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Authors: Ernest J. Gaines

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BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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“What’s the matter with you, boy?” she said to me. “Don’t you know the Major and Miss Bea in there trying to sleep?”

“Candy sent me,” I said.

“She didn’t tell you to wake up the dead, did she?”

Janey looked at me a good while ’Fore she came down the steps. She had on a white dress and white shoes and an apron. She was heavy as Gram Mon, but not old as Gram Mon, and not light as Gram Mon. While she took her own good time coming to the gate, I looked at a couple of butterflies flitting around the flowers in the corner of the yard. Home, the butterflies wouldn’ta had a chance. But I knowed Janey woulda killed me if she even thought I was thinking ’bout coming in that yard.

“What’s the matter with you?” she said, at the gate.

“Candy want you to call Lou,” I said.

“You say ‘Mr. Lou,’ and you say ‘Miss Candy,’ ” Janey said, looking down at me from the other side of the gate. “I don’t care how libbel they is, you still a child. You say Mister and Miss round me. You ain’t too old for me to tan your butt, you know.”

“Miss Merle in there?” I asked her.

“No, she ain’t,” Janey said.

“Guess you’ll have to do then,” I said.

“Thank you, sir,” Janey said, looking over the gate at me. “I ’preciates that.”

“Call Lou,” I said. “Tell him Candy want him here right away. And call Miss Merle.”

“And what I just told you no more than a minute ago about saying Mister and Miss round me?”

She looked at me hard a long time. That’s how they do when they want you to remember something.

“What Candy want with them down in the quarters?” she asked me.

“Something to do with Mathu and Beau. Beau laying on his back in Mathu’s yard. And Mathu squatting there with that shotgun.”

Janey’s face changed quick. She was mad at first, now she
was scared. She pushed that gate open and grabbed me in the collar.

“That shot I heard?” she said. “That shot I heard?”

“That hurt,” I said, jerking away from her. “Y’all got any tea cakes or plarines in there?”

“Boy,” Janey said, and raised her hand to hit me. She wasn’t mad, she was scared. I ducked out of her way.

“That’s what I heard?” she asked again. Now she looked like she wanted to cry. “That’s the shot I heard?”

“I guess so, I don’t know,” I said.

Now she started whooping. “Lord, have mercy. Lord, Jesus, have mercy. Boy, you know what this mean? Mean Fix coming here with his drove. You too young to know Fix. But I know Fix.”

She started back to the house. I looked at her through the gate.

“You getting me some tea cakes?” I called to her. “Candy didn’t pay me nothing to come up here.”

She didn’t answer me. Just kept on walking. Now she was wiping her eyes with her apron.

“Hanh?” I called to her. I had my face right up against the gate. “You getting me some tea cakes, or a plarine?”

She went back in the house. Paid me no more ’tention than she did them butterflies around that flower. I left the gate and went on back down the quarters. I didn’t get a nickel or a tea cake or a plarine for running all the way up there. But I still had one thing on old Toddy. He didn’t see what I saw.

Janice Robinson
aka
Janey

Lord
have mercy, Jesus, what now? Where do I turn? Go where first? The Major? For what? He’s already drunk out there on that front garry, and it’s just twelve o’clock. Miss Bea? That’s like talking to the wall. Where? Mr. Lou? Yes. She said call Mr. Lou. Mr. Lou and Miss Merle. I better make it Mr. Lou first. Lord, have mercy, keep me on my feet if it is thy holy will.

I went in and dialed the paper in Baton Rouge—my finger trembling, just a-trembling. When the operator answered, I told her I wanted to speak to Mr. Lou Dimes. She told me that was “City,” and told me to hold on. Then somebody else answered and said, “City”; then he said, “Toby Wright.” I told him I wanted to speak to Mr. Lou Dimes. “Lou at dinner right now,” he said. “Oh, Lord,” I said. “Where? Find him. Hurry. Candy want him here right away. Please, sir. Please.” “Just hold on,” he said. “Calm down. He’ll be back in a little while. Who am I speaking to? That’s you, Janey?” “Yes, sir, it’s me,” I said. “Find him fast as you can, and tell him get here fast as he can. He don’t have to call. Just get here. And please hurry. Hurry.”

I was crying so hard when I got through talking to him I had to wipe my whole face with my apron. Then I dialed Miss Merle. But nobody answered. I let it ring a dozen times, but no answer. Lord, Jesus, I told myself. Lord, Jesus, help me.

I went out on the front garry. The Major was all curled up in the swing, sleeping. His face resting on the back of his hands. A half glass of watered whiskey on the banister by the swing. Lord, Jesus, I thought to myself, it ain’t evening yet, and he’s already drunk. Lord, Jesus, help me. I went back inside and started upstairs to Miss Bea’s room, but halfway up I remembered she wasn’t in her room, she was out in the back pasture. I went to the back door and looked—and there she was, way over yonder, under one of them pecan trees, a little bitty thing, ain’t five foot tall, feeling in all them weeds with a stick for pecans. Lord, Jesus, I thought to myself, now just s’posing, just s’posing, now, a snake or something come up there and bite that old woman in all them weeds. Lord, Jesus, I said, help me. Help me if it is thy holy will, Lord, Jesus.

I went back and dialed Miss Merle’s number again, but she still wasn’t there. Help me, Lord, Jesus, I said. Please help this your humbled servant who ain’t never done nothing but served thee well. I went back and looked at the Major—still curled up there sleeping, snoring now. I got the glass of watered whiskey and took it back in the kitchen, and while I was there I looked across the pasture at that old woman out in them weeds looking for pecans with a stick. See? I thought. See? If anything bite that old woman, they’ll blame me. Lord, Jesus, I said, help me, Lord, Jesus. Help me. I went back and dialed Miss Merle again, but she still wasn’t there. Lord, Jesus, I said, help me, Lord, Jesus. I went out on the wes’ garry and looked down the quarters, but you couldn’t see a thing down there for all the weeds. Lord, Jesus, I said to myself, help me, Lord, Jesus. I looked toward the highway, toward the river, ’cause I expected to hear Fix and his drove coming in them trucks with them guns any minute now. Lord, Jesus, I said to
myself, help me, Lord, Jesus. I went back in and dialed Miss Merle again, but she still wasn’t home. Lord, Jesus, I said, help me, Lord, Jesus.

I started my dusting again, ’cause that’s what I was doing ’fore that boy come up there making all that racket. I hadn’t picked up the mop more than ten minutes when I heard the car drive up in the front yard. I ran out on the front garry and seen it was Miss Merle, and looked like a heavy load just fell off my shoulders. I ran down the steps to meet her in the yard.

She was smiling. Always smiling. Just a good-natured person. The nicest I have ever known.

“Lord, have mercy, I’m so glad you got here,” I said.

She seen I had been crying, and she stopped smiling.

“What’s the matter?” she said.

She was a fat lady with a nice round face and she had a little pointed nose and a little red mouth and gray eyes. She looked like a owl more than anything else, and that’s what the people in the quarters called her behind her back—Miss Owl.

“Something the matter?” she asked again. She looked at the Major all curled up in the swing. “Jack drunk,” she said. She looked at the gold watch on her short, fat arm. “Not even twelve-thirty yet,” she said.

“I been calling and calling your house,” I told her.

“I was on my way over here,” she said. “What’s the matter? What happened?”

“Candy,” I said.

“What about Candy?”

“They been a killing,” I said.

“What?” she said. Her gray eyes looked hard at me, but behind all that hardness I could see she was scared. “Candy?” she said.

“No’m. Beau,” I said.

“Beau?” she said. “Candy? Beau? What happened?”

“Beau dead,” I said.

“Candy?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Where’s Candy?”

“In the quarters,” I said.

“What’s she doing down there?”

“That’s where it happened,” I said. “Mathu’s house.”

“Oh, my God, my God,” she said, and throwed her hand up to her mouth. She looked toward the garry where the Major was curled up in the swing sleeping. “Jack?” she called to him. “Jack? Jack?”

“He can’t hear you,” I said.

“Where’s Bea?” Miss Merle asked me.

“In the back yard looking for pecans,” I said. “Miss Merle, Candy want you down the quarters right away.”

“Who else know about this?” Miss Merle asked.

“Just the people in the quarters,” I said. “She wanted me to notify you and Mr. Lou, but nobody else.”

“You got Lou?” she asked me.

“He’s at dinner,” I told her.

“Oh, shit,” she said, and looked toward the garry again. “Jack? Jack?” she called.

“He don’t hear you,” I said. “He’s been like that since ’leven o’clock.”

“I better get down there,” Miss Merle said.

She got back in the car. She was so fat she had a hard time doing it.

“Pray,” she said. “Pray, Janey.”

I knowed she was talking about Fix and his drove.

“Pray, Janey,” she said, swinging that car around. She was backing over flowers, over little bushes, little trees, spraying gravel all over the place, all over me, too. “Pray,” she said, going out the yard. “Pray.”

I went back in the house. She didn’t have to tell me to pray. I was doing that long ’fore she got there.

Myrtle Bouchard
aka
Miss Merle

I had Lucy
bake me an apple pie, because I knew how much Jack just liked his apple pie. I told Lucy when she came to work that morning if she baked me the best apple pie she ever baked in her life I would give her half the day off. She told me don’t worry. And I’ll be darn if she didn’t bake the best one I had ever seen or tasted. Golden brown and sweet, but not too sweet—just sweet enough. I told her, at twelve o’clock sharp, she could take off because I am a woman of my word. She said, “Don’t I already know that, Miss Merle?” Bless her heart. She said, “Why you think I baked the best apple pie I ever baked in my life? And the next one go’n be twice as good.”

We both left the house at the same time, she going to her place at Medlow, and I on my way to Marshall to see Jack and Bea. The pie was for Jack—and, Lord, I wished he liked me much as he did apple pie. But I had been saying that for years and years now.

When I drove into the yard, I saw Janey coming out of the house in a hurry. I knew something was wrong, and when
she came out into the yard I could see that she had been crying.

Then she told me. And I thought to myself, My Lord, my Lord. I looked at Jack asleep there in the swing, and I thought to myself, My Lord, my Lord.

I forgot all about the apple pie. I hurried back into the car and sped out of the yard. Turning down into the quarters, I could see the tractor in the middle of the road, and I could see Candy’s black LTD parked in the ditch on the right. But I didn’t see any of the people as I drove past the old houses. Just like little bedbugs, I told myself. Just like frightened little bedbugs now. But when I stopped before Mathu’s house, I could see they were not bedbugs after all. They were all there, in the yard, and on the porch. Three of them had shotguns—Mathu, Johnny Paul, and Rufe. None of the women had guns; they and the children just sat there watching me. Candy was in the road by the time I got out of the car.

“I killed Beau,” she said.

I was still looking past her at Mathu and Rufe and Johnny Paul with those old shotguns. Mathu squatted against the wall by the door, the gun cradled in his arms. Squatting, not sitting or standing, was his favorite position when he was out on the porch. And by the door, against the wall, was his favorite place to be. Johnny Paul sat on the steps with his gun, and Rufe leaned back against the end of the porch with his. I had never seen anything like this in all my life before, and I wasn’t too sure I was seeing it now.

“What?” I said, still watching the porch.

“I shot Beau,” Candy said.

I looked back at her. I didn’t jerk my head around, I looked at her slowly. I had known Candy over twenty-five years. She was no more than five or six when her mother and father were killed in a car wreck, and I had helped raise her. Surely, Mathu here in the quarters, and I at the main house had done as
much to raise her as had her uncle and aunt. Maybe even more than they. Yes, he and I had done more than they. So I knew when she was lying to me, and I knew she was lying to me now.

“Candy, what’s going on down here?” I asked her.

“Listen,” she said. She was small, not more than five two, and thin as a dime. She wore the wrong clothes, and that hair was cropped too short for a young woman interested in catching a man. But Candy was not. A young man came around, but I had no idea what kind of relationship they had. Probably the same kind Jack and I had. “I don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “I wanted you or Lou here before Mapes got here. I don’t—”

“What are they doing with those guns?” I asked her.

“I don’t know, Miss Merle,” she said. “I shot him. But all of a sudden Mathu said he shot him. Then all of a sudden Rufe said he shot him. Johnny Paul was nowhere around here. But after he came here and saw what had happened, he said he had as much reason to shoot Beau as anybody, so he ran home and got his old gun. But I shot him.”

I looked at him lying over there in the weeds. The weeds were so high I could hardly see anything more than just the tip of his cowboy boots. And I sure wasn’t going any closer to get a better look at the rest of him.

“Don’t they know who that is?” I said to Candy.

“They know,” she said. “They just want the credit for shooting him. But I shot him.”

“Here in Mathu’s yard, Candy? Mapes is no fool, you know.”

“I shot him,” she said. “You got to believe me. I don’t care if Mapes does or not. I need you to believe me. Clinton can handle Mapes in court.”

BOOK: A Gathering of Old Men
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