Just with his body and from inside like a snake, leaning that black motorcycle side to side, cutting in and out of the slow line of cars to get there first, staring due-north through goggles towards Mount Moriah and switching coon tails in everybody's face was Wesley Beavers, and laid against his back like sleep, spraddle-legged on the sheepskin seat behind him was Rosacoke Mustian who was maybe his girl and who had given up looking into the wind and trying to nod at every sad car in the line, and when he even speeded up and passed the truck (lent for the afternoon by Mr. Isaac Alston and driven by Sammy his man, hauling one pine box and one black boy dressed in all he could borrow, set up in a ladder-back chair with flowers banked round him and a foot on the box to steady it) -- when he even passed that, Rosacoke said once into his back "Don't" and rested in humiliation, not thinking but with her hands on his hips for dear life and her white blouse blown out behind her like a banner in defeat.
It was because Wesley was a motorcycle man since his discharge (or would be, come Monday) and wouldn't have brought her in a car if fire had fallen in balls on every side. He had intended taking her to the picnic that way, and when Mildred Sutton died having her baby without a husband and Rosacoke felt compelled to go to the funeral first and asked Wesley please to take her, he said he would, but he saw no reason to change to a car for a Negro funeral. Rosacoke had to get there and couldn't walk three miles in dust and couldn't risk him going on ahead so she didn't argue but pulled her skirt up over her knees for all to see and put her hat in the saddlebag and climbed on.
Riding like that she didn't see the land they passed through -- nothing new or strange but what she had passed every day of her life almost, except for the very beginning and some summer clays when she had left for 4-H camp at White Lake or to stay with Aunt Oma in Newport News or to set with somebody in the hospital, like Papa before he died. But the land was there, waiting.
The road passed a little way from the Mustians' porch, and if you came up their driveway and turned left, you would be at the Afton store and the paving soon, and that took you on to Warrenton where she worked. But they turned right today and the road narrowed as it went till it was only wide enough for one thing going one way -- a car or a truck or a mule and wagon -- and it being July, whatever passed, even the smallest foot, ground more dirt to dust that rose several times every hour of the day and occasionally -- invisibly -- at night and lingered awhile and at sunset hung like fog and if there was no breeze, settled back on whatever was there to receive it -- Rosacoke and Mama and Rato and Milo walking to church, if it had been a first Sunday and ten years ago before Milo got his driving license -- but settling mostly on Negro children aiming home in a slow line, carrying blackberries they had picked to eat (and if you stopped and said, "How much you asking for your berries?" they would be so surprised and shy and forget the price their mother told them to say if anybody stopped, and hand them over, bucket and all, for whatever you wanted to give, and all the dust you raised would be on those berries when you got home). It settled on leaves too -- on dogwood and hickory and thin pine and holly and now and then a sycamore and on Mr. Isaac Alston's cherry trees that huddled around the pond he had made for the hot air to pass over, choked and tan till there would come a rain -- trees he had set out as switches twelve years ago on his seventieth birthday and poured fish in the water smaller than the eye could see and claimed he would live to sit in that cool cherry shade and pull out the dim descendants of those first minnows. And he might, as the Alstons didn't die under ninety.
What Alstons had died were the things they came to, after trees -- the recent ones, overflowed from the family graves and laid out on this side of Delight Baptist Church, looking shorter than anybody would have guessed, with people around them that never had family graves to begin with -- Rosacoke's Papa (who was her grandfather and who by the time he died had completely forgotten Miss Pauline his wife and asked to be buried beside his mother and then forgot to tell them where his mother was) and Miss Pauline, the size of a dressed rabbit, and Rosacoke's own father who was no Baptist (who wasn't much of anything) and whose grave had sunk into the ground. The graves went towards the church, taking grass with them, and then the white sand began that had been hauled in from a creek bed. The church stood in the sand under two oak trees, wooden and bleached and square as a gun-shell box, daring people not to come. The Mustians went and even Wesley Beavers, with his name.
But it wasn't where they were going now so they passed by, and the graves and Delight Church and the sand and the two long picnic tables turned to the woods that Milo and Rosacoke and Rato had run in as children with Mildred Sutton and any other Negroes she brought along (that had scattered now, to Baltimore mostly). The woods began by the road and went back farther than Rosacoke or even the boys had ever gone, not because they were scared but because they got tired -- the woods went on that long, and every leaf of them belonged to Mr. Isaac Alston. Once Rosacoke and Mildred packed them a dinner and said to themselves, "We will walk till we come to an open field where somebody is growing something." So they walked on slowly in a straight line through the cool damp air under trees where sun never came but only this green light the mushrooms grew by. When they had walked an hour, they were breathing in air that nothing but possums and owls had breathed before, and snakes if snakes breathed. Mildred didn't like the idea but Rosacoke kept going, and Mildred came on behind, looking mostly up, checking on the sky to still be there and to see what snakes were studying down on them. Then they came to an open field the size of a circus ring where there were no trees but only bitter old briars and broomstraw the color of Milo's beard that was just then arriving. They sat on the edge of that to eat their biscuits and syrup and for Mildred to rest her feet, but Rosacoke thought and decided they couldn't stop here as it wasn't a field where anybody had meant to grow anything. (Nothing ate broomstraw but mules and mules only ate it if they thought it was something you valued.) So they stood up to go, and Mildred's mouth fell open and said "Great God A-mighty" because there was one deer behind them in the trees for quicker than it took to say if it had horns. But its eyes were black and it had looked at them. When its last sound had gone, Rosacoke said, "Don't let's go no farther" and Mildred said "All right." They were not afraid of any deer, but if those woods offered things like that, that would take the time to look at you, when you had only walked an hour, where would they end, and what would be growing in any field they found on the other side, and who would be tending it there? So they came out, taking their time, proving they hadn't given up for fear, and when they got to the road, Mildred spoke for the first time since calling on God to see that deer -- "Rosacoke, it's time for me some supper" -- and they parted. It was no more time for supper than it was for snow, but Mildred meant to get home quick and unload that deer on somebody -- his streak he made through the trees and the sound of his horn feet in the old leaves and his eyes staring on through all those biscuits at what they did, and waiting.
If Rosacoke had looked up from Wesley's back at the woods, she might have remembered that day and how it was only nine years ago and here she was headed to bury that same Mildred, and was that black-eyed deer still waiting, and did he belong to Mr. Isaac? -- that deer? But she didn't look up and she didn't remember. If you were with Wesley Beavers, what good was remembering? You couldn't tell him what you remembered. He said he lived in the present, and that meant that maybe when he went a hundred and thirty miles from home to spend three years in the U.S. Navy, lounging around in a tight uniform fixing radios and not moving a step out of Norfolk, Virginia (or so he said) except to come home a few weekends, maybe he seldom thought of her. Not the way she thought of him anyhow -- wondering every night if she was his, hoping she was, even when he didn't write for weeks and then sent sassy post cards. But he had been home a civilian three days now, and tomorrow he was headed back to Norfolk to sell motorcycles with a friend of his, and she didn't know a thing she hadn't known for years -- which was that he still came to get her Saturday night and took her to a place called Danceland and danced with every woman there in succession so fast he seemed to be ten Wesleys or a dozen, swarming, and then rode her home and kissed her good night for an hour, without a question or a word.
She thought that through once. It was the deepest thinking she could manage on a motorcycle with dust running up her legs, and she was just changing to something new -- that at last Wesley had found the vehicle he was meant for (being with Wesley had always been like being on a motorcycle) -- when she felt the shift of his shoulders under her cheek and his hips under her hands. The way he moved she slackened her grip for a second. It was too much like holding your eye through the lid while it turns, smooth in the socket but easy to ruin.
She looked up and they were at Mount Moriah Church where they meant to be, and Wesley was turning in, not slowing up at all but gouging a great rut in the dusty yard. He stuck out a leg and his black ankle boots plowed a little way, and that halted them under the one low tree. The coon tails relaxed but Wesley kept the motor going, racing it with twitches of his hand, listening as if he expected it to speak, till Rosa-coke said in his ear, "Hush your noise, Wesley."
"Don't it sound funny to you?"
"No," she said. So he let the motor die, and in the astonished quiet where every bird had surrendered to Wesley's roar, the only sound was that truck and the cars coming on behind, rambling like distant buffaloes, with Mildred. "Get down, Wesley. They'll all be here in a minute." Wesley swung off the seat and watched while Rosacoke got herself down. Now they were still, the heat settled back on them, and they both shook their heads under the burden. But they didn't speak. They had given up talking about it long ago. Rosacoke took out her handkerchief and wiped her face before the sweat could streak the dust. She looked in the round mirror on the handlebars and combed out her hair that had the wind in it still after the ride. With the black tree behind her, you could see the dust fly up around her head from out of her hair, and in the round mirror it outlined her with a sudden halo. Even Wesley noticed that. Then she put on her hat and said, "We didn't need to come that quick" and took off towards the church, sinking through the thin crust of ground with her high heels. When she had walked ten yards alone and her white shoes were tan, she turned and said, "Come on, Wesley. Let's don't be standing around staring when they get here."
pard"Well, I'm going to work on this motor awhile to make sure we can get out when we want to. I'll be in there in a little bit. You just save me a seat by the window."
She only blushed -- all she ever did now when Wesley let her down (which pretty nearly kept her blushing non-stop) -- and said, "Don't go playing that harp" (the harmonica was another thing he had taken up in the Navy) and climbed the steps. She stopped at the top and looked back towards the road. That way, Wesley saw her and thought how far she had come in three years to being this -- tall almost as he was, maybe five foot-nine, and her skin pale as candles laid close on her long bones, and what wind there was, twitching at her hair pulled to the back of her neck, falling down long and dry and the color of straw from under her level hat, stopping below her shoulders where your hand would have been if you had been holding her and dancing with her, close (the only way Wesley danced since his discharge). Then his eyes moved on. And every time he passed below her swinging hair -- looking -- he got onto women he knew in Norfolk or at the beach and how they smelled, twisting in the dark, and how their smell stayed on him now he didn't recollect their names or how they looked though he had labored in them whole nights of his life and the feel of them was on his fingers like oil, real as if they were by him now under that tree, calling him Junior with their hands working and him starting and them crying "Sweet Jesus? to him in the night.
But suddenly a bird sang in the tree over Wesley's head, holding up its one clear voice like a deed in the scorching day, and Rosacoke looked at Wesley as if he might have done it -- that song -- looking clear through him and all he thought, it seemed, shaking her head at what she saw. But Wesley was twenty-two years old his last birthday, and what was so wrong, he wanted to know, with thinking all those things? -- except maybe they didn't fit Rosacoke, not the way she was now, new and changed since the times three years ago when they went in to shows in Warrenton and drove nearly home and stopped and spent an hour or longer telling each other good night with the windows misted up, sitting under a tree with pecans falling on the car to make them laugh. Those other women, he had touched and claimed whenever he needed to, but how much of Rosacoke had he touched? Knowing her all that time, how much of her could he see whenever his eyes were dosed? How much of her could he claim? -- her standing on church steps in Sunday white, straining to see where Mildred was -- how much of that could he just walk up and ask for and get?
He might have tried to find out if she hadn't turned and vanished in the dark church, not meaning to roll her hips but letting loose all the power she had there (which was enough to grind rocks) and showing, last thing, her white ankles flexing firm on her heels, and Jesus, he was back in Norfolk sure as the sun poured down. And it did -- all over Wesley Beavers from head to foot which was half the trouble. So to change the subject he took out his cycle tools and tightened screws that were tighter already than God ever meant them to be.
Rosacoke remembered in the vestibule that she hadn't been here since the day she slipped off with Mildred and came to the meeting where Aunt Mannie Mayfield stood at age eighty and named the fathers of all her children, far as she could recall. Rosacoke looked round now and the same three things to notice were there -- a bell rope hanging from the steeple for anybody to pull, and a gray paper hornets' nest (built in the window by mistake during the war but deserted now far as the eye could see though nobody would tear it down for fear one hornet might be there still, getting older and meaner), and by the open door to the auditorium, a paper bag nailed to the wall with a note saying, Kindly Leave Gum Here. She took one deep breath -- as if it was the last she would get all afternoon -- and went in, and the hot air came out to meet her like a member.
It looked empty -- just a choir at the back around a piano and a pulpit in front of that and on the side a stove and then hard seats enough for a hundred people though it would hold half again that many for anything special like a funeral, but it gave no signs of a funeral today. There was not a flower in sight -- they were coming with Mildred in the truck -- and nobody had thought to come ahead and open the windows. There were six long windows and Rosacoke picked the back one on the left to open and sit by. She went towards it up the bare aisle, and when she got to the pew, the church wasn't empty at all -- there was Landon Allgood laid out asleep, the size of a dry cornstalk, breathing heavy, one arm hanging off the bench to the floor and his shirt buttoned right to the neck. He lived alone in a one-room house a little beyond the church and dug graves for white folks, and his trouble was, he took paregoric when he could get it which was mostly on Saturday and then seldom made it home. You were liable to find him anywhere Sunday morning, asleep. One Christmas before Rosacoke was born, he fell down in the public road, and whoever found him next morning had to carry him to Rocky Mount Hospital and have all his toes cut off that had frozen solid in his shoes. That was why, to this day, his shoes turned up at the ends. Rosacoke didn't know how long he had been there or whether he was ready to leave, but she knew he ought to go before the others came as he wasn't dressed for a funeral so she said "Landon." (She wasn't scared of Landon. She had gone in the store herself and bought him bottles of paregoric with his quarters when she was little and nobody would sell him another drop.) She said "Landon, wake up." But he slept on. "Landon, this is Miss Rosacoke. You get up from there."
He was ready. He opened his eyes and said, "Good morning, Miss Rosacoke" just as if he had met her in the road on the way to work.
"It's afternoon, Landon, and will you please get up and go home?"
"Yes'm," he said, sitting up, noticing he was in church and smiling, "Here I am again." Then "What you doing here, Miss Rosacoke?"
"They are burying Mildred."
"What's wrong with Mildred?"
"Well, I do say." He got to his feet and put on his cap and tipped it to her and headed as best he could for the door by the choir that led out back. Rosacoke went on into the pew and raised the window. When Landon got to the door -- he even had his hand on the knob -- he turned and said, "I'm some kin to Mildred, ain't I?"
"Her uncle I guess."
"Yes'm, that's it." Then he could leave.
The church sat sideways to Wesley's tree and the road, and Rosacoke could stay by her window and see what happened in the yard. Landon wasn't ten feet out the back when the truck turned in, having a little trouble with the ruts Wesley made and bringing twelve ears behind it, each one paler with dust than the one before and all packed full. The ears unloaded in order and the first two women were Mildred's mother Mary and Mildred's sister Estelle who had stayed at home when all the others scattered because of her health which was poor from the night Manson Hargrove shot her at a dance, both barrels in the chest. (She lived though -- shooting Estelle's bosom was like shooting a feather bed.) Then came the little boys that belonged to most anybody. They were brought to help carry the flowers, but when they swarmed out and saw Wesley, they took off towards him and stood in a tight dark ring, staring out at his cycle like the Chariot of God that could fly. But Wesley had stopped his tinkering when Mildred arrived. He answered one or two questions the boys asked -- "What do it burn?" and he told them "Coal" -- and then nodded good afternoon to Mary and shut up and leaned against the tree. Somebody called out, "You boys come get these flowers." They went over and took up the wreaths and brought them towards the church, and the one in front wore roses around his neck like a horse that has won and can smile.
Mary and Estelle stood by the truck, looking, and that boy kept his eyes and his foot flat on the box as if it was his and nobody was getting it. Then the other women came up, silent. One of them -- Aunt Mannie Mayfield who had walked four miles to get there and was so old she didn't remember a soul now she was there -- hugged Mary and said what seemed to be a signal, and they climbed the steps -- two girls nearly lifting Aunt Mannie who could walk any distance but up and who would be next. But the men stayed by the truck, and when the flowers had gone, that boy leaned over and shoved the box to the end, and Sammy and three others took it (to say they had, any two could have carried it alone). They stood a minute with it on their shoulders, taking their bearings. Somebody laughed high and clear. The preacher turned to the church and all the men followed.
Rosacoke saw that and thought every minute Wesley would break loose and take his seat beside her. But he didn't, not even when the yard was empty, and when she heard Mary and Estelle leading the others in, she had to take her eyes off him and stand and nod to the people as they passed and call them by name -- the family taking the front pew and sitting as if something pressed them and the others filling in behind, leaving Rosacoke her empty pew at the back, and all standing up -- except the ones with babies -- till the box was laid on two sawhorses in front of the pulpit, and a boy laid flowers on the lid over what he reckoned was Mildred's face -- one design, the Bleeding Heart that Rosacoke sent at Mary's request (white carnations with roses for blood at the center, which would take some time to pay for). When that was done five women stood in various pews and walked to the choir. The piano started and stopped and for a second there was just Bessie Williams' voice slicing through the heat with six high words, calling the others to follow. It was "Precious Name, Show Me Your Face," and it was Jesus they were singing to -- meaning it, looking up at the roof to hornets' nests and spiders as if it might all roll away and show them what they asked to see. But the song ended and Rev. Mingle thanked the ladies and said Mrs. Ransom had composed the obituary and would read it. now. Mrs. Ransom stood where she was, smiling, and turned to face Mary and Estelle and read off the paper she held, "Miss Mildred Sutton was born in 1936 in the bed where she died. Her mother is Mary Sutton of this community, and her father was Wallace Sutton, whereabouts unknown, but who worked some years for the Highway and before that, said he fought in France and got gassed and buried alive and was never the same again. She had a brother and three sisters, and they are living in Baltimore and Philadelphia -- except Estelle who is with us here -- and are unable to come but have sent telegrams of their grief which will be read later. She grew up all around here and worked in cotton for Mr. Isaac Alston and went to school off and on till she started cooking for the Drakes and tending to their children that she loved like they were hers. She worked for them nearly two years, and they would surely be here today if they were not vacationing up at Willoughby Beach. Mildred aimed to go with them right to the last and then wasn't able. She stayed here and died not far from her twenty-first birthday. Her favorite tune was 'Annie Laurie' which she learned from Miss Rosacoke Mustian who is with us today, representing the white friends, and I will sing it now at her mother's request." And standing where she was, she sang it through alone, not to any tune Rosacoke had ever heard but making it on the air as she went, knowing Mildred would never object to that.
Then the preacher read the telegrams. They were all very much like the one from Alee her brother -- "Thinking today of little sister and sorry the car is broke." That seemed sufficient reason. Everybody nodded their heads and one or two said "Amen."
Rosacoke sat through that, trying to see past flapping fans to the box. Every once in awhile somebody would turn to see was she there and, seeing her, smile as though the whole afternoon would fold under if she didn't watch it with her familiar face (the way a boy three rows ahead watched her, holding her in his gaze like some new thing, untried, that might go up in smoke any minute). It was that hot inside and her mind worked slowly back through spring water and shade till she was almost in the night with Wesley, but the voice came at her faintly where she was -- "Miss Rosacoke, will you kindly view the body?" It was the preacher standing by her, and she turned from the window -- "Now?"
"Yes'm, she is ready." They had uncovered Mildred and they wanted Rosacoke to see her first. Mama had warned her this would happen, but there didn't seem to be a way out. She stood up, hoping the preacher would walk with her (and he did, a few feet behind), and went to the box, setting her eyes on the pulpit behind it so she wouldn't see Mildred the whole way.
They had laid Mildred in a pink nightgown that tied at the throat and had belonged to the lady she cooked for, but she had shrunk to nothing this last week as if her life was so much weight, and the gown was half empty. She never had much bosom -- Estelle got most of that and when they were twelve, Rosacoke told her, "Mildred, why don't you buy some stuffing? Your bosoms look like fried eggs" -- and the ones she had, swollen uselessly now, were settled on her arms that lay straight down her sides and left her hands out of sight that were her good feature. Sometime during the ride her body had twisted to the left, and her profile crushed bitterly into the pillow. Whoever took off the lid had left her alone. Rosacoke wondered if she should move her back for all to see. She looked at the preacher and nearly asked if that was what he meant her to do. But she thought and turned and walked to her seat down the middle aisle with her eyes to the ground, passing through everybody waiting to look, feeling stronger with her part done and Mildred turned to the wall where nobody would see.
And so was Wesley turned away. He was squatting on the ground, and his shoes were sunk in the dust, but he was polishing every spoke in the wheels of that machine as if he never again intended driving it over anything but velvet rugs. The congregation lined up to view Mildred, and Rosacoke had time to think, "Tomorrow he will ride it to Norfolk and take his new job and sell motorcycles for maybe the rest of his life, but he can't leave it alone for one hour and sit by me through this service."
And he polished on with his arms moving slow as if they moved through clear thick oil. At times he would rock back on his heels to study what he had done, and his sides would move above his belt to show he was breathing deep -- the only way he gave in to the heat. When he was satisfied he stood and cleaned his hands on a rag and his arms to where his sleeves were rolIed. But it was grease he was wiping, not sweat. He was somebody who could shine a whole motorcycle in the month of July and not sweat, and his dark hair (still cut for the Navy, stopping high on his neck) was dry. It didn't seem natural and when he leaned against his tree and stared at the ground, he looked to Rosacoke as cool as one November day six years ago, and she thought about that day, so clear and cool -- the first she saw of Wesley. He lived three miles from her, and all her life she heard about the Beavers but never saw one till that day -- a Saturday -- when she went out in Mr. Isaac's woods to pick up pecans off the ground. It was too early for that though -- the leaves were gone but the nuts hung on, waiting for a wind, and there was no wind this day -- so she was heading home with mighty little in her bucket, going slow, just calling it a walk now, when she looked ahead, and in one tall tree that the path bent round was a boy, spreading his arms between the branches and bracing his feet like he was the eagle on money. It was a pecan tree and she walked straight up under it and said, "Boy, shake me down some nuts." Not saying a word he gripped the branches tighter and rocked the fork he stood in, and nuts fell on her like hail by the hundred till she yelled out to stop or else her skull would crack. He stopped and she picked up all the pecans she could carry, thinking the whole time he would climb down and help her, but he stayed up there and when she looked at him once or twice, he wasn't even watching her -- just braced on his long legs that rose in blue overalls to his low waist and his narrow chest and bare white neck and his hair that was brown and still cut for the summer, high above his ears by somebody at home, and his eyes that stared straight out at sights nobody else in Warren County was seeing unless they were up a pecan tree.
"What are you looking at?" she asked him.
She looked but the sky looked clear to her. "Don't you want to share out these pecans?" -- as if bushels of them weren't lying all around her.
"I don't much like them."
"Well, what are you doing up that tree then?"
"Waiting, I guess."
"Who are you?"
"Wesley" -- as if he was the only Wesley ever made.
"Don't you want to know who I am?"
"Who are you?"
"Rosacoke Mustian -- how old are you?"
"Going on sixteen."
"That's old enough to get your driving license. My brother Milo and me slept in the same bed till he got his driving license, and then Mama said he would have to move."
He smiled at that and she saw the smile was as close to victory as she was coming that day so she said, "Thank you for shaking the tree" and went on home and didn't see him again for nearly a year, but she thought of him in the evenings long as those nuts lasted -- him caring for nothing but the smoke she couldn't see, wondering if there was fire somewhere, waiting.
Through that the line went on past Mildred. Some of them -- the young ones mostly -- skipped by her fast as they could and took a little look and jerked away, and Jimmy Jenkins fell out in the aisle on his way to sit down because he held his eyes shut till he was past Mildred (to keep from having her to remember). A good many took their time though and were sorry her head had turned, but nobody reached in to set her straight, and when Minnie Foot held her baby up to see and he dropped his pacifier in the box, they considered that pacifier gone for good -- except the baby who commenced to moan and would have cried if Minnie hadn't sat down in time and unbuttoned and nursed him off to sleep so deep he didn't hear Sarah Fitts when she saw Mildred and wailed "Sweet Jesus" at the sight, but the name went out to Wesley wherever he was (out the window and facing the church but not seeing it, not studying the funeral), and he looked up quick and smiled -- maybe at Rosacoke, maybe at the whole hot church -- and still stuffing, straddled his cycle in a long high leap like a deer and plunged downward on the starter like that same deer striking the earth and turned loose a roar that tore through the grove and the whole afternoon like dry cloth ripped without warning and Wesley was gone.
Rosacoke saw it that way, that slowly. After her remembering she had turned from the window to watch the last ones pass Mildred and to get ready for the testimonials that would be next, but when Sarah released her "Jesus," Rosacoke looked out to Wesley again to see what he would do about that, saying to herself, "That is one something he has got to notice." So she saw it from the beginning -- his leap -- seeing the deer in him as he started and with him still smiling, something even stronger when he reared on his black boots with the calf of his leg thrusting backwards through his trousers to turn loose the noise. She could see that and not think once what he had done or wonder would he come back. She could even turn and watch Mary and Estelle being led to take their last look and breaking down and taking everybody in the church with them into tears except Rosacoke who had as much fight as anybody, knowing Mildred so long. But she didn't cry because suddenly the sound of Wesley's cycle stopped -- he had taken it up the road a quarter of a mile beyond the church and now surely he would be circling round and coming back to wait. And sure enough he began again and bore down on the church like an arrow for their hearts till every face turned to Rosacoke, wondering couldn't she stop his fuss, but she looked straight ahead, not seeing him when the noise got louder and loudest of all and fell away quick as it had come. That little staring boy three rows ahead slapped his leg and said out loud "Mama, he gone." Wesley had passed her by. He was headed for the concrete road, she guessed, and the twenty miles to Mason's Lake and the picnic and everybody there.
"Supposing he is gone for good," she said to herself. "Supposing I never lay eyes on him again," and that made her wonder what she would have left, what there would be that she could take out and hold or pass around and say, "This is what I got from knowing somebody named Wesley Beavers."
There were these many things -- a handful of paper in a drawer at home that was the letters and postal cards he had sent her. (He didn't write much and when he did, it was like getting a court order, so distant and confusing that you wondered for days what he meant by some sentence he meant nothing by and wound up wishing he hadn't written at all or wanting to call him up, long distance, wherever he was and say, "Wesley, I would like to read you this one sentence you wrote" and then read him his own words, "We went to Ocean View last Saturday and met some folks at a eating stand, and they asked us why we didn't come on and go skinny-dipping by moonlight so we did and had a pretty good time and stayed there till Monday morning early," and afterwards ask him, "Wesley, will you tell me what sort of folks you would meet at a hotdog stand, and what is skinny-dipping please?" But how could you just pick up the phone and pay good money to say that when all he would answer was, "What are you worried about?") Besides the letters there was one picture of him -- a grinning one in uniform -- and a poem she wrote for a What I Am Seeking in an Ideal Mate Contest (but never sent in as it got out of hand) and a sailor cap he gave her at her request. (She could have bought it for a dollar at any Army-Navy store. She wore it once when he came home, hoping he would take a few photos of her but of course he didn't, and finally she gave him the only likeness he had of her, all but forced it on him as a birthday present -- Rosacoke Mustian from the neck up, tinted, and looking less like herself than anybody you could imagine.)
That much, then, but wasn't that much left of everybody she ever knew who was gone for good? -- the rusty snuff cans that kept turning up around the yard as signs of her Papa, and even the collars of every clog she ever had, and a 1937 New Jersey license plate that hung on the back porch to this day -- the one thing she knew that was left of her own blood father who found it the evening she was born, lost on the highway, and brought it home drunk as a monkey and nailed it up over the waterbucket and said, "Will everybody please recall this is the year my daughter was born" -- that one thing and nothing else, not a picture, not a thread, no more than if he had been swept away by the Holy Ghost, bag and baggage, in a pillar of fire instead of drunk and taken at dusk by a pickup truck he never saw but walked straight into as if it was a place to rest.
So would there be more than that of Wesley? -- anything besides that first November day and a lot of Saturday nights and this last afternoon with him vanishing in a roar and dust? It came to her -- what he had said the night before when he was quiet and she asked him if, when he was in the Navy, he looked much at her picture. "Sometimes," he said. "Why?" she said and he said, "Because I would forget what you looked like" and then laughed. Thinking about it though, she reckoned he meant it, laugh and all. He had known her seven years nearly, and when he went that far from home, sometimes he forgot her face. But what was so bad about that? Rosacoke herself when she went to 4-H camp in the summers (and that was for only eight days) would lie on her cot at night, thinking, and suddenly one of them -- Mama or Rato or Milo or Papa -- would be walking around in her thoughts with no more face than a cheese has got. She would strain to recollect the features and even try to draw out a face in the air with her finger, but sometimes it wouldn't come till she got back home and looked. Funny how when you could remember every mole on President Roosevelt's face and see Andy Gump clear as if he had ever breathed, still you couldn't call up a face you had spent your whole life with. But it never was Wesley she forgot even when he was no more to her than the farthest Arab on burning sands.
There would be the way he looked. And wouldn't that be with her always? -- whoever she would meet, wherever she would go even in her sleep -- the sight of his face up a tree amongst pecans or down from the tree six years and turned to what he was this afternoon but holding in him all the time that younger Wesley, unchanged and hard at the core, untouched and maybe untouchable but enough like an unlabeled seed, dry and rattling in her hand, to keep her wondering from now on if he might not have gone on growing -- that first Wesley -- and learned a way to look at people that didn't make them feel ten thousand miles away and to think about something but the U.S. Navy and motorcycles and to talk to people when they talked to him and say whatever he meant and stand still -- supposing he had learned all that before it was too late, wouldn't he have made a lovely sight, and then if someday he had ever had to go, couldn't he have left something suitable behind him such as a child that would bear his funny name but have his face and be half hers and answer when she called?
It was the one thing left of Mildred (once they lidded that box again) -- her child that had lived God only knew how, dark and hard in the orange crate they lined with white and laid him in, his back curved inwards and his spidery arms and legs twisting inwards to his navel as if something was winding him up with a key or as if he didn't know he was already born and had killed his mother and that there was nothing to call him but Doctor Sledge as no father came forward to tell what his real name was -- hard dry little fellow with nothing to go on but half his mother's blood and maybe her looks and the way she used to talk held inside him in case he lived, waiting.
The preacher was waiting too now they had got Mary and Estelle away from Mildred and set them down again. He had intended to have the testifying next, but he could see Rosacoke was studying something besides the funeral so he went ahead and gave his remarks that were supposed to be the last thing before they shut the box -- about all of us being raised from the grave including Mildred, but not a word about that live baby no more than if Mildred had died of sore throat. He watched Rosacoke the whole time to see when she would look round and be ready, but she looked on out the window through every word, even the prayer, and when he came to the end of all he could do, he had to say quietly to the back row, "Miss Rosacoke, we all know Mildred thought a heap of you, and it seem like you thought a heap of her" -- a lot of people said "Amen" -- "and I wonder is there any testifying you could do for her now?" His voice carried and Rosacoke looked round slow and blank as if he had called her from the edge of sleep. To help her out he went on, "If you can find anything in your heart to say, we would be mighty glad." Everybody was watching her. She nodded her head. She had meant to think out in advance what was best to say, but nothing about this afternoon had gone as she intended. She bit at her upper lip because of the heat and stood up and said, "I hadn't seen much of Mildred lately, but we always observed each other's birthday, her and me, and the other evening I thought to myself, 'It is nearly Mildred's twenty-first birthday' so I walked down to her place after supper, and nobody was there except the turkey. I didn't know till the next afternoon they had carried her away. There I was just wanting to give her a pair of stockings and wish her a long and happy life and she was already gone."
That was what she could find in her heart. She wondered if there ought not to be more, but if there was, it was covered now by other things. She sat down and before anybody could thank her, she thought what seemed to be the truth right then -- "Everybody I know is gone." In the stifling air she went as cold all over as a pane of glass and took up her pocketbook and pressed her hat safe on her head and walked straight out of church -- not from grief, not shedding a tear -- but stopping the funeral dead while everybody watched her out of sight and Mrs. Ransom said "She is overcome" and punched Sammy her son at the end of her row and told him, "Sammy, go see what ails that child."
Sammy went and there was Rosacoke on the middle step, hanging onto her hat as if a storm was due, the sun laying her shadow backwards to the door and her just staring down the road. Not wanting to scare her by speaking, Sammy struck a match on his shoe and lit a cigarette. She looked around -- just her dry eyes -- and said, "Sammy, aren't you burning up in all that wool?" (He was in dark blue -- the one man she had seen all day dressed like he knew what a funeral was.)
"If you needing to go somewhere, Miss Rosacoke, Sammy can take you." He said it as gentle as if it was the hospital she might need.
She hesitated as if she was thinking of a map and was on the verge of saying something distant such as -- "Buffalo." "I don't reckon so, Sammy. I may have to go home and I can walk that."
"In this heat?"
"I have played baseball in worse than this and so have you," she said. Then thinking what she had done by walking out on the testifying, she said, "I don't intend to ruin Mildred's funeral any further by taking you away. Go on back in and tell Mary I'm sorry I can't stay, but I got to locate Wesley."
"No telling where he, Miss Rosacoke, with that machine between his legs."
"No. But I'll be saying goodbye to you, Sammy."
"Yes'm." And she walked into the yard and towards the road in her high heels that were not meant for standing in, much less walking. Sammy finished his cigarette and saw her vanish at the first turn. He was the age of her oldest brother Milo, and this was the first day he had ever called her Miss Rosacoke -- nothing else to call her, the way she looked, though they played many games of baseball together before Mr. Isaac hired him -- her and Milo and Rato (and Mildred and Mildred's sister Baby Lou at shortstop). He had driven the truck today and carried a fourth of the box, and it was generally guessed he was the one might tell the world what the rightful name of Mildred's baby was so he went back to where they had given up waiting. Bessie Williams was singing "Come Thee Disconsolate" which by now Rosacoke couldn't hear.
She walked in the middle of the road, looking down. Wherever the dust was thick there would be the track of Wesley's cycle printed like a message to her. Seeing that, she would speed up a little and sad as she felt, smile and think, "What do I think I am -- an Indian nosing out a deer?" But she would come to long stretches where the dust had blown away, and there would be nothing but the baked red ground that took no more sign of Wesley than if he had flown every now and then. The smile would fade and she would walk even faster to get to the next deep dust till her legs, from the knee clown nearly, were streaked with the red and her shoes were fit for nothing but burning. She could see that but she said right out to the trees around her, "I will see him if I have to walk to Norfolk." That thought dogged through her chest and mouth till she gasped for every breath she got, and everything else was choked -- Mildred, the heat, her shoes -- leaving nothing but Wesley hanging up in her, not speaking a word, and her at the worst she had ever been. She couldn't cry. She couldn't speak. But she thought, "I have spent six years thinking of Wesley Beavers day and night, giving him things he didn't want, writing him letters he barely answered, and now I am trailing him like a dog and him at Mason's Lake, I know, cooling off. I will stop walking when I get home and rest in the swing, and I hope he sells motorcycles till he drops."
She was coming to Mr. Isaac's woods where the deer had been so long ago for her and Mildred, and Wesley's tracks that hadn't showed for awhile showed again -- not straight but twisting over the road from ditch to ditch. She said, "If that is his idea of fun, I'm glad I'm walking," and she looked up at the woods and decided to step in and take their shade till she was cool again.
Between the road and the woods was a narrow gully from the last rain. She took off her shoes and held her hat and jumped it and landed right away in deep moss that was cool with damp from God-knew-where. She took a look in both empty directions and decided to go on barefooted so she struck inwards a little from the road, and when it was nearly out of sight, she turned and walked on parallel to the narrow dust she could see through the trees. She was still in hollering distance if anybody was to pass that needed hollering at. Working indoors all summer the way she had, her feet were tender, and she yielded to them with pouts and little hunches of her shoulders when a stick cracked under her or a rock pressed up from the ground, and the sight of an old blacksnake stopped her dead till he raised up as if to speak and she beat him to it -- "Well, old brother, which way are you headed?" and he went looping off slow over a log and on deeper in the trees. That kept her looking at the ground from then on, but once when she stopped to breathe, there was a red cardinal staring at her from the same bent tree she and Mildred had called a horse and ridden a thousand miles. She couldn't think how a cardinal sang, but any bird will answer you once, however you sound, so she whistled three notes, and he answered just to show her the right way. She told him "Thank you" and tried it his way, but he had given all he meant to give and sat there and swelled up. "What are you looking so biggity about?" she asked him. "You look like every cardinal I ever saw." He headed on too for the heart of the woods -- north -- and if he wanted, he could make Virginia by dark. She called after him, "You better stay in North Carolina, boy. You are the official bird here." Then sh
A Long and Happy Life
From its dazzling opening page, which announced the appearance of a stylist of the first rank, to its moving close, this brief novel has charmed and captivated millions of readers since its publication twenty-five years ago and its subsequent translation into fifteen languages. On the triumphant publication of Kate Vaiden, his most recent novel, in 1986, there was almost no review that -- praising the new book to the skies -- didn't also mention in glowing terms the reviewer's fond recollection of the marvelous first novel, the troubled love story of Rosacoke Mustian and Wesley Beavers and its beautifully evoked vision of rural North Carolina. It is a pleasure now to restore to print the clothbound edition of this truly enduring work as a companion volume to his brilliant book of essays, A Common Room, published simultaneously.