Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy (6 page)

BOOK: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
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He spread his arms wide against the ocean sounds: the rush of the waves, the manic giggles of the gulls, the sighing of the sea breeze against the granite. He put his back to all of Phippsburg—Lord, to the entire continent—till with a shrug he sloughed off its heavy stillness and looked for a way to climb down to the water. In the end, it was more of a tumble than a climb, and he left a little skin and a little blood in one or two places—though, thankfully, not on his shirt. There was a moment when he wondered if he would be able to climb back up and find his dang collar again, but finally he was down on the beach, breathing hard and deep, like something that was only just coming alive and drinking in the liquid air for the first delicious time.

He looked up and down the coast. If he saw even a single soul prowling the shore, he would light out. But there were only gulls. Across the water a line of trembling smoke rose high and then spread out. Otherwise, it was as if God had just remade the world for him, and he was Adam waking up, an entire globe to explore.

He figured there wasn't anything Adam would have wanted to do more than skip stones, so he began to fling rocks along the wave troughs, trying to skip one clear across the channel to the island lying offshore. But the water had rounded most of the rocks so that they were no good for skipping, and anyway, there was always a wave to grab them before they could reach the gravel. He searched and then saw an almost perfectly straight branch of driftwood, bleached and smooth as worn soap, right at the waterline. He hefted it in his hands and swung it once. Then he picked up a rounded stone, set his feet firm with the left forward, and tossed the stone high into the air. He swung at it as it came straight down. And missed.

He picked it up, set his eye to judge the vertical, and tossed it again. This time he connected—barely. The next time he missed, and the next, but finally the rap of the stone stung his palms and rattled his wrists. If he tilted the horizontal swing, he thought, maybe he'd have a better hit. He threw another stone up and connected again, this time with satisfying solidity.

And that was how Lizzie saw him as she came up the coast: his back to her, wearing a white shirt fit for glory, throwing rocks up into the air and swinging at them with a piece of driftwood.

If she had figured he had come for a place to breathe, she might have been more understanding—even if she had wondered about him some. If she had figured he was absolutely and completely crazy, she would have let him be. But as far as she knew, he was standing with his left leg forward on her shore, in a place where she had come to clam and to breathe. It was as if he were telling her to move on.

And she had had enough of that.

If her grandfather had been there, he might have told her that a peaceable spirit was the reward of charity. But it was awfully hard to be peaceable and charitable when a whole island was about to be swept out from beneath you, and so Lizzie felt she had a right to say what she said, even if it wasn't peaceable and was as far from charitable as she could get.

"Are you some kind of idiot?"

Turner wheeled around, and it did not help when the stone he had tossed up that very second—a particularly heavy one with sharp corners—came down off center on the bridge of his nose, starting a gush of blood that leaped eagerly and immediately to his shirt. Turner figured the pain would come along in just a second or two, but before that started, he realized he would have to explain another bloody shirt to his parents. And he would have to come up with a wonderful out-loud lie, since he could hardly tell them that he had thrown a rock at his nose.

Then the pain came on. He bent down so that the blood wouldn't fall on his pants, too.

Lizzie thought that maybe he really was an idiot, bending down that way, letting the blood spout out. "You're supposed to lie down," she called, "with your head back. So's the blood will stop." He did not answer her, so she spoke slowly. "Are you understanding what I'm saying?"

Turner was starting to sweat and feeling sort of weak. He was also beginning to seriously doubt that he would survive his first week in Maine. He knelt down on the beach, careful to keep the gushing blood away from his pants, and wondered if it was possible for all the blood in his body to drain out through his nose.

Lizzie set down the clam bucket and rake she'd carried from the dory and walked carefully up to him, a little wary because you never can tell what idiots might do. "Do you understand me?"

Turner nodded.

"Lie down and put your head back. Like this." He felt her hands on his shoulders and let her push him down. She put one hand behind his head and laid him back until he was flat. "Turn your head."The blood started to run down over his left cheek. "You better now?"

He was not better now. He would not be better now until he had put this entire state somewhere about a thousand miles away from him.

"You talk any? I mean, if you understand me and all."

"I talk," said Turner, "but not usually to people who hide out and scare someone so that a rock comes down on his face."

"Well," said Lizzie slowly, "as far as the rock coming down on your face, I'm not the fool who threw it up."

Turner was in no mood to allow that this was so.

"It looks like it's letting up some. Looks like it might be. A little, anyways."

Turner moved his hand to his face, hesitated, and then gently, gently touched his nose. "Is it pushed off to one side?"

"Not much. Not so that anyone would notice—unless they were up close. But not so much."

This was not the answer Turner had been hoping for. He touched his nose again and decided that he probably shouldn't try to push it back into place.

"What were you doing anyway, hitting at stones?"

"I was hitting at stones."

"You've got a reason to do that?"

"Yes, I've got a reason to do that."

Lizzie sat down on the ground to consider."You don't have to snap so."

Turner sat up slowly, touched his nose again, felt a new spurt of blood, and laid his head back. Lizzie thought he looked like a dog trying to sniff out something but not quite getting hold of the scent. She decided she would not tell him this. "If you take that shirt off, we could try to wash out the blood," she said. "Salt water is fine for that. Salt water will do for everything."

"Maybe not," said Turner. He stood up, his head held carefully, and looked fully at her for the first time. He was surprised to find that he immediately liked her. In fact, he was almost shocked that he immediately liked her. He'd never even spoken to a Negro before. Never once. But he liked the smooth, easy way she stood, as if she were part of the contour of the shore. He liked the oak brown of her eyes and the grip of her long toes on the rocky ground, the tilt of her head like a sail catching the wind. She had lit out for the Territories and found them, he thought.

"I could teach you how to do that," she said.

"How to do what? Get hit in the face with a rock? I don't need to learn how to do that."

"No, you're plenty good enough at that as it is. I mean to swing a bat, if that's what you're doing. And my name, by the way, is Lizzie. Lizzie Griffin."

"Thanks, but I already know how to swing a bat. And my name, by the way, is Turner. Turner Ernest Buckminster."

"Doesn't look to me like you do. And I have a middling name, too."

"I do any place where they know how to pitch. And what is it?"

"Well, Turner Ernest Buckminster, your problem isn't the pitch, it's the swing. It's Lizzie Bright Griffin."

"Then let's see you swing, Lizzie Bright Griffin."

She picked up the driftwood branch that Turner had let fall. "Pitch one," she said.

So he did. The first was too high and fell short. The second was too long and lobbed over her head. But then Turner got used to the weight, and the third went somewhere in the middle, and Lizzie, Lizzie of the steady eye and firm hand, Lizzie Bright Griffin swung and hit the stone dead center. In fact, every time Turner pitched her a stone within shouting distance, she hit it dead center—no matter how high the arch, no matter how straight the descent.

"Good?" asked Lizzie finally.

"Better than good," said Turner.

"You don't look so bad when you smile, you know. Even if you are still sort of bloody and your nose is pushed off to one side."

"It isn't pushed off to one side. And you don't look so bad when you swing. You start with your hands low, don't you, and when the pitch comes down, you set them lower and draw in."

She nodded. "You're not an idiot after all. Not even halfway." She handed the branch to Turner. "Now you."

She was, in addition to being a better batter than he was, a better pitcher than he was. "Start lower and come higher," she said.

"If I start lower and come higher, I'll pop it up every time."

"Of course you'll pop it up every time. We'll straighten that out later."

Turner lowered the branch and looked at her skeptically.

"Here," she said, "I'll show you again." And she stepped next to him and put her hands over his, and together they swung the bat in an arc as graceful as a fish hawk's winging slide through the air. They did it again and again, until Turner suddenly shivered, stepped back, and looked at her.

"You never touch a girl before, Turner Ernest Buckminster? Or is it just that you never touched a girl with black skin before?"

"I've never even talked to someone with black skin before."

"Well," she said, "never mind. You're holding up your end just fine."

By noon, Turner could hit most every pitch she threw to him—and not just a glancing hit, either. He was starting to level out his swing, and he even tried sending one or two down a sideline. His hands were ringing with the hits, and blisters were starting to bubble up. It was only when a couple of them broke and started to bleed that he thought he'd better stop, since he was not sure how much blood he had left to lose.

"You can wash that in the water," Lizzie said.

"I know," said Turner. "Salt water will do for everything." He knelt down to where the sea lay flat and exhausted after tumbling in close.

"It'll sting some," Lizzie called as he held his hand down. "Maybe a little more than some."

It did sting. A little more than some. But Turner did not mind all that much. He held his wet hand up and watched the salt sea drip from it.

"My granddaddy says it's the stinging that drives out the hurt."

"Your granddaddy?"Turner asked.

"Reverend Griffin."

And that was when Turner suddenly knew that he was late for dinner, that Reverend Buckminster would be figuring that he'd fallen into some rocky chasm or drowned in the sea, or worse yet, that he'd come up with some other way to embarrass the new minister. And he figured that when he showed up alive after all, his father would stand on the porch and look at him in a way that said Turner would never be the kind of son he had hoped for—it would be as loud as if he had just announced it from the pulpit.

"Lizzie Bright Griffm, do you ever wish the world would just go ahead and swallow you whole?"

"Sometimes I do," she said, and then smiled. "But sometimes I figure I should just go ahead and swallow it." And she held her arms out wide, as if she would gather it all in. And for a moment, Turner had no doubt that she could.

He clambered back up the ledges, retrieved his collar—it took some time to find—and so sprinted home, hardly able to breathe by the time he reached the front porch.

He was right. His mother and father did think he had fallen into a chasm or drowned, and when he showed up alive—and bloody again—his father did look at him in a way that said Turner would never be the kind of son he had hoped for. The thought prowled quietly among the plates on the dining room table. When his father started to read from Proverbs, Turner was surprised at how many verses about rebellious children he had been able to collect on such short notice.

"Do you think you'll be able to last the afternoon without bleeding over your shirt, Turner?" his father asked. He held a spoonful of yesterday's egg pudding in front of him, and Turner was fascinated by the delicate balance of the thing, the way it jiggled and threatened to plop off onto the tablecloth but never quite did—almost as if it didn't dare to, because it was the Reverend Buckminster holding it.

Turner nodded.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there wasn't a game down to Thayer's haymeadow this afternoon. You could get to know some of the boys."

Another nod. Egg pudding still jiggling. The spoon slanting a bit, so that a bulge of the pudding was about to slide off, nutmeg skin and all.

"You'll need to keep your clothes clean, though," Reverend Buckminster observed.

"Yes, sir," said Turner. He could just imagine himself running down to the field, wearing his starched white shirt and pretending he wasn't, begging to play with Willis Hurd. An afternoon couldn't look much worse. Maybe reading to Mrs. Cobb—that might be worse. He wondered if Lizzie would still be down on the shore.

"On the way back, stop by Mrs. Cobb's house to apologize. Then you can read to her as well."

Turner looked up from the egg pudding. Things were getting much worse indeed. "Do I play the organ for her today, too?"

"And apologize," finished Reverend Buckminster. "Turner, God does not want us to ..."

But Turner did not particularly care just then what God did not want us to do. He watched as his father became The Minister. His face took on a kind of faraway look, as if he were seeing something no one else could see, as if he were eager to talk to anyone lower than the seraphim for a time. His voice got higher and slower, as if he expected it to be rising into the church rafters.

The egg pudding fell to the tablecloth, and Turner's father did not notice. It lay there, slowly spreading out, a yellow blob against the white.

And suddenly, Turner had a thought that had never occurred to him before: he wondered if his father really believed a single thing he was saying.

And suddenly, Turner had a second thought that had never occurred to him before: he wondered if
he
believed a single thing his father was saying.

BOOK: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy
11.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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