A work in progress, by Tito Perdue
Volume I: THE BUILDER
That whole area is rich in deposits dating from earlier ages. Earlier still, warm seas had extended for a great distance all around, to Enterprise and Opp and continuing on to Georgia. That was when the world began, beginning with his father who had arisen out of nowhere and had come forward, moving always nearer against the grain of the horizon. No one spoke, not in those days, and a great stillness covered almost everything.
Mountains formed, and last of all the sun, and still a very long time had to go by before his parents could come to grips with one another and marry in due course. And even the marriage itself lies a year or two in the future of these opening moments.
Later on, when he had developed confidence in the papers that had come down to him, the child was able to see for himself how things had been in 1888 with his mother and father still unbeknown to each other and dwelling far apart in separate towns. Now, all these years later, he could look back in imagination and see the status of the crops, of trains running across the landscape, and mules parked all day about the courthouse square. It was not the historical period that he would have chosen certainly, and instead of mules, he could understand why a man might prefer to go straight to paradise, avoiding the hard work that awaited a person in the Alabama of that day.
Traveling mostly by starlight, his father had emerged from out of the sand fields of the extreme south, just as his people had always done. In this way he was able to make sudden appearances in the towns along his way, a source of surprise to those who might happen to catch sight of him during his brief stays. Finding himself by 1887 in Luverne, he spent three days carrying out deliveries for the man who owned the lumber yard. But on the fourth day he was put to work on the lumber itself and after two months of it found that he and some dozen other men had set up a fine new house with five rooms in it. He liked to step into the half-finished parlor and, drunk on the scent of new-sawn wood, dream that the building was his own and the wife also, and that now had come the time to select his furniture and other things. It might indeed be an Age of Mules but that need not prohibit him from having a clock on the mantle piece together with other instruments of high quality with which to keep watch on the changes taking place in the outside world both when he was awake and sleeping. As to the bed, it would be big enough for the both of them (himself and a wife), assuming that ever he could flush her from her hiding place. Wife, stove (he had stepped from the parlor to the kitchen), clock and other instruments, these might well serve as a kind of consolation during the long ordeal that lay in wait for him.
He learned to build houses. It was said that he worked more quickly than the ordinary run of men and that the nails he drove fell immediately into place, as if wishing to reduce to the minimum the number of blows they must suffer at his hand. And then, too, he and the Negroes used to contend with each other in their carpentry skills, an undeclared competition in which William urged himself forward continually, remembering how his people had always been able to hold on to their dignity in the past and even to increase it when they could. And once he saw a man fall off a ladder and die, and bending over him saw the hideousness in his eyes as hell opened up and drew him down inside.
He did so good a job with loading the lumber and carrying it to various places that soon he knew as much about the county as the man who owned the newspaper.
"Where you been, William?" the man would ask.
"Ah, ha. Other side of the levee, right? There used to be a lot of funny business going on over there."
He much preferred to be sorting merchandise than hearing about the funny business. He could not, for example, imagine how screws were manufactured, all of them so exactly alike and so beautifully-organized in little white cardboard boxes bearing scientific labels. Seedshe liked to plunge his hand deep into the bag and then, bringing up a sample for inspection, liked to estimate the quality of the crops that might accrue to the man who invested in them. And, of course, he liked tools, the most essential of all things. One had only to look at them to know what they were for.
He did especially well with lady customers, who esteemed him for his responsible ways and his well-known contempt for cigarettes and drink. Oftentimes he was seen in church even on week daysunless a house were going up or he were needed at the store. He had a suit, a pocket knife, and a pair of shoes with four or five months' of wear left in them still. His sleeping place was in the warehouse where he kept a bright eye out for pilferers and vagabonds. He was not a large man and yet in his whole life no one had ever wanted to irritate him beyond a certain point.
One day in August he got into his suit and left town, traveling by horse in the direction of his parents' house. It was a clear day, sun bright, and once or twice he could detect the sound of a bee detouring around him at high speed. Two miles out a dog came up behind and began to bark, his face showing how delighted he was to have been given some provocation at last. William paid no heed to him, not until the thing took hold of the heel of his best shoe and tried to remove it. There happened to be a farmer in the field at that moment, a sad-looking figure who left off hoeing long enough to observe William's method, the most effective in the world, for dealing with dogs of that kind.
The trail narrowed but then opened up again as William approached a river glinting bluely among the pines. Near to shore a persimmon tree was in flower even though the fruits themselves were by no means ready for tasting. The river however was sweet and he drank his full of it, intrigued by how the stuff lost its color when he ladled it up in his hand. Except for the little bit of weight that he held in his palm, a person wouldn't have known that anything was there. Suddenly he stopped what he was doing and glanced toward the woods.
He was being watched by dozens of eyes. Incensed by that, he got to his feet and strolled some hundred rods downstream, until he could find a place in which to get undressed and slip noiselessly into the stream. The overhanging trees were hung with beards of moss that tumbled from the branches, halting just short of the water. Here in midstream they dawdled, the mare and he, neither in any great hurry to reach the other shore. Two ducks passed overhead, hesitated, and then continued on disappointedly when they saw the river had been pre-empted.
Leaving the water, the man and horse climbed out into a field of young corn and while causing as little destruction as possible to the crop, worked their way back to the highway. It was a memorable day, full of good weather and a fleet of clouds that looked like galleons probing along the horizon. Behind him he could hear a wagon coming up slowly whereupon he at once abandoned the road and entered a clump of trees, an action that sent some dozen crows flying off in great resentment. He did not wish to be offered some conversation and left with no alternative but to refuse it.
His people lived on seventy acres of rented land. Shielding his eyes, William could see three men seated on the porch, another in the field, and a woman at the well. Soon he would be within hailing distance and soon thereafter could expect to be recognized by one or another of them. He marched forward calmly therefore, the sun glinting off his forehead. Already one of the girls had identified him and was running toward him down the lane. He had brought no gifts, not today.
"Willie! Willie! Mary Belle had kittens!"
He nodded but said nothing. She was the youngest of them and always had been more excitable than the boys. And then, too, she kept glancing to his pockets and his satchel.
"Four of 'em!"
"Y'all need rain, looks like to me."
"And I get to keep the white one!"
They continued two abreast. The old man had come to his feet and then, seeing who it was, had returned to his chair. William now stopped and waved to the whole group, doing it in dignified fashion. He had come to them in his best clothes, having managed to bring them over the river without getting them wet. He went first to his mother, who seemed to him older than he had remembered.
"I thought you might come," she said. "'Course, I been thinking that for a long time."
"Yes, ma'am. Well I got a position now, don't you see, and they keep me real busy." And then: "I was going to bring some presents, too, but..."
"Well, that's all right I reckon."
He turned to shake with the old man who, as always on Sundays, was dressed in his gingham shirt. The man appeared to be pleased even if his thoughts seemed still engaged in the conversation he had just been having. William did not much like the looks of the other man, who had two tiny eyes set much too close together on either side of a nose that was far too thin. He shook with him nevertheless. The third man remained standing behind the swing. Some moments went by while no one spoke. The day was beautiful but time was passing quickly and nothing of importance was being done.
They gathered at the table and after prayers began to pass around the ham and biscuits. William was not the oldest of the sons but was allowed on these occasions to sit at the head of the table just next to his father. The old man had always been fond of sweet things and was continually encouraging those nearest him to share in the jams and jellies that sat before them in a pink glass dish with partitions. The visitors had gone away, leaving the family to enjoy a meal that brought to mind the old days, when all William's brothers had still been alive. Now, twenty minutes into the supper, the old man began to speak:
"A 'position,' you say. Shoot boy, in my day we had jobs, we didn't have no positions. You want a position, boy, you got to go into town, because that's where you find 'em." He lay down his fork and looked at his son severely. "And I'm not talking any little old ordinary town neither; I'm talking Montgomery."
"What kind of position is it, Billy?" his mother asked worriedly. "It sounds real nice."
"Ah, he sits up there behind the counter at Peddie's storethat's all in the world it is. Sells things."
Her eyes lit up, the girl with the kitten in her lap. "Things!"
"Well, we got lots to do around here, too. You could always come back, son, anytime. No, that's just the way we operateanytime any son of mine gets into trouble, he can always come home. 'Course now you ain't going to find any positions here."
"Just plain work. We're plain people. I got thirty acres in peas right now."
William acknowledged it. The peas might fail, lest rain soon came. His gaze went to the corner of the room where a large cobweb cast a fragile shadow in the light of the paraffin lamp. No such webs had been allowed when his mother was younger and in good health. He looked for, and found, the framed painting of a bowl of green and yellow fruit, noting at the same time that it was going brown about the edges. On the mantle piece the clock had continued to function though the sound of it now seemed weaker to him than of beforetimes, and further away. And then, too, there was that jar of preserves that twenty years ago had been opened, sampled, sealed up again, and then given the blue ribbon for that year.
It was a heavy meal featuring hog jowls and cornbread supported by buttermilk, collards, and black-eyed peas. Delighted by his presence, the youngest of the girls continued to look up at him admiringly while William strove to put on his best manners and maintain a somber face. Good was the food and the buttermilk full of tasty curds that dawdled all too briefly on the tongue before fleeing away only too quickly down the throat. He tried to retain the stuff as long as he coulduntil he grew aware that the kitten in Sue Ellen's lap saw what he was doing.
"William don't care for the peas, I reckon," his mother said sadly.
He served himself at once to further peas even though he had had 300 of them already. The gravy however was thin and tenuous and tended to run off the knife.
"Shoot boy, them's good peas."
He served himself to more. Through the open door he could see the sun going rapidly through its inventory of late-afternoon colors, coming ever nearer to that moment when it must recuse itself for a certain duration. Saw, too, the rooster, who had taken advantage of it to step inside the house and glance around in perfect amazement at everything.
The crops that year promised to be mediocre. Not so the crickets, who had proliferated to such an extent that they damaged a person's hearing with their songs. Moving out onto the unsteady porch, the family repositioned their chairs until they were facing into the music rather than allowing it to strike directly at the ear. That was when the noise came to an abrupt halt so that a nearby owl might insert an outburst of its own.
"Minds me of when we went down to ------------------ County," the old man said, interspersing his words among the night sounds.
"What, daddy? What reminds you of that?"
"Didn't have no mules to speak of. Had to walk, most of us."
"You had to walk. Didn't you, daddy?"
"Didn't have no money, no flour. Well, Uncle Billy might have had a few dollars, but that's all."
"Yes, and he kept it all for himself! Didn't he, daddy?"
"I just wisht those durned crickets would shut up. And that tree frog, too."
"I reckon they have as much right as you do, Sue Ellen."
"They do not neither!"
One of the brothers, the largest of them, rose and stretched and went away. It left seven individuals facing off approximately in a north north-westerly direction where the blades of a windmill could be seen turning slowly in the moon. The night was pleasant and yet every person there understood that the corn had come to a full stop, not to pick up growing again until the return of the light.
"Didn't have no salt."
The bed that used to be his had been taken by one of the girls, wherefore William had to go to the attic and bring down an old cotton mattress and then find a place for it in the kitchen. In this solitude he was free to think of his own problems, a thirty-minute procedure during which he lay perfectly still, oblivious to the sound of insects and of people rising from time to time and moving about the house. Twice the dog came to check on him, surprised to find that he was still awake. Finally, toward one in the morning, he took the notepad from his coat and wrote a reminder to himself about something that needed to be done. Still in an unsettled frame of mind, he rose and went to the door.
The insects fell silent the instant he stepped outside. In the eastern sky a half dozen crows had run into some kind of problem apparently and now were winging homeward in high indignation. William moved forward, squeezing between the creamery and the barn and then setting foot in the field itself. He had no criticism of the work his father had done, even if he himself would have given this field one more plowing at least. He would have wanted stronger mules, too, and if that were not enough would have harnessed the three sons his father still kept at home. Things were not perfect here and the house itself needed workit threatened to stir up in him an incipient anger that he managed however to set aside.
He went back, hushing all the cicadas within a certain radius. The rooster, confused by this bright moon, had scaled much too early to the top of the gable and had poised himself to wake the county before then realizing his mistake and sadly climbing back down again. Pushing his way into the carpentry shop, William noted how the tools, many of them, had been removed from the chest and then put down at random with no regard to anything. In the barn a single cowWilliam recognized her and remembered her namewas suffering from an udder that no one had bothered to drain.
He never understood why the world and its things were not any better than they were. He wanted progress, not just maintenance, and every human effort, he believed, should make some contribution toward the improvements that God craved. Going to the well he sought about for the bucket which, of course, was lacking. Far down below the fluid itself sparkled darkly, like a fund of ink. Meanwhile a thin cloud had slipped behind the moon and he had to bend deeply over the well to identify the reflection that had broken into several large and small fragments riding on the swells.