Authors: Pete Dexter
Tags: #National Book Award winning novel 1988
Sonofabitch," he said, and he took off his
hat and his shoes and socks and set out after him.
When he was gone some of the children moved in for a
closer look at the police's shoes. Rosie Sayers stood where she was
and her mother went to the side of the porch, her hands on her rump,
and shouted after the police. "You ain't got no call to chase
that man," she said. "That man ain't did nothin'."
But even the children knew that was a story. If you
run away, the police was supposed to chase you.
The visitor disappeared into the sawmill, and a
minute later he came out the other side and started up a long, grassy
pasture that led to a place called Sleepy Heights. Some of the girls
who lived in the Bottoms were maids in Sleepy Heights, and it was a
bad-luck place for an out-of-town nigger to be running away from a
The police stayed on the visitor's trail, running
about the same speed, and then seemed to make up ground going uphill
through the pasture.
The girl's mother watched until the visitor had
disappeared and the police had disappeared after him, and then she
turned and laid her eyes on Rosie. The girl stepped backwards,
stumbling. And a second later, before she knew she was talking, she
heard words coming out of her mouth.
And the words said that she was bit by a poisonous
Her mother's look changed then. She seemed to forget
the visitor and the police and all the pickaninnies in the yard. She
seemed to forget the child herself. "The devil got you for his
own, don't he?" she said finally.
"No, ma'am," the girl said.
Her mother closed her eyes, listening to God. She
always closed her eyes to listen to God, and she nodded as He gave
her the words. She opened her eyes again and spoke what He had told
her. "You wasn't born of love," she said. "You was the
child of Satan."
"It might been a dog," she said, but it was
Her mother was scowling at the sky. "The Lord
told me all along," she said, "and now I listened."
The girl looked down at herself to see if anything
had changed, but she was the same, except for the bandage covering
the places where the fox had torn her skin. Two shots went off:
somewhere in the distance.
Her mother had just spoken to the Lord and was not
concerned with the affairs of humans in Sleepy Heights. "l will
not have Satan's child under my roof," she said, sounding
something like the Lord herself.
The girl could not find an
answer. She waited to see if her mother would change her mind.
* * *
AN HOUR PASSED, and the police came out of Sleepy
Heights. Rosie watched him, walking downhill through the pasture,
barefoot. He crossed the creek and then the railroad tracks. He
passed wide around the sawmill yard.
By the time he reached the Bottoms, the children had
scattered back into their houses, or under their houses. Rosie stood
by herself, with no place to go when the police came to collect his
shoes and hat, no place to hide if he was mad.
The police's hair was cut so close she could see his
head through it, and when he got into the yard she noticed the beads
of sweat there, and running every direction down his face and neck
into his uniform. The dust had collected in the sweat and streaked.
His shoes lay together on the ground where he had left them,
untouched. His hat was a few feet away.
She stood still, hoping he wouldn't see her. He
picked up his things and opened the door to his car. He sat half in
and half out to put on his socks and shoes, and then he stood up to
check that it was comfortable. And when he had done all that, he
suddenly looked up, right at her, and winked again.
That rascal was tricky," he said.
He slapped some of the dust off his pants and shirt
sleeves. "What's the boy's name?"
"He ain't nobody I know," she said.
The police smiled at her. "He ain't your
brother, is he?"
No sir, he ain't nobody."
Well," the police said, "he can run,
I'll say that."
Yessir," she said, and looked at her feet.
I don't know what he was running for, but I
expect he had his reasons." Then he laughed out loud, but it
wasn't much of a laugh. If it was funny to him, he wouldn' have
walked out of his way around the sawmill, where the men would think
it was funny too.
He said, "That boy about led me into a yard had
a police dog that don't like police." The police looked her
over, and she stood still as the air. "Your mammy ain't going to
tell me who it was either, is she?"
And he laughed again, but it didn't mean it was
funny. She believed he was going to take somebody into town and crack
open his head. But then he said, "Well, if he comes back, you
tell him for me that him and me will have another time. You tell him
Yessir," she said.
And he looked around once,
not another soul in sight, and then got into his car and drove out to
the end of the Bottoms. He stopped there a minute, still looking, and
then the car moved again, back in the direction of town, leaving a
cloud of orange dust to settle after he was
* * *
THE VISITOR'S NAME was Alvin Crooms, and he came back
at dusk. He climbed in the same window he had jumped out of that
afternoon, and Rosie heard him later inside with her mother, telling
the story. The story was like liquor, and she heard them go back to
it again and again, until it had made them drunk.
She sat outside, her back against a neighbor's
bricks, where she could watch the house. The night turned cold; she
didn't move. She waited for her mother to change her mind.
Once, when they were all asleep inside, a nightmare
started while she was still awake. She bit her hand and stopped it.
A rooster woke her in the morning. She jumped at the
sound, not knowing where she was. The sky was pink over Sleepy
Heights, the rooster crowed again, and she was wide-awake.
It was a long time before there were stirring noises
inside the house. Her mother liked to stay in bed when she had
visitors, she liked people to see the good-looking ones when they
left her house.
The girl ached and changed
her position on the ground.
* * *
THE SUN BROKE THE line of the sky, and she heard them
inside, talking. One of her sisters looked out a window at her, then
disappeared. The next person in the window was the visitor himself,
and he noticed her in a certain way that caused her to press herself
into the bricks.
There was the smell of fires in the air, people
cooking breakfast. She heard voices she knew, but in some way they
were unfamiliar. Her bottom ached, and there was a throbbing in the
place where the fox had bitten her leg. She looked down at the
bandage and saw that she had swollen all around it.
The sun gathered itself in the sky, smaller and
hotter, and presently the girl's mother and the visitor came out onto
the porch. Her mother did not look in her direction. The visitor
leaned into her mother's shoulder and told her a secret. She laughed
out loud, putting her hand on the visitor's arm as if to hold herself
Her mother wanted the neighbors to notice that her
visitor had come back. He patted her bottom and then left the porch,
taking the two steps down with one stride. He pointed his finger at
the girl and motioned for her to get up.
She stayed where she was.
Come on, girl," he said.
No sir," she said.
He took a step toward her and she scooted that far
away. "Your momma said for me to tote you along," he said.
The girl shook her head. The visitor looked back
toward the porch, and the girl looked there too. Her mother would not
meet her eyes. "I get you the strap," she said to him. "She
do what you said then."
Her mother disappeared into the house and came out a
moment later with a thick black belt. The girl didn't move until she
handed it to the visitor. It looked different in his hand, and she
got to her feet, pushing off the ground from behind, suddenly dizzy
to be standing up.
You keep that as long as you need," her
The visitor fixed on how fast the strap had gotten
the girl off the ground. "The girl surely don't like this here,"
he said. He seemed to test the weight of it in his hand. Then he
moved behind her, keeping a certain distance, and she backed out of
That's right," he said. "Now you walk
up that road where we goin'."
I ain't never been nowhere," she said. She
recalled he was from Macon, and she knew she would never get back
from there after her mother changed her mind.
Whatever I tell you," he said, "that's
where you go."
* * *
IT TURNED OUT THE visitor wasn't from Macon.
He was from Indian Heights, near the river and the
asylum. He walked her through the middle of town, past the college
and the bank, then turned out toward the cemetery. The girl was
afraid he would take off her clothes, but whatever interest he had in
that, her mother had used it up. He wanted to lay the strap across
her back, she could tell that, but once they got into Cotton Point,
there were people everywhere on the street, and the chance was gone.
It took most of the morning to get from the Bottoms
to Indian Heights. The visitor talked some; the girl did not answer.
She had never been to Indian Heights before, but she had heard of the
place and knew where she was when she saw the river.
The houses in the Heights were nicer than in the
Bottoms, and there were more of them. There were no weeds in the
road, and there were babies everywhere. She wondered how many of them
belonged to the visitor. They walked to the end of the road and then
turned left, away from the river, to another road.
The people in the porches spoke to the man, asked him
what did he have with him now. She heard his name when they called
him. It was Alvin. "I got me a maid," he said back. "Her
momma give her to me for my sweetness."
The visitor moved ahead of her once they were in the
Heights, and she followed him. She did not know anything else to do.
His house was hidden behind a larger house, about
twenty feet off the road. It sat on stacked bricks. There was a
rocker on the porch, and the front door was laid from there to the
ground, in place of steps.
She followed him up onto the porch and then inside
the house. There were two rooms. One of them had a wood stove, the
other one had a narrow bed. There was a rope hung from one wall to
the other, crossing both rooms, and the visitor had hung his clothes
from it on hangers. He had more clothes than all her brothers put
together. He moved behind her while she looked at his clothes, and
when he spoke, it was close to her ear. "This here is what you
'posed to maid," he said.
She looked around the room, wondering what was in his
"You got to keep it right," he said.
She nodded her head, more afraid of him inside than
outside. He seemed bigger here in the room. "I ain't brought no
broom," she said.
My, my," he said, "then what good is
you to me?"
The girl looked at the ceiling. The slats had warped,
and she could see pieces of blue sky where the tar paper had torn.
She did not think the man had lived here long. She took a step
farther in, and the floor creaked and seemed to move.
You like it here?" he said. He was still
behind her, and he was still holding the strap.
She saw that she'd given him the wrong answer. "Your
momma said you was a smarty," he said. He took her arm then —
the first time he'd touched her — just above the elbow. He twisted
it, and she bent the way he twisted. He slapped at her legs with the
strap, and she yelled.
She turned her head to the side and saw him looking
at her. She was afraid he would take her clothes off now, but it
wasn't what he wanted. He brought the strap across her legs again,
and then her bottom.
And she yelled for real, to be with someone who liked
to hurt her. He stopped, still holding her arm. The blood buzzed in
her head and her vision blurred. The back of her legs felt burned.
She tried to be good to him. "Oh, please," she said.
He seemed to like that, but he came down with the
strap again anyway. She held the yell inside this time, hoping it
would make him stop. Her eyes began to tear. And he hit her again,
lower, across the back of the knees. Her legs buckled, and she cried
out without meaning to.
She looked at him one more time and saw no mercy.
"Yell all you care to," he said, "ain't nobody gone
come in this house 'less I tell them they invited."
He held the strap where she could see it. "This
is my house," he said. "I bought it."
And those words were still as real as the strap when
a figure appeared in the door. A woman twice as big as Rosie Sayers's
mother walked into Alvin Crooms's house. He heard the noise behind
him and spun to see who it was.