you don't need doin. Folks tend to worry when they don't need you to be their own personal nigger-boy, but don't give a rat's ass about it when they need somebody to do their liftin." Hez studied the sky again and Marion's eyes followed to keep from looking at what was riding on Hezekiah Sheehand's back.
"That sounds true enough to make a holy yoke of." Marion's voice was low and thoughtful. "There aint been a new one painted in a while." He looked over at the one leaning against Susan-Blair's porch:
He that passeth by and meddleth with strife not his own is like a man who takes a dog up by the ears. Proverbs 26:17.
"Holy yokes is Ma's business, Mayurn. Not mine." Hez was looking up again. "I figure by the drift of the clouds and the color of blue that it ought to be good walkin. No rain in sight."
"Was a red sky this morning," Marion said, cutting himself a fresh chaw, his pocket knife flashing in the sun like a silvered fish.
"More pink than red, I'd say. Five miles to Chalktown. Then five miles back. Shapes up proper. Easy enough, even with my brother." Hezekiah shifted the haversack higher on his back.
Marion saw the lump that was Yellababy and then looked away, uneasy. There was a crippled pecan tree out in the front of his yard and he stared at it thinking, Seems like everthing within four hundred yards of me is afflicted somehow.
The pecan tree got itself sheared by a storm ten years back, its lower arms were jagged now. No pecans for the past four years for want of a good liming. But for occasional goose shit there'd been no attempt at fertilizing. That tree out there needs attention, near about as bad as Hezekiah, he figured. Marion looked at those blue eyes again, thinking, This one's harnessed with a burden not of his makin. And it don't seem right. Not with sixteen as fresh as it is, and boys runnin round gettin some all up and down the river. And this one here with his yellow hair and big arms and fresh face not likely to anytime this decade.
"Chalktown's no good. You got no business goin there," Marion said.
"I’m goin anyhow."
"You ort leave them folks be. Go somewheres else."
"I made up my mind on it."
There was silence then, and the sound of field thrush and warbler drifted up from the thick border of the woods. Marion cleared his throat. "Seein how you aint learned to listen worth a lick, it'd be no trouble for me to sit the boy if you want to go on by yourself," he said. "I'd watch him good." Marion had suddenly remembered the gal near Basin who never wore underpants. Not even on Sunday. He supposed he could spread a blanket out in the sun, and place the five-year-old there while he trimmed up the old pecan and laid down a lime drip. "I'd make sure she stayed clear of him." He gave one furtive look at the little boy's yellowing bruise.
Just like an open door, it was there between them. Marion's knowing and Hezekiah's knowing that he knew, and then the door shut again. Hez, his face placid and unconcerned, looked at the man. "Yellababy aint ever seen much of anything other than the lower half of life, and I feel that's a shame, don't you?"
"If that's what you think."
"Yep, that's what I think."
"Caint say I believe he’ll remember much of what he sees, though." Unless maybe he were to see that gal who don't wear her underpants. I reckon that female would make a blind man swear to sight, quick as Bartemaeous.
Yellababy blablablaed, singsong and idiot-like, while a goose waddled over and stood by the pump shed. In Marion Calhoun's opinion it was too still for a goose, even a good one.
"He knows more’n we think, I'd just bet." Hez hitched up the straps of his brother's harness again.
Marion spit brown tobacco juice over the fence and watched it disappear into the baked dirt path.
"Anyhow, I don't worry so much when he's with me."
"That's a way to look at it, I reckon," Marion said.
"Yessir, it is. The only way I got right now."
His arm stretched along the top of the fence, the man stood still as a tree while Hezekiah walked toward the graveled road. Yellababy's face peered out from his pack, those stiffened-up arms swinging like somebody's broken puppet.
Four geese waddled with outstretched necks to the road, and then stopped as though a hand were there, pinning them back, penning them in. Marion Calhoun watched the two Sheehand boys until they were two indistinguishable specks shrinking on the horizon. Looking up and down the long stretch of dirt road, those sweet mornings when it was just the birds and the quiet wind and Marion Calhoun seemed as far away as the Carolina mountains.
"Well, I guess it's true what folks say." Marion watched the geese stranded near the road, their feet glued to the earth. "Nobody ever really leaves this place. They just fool themselves into thinkin they do."
Excerpted from CHALKTOWN © Copyright 2001 by Melinda Haynes. Reprinted with permission from Hyperion. All rights reserved.