Authors: Thomas H. Cook
Everyone knew by then that they were lost in the stars, tumbling through space. They gave off sparks when they were together, and night after night the rest of us gathered around them on the auditorium steps after the rehearsal, as if drawn toward them by the elemental force we felt in their presence. I remember how the others gazed at them—Noreen, Sheila, Luke, Betty Ann, and
even Eddie Smathers—and I know that none of them had ever seen such love except in movies, or heard it except in songs, and that it seemed absolutely right to them, which to me seemed absolutely wrong. Time and again I went through the agonizing process of trying to find some way to get the better of Todd, reduce him in some way, expose him to the withering fire of her disappointment. But each time I came up against the absolute mystery of what he was to her in the first place, the indecipherable puzzle of the love she so clearly felt for him.
Only one thing was clear, and Luke said it plainly.
“Well, you lost her, Ben,” he said one evening as we headed toward the parking lot.
Over Luke’s shoulder I could see Todd and Kelli as they walked together down the steps of the auditorium. They were holding hands, and at the bottom of the stairs, I saw Kelli stop, turn toward him and press her face against his chest. Todd drew his arms around her, and I could see his fingers toying at the thin leather belt that wrapped her waist.
“A girl like Kelli, you have to grab her fast.”
I shrugged. “There are lots of girls,” I told him.
Luke shook his head. “Not like her, there aren’t,” he said.
He was right, and I knew that he was right, both in that I had lost her and in that she whom I had lost was irreplaceably rare and precious.
It was a sense of Kelli’s worth, both to me and to others, that never left me after that, and which I still felt so many years later as I sat in my car outside Miss Troy’s house, listening to the rain, my eyes focused on the one square of yellow light I could see coming toward me from the same front window where Kelli had once stood, waving good-bye to Todd Jeffries.
I reached for the handle of the door, then drew back and returned my hand to my lap. I knew that Miss Troy
was waiting for me inside, waiting for me patiently, as she had so often waited for Kelli, sitting in the old wooden rocker she’d inherited from her mother.
I pulled my eyes away from the house and let them dart about the shadowy interior of the car, my ears attending to the hard drum of the rain, as if in an effort to drown out all other sounds, the slap of a hand across a little boy’s face, the thump of a car jumping a cement curb, the whir of an ax through the summer air and, finally, of feet scrambling across a forest floor, a body racing through the undergrowth, my own voice, whispering thinly, the dreadful, secret theme from which had sprung all these other sounds.
He wouldn’t, if he knew
Suddenly I was there, absolutely there. No longer in my car outside Miss Troy’s house at all. No longer a middle-aged man, the revered town doctor, but a stricken teenage boy standing backstage at a high school auditorium on the last night of rehearsals, a Saturday night, unseasonably warm and humid, with Kelli only a few feet away, her back to me as she watches Todd go through his death scene.
I approach her slowly from behind, inching closer and closer until I can nearly feel the heat from her body, smell the long black curls that fall across her shoulders. She is wearing a sleeveless dress, cut low in the back, and I can see a line of sweat as it makes its way down the long brown plane of her back. She does not hear me as I come up behind her. She is concentrating on Todd. He is lying next to the fallen Paris, the poison already rising toward his lips. I stop directly behind her, raise a single finger and press it nearer and nearer to her flesh, so near that I can feel the heat of her skin, the dampness of her sweat.
In the distance, I hear Todd as he gives Romeo’s final line:
Thus with a kiss I die
I hear Kelli sigh, then the cast begin to applaud, and I quickly draw my hand away from her and sink it deep into my pocket.
Todd heaves a sigh of death, remains motionless a moment, then leaps to his feet. The other cast members are still applauding him. He nods to them shyly, then heads off the stage, striding toward Kelli, his feet in the dark brown house shoes he is using as part of his costume.
He comes up quickly and sweeps Kelli into his arms. I turn away, pretending to busy myself with the wineglasses that are on the prop table. He is gone by the time I look back toward the stage, and once again Kelli is standing alone, facing the stage, her back to me, her hand gripping the thick gray rope that opens and closes the curtain.
I draw in a long breath. “Todd’s good,” I say quietly, the first words I have said to her in days.
She turns toward me, her dark eyes dazzling in the reflected light from the stage. “Yes, he is,” she says.
I start to say something else, but suddenly her eyes dart away from me. She is staring over my shoulder, her eyes trained on something in the distance. There is a strange concentration in her face, a passion she seems barely able to control.
“I need to see Todd for a second,” she says quickly. “Can you take over for me?”
I have no time to answer. She starts to dash away, realizes that she still has the rope in her hand and quickly thrusts it toward me. “Here,” she says, “hold this.”
She says it casually, inadvertently, without a thought, not in the least realizing that in that one offhanded word and gesture she has reduced me to a bit player, utterly inconsequential, something smaller than anything I had ever dreamed of being.
I feel my fingers tighten around the rope as my eyes follow her. She bounds away from me and out the open
door. Just beyond it, Todd is standing alone, and she slows as she nears him.
I turn away, focusing on the stage, the few actors who are scattered across it, hearing the final lines of Capulet:
As rich shall Romeo’s by his lady’s lie
Poor sacrifices of our enmity
I glance back toward the door. Kelli and Todd are facing each other silently. For a moment they seem as immortal as the characters they play. Then Kelli draws her hands together, and I see her slowly remove her grandmother’s ring, take Todd’s hand and press it onto his finger.
I close my eyes, my fingers still clinging to the rope. When I open them again, I see her draw Todd into her arms, kiss him deeply, lingeringly, then step away. I turn from them and stare out toward the stage. The prince is speaking:
Some shall be pardoned, and some punished
I can hear Kelli walking toward me, but I am no longer thinking of her, but of her and Todd together, wrapped in each other’s arms, of that electrifying intimacy I know they have already shared and which I have dreamed of a thousand times but not yet known, nor would ever know, the splendor of that moment when love fuses absolutely with desire and for a single glittering instant our deepest longing retires into the past.
She grasps the rope, and I release it. “I’ll take over now,” she says. “Thanks, Ben.”
I nod, then turn and walk outside, passing through the side door just as Todd comes back through it, so close that I can see the wink of the ring on his finger.
For a time I stand in the darkness. I can hear Miss
Carver assembling various members of the cast, dismissing others, but everything sounds hollow and faraway, and seems so for a long time.
Then I realize suddenly that I am not alone. Eddie Smathers slouches against the brick wall, his plaid short-sleeve shirt open to the waist. He pulls a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lights it. The small red flame is like a single mad eye shining in the darkness.
“Hi, Ben,” he says casually.
I nod dully, unable to speak.
He eases himself from the wall and comes over to me. “What are you doing out here?”
“Miss Carver said that everybody but Todd and Kelli could go home,” Eddie says. He grins. “But I wanted a smoke first.” He takes the pack from his pocket and presses it toward me. “Want one?”
I shake my head.
He returns the pack to his pocket and glances back toward the auditorium. “You got to hand it to Todd and Kelli, they’re really putting in the effort on this thing.”
I glance toward the door. I can see Todd and Kelli standing together, with Miss Carver in front of them.
“Probably wants to give them a few last-minute tips,” Eddie says. He takes a greedy draw on the cigarette, flips an ash and smiles. “Romeo, Romeo,” he adds mockingly. “What bullshit.” He laughs, then glances back through the door to where Todd and Kelli are still standing together on the stage. He shakes his head. “All the girls fall for Todd,” he says admiringly, “but I think this is the first time Todd ever really fell for anybody.” He chuckles at the thought of it. “But, man, he really has a thing for Kelli.”
My reply comes to me in a sudden, malignant insight, springs instantly out of me as if it were a snake that had been coiled up inside me for a long time, slimy, vile,
a creature from my bowels. In a brief, blinding illumination, I see everything converge like the crosshairs on an assassin’s scope: Kelli’s mysterious past, the absent father whose very existence she so emphatically denied, her dark skin and black curly hair, the article about Gadsden, her obsession with Breakheart Hill, even Lyle Gates’s words howled at her from the back of Cuffy’s Grill:
, everything hardening into a sinister possibility. And I know that it does not need to be true, that no one will ever ask for proof, that in the charged and hateful atmosphere that surrounds her I need only plant the fatal seed. In an instant, I see all my earlier convictions dissolve, the thin layer of my earlier sympathy, my boldly proclaimed sense of justice, everything I had felt so powerfully as I’d stood at the edge of the Negro cemetery, then later on that frigid night in Gadsden, and finally with Kelli on Breakheart Hill, all of it now ground to dust beneath the wheel of my enmity.
My eyes dart toward Eddie, and I feel the words slide out of my mouth like small bits of stinking flesh.
He wouldn’t, if he knew
Eddie’s eyes shift over to me. “What?”
“Nothing,” I say with a quick shrug.
Eddie presses me as I know he will. “If who knew what?”
For the briefest of moments I cling to the ledge of heaven. Then I let go and tumble out of paradise.
“If Todd knew about Kelli’s daddy.”
“Kelli’s daddy?” Eddie asks. “What about him?”
I wave my hand, as if dismissing it. “Maybe it’s not true,” I tell him.
Eddie stares at me intently. “Maybe what’s not true?”
“You know, what people say.”
“What are you talking about, Ben?”
“You know,” I tell him, “that Kelli’s father is a—” I
stop, a final thread of character holding tenuously for an instant before it snaps. Then the word drops from me like a body through a hangman’s scaffold. “… nigger.”
Eddie’s eyes widen in stunned and almost childlike disbelief. “Bullshit,” he blurts out. “You’re bullshitting me.”
I say nothing, but only stare at him evenly, daring him to doubt it.
He leans toward me, his voice now an edgy, conspiratorial whisper. “What are you saying, Ben? Did Kelli tell you that?”
I say nothing, allowing it to sink deeper and deeper, like a stain, in Eddie’s mind. I know he is recalling all the times he has seen Kelli and me alone together, the long drives to her house in the afternoon, the intimacy that he imagines must have grown between us during that time, the sort of friendship that permits nothing to be hidden, and at last that climactic moment when she reveals to me the single most unspeakable secret of her life.
His eyes widen in astonishment, but no longer in disbelief. “She told you that, Ben? Kelli told you that her father was a nigger?”
I do not answer.
I can see all of it gathering together in Eddie’s mind, all doubt dissolving, a mist solidifying, becoming fact.
“Don’t tell Todd, though,” I warn him, thinking absolutely that he will, and that after that it will be over, that Todd will never mention what he’s been told, never confront Kelli with any part of it, but simply walk away from a love that has become impossible. “I mean it, Eddie,” I say. “Don’t tell Todd.” I say it gravely, sincerely, but already envisioning the moment when Eddie will draw Todd aside and whisper the fatal word in his stricken ear. I imagine all that will inevitably happen after that: Todd’s sudden remoteness, Kelli’s bafflement, the wrenching moment when he will cast her aside once and
for all and return, as he had so many times in the past, to Mary Diehl. I imagine everything except the possibility that Eddie might actually heed my warning to keep all that I have told him from Todd Jeffries … but tell Lyle Gates instead.
HEAR A ROLL OF THUNDER, AND SUDDENLY I AM BACK IN MY
car, my eyes staring emptily through the rain at the sloping stairs that lead to the front door of Miss Troy’s house. I feel bled by memory, left utterly dry and desolate, a charred remnant.
And so I remain in my car for a long time, my eyes fixed on the dark façade of Miss Troy’s house. Slowly, my strength returns to me. I hear my father’s voice say,
, and get out of the car.