Authors: Pete Dexter
Tags: #National Book Award winning novel 1988
The girl lost her balance and fell. The woman stepped
across the room, and the floorboards sagged under her feet. Alvin
Crooms's posture changed, but he stood his ground. "A person
might get cut comin' into a man's house," he said.
The woman was next to him now, breathing hard,
sweating. She folded her arms and he gave her room. "I heard you
was in here with a child," she said.
Her mother give her to me," he said,
stepping back now. The girl noticed that when Alvin Crooms moved
backwards, the woman took the space for herself. She was a head
taller than he was, and her arms were huge and shook when she moved
them. He said, "She been took over by the devil, her momma don't
want her under the roof."
The woman looked at her carefully, but only for a
second. "They ain't no such thing, a child took by the devil,"
the woman said.
And she been bit by a fox," he said.
"Poisoned her, lookit yourself."
The woman looked again. The girl drew her knees up
under her chin and averted her eyes. The woman stepped nearer, until
the girl could feel the heat of her body. "Let Miss Mary see,
baby," she said.
The girl moved herself in a way that exposed the
bandage. The woman touched her. Her fingers were thick and
white-tipped, and she pushed gently into the swollen skin around the
bites. It set off a deep ache in the girl's leg. Alvin Crooms
watched, over the woman's shoulder."See there?" he said.
The child been bit," she said,
straightening up. "It don't make her poisoned."
It was a fox," he said.
The woman looked into
Rosie's eyes and saw it was so. "It don't make her poisoned",
she said again. "Now git out the way, 'less I take that strap to
* * *
THE WOMAN TOOK THE girl into her care.
Mary McNutt worked as a maid in the homes of two
white families and needed someone to help clean her own. Her house
stood in the far corner of Indian Heights, at the bottom of Spine
Road, where it curved and crossed the other road, which had no name.
The house had two front doors and a center wall
running front to back, dividing it into two apartments. The woman
lived on one side with her husband — a grounds keeper at the asylum
named Lyle McNutt, Jr. — and her two daughters, Linda and Jane Ray.
Linda was eleven and Jane Ray was nine.
The sons had the other side of the house. Thomas was
nineteen, Henry Ray was twenty-one and had just started work at the
asylum. Henry Ray didn't cut grass like his stepfather, though. He
Mary McNutt's previous husband, Mr. James Boxer, had
left them five years before, on Easter Sunday. The children all kept
the last name.
Mary McNutt walked the girl through both sides of the
house, showing her where to clean. "Mr. Boxer was a Christian
man," she said, "but he had boilin' blood in him, could not
let go of an unkindness done him by nobody." She was standing in
the boys' side of the house then. She said the oldest boy, Henry Ray,
was just like him.
"His daddy cut a man owned a farm up in Gray,"
"A white man?"
Mary McNutt nodded. "Done him in his own house
over a two-dollar ham."
Rosie tried to imagine that, but it wouldn't come.
The things that frightened her worst never came to her in a way she
could see them.
"Lord have mercy," she said.
The woman put her hand on the girl's shoulder; it was
as heavy and shapeless as the dead man in the story. "Don't
worry 'bout that now," she said. "That's all past times."
The woman was still thinking of it, though.
Mr. McNutt ain't nothing like Mr. Boxer,"
she said a little later.
Mr. McNutt don't take offense at nothin'."
And the girl could not see if that made her happy or
ALTHOUGH THE TOWN OF Cotton Point, Georgia, claimed
more than six thousand residents, not counting the asylum — which
they didn't — there was only one person there that a
twenty-one-year-old colored man could see to borrow enough money to
buy a car. Paris Trout.
Trout ran a bank for colored people out of his store
on North Main Street, and Henry Ray went to see him Friday morning,
over his mother's objections. She saw the boy's father in him and did
not like him doing business with whites.
He had started work at the asylum on the second
Tuesday in June, though — cleaning crazy people's shit off the
walls and ceiling and sometimes out of their own hair — and by
Wednesday he knew he needed a car to keep his dignity.
I got to work at the state," he said to
his mother. "Ain't got no time now to be foolin' around
And a day later he walked into town, and into the
front door of the half-lit store on Main Street, and waited there
until Paris Trout appeared from the back.
Trout looked at him, cold and tired. "You need
twenty dollars, Henry Ray?" he said. That was what he usually
I need a car."
You can't pay for no car."
I got took on at the state," he said.
"Begun this Tuesday."
"What doing?" Trout didn't believe him, and
in one way it made Henry Ray angry, and in another way it scared him.
"Work," he said. "I do general work."
Trout nodded, looking him over. "All right,"
They walked through the store, past some canned
vegetables and then a row of work gloves and then five safes sitting
in a line against the wall. Henry Ray expected the money for the car
was in the safes and moved slower, thinking Trout would stop and open
one of them up.
He didn't, though. He went past them and then out the
back. There was an alley there, and three cars were parked against
the side of the building.
Which one you like?" he said.
Henry Ray stood still, staring at them. He hadn't
expected Mr. Trout to have cars for sale. Trout walked ahead of him
and looked in the window of an old Plymouth. "Come on," he
said. "You can't buy no car from the steps."
Henry Ray walked around the cars once. Two of them
were banged up one way or another — cracked glass and missing
lights. He pictured himself driving them and it made him
The third one was a black two-door 1949 Chevrolet, he
saw his face in the shine. "That one there is more than the
others," Trout said.
On account it's in showroom shape."
Henry Ray touched the door handle, stopping himself
before he got in. "Go on ahead," Mr. Trout said. "See
how it feels."
Henry Ray sat down behind the wheel. The dashboard
was as shiny as the paint outside, and he saw his face in the glass
that covered the speedometer. A hundred miles an hour, it said. He
pictured himself riding a hundred miles an hour in a car, smiling at
his own face in the speedometer.
When he looked up, Mr. Trout was leaning against the
window near him, looking in too. "Now that look at this here,"
he said, "I ain't sure I can sell it after all."
Henry Ray looked up, panicked.
Mr. Trout shook his head. "Might be too nice to
let it go," he said.
"I ought keep it for myself." Henry Ray let
his hand touch the steering wheel. "Besides," Trout said,
"I ain't sure you make enough money to afford it. A car like
this ain't cheap."
I got a job," he said.
How much you make?"
Henry Ray stared at the dashboard. "Thirty
dollars," he said. He hadn't been paid yet, but that was what
his stepfather got. Mr. Trout hit the roof of the car with his hand,
right over Henry Ray's head. It caused him to jump and shamed him.
I didn't know you made that," Mr. Trout
said. He paused, as if he were figuring something out. "Yessir,"
he said a moment later, "you make enough, and you seen it first
out here. I guess it's rightfully yours .... "
They walked back into the store, and Mr. Trout held
the office door open while Henry Ray walked in. They signed the
papers. The car was $800. Mr. Trout charged $227 more for insurance.
Then he added some and subtracted some, and when he came out with the
real number, it was $17.50 a week.
"You sure you want to do this, boy?" Trout
said. "Onct you made a deal with me, I get my money."
Henry Ray was standing up over the desk, and from
there he could see the car out the open door. He pictured himself
again, his face in the speedometer.
Onct you made a deal
with me, you get your money too," he said.
* * *
ROSIE SAYERS HAD BEEN living with Mary McNutt three
days when Henry Ray came home with the car. She had not spoken to him
yet, waiting to be spoken to first. It was in the morning, and she
had just made the beds in Miss Mary's side of the house. All the beds
but Mr. McNutt's. Miss Mary made that herself.
Rosie's own bed was in that part of the house,
against the wall in the first room. She was fourteen years old, and
it was the first bed she'd ever had — at least the first one that
sleeping in it didn't depend on getting to it before her brothers and
She made her own bed last, tearing it up twice to get
the sheets to lie even, the way Miss Mary had shown her, and then
walked out on the porch to rest before she began on the floors. Miss
Mary told her to rest whenever she wanted. She'd said, "Take
your time, child. The faster you go, the less you gain."
Rosie did everything Miss Mary told her, the way Miss
Mary said to do it. She had just settled into a porch chair when she
saw the car. It was black and shiny, and a trail of dust followed it
as it came up the road. It reminded her of a snake. She sat up and
watched it come, and before long it was close enough that she could
hear the engine.
She saw Henry Ray behind the wheel then. There and
leaning half out of the window. Henry Ray was coal black and
evil-looking even sitting still. She wished it was Thomas coming home
instead. Thomas was lighter-colored and quieter, like herself. Henry
Ray pulled the Chevrolet into the yard and chased off the neighbor
children before they could touch it. Then he walked around to the
back, wiping at little spots of dirt with the leg of his pants. Once
or twice he glanced in the direction of the porch. Rosie sat still
and watched, and when he looked up again, he smiled.
"You like young Henry Ray better now, doesn't
She folded her hands in her lap and studied her
knuckles. "I like everybody the same," she said.
She heard him laugh; she did not look up. "You
can't like nobody you ain't spoke to yet," he said.
I like ]esus," she said quietly.
She couldn't think with him watching her. She felt
him looking and was afraid to look back.
You want a ride, Rosie Sayers?" he said.
She shook her head no.
Ain't got time for no rides," she said.
He said, "I see you busy."
I be busy soon as I stand up."
He left the car and climbed the steps to the porch.
He sat on the railing and stared at her, up and down. "I ain't
gone to hurt you," he said in a minute.
She looked at her knuckles.
You think young Henry means to hurt your pretty
self?" She shook her head again. "What then?"
They is some people that gets hurt by
accident," she said.
He seemed to think that over. "I bet you ain't
never been in no car," he said. "That°s what you scared
She brought her eyes up then and looked at the
automobile. Henry Ray squatted next to her and put his hand on her
leg. It looked like a spider. She saw herself connected to the car in
that spider web way too. Every time she pushed away, she was caught
that much tighter. He moved his hand up until it could touch both her
legs at once, and she felt the heat of it through her dress. "You
ain't never been with no man either," he said. "I see that
She looked at the car, looking for a way out. "How
long you going to ride me?" she said.
That made him laugh out loud, and he moved his hand
off her and stood up. She felt her lap cool and crossed her legs, so
he couldn't get back to that place even if he changed his mind.
"I bring you right back, as soon as you want," he said.
She followed him down the steps to the car. He opened
the door for her and held it, smiling. She ducked under his arm,
moving between Henry Ray and the door without touching either one,
and then sat down in the seat. It was softer than the seat in the
police car. He slammed the door hard, as if he were mad, but when he
walked around the front he smiled at her through the windshield, and
then he was next to her in the seat.
He turned the key and touched the starter button. The
engine took, and the car began to shake in a regular way.
He pushed the clutch to the floor and studied the
gearshift and finally pulled it toward himself and then up. Two
different movements, two different thoughts. He turned in his seat to
back out into the road.