MARTIN DUCKED AS his baseball glove hit the wall. He kept his gaze on the spot where it landed.
“Martin, sometimes I swear you try to make me look like a fool,” his father said in that too-calm voice that gave Martin the creeps. “You trying to make me a laughingstock?”
Martin tried to force down the lump in his throat. A tune started in his head.
“You gonna answer me? Look at me when I'm talking to you.” Ed Pittman picked up the glove and put it on. “I was embarrassed to call you my son. You let every pitch sail right past you. Missed every ball at the plate, missed every ball in the outfield. Like I never showed you nothing.” He
slammed his fist into the glove. “There was T. J. Owens barely making an error, and he don't even have a daddy.”
Martin stayed put and stayed quiet. Silence made his father mad, but answers made him madder. Martin let the tune grow and tried not to hum out loud.
“You ever practice?” His father slammed his fist into the glove again. “You ever once work this leather like it was meant?” He threw it back at Martin's feet. “Feels like the day I bought it. This sorry glove's got more dust from your closet than dirt from the ball field. I'da given my back teeth for a decent glove and a daddy who'd teach me the game.” Mr. Pittman paced back and forth across the trailer floor. “T.J. and the others are out in the field every free minute. Where's my son? Listening to music with a loony woman old enough to be his mamma.”
Martin scratched at the dried mud on the knees of his baseball uniform. He tried to let the tune in his head drown out his father's words.
“ â¦ like some damn sissy-britches out there â¦”
Martin made up words to his tune. “I ain't listening to you,” he sang.
“ â¦ all your time with that fat fruitcake Wylene â¦”
“I don't hear you,” Martin hummed.
“ â¦ think I don't know about that damn music â¦”
Martin's tune stopped when his baseball glove landed in his lap with a thud.
“I got no problem just up and leaving this place, so don't go getting too damn cozy, you hear?” his father said.
Martin traced patterns in the cracked Formica countertop
with the tip of his finger, starting and stopping in time to the tune that filled his head. What was his daddy talking about? Why had he moved from baseball to Wylene? Was his daddy mad at him or Wylene or just everyone in general?
“Go away,” Martin sang in his head and traced with his finger. “Go away. Go away. Go away.”
The screen door slammed. The car started with a roar. Gravel spewed. The tires squealed when the car turned onto the highway. Martin listened to the car race farther and farther away and fade into silence. He had forgotten his mother was in the room until she stirred slightly on the couch. She looked like a dog that had just been beat for the pure meanness of it. He knew it was his faultâand he felt guilty.
“I'm sorry, Mamma” was all he could think of to say.
She looked at Martin with sad dog eyes. “Ain't nothing to be sorry for.”
“I guess I just ain't never going to be any good at baseball.”
Doris Pittman came over to where Martin was sitting on the barstool. She pulled his head down to her chest and stroked his hair. She smelled like talcum powder. He listened to her heart beating in time with his own, then he sat up and kissed her on the cheek. The corners of her mouth turned up into a tiny smile, and Martin felt better. Most of the time, it seemed to Martin that all the bad days of her life showed on her face, so lined and drawn. Her lips puckered up and twitched at the corners, like they were just
busting to let loose with something. Sometimes Martin thought she was living a secret life somewhere in her head. He worried that maybe that secret life didn't include him.
Once he had found a wrinkled photograph in the bottom of her sewing basket. Eight children were lined up like stairsteps in front of a church. The one on the end, the smallest one, was his mother. Martin recognized her tilted-up chin and her skinny bowlegs. She clutched a Bible with both white-gloved hands and squinted at the camera from under long, straggly bangs. Martin had been fascinated by that picture and for the longest time couldn't figure out why. Then one day it came to him. That little girl's face had a peaceful smile the likes of which he had never seen on his mother.
“I'll go get the paper,” he said, heading for the door. He'd have to go to the Six Mile Cafe to get the
That was a couple of miles there and back. But that was okay with him. He had a couple of miles' worth of thinking to do.
The breeze felt good on his face as he headed toward the main road. His cowlick stuck straight up on top of his head and waved in the breeze like a banner as he walked. When he heard the
of a bicycle bell behind him, he turned to see Terry Lynn Scoggins riding toward him. The handlebars of her bike wobbled as she struggled to keep her balance on the dirt and gravel road. Finally she tipped, then jumped right up and brushed the dirt off her already skinned-up knees.
“Where you going?” she asked.
“Into town to get the paper. Where you going?” Martin picked her bike up and held it steady for her.
“I ain't allowed to go nowhere.” She climbed on her bike and wobbled off.
When Martin passed under the big sign that arched over the entrance to the trailer park, he walked backwards for a ways, looking up at it. WELCOME TO PARADISE, it read. Only one problem with that sign. It was facing the wrong direction. Seemed like most of the time Paradise was on the outside of that trailer park. He turned around and headed toward town.
With each step that led him farther away from Paradise, Martin felt lighter. His long, skinny legs took big, bouncy steps. Pretty soon he was practically floating with the freedom of it. Sometimes when Martin walked he was so lost in a tune he could step right over a dead possum without skipping a beat. But today he took the time to admire the splashes of pink-and-white dogwood along the road, gaze at the blue, cloudless sky, and enjoy the smell of new-mown grass. Before he realized it, he was thinking. Thinking about what a puzzle people were most of the time. Thinking about how come his father was so mad all the time. How come Wylene was so sad all the time. Martin was beginning to think he'd never figure people out. About the only thing Martin knew for sure right now was that a couple of miles' worth of thinking didn't bring a couple of miles' worth of answers.
“WYLENE LUNDSFORD IS a grown woman, Martin. If she can't go by herself, that's her problem. It ain't your problemâand it sure as heck ain't mine.”
Martin jabbed his fork into his cold scrambled eggs. “I just don't see why Hazeline has to come today,” he said.
His mother didn't look up from the frying pan. Bacon grease spit and splattered the wall behind the stove. “Because she's your grandmamma and today is Sunday and Hazeline always comes on Sunday.” She pushed the hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand and looked at Martin. “Besides, your daddy'd have a fit. You know he don't want you going to that concert.”
Martin leaned across the kitchen counter, tipping the stool forward. “Why not?” he said.
His mother opened her mouth to say something, then snapped it shut and sighed. She took the bacon out of the pan. Crisp, just the way his father liked it. Martin had seen many a too-limp piece of bacon hit the wall with a greasy splat.
Martin let the stool fall back sharply onto all four legs. “Come on, Mamma. Just this once? Wylene don't want to go alone.”
“Drop the subject, Martin, before your daddy wakes up and raises h-e-double-1. You hear me?”
Martin pushed the screen door open so hard it banged against the side of the trailer, then slammed shut with another bang. He sat down on the front steps and hugged his knees. Wylene would be mighty disappointed. She'd been talking about the John C. Calhoun High School orchestra concert for months. How they'd been practicing a medley of show tunes from all fifty states. How she'd only heard “Oklahoma!” and couldn't wait to hear the others. But there was no way she'd go alone. Wylene went to work at the Hav-a-Hanky plant on first shift, came home at exactly three-thirty, and stayed put until it was time to go to work again. Unless it was Thursday, when she went to Jay's Superette, or Sunday, when she went to Belle Shoals Baptist Church. Wylene needed life to be predictable.
Martin stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets as he headed up the narrow road that curved back and forth,
up and down, through Paradise Trailer Park. He might as well get it over with. Little tornadoes of reddish dust swirled around his sneakers and settled into the cuffs of his jeans. He wasn't more than halfway when the tune of “Oklahoma!” set itself in his head. He walked in time to the song, his thin, straight hair bouncing with every step.
He looked up at the canopy of trees that shaded him from the noontime sun. All the other trailer parks Martin had lived in had been bare. Just wide-open sky above dry, cracking dirt. Hot as all get out in summer. Cold and uninviting in winter. The trailers had been lined up in perfect rows, one beside the other, each one's front door looking out at the stained and rusty back of the trailer next to it. But here in Paradise, the trailers were scattered every which way, nestled among big, shady trees that dropped acorns and hickory nuts with loud pings onto the metal rooftops below. Since the day his family had moved here nearly a year ago, Martin had loved the cool, damp feel of Paradise.
The walk to Wylene's trailer was uphill and nearly clear to the entrance at Six Mile Highway. He wished it were farther. The tune in his head kept his feet moving as he neared the Owenses' double-wide.
“Hey, Pitts,” someone called.
Martin looked down at the road and kept walking.
“Hey, Armpit, you going to see your fat girlfriend?”
Martin heard the sound of bare feet slap-slapping on the dirt road behind him. He didn't have to turn around to know it was Riley Owens.
“You deaf or something?” Riley asked, falling into step.
Martin stopped. He didn't want Riley following him all the way to Wylene's.
“You talking to me?” Martin grinned. He had a habit of grinning when he was uncomfortable. Some people thought he was cocky as a rooster when he grinned like that at the wrong times. But on the inside, he was nervous as a hen.
“Who you think I'm talking to, Armpit?” Riley narrowed his eyes and stuck his face close. Martin returned the glare with a cool gaze from half-closed eyes. He could smell chewing tobacco and see little drops of sweat on Riley's slightly fuzzy upper lip.
“I'm taking a walk,” Martin said.
“How come you walk so much?”
Martin grinned wider. In his mind he said, “To get away from jerks like you.” Out loud he said, “To get where I'm going.” But neither of those reasons was the whole truth. Martin also walked so he could listen to the music in his head. Hum it. Clap to it. Even sing some if he wanted to. He'd covered a lot of miles listening to music.
“You have a nice walk, then, Armpit.” Riley slapped Martin on the shoulder and jogged back toward his trailer.
Martin's stomach settled into a happy calm. He had enough on his mind right now without adding Riley Owens to the picture. He set his pace to the tune of “Oklahoma!” again. Before he'd even gotten to the curve in the road that led to Wylene's, Martin heard the music echoing out of her
shiny silver trailer like a bee in a garbage can. “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” twanged from the open windows.
Martin walked up the orderly brick path that led to Wylene's front steps. She had real steps, not just boards on cinder blocks like most everyone else. A blue plastic birdbath stood out front. Martin had never, not once, seen a bird in that birdbath, but Wylene always kept clean water in it. Beside the birdbath was a plastic hen, followed by a row of little plastic chicks, pecking with their plastic beaks at the dirt. BB guns had long since filled each chick with tiny holes.
On either side of her front door, marigolds grew out of old tires painted white. In the middle of one, a windmill whirligig stood motionless, waiting patiently for a ripple of a breeze to set it in motion. Martin stamped his feet on the HOME SWEET HOME mat, sending puffs of dust into the air. “Tonight at Shady Rest Baptist Church â¦” came from the radio inside.
Wylene hummed on her way to the door. When her eyes met Martin's, her smile drooped. Martin's tune vanished.
“You're not going, are you,” Wylene said.
Martin stared at his feet. One shoelace was untied. He fought the urge to stoop to tie it.
“I knew it. I just knew it,” Wylene snapped. The tears were already running down her plump cheeks. She turned and walked back inside, pulling her quilted bathrobe around her, bedroom slippers flapping, curlers bobbing.
Martin followed her into the darkness of the trailer. “I
can't,” he said. “Hazeline's coming.” He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to smooth the cowlick on top.
“Then why'd you tell me you were going? Martin, I was counting on you. I been looking forward to this since Christmas.” Wylene sniffed and stuck her lower lip out.
Martin looked down at the green-and-gold linoleum and shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“I know,” he said. “I guess I just didn't think about it being a Sunday and all.”
“Well, I guess you didn't.” Wylene wiped her red nose with a balled-up tissue.
Martin didn't know what to say next, so he didn't say anything. He sat at the dinette set that divided the kitchen from the tiny living room and caught a glimpse of his reflection in the spotless microwave. His cowlick stuck straight up on top of his head. He pushed it down. Wylene's parakeet pecked at a bell in his cage by the window. A car drove by too fast, sending clouds of dust and sprays of gravel through the trailer park. Someone yelled, “Slow down, you idiot!”
Wylene sat on the velvet couch and stared down at her hands, twisting the damp tissue into little ropes. Her fingers were fat and dimpled, like a baby's.
“I'm sorry, Wylene,” Martin said. “I wanted to go as much as you did.”
“Then why don't you?”
“'Cause my mom says I can't.”
“'Cause of that mean-hearted daddy of yours is why. Won't let you go to something as simple as a high-school
concert.” She stuffed the tissue into her pocket and shuffled into the kitchen. “Hazeline wouldn't care and you know it,” she added, opening and shutting cupboard doors, straightening cans of soup, lining up juice glasses.
“Sunny and mild today,” said the man on the radio. Ping, ping went the parakeet bell. “M-a-a-a-rtin,” his mother called from trailer number 12.
“I got to go,” Martin said.
As he walked down the neat brick path, he picked up the beat of the song again.
Wylene's screen door opened behind him. “âOklahoma!' âright?” she called. Martin turned and smiled, but Wylene had already disappeared inside.