You are reading Fiddleblack #12
The old van proceeded slowly and noisily down the winding asphalt driveway, slow to avoid or absorb potholes. In the side mirror the morning-lit autumn hill country shifted about as if someone jostled in a crowd were holding a picture of it. At the bottom of the hill, with the van turned in the gravel towards town, Berry gripped the wheel and glanced at his father on the seat with him and allowed himself another look back at the hulking four-storied mansion-turned-institution with its drooping gutters and chipped paint and rows of blindless windows. In some windows faces peered.
“You have to behave yourself now,” Berry said above the engine noise.
“Can’t hear you.”
“I’m not kidding around,” Berry said. “You have to promise to keep out of my business. Now promise me.”
His father was looking out the passenger window.
Berry drove. It was that pleasant windswept and anticipatory time between seasons, country houses caught between holidays, leaf-strewn stoops upon which jack-o’-lanterns sat collapsing into themselves before cardboard turkeys taped in windows. Fragrant clipped boughs on front doors presiding over the rabble of lawn leaves, squirrels adance above in gutters and along bare branches, livestock in the fields, chainsaws working.
“You warm enough? You comfortable?”
“In this rattletrap. Look, black cat,” yelled his father, pointing into a yard. “And I got a textbook under my ass, if you wanted to know. Did you forget my walker?”
“It’s in the back.” Berry took the textbook and wedged it under his seat.
“You read that thing or use it to defend yourself?”
“I’m glad you’re coming home, Dad.”
The warmth in the van smelled of tobacco, and Berry rolled down his window. Then he looked at his father rubbing his hands together and rolled the window up. His father was 86 years old, a former law officer, for years now trapped and panicky within his failing body. There was once plenty of heft to him but now he was pale and thin, a nervous thing bracing for winter.
“Don’t ever take me back there,” his father said loudly. “Though at least they keep the place heated.”
Berry flicked on the heater. “Dad, I’m sorry.”
His father was quiet.
“I’m sorry you had to be there. But we agreed on it, you and me. You know that. Can you hear me?”
His father looked at him and nodded tightly, then looked again out his window. They drove into the sleepy town on this Friday morning, speeding until they came to the First Baptist Church of Digby, slowing then and proceeding slowly another three football fields until they passed a storefront with a star in the window and a police cruiser out front, then picking up speed. They got through five green lights before hitting a red one. Berry knew this intersection well. On one corner was a chiropractic and wellness center; in high school he’d rehabbed there after sports injuries. On the opposite corner a distributor’s that advertised “All Size and Color Scooters, 4 Wheelers, Dirt Bikes & Go Karts.” Next door was a fenced lot used for selling Christmas trees but it was too early yet; tethered to the lot’s fence was an enormous sheet with a red marker message spurring on the football team in the homecoming game. Berry would have a gig there as a security guard. Next to the lot was a diner.
“Recognize that place?” Berry asked, pointing across his father. They could hear better now with the engine idling.
“Looks like a diner. I’d guess people eat there.”
Berry pulled his hand back. “You know that place, I used to work there. Lucy still works there. She should be there now.”
“But she didn’t move back in with us.”
Berry nodded grimly. “Lucy’s in a motel. I’ve been telling you this, Dad. And now they’re kicking her out. Her dog pees on the carpet. Plus there are money problems.”
“I liked that girl.”
“She needs a place to stay.”
“Well I hope she finds one.”
Berry looked straight ahead meaningfully. “She’s coming by later. She’s coming to say hello to you. She’s bringing her dog. Remember her dog?”
“Of course I do. Little white thing. I liked that dog.”
The light changed.
“Pretty girl,” his father recalled. “It was nice having her around the house. She cooked me liver and onions once, didn’t complain of the stink. That’s unusual. Get you a girl like that and you’ll be fine. You going to drive?”
Berry looked up and down the street impatiently. He was looking for Lucy’s little truck, thinking it might be packed up with her things and he could point it out to his father. But he didn’t see the truck. Then he saw someone inside the diner at one of the window tables being served. With the sun he couldn’t quite make out the server. He had the van in park and was squinting past his father, trying to identify the server, when a car pulled up behind and honked three times quick. The fourth time Berry got out.
Berry eased the gearshift into park and opened his door, careful to duck his head. He was a wide and powerful young man who’d played football all through Digby High and freshman year at Athens. He was careful not to muss his hair as he stepped out of the van.
The car was a growling old white rebuilt Ford Fairlane with chrome trim that gleamed in the sun. Inside it the driver, a red-cheeked bearded man tall but not as wide as Berry, waved with his hand shaking side-to-side, smiling like he had made a mistake. Berry stood there until it was clear that the man had nothing additional to communicate.
“Florida plates?” his father asked, as Berry climbed back behind the wheel.
“I didn’t see.”
“If he was a white man from Florida he’s probably here to buy cheap land. Must’ve hit his horn by accident. There he goes on your left.”
“That’s Lucy,” said Berry, pointing at the diner. “She’s there in the window.”
“Oh yes,” his father said. “Pretty as ever.”
Berry put the engine in gear and pulled away.
“Please don’t let her into our house again,” his father yelled over the engine. “You’ll have to promise me that.”
“I don’t have to promise you anything.”
The old man was silent.
“You’re not the easiest person to live with, Dad.”
“I’ve heard rumors to that effect.”
“She’s got a mind of her own. You two were oil and vinegar.”
“Now I’m getting hungry.”
As they drove on along the main avenue and then west through the secondary streets of the town, Berry did not look at his father; he would use the engine noise, should his father ask, as an excuse for avoiding any clear and meaningful contact.
The old van was still good for something.
In their neighborhood, in front of their house, stood a great black walnut tree, most of its leaves gone. There were a few comparably-sized walnuts in this neighborhood, where the houses were modest but on good-sized lots, with lawns that got green as golf courses but were now dry and leaf strewn. Their house was representative: it had an old shingle roof and hardwood floors, a covered rocking chair porch in front with a porch swing, pecan trees and hawthorns and blackberry bushes on the sides and in back. Except for a town fool placing bills in doors, there was no one on the street. Parked across the street was a white 15 passenger van with a towing package, owned by a neighbor in a gospel singing group.
For five minutes after they parked they sat silently in the van curbside beneath the great tree, Berry’s father looking at their house. Any words spoken would have slighted the sense of tacit achievement between them. Then Berry got out. He went around to the back and struggled there for awhile with the wheelchair. He finally got it free, hoisted it up and carried it, small wheels in front circling, into the house. Returning to the car he got his big arms under his surprised but compliant father expertly and carried him to the house.
“Did you take up smoking?” his father asked, once inside.
“A little,” Berry said. “You put weight on. I didn’t notice.”
“The hell I did.”
His father was now ensconced in his chair by the big front window. It was a rental chair with vinyl blue upholstery; it had desk length vinyl padded armrests and swing away footrests.
“God but it’s good to be home.”
“You wouldn’t consider another place?”
“Don’t play games now.” His father raised his right arm, let it bounce on the armrest. “Such a pretty day. Maybe I’ll wheel myself out to the porch. Any Scotch left?”
In the kitchen Berry found a bottle of bourbon and brought it out with a shot glass. His father took a sip and winked, then noticed Berry looking at his watch, and asked if he was keeping him from anything.
“I just need to study a little. Got a couple tests tomorrow.”
“You keeping up?”
“Don’t let me stop you. Just leave the bottle here. Your new girl bring it over?”
“I don’t have a new girl, Dad.”
“Then maybe you oughta get one.”
Smacking his lips, his father held the empty glass up. Berry took the glass and the bottle back to the kitchen, took a deep breath there, and returned to his father.
“I told you Lucy’s getting kicked out of her motel, remember?”
“Sure, I remember. I remember all sorts of things. Like I remember she got kicked out of college, and you brought her back home when you quit too. And I remember she got kicked out of her job at that diner and you got it right back for her. I remember you doing a lot for her but I don’t remember much of what she did for you.”
“It wasn’t really like that.”
“How was it really like?”
“I left school to come home and be with you. She chose to come along—though it’s true she was having problems there.”
His father grunted.
“And yes, she lost her job when her father died and she had to go straight back to Savannah for the funeral. She had to go. Mr. Peterborough had no right firing her.”
“Peterborough’s been a wingnut all his life anyway.”
“What I was saying,” Berry continued, “was that she’s talking about moving out to Joe Bennett’s. You know the Bennetts.”
“You’re talking about Bennett the cop, four houses over.”
“Not that Bennett.”
“I liked that man,” his father persisted, and Berry let him talk.
“He was in the force up in Chattanooga, I believe, about the same time I joined in Atlanta. Decent fellow, for a white man. Wife was crazy though, even before he died. Then Bill Bennett died and his wife got this beast of a whatdoyoucallit dog to protect her—”
“Rottweiler,” said Berry patiently.
“Damned big dog, stocky. Didn’t train it. Gets off the leash now and then and I’ve threatened to shoot it. She’s in a chair now, same as me. She probably still tries to take that thing for a walk.”
“I wasn’t talking about that Bennett, Dad.”
His father looked in helpless disbelief, gnarled hands on his lap quivering as if they were things just coming to life or just dying. “Why do you let me ramble on?”
“I’m talking about a Bennett I went to grade school with. Joe Bennett, whose parents ran the crematorium. The one outside of town, by the battlefield.”
The old man closed his eyes and made a warm but unsatisfied sound like a cow let in on an evil secret. “The Crematory Bennetts. Oh I remember them. Strange people. Though consider their line of work.”
“Yes, the Crematory Bennetts.”
His father squinted. “And she wants to move out there?”
“She’s got nowhere else. Joe Bennett’s offering her a small house on the grounds to rent, very cheap.”
Berry’s father paused a moment to consider. “Well she got herself into this, didn’t she? She could borrow money to move into a decent place, couldn’t she? Maybe you could loan her some.”
Berry looked tragically out to the street.
“At least loan her a gun,” his father offered.
“We could ask her to stay here.”
His father gazed out the window.
“What do you think, Dad?”
His father gazed outside, pretending not to hear.
Berry excused himself and jogged out to the van, and returned with his textbook and his father’s suitcases, and went back for the collapsed walker. In the den at the back of the house he left everything on the bed, and returned to the front room.
“Don’t make me leave here again.”
“I didn’t make you. We agreed. We agreed it would be a good thing.”
His father took sudden hold of the chair’s push rims, as if he meant to advance, and then let them go. “It was my mistake. Promise you won’t let me make it again. Look at me blubbering like some old fool.”
“I’m glad you’re back,” Berry managed.
“I should never have signed over the house to you.”
“You wanted to go, Dad. Don’t put that on me.”
His father emptied the shot glass. He tapped on the rim, and Berry refilled it.
“I’ll be in the den studying,” said Berry.
“Do me a favor? Would you get some air circulating in here? Or maybe I’ll go out on the porch.”
Berry pulled the front door open. A breeze brought past his nose the smell of leaves rotting in the balmy weather.
“What’s the matter with that girl anyway?” his father asked softly. His eyes were closed and his nostrils wide, to take in the good outdoor smell.
Berry thought he had a good handle on what the matter was, and it was that Lucy was drifting; she drifted from person to person, from place to place, getting into trouble and looking to be rescued by men. She wasn’t unaware of this pattern, for they had talked about it back at school and here after setting up house in Digby. Though even as she recognized the pattern, she maintained she couldn’t see the possibility of it being different some day. She admitted it was like a sickness.
“I don’t know, Dad.” Berry said. “I’m going to study.”
In the back room he adjusted the pillows on the bed, got his boots off and sat with the book on his lap, and within a minute he was asleep. His dreams were vivid, there were three of them, all involved and stretched out, all wild but seeming to have the inner logic of involved dreams. In his last dream he was careening fatefully towards some violent end when he heard a voice calling to him, distracting him from getting out of the way of whatever force was to be his doom; the voice was calling to him, calling to him, and then the word it was saying became clear: Son, it was saying. And then he opened his eyes, and he heard the voice. His father was calling him brightly from the front room. “It’s that Lucy girl! I do believe she’s pulling up!”
After getting his boots on, Berry entered the front room and panicked. He didn’t see his father. For a moment he thought that bringing him home was a dream. Then he saw him appear on the porch; he had just got himself through the front door and was rolling free, hands up ear level like someone held a gun at his back.
Berry rushed out after him. “How did you do that?”
“I’m not senile, and I’m not a cripple.” His father eased the chair over to the far end of the porch, careful to skirt a couple rakes and a baseball bat leaned up against the rail. “Just can’t hear good anymore.”
“Let me help you next time.”
“Saw that little ramp you put at the threshold. I appreciate it. Would you reach down here and put on the brake?”
Lucy’s ugly little brown ’87 Nissan truck was out in the street behind the van, blocking half the driveway. Its engine chugged and coughed and finally died, and in the passenger window Rascal, a terrier-poodle with undersized legs, showed his little white head and proceeded to bark. The bed of the truck appeared free of belongings.
Her hand came waving next to the dog’s yapping head in the passenger window, and then she withdrew. Berry waited for her to get out of the truck, and a few moments passed and he bounded down the steps to the street and up to the driver’s window.
“Hello lover,” she said, and thrust a bag of donuts through the window. She was wearing sunglasses but did not take them off to look at him; then, as if reading his thoughts, she removed them, perhaps to show that she had not been crying over him, that she had not stayed up nights missing him. She looked at him with her brown wide-set eyes and he realized again how pretty she was, and that she knew it and didn’t mind it all that everyone else knew it too. And he tried to see the resemblance to himself—in Athens people took them for brother and sister–not just white people, but blacks too. They had the same wide-set eyes, full mouth and honest white teeth, the same shape skull, even, if one looked for that. Though he was roughly 150 pounds heavier, and she was no athlete. Though they both smoked now. She had corrupted him, he joked when they lived together. He still smoked after she moved out, as if it was an exercise in mourning.
“I’m going out to Joe Bennett’s place.” She glanced calmly at the porch.
Berry held the bag in one hand, watching her.
“Your Dad’s back in his favorite spot.” She turned calmly back to him. “Tell your dad he don’t have to worry about me. I’ll be perfectly fine.”
She was looking for his response and he averted his eyes.
“Anyway, he’s been very generous to me,” she continued. “Bennett I mean. And I didn’t tell him that you quit me, that you shifted your allegiance to your daddy and dropped me like a bad habit. That when I had to move into that motel, you didn’t say peep. But who knows? Maybe someday he’ll know.”
Berry held the bag now on his chest with two hands. She was often calm when she was upset but now she was too calm, so much so that he expected her to pull a weapon. Neither of them was moving, and while he had the whole street spread out to the sides and behind him he felt boxed in by an expert fighter. Then her expression softened.
“That’s all?” She looked disappointed. “You have nothing to say?”
She turned to look at the porch, and he looked too. His father at the far end was still, just staring off across the street, apparently not looking at them. In the tree two squirrels chattered and bounded and Lucy’s little dog began yapping; she hushed it, and as she leaned to comfort it Berry eyed the back of her neck. He remembered the softness of it, the wet feel of the skin there on his lips when she came out of the shower, the smell of it.
“Looks homey on the porch,” she said over her shoulder.
“He remembers you cooking liver and onions.”
She glanced back at him with sudden annoyance; it was as if a bug belonging to him had got into her shirt. She held two fingers in a vee up to her lips and Berry produced a cigarette and passed it through the window. He lit hers, and then lit one for himself. They were together smoking.
“So I’ll get settled out there and figure out what’s next. Good place to do some figuring. Must be quiet out there.”
“I suppose it would be.”
She looked up at him hard, and smiled bitterly. “You really don’t care.”
“No,” he said. “That’s not true.”
“Then what’s true?”
“I do care. I really do. But it’s his house. He wanted to come home.”
“Well who’d you rather room with, him or me?”
He smiled. “I think you know that.”
“Then what are you going to do about it?”
He smiled again, thoughtfully. Shouts filled the air. Three boys in baseball caps came bicycling down the middle of the street, hooting and laughing too loud, as if shortcutting through a graveyard.
“I may stay a couple of months out there,” she continued without conviction. “I really can’t commit to more than that. You think your daddy’s stay in that house forever?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
He could see his father cast a yearning gaze across the porch, at them and sweeping left, to a spot to the left and far away from them, as if he were lost in a city at an intersection while the light changed and the crowd with him proceeded across the street.
An old woman was passing by on the sidewalk; his affect changed. He greeted the woman politely and the woman passing called out something and waved infinitely slower than a normal wave and continued snailing down the street.
“Wants me for ministering,” Berry muttered. “What the hell is he doing now?”
On the porch the old man was waving his cane and calling the dog’s name. The dog was in the passenger window straining, writhing in happiness and halfway out, looking back at Lucy, tongue out, whining.
“Like long lost lovers,” Berry growled.
She tossed her cigarette in the street and looked up at him harshly. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
“I just need to get him settled in now. That’s what I’m concerned with.”
“But don’t worry about me.”
He shut his eyes.
“I’m still here,” she said. “Enjoy the donuts.”
“You don’t want to get out? Say hello to him? He’d like that. I’m not just saying.”
She was looking up at him. “Tell him they were out of bear claws so I got him two cream-filled instead. I know your dad likes the stupid bear claws.”
She swallowed. He could see her throat move. She allowed herself a half-smile. Then, as if exhausted from the effort, she groaned lightly and turned away. Then she shrieked.
“Rascal! Where is he?”
Berry looked at the empty seat beside her then in the back and he had to move aside as the door flew open and Lucy sprang out of the truck. She circled around in her tight jeans and sneakers to the front of the truck, calling the dog’s name.
“There he is,” shouted Berry.
The little dog came dashing out from back of the walnut tree, and Lucy knelt to receive him. As if auditioning for a movie role she spread her arms wide with joy and reached down and scooped up the dog, holding it up before her face, admiring him like he’d won a ribbon at the country fair or was himself some prizewinning foodstuff. Lucy turned and Berry could see how relieved she was.
Then it all happened very quickly. Looking left her face convulsed in horror; she moved against the car, shielding the dog in her arms, and a black blur which was the Rottweiler flew up against her and knocked her down. She was screaming as Berry came around the front of her car; she was on her knees and getting to her feet and pointing and screaming, as the Rottweiler trotted away with the little white dog in its jaws.
Screaming. Lucy was screaming. Berry’s father on the porch was screaming. Screams issued nearby, from neighbors pouring out of their houses to see what happened. In the middle of the street, the big dog had the little one in its mouth, shaking it like a play toy, then lifting it in the air and carrying it up the street a ways, shaking it like a rag doll or like a shark worrying a seal at the ocean’s surface.
Berry raced to the porch. He grabbed the baseball bat and flew down the porch steps and into the street where the big dog had trotted back with its prize. Berry maneuvered warily, positioning himself close as if the big dog was to be his unsuspecting dancing partner; in a flash he brought the bat high and then down mightily and square on the dog’s spine; the dog released Rascal, who dropped like a shot bird. Berry quickly delivered another blow, and the Rottweiler staggered and groaned, glanced back with contempt, then collapsed.
Berry stood in the street, clutching the bat. He couldn’t hear his father, which was good or bad, he’d find out in a moment. Lucy was crying and she arrived and scooped up her dog. Berry watched as she held it up and examined it with doubtful eyes, as if it were the last item left in a merchandise bin. But the dog was alive. It was whimpering, and trying to wag its tail. Berry circled around it. There were no visible wounds, but there was blood coming from somewhere; it was on Lucy’s hands and shirt. He looked at the dying Rottweiler, could see its tongue coated and catching light. Lucy mumbling epithets, frantically re-checking her dog’s quivering body with searching needy fingers.
Berry mouthed words of comfort. He didn’t quite hear them outside his head. Then he started to hear distinct voices around him with that illusory clarity of sound in a tavern just before dark. He was looking at her, and at the dog, and he saw that the dog was going to be fine. If the Rottweiler had meant to tear him in half, it would have done so, easily. He looked at the Rottweiler in a heap in the street.
“It just ran up and snatched him,” Lucy cried. “It picked him right up and shook him.”
Berry instinctively reached for her arm.
“It just shook him in its mouth,” she cried.
“I’ll call the vet,” said Berry.
She kept running her fingers through the dog’s fur, the dog softly whining.
“He’ll be okay,” he added. “We got there in time.”
“I’m going to the vet.”
“Let me call first, make sure he’s there.”
She opened the passenger door, lay her dog in on the seat, and shut the door. “I’ve got to go!”
“Let me call first.”
“I can’t wait!”
“I’ll help you,” he said. “Let me help you!”
He headed for the house.
“Nice job, son.”
Berry came bounding onto the porch. His father had wheeled himself near the steps; grinning, he pounded the armrest of the chair.
“You kicked hell out of that beast! If I had my shotgun I’d have done the job for you.”
“You’re next,” said Berry.
“What? What did you say?”
Berry continued into the house.
Arthur Diamond was born in New York in 1957. He received degrees from the University of Oregon and Queens College and has published twelve nonfiction books used as school texts. Diamond’s stories have appeared in The Pedestal Magazine, Global City Review, Umbrella Factory Magazine, The Quotable, Ascent, and Poydras Review. He lives in Queens, New York.