Noble Norfleet: A Novel

Noble Norfleet: A Novel

by Reynolds Price

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Having given voice in previous novels to the extraordinary Kate Vaiden, Blue Calhoun, and Roxanna Slade, Reynolds Price — one of America's most respected men of letters — adds Noble Norfleet to his gallery of compelling portraits.
A few days before Noble Norfleet's eighteenth birthday, his family suffers a violent catastrophe. The sole survivor, Noble throws himself into a reckless affair with his Spanish teacher, whose husband is fighting in Vietnam. When Noble graduates, he enlists as well and, while serving as an army medic, experiences a mysterious vision that seems tied to uncanny events in his recent past. Not until thirty years later — after a life short on friends and troubled by a compulsion to worship women's bodies — is Noble challenged to rethink the decades-old mystery of his family tragedy. Faced with an ominous choice, Noble finally comes to accept an enormous duty he's long tried to ignore. Soon, perhaps for the first time, his future seems hopeful.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743204187
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 06/24/2003
Edition description: 1st Scribner Trade Paperback Edition
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Reynolds Price (1933-2011) was born in Macon, North Carolina. Educated at Duke University and, as a Rhodes Scholar, at Merton College, Oxford University, he taught at Duke beginning in 1958 and was the James B. Duke Professor of English at the time of his death. His first short stories, and many later ones, are published in his Collected Stories. A Long and Happy Life was published in 1962 and won the William Faulkner Award for a best first novel. Kate Vaiden was published in 1986 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. The Good Priest's Son in 2005 was his fourteenth novel. Among his thirty-seven volumes are further collections of fiction, poetry, plays, essays, and translations. Price is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and his work has been translated into seventeen languages.

Read an Excerpt

from Chapter One

The first time I ever made real love with another human being, I thought I'd die. I didn't feel guilty, just smothered in pleasure. That same night my family vanished from the face of the Earth so far as I knew. I was seventeen years old. I'd got home late, well after midnight. I still believe the three of them were safe at that hour. I stopped at their doors the way I'd done for years; and I thought I heard them all breathing steadily, asleep. The way I felt, it was all I could do not to wake somebody up and spread the joy that was still high in me. But of course I couldn't tell what I'd done, where I'd been or least of all who I'd been with. So I went to my own bed and finally slept sometime before dawn. The last time I looked at my clock, it was past two in the morning.

Church bells woke me -- it was nearly eleven -- and at first the room around me felt normal. It was not much bigger than a piano crate, but it had thick walls and a door I could lock. I lay on my back with my hands down beside me, and for several sweet minutes I let my mind rerun last night and its big surprise. I'd known for five years that I had a working body, but except with myself I'd never tried to prove it. Well, it was proven now beyond any doubt. And I felt justified in what I'd done. I'd hurt nobody, least of all God (for whatever reason I was sure of that, and I still don't doubt it). And I'd pleased two sane souls, her and me.

But once I'd got to the end of my rerun, the stillness bore in on me from all sides. The house was too quiet. A slow chill crawled up my legs and back. I pulled on my underpants and walked to the door. There were no sounds from the hall or any other room. At normal volume I said "Anybody?"

Nobody said a word, not a creak or a laugh. For reasons I'll explain, our house almost never went completely quiet.

So I turned left and went to the next room -- the last one on the hall, which was our only bath. It was cleaner than usual. Even the towels were neatly folded. I went ahead and took a long shower that soon had me ignoring my feeling that the house was empty. That round of pleasure lasted so long I expected Mother to burst in and tell me I'd have to pay the water bill if I didn't quit. She was normally generous, but occasionally she'd have sudden outbursts of frugal fears -- we'd be in the poorhouse by sundown if such-and-such form of waste didn't cease. Anyhow I quit and dried myself, walked to my room and laid out a set of clean clothes. Before I dressed I even stopped in front of the mirror. It had been a wedding present to my mother and father and had hung in their room till Dad left us hanging. Literally the next day Mother told me to move it to my room. It had such good memories for her she couldn't stand to see it, but she couldn't bear to give it away. Somebody might crack it. Even that early, Mother was thinking how mirrors had memories that could be released to walk round the house and cause real pleasure or actual damage.

Till then I'd never paid much attention to how I looked. I thought I was average. People didn't run from me nor flock to me either, not in droves anyhow. But this Sunday morning I had to admit I looked a lot stronger in muscle and bone than ever before. And my face and thick black hair were improving, almost as I stood there. When I put on my pants, I realized I was moving like a china doll. I'd been so happy in my fine skin these past twelve hours, I was scared of breaking. Then a harder chill hit me, and I shook like a beat dog.

I said it out loud -- "They're surely at church" -- but I knew my mother hadn't been to church since Dad walked off. My brother and sister were good-hearted heathens. By then I was starting to feel a real dread. Something was wrong. Had I somehow caused it? I already knew I'd had more pleasure in the past few hours than Mother had known in her whole life. My brother and sister were a lot less lucky than me at everything. They'd hardly got a chance to know Dad, and at his best he could cause more laughter than any trained pig. When the chill faded I remember thinking "You're the killer here, Noble." Yet all I'd actually killed to that point was one male robin with a homemade slingshot.

I didn't pause to look into rooms till I reached the kitchen at the far end. Like the bath it was way too neat. No sign of a plate nor any scrap of food. On the breakfast table there was nothing but the notepad Mother used for lists. Parallel beside it was the old ice pick, shining as new as if somebody had scrubbed it with steel wool. The top note on the pad said Rat trap and Pears. We'd never had rats and it wasn't pear season, so I was spooked to look at the next page.

But I knew I had to, and all it offered was four bars of music in my brother's hand. He was taking piano lessons that he paid for by selling peanut butter door to door in a Cub Scout uniform (he wasn't a Scout), and he was good at tunes from the start. I could tell it was already his main escape. And I knew enough about music myself to hum his short melody, nine notes long. It broke off, as high as my voice would go. So at that point I looked out the window. The car was gone.

By then I thought I knew what had happened. There was nothing to do but throw my head back and howl at the ceiling or search the house and either confirm or deny my guess. I went to Mother's shut bedroom door and knocked -- no answer. I opened it and looked in. Nothing but a neat bed, clear daylight and her wedding dress laid out on the quilt. She'd always said we should bury her in that, and every few months she'd take it out and check it for mildew or mold.

My brother and sister were still young enough to sleep in the same room, between mine and Mother's. I went on there and the door was open. They were in their bunk beds, my sister on the top one. Her name was Adelle. She was nine years old and loved by all, for many good reasons. I stood in the door and called her name plainly. The least noise could wake her. She was facing my way but never moved. My brother was eleven, named Arch (for Archer) -- another big favorite for his endless sweet jokes. Arch was facing the wall, away from me. A dynamite stick in his ear couldn't budge him once he was asleep. So I went over to him and knelt by his side. When I reached to shake his shoulder, he was already cold in the warm spring air. I said something like "Arch, don't tell me you're gone." He couldn't tell me anything of course.

And if she'd been there, Adelle would have spoken long since but she hadn't. I liked her too much to see her close now. I thought it might blind me. So I turned Arch to face me, pulled the cover back off him, and raised his T-shirt. In the midst of his chest, no bigger than a speck of ink, was the spot where the ice pick had pierced his heart and killed him in his sleep. When I got sufficient strength to look, Adelle had the same wound.

In those days calling the Law was a lot slower than now. First you called the Court House, they plugged you through to the local police, you told your story to whoever answered, and he decided whether you were in trouble or just drunk or fooling. For one thing he knew you weren't in mortal danger. In those safer days few people called while the Strangler was strangling. But assuming you didn't claim to be on fire, somebody would come out eventually. And if you'd had a bodily assault or a break-in, the chance was the culprit might be the officer's brother-in-law or second cousin. The Law and the crooks were that close together. The second worst thing that was ever done to me was done by a Lawman's brother-in-law, but I won't be describing that here. Still, from the instant I saw our cleaned ice pick in the kitchen, I knew who'd killed my brother and sister. It was nobody kin to any known policeman, but I couldn't make myself think the name.

I went out to the back porch and sat in a straight chair to wait for either my mother or the Law. The reason I'd called them was to get some other human opinion. Had I truly gone crazy and dreamed this up? Was I even awake? Or were two of my family dead indoors and the other one missing along with the car? I was old enough to know they'd think I caused it the minute they got here. I could prove I didn't, though. My fingerprints weren't on that ice pick or near the children, and nobody else who'd ever known me could suspect me of violence -- not in those years.

It did feel strange, though, realizing that I could sit still on a bright Easter morning with most of my family dead behind me. I'd loved Arch and Adelle as much as brothers can. I understood that losing them ought to feel like a landslide. And hard as my mother's life had been, she'd never harmed me, not bodily. But seated in sunshine I felt relieved. Stunned but lighter. Feeling so free was tougher to bear than what lay behind me.

In the few minutes I was having such thoughts, I was still alone. We didn't have a dog, I was on the porch, and nobody passed on the street that ran beside us -- not till somebody yelled my name out, "Noble!"

It was a man's voice, and it sounded like an English accent.

I wasn't ready to talk to anybody so I didn't turn.

The same voice spoke from closer by. "I say, Mr. Norfleet."

It was Jarret James, dressed for Easter in a new sharkskin suit, a red silk tie, and brown-and-white shoes so intricately worked and carefully polished they looked like a map of the Himalayan countries. Jarret and I had been real friends from the time his aunt started work as our cook, when he and I were six or seven. As we got older we'd drifted apart in the regulation way of those days, but we could still speak our childhood language when we met each other by accident somewhere. The most recent time had been at the vigil when Martin Luther King was murdered just ten days before. Now Jarret was coming across the yard toward me. He liked to imitate English actors he'd seen in movies, mostly Laurence Olivier. I tried to get ready to match his funny skill. He always went for the upper-class accents. I'd be a Cockney.

Now I wanted to tell him how sporty he looked, knowing how hard he worked for his clothes. But I also knew the Law would be here any minute, so I stood up to show I couldn't talk long. When Jarret was no more than five steps away, I said "Hold it, friend. I'm on duty here."

He stopped and looked. "Looks like you're dead. You wearing corpse powder?" He occasionally worked at the Negro funeral home.

I could feel I was pale, but I tried to grin to show I was fine, and my whole face collapsed. I didn't shed tears or make any noise.

Jarret came closer. "Noble, what happened?"

I tried to say "Nothing." The word broke up.

Jarret whispered "Nothing, my ass. She beat you, didn't she?" By then his English accent was slipping.

Mother had beat me once or twice years ago, but now I was way too big for that, and I shook my head No.

Jarret said "Then what the hell's happened?" He very seldom used hard language.

I waved my hand politely, meaning Leave now.

He didn't budge but stood on, watching me.

So I finally met his long face and deep eyes. He was truly chestnut brown and unblemished. I recalled we'd never had a cross word or argument in all the thousand games we played. Then I remembered I'd heard he had a young daughter recently and lived with the child's mother out in the country.

I said "I hear you're a father now."

He waited before he gave a low burst of laughter. "Must've heard that on the loony bin airways. I'm a virgin sacrifice like you." When I didn't respond, he said "You're still a virgin, aren't you?"

For several reasons I lacked the heart to tell him about my latest discovery (and I'd later discover he had a fine girlfriend, however chaste he had or hadn't been); so I nodded a lie. And to change the subject, I pointed behind me to the house. "Adelle and Arch are in there, dead."

"Dead? You speaking literally now?" Jarret backed three steps. "Je-sus. You mean it, don't you, boy?"

I nodded. "Ice pick. Straight through their hearts, I guess. Both of them, peaceful in their beds."

Jarret came very near to smiling, and his eyes were on mine. "She finally did it."

I couldn't make myself confirm him. As he started back toward me, I said "You'd better leave quick. The Law'll be here any minute." To the best of my knowledge, he'd never done anything remotely illegal. I guess I was thinking that people with dark skin ought to run from the Law.

But Jarret stood in place. In his best British accent again, he said "So you're telling the truth?"

"I wish I wasn't," I said. And oh I did.

He said "Nobe, it's Easter. Don't tell me a lie on your family today." His father had killed a white man at Easter, ten years ago and was promptly executed for it in the Raleigh gas chamber.

Jarret said "But she done it, right? Mrs. Norfleet done it? Your own birth mother?"

Despite being young as I was, I said to myself Very few human beings have ever had to answer that, not about their mothers. And even then I could have kept quiet, but I'd always trusted black people with my pains. They hadn't failed me yet. So finally I had to meet Jarret's big eyes and nod and say Yes. I all but expected my mother to rise up screaming that instant and finish us two with neat single thrusts that wouldn't even bleed.

Jarret actually laughed and bent over double. Then he faced me and said "I knew she would." He started back toward me. But when I waved him off, he ran like a healthy four-point stag. He was that strong and graceful and had always been. It took him ten seconds to vanish in the dogwood. When he did, there was nothing to see but the low trees, white as wide handfuls of snow flung up and trapped in the air.

At once the police car pulled in the driveway. Through his window I could see it was one I knew -- Barber Brady. He wasn't more than ten years older than me, and he'd helped me with Mother a time or two when she got out of hand. He looked less like a young policeman than anyone you could imagine -- no potbelly and sagging pants, he was nearly seven feet tall and thin as a twig. He opened his door.

Just before his foot touched the ground, something in the dogwoods made me look up. For an instant -- that felt like seventeen years -- I saw hundreds of hands facing palm-out toward me. In the midst of all the cross-shaped blooms, the hands were the color of normal white hands, and at first I thought they were trying to stop me from something. What was it? They looked like the Stop hand on school-patrol signs.

Then I noticed the central hand. It wasn't much bigger than the others, but I knew it was a male hand, and its back was turned toward me instead of the palm. Again it didn't seem to be forbidding. And though I wasn't sure, in the few seconds I had to look, I thought it was moving slightly to wave me toward it.

Until that point, except for normal childhood daydreams, I hadn't been prone to seeing things as strange as that. But the whole sight looked as real as Barber Brady and a good deal better. I was standing at the head of the steps. So with no second thought, I moved to go to it. It didn't cross my mind to think that it couldn't be real or to wonder what it meant or what it would do with me if I obeyed it.

I was down the four steps, and moving still, when Barber said "Noble, is she tensed up again?"

Of course the hands vanished. Tense and tension were the words I'd used in the past to explain what was wrong when Barber helped me with Mother. Police in general understand the word tension.

I said "So it seems -- but worse this time."

Barber said "Is she in there?" He nodded precisely to her bedroom window.

"Gone," I said. "She took the car unless somebody drove her."

He hoisted his gunbelt and pants to his armpits and said "You saying that you and me are safe?"

Again the idea struck me as funny. I'd loved my kin but I was seventeen, with a long way to go where feelings were concerned. So I laughed a little. "Barber, you and I are safe. But Arch and Adelle are dead as hammers, not to mention the fix my mother is in wherever she's gone."

Barber was almost in reach of me, but he stopped in his tracks. "Your brother and sister -- that's Arch and Adelle?"


"They're minors, right?"

"They were," I said.

You wouldn't have thought a tear was available anywhere in Barber's body. He stood where he was, though, and both his eyes filled. Furthermore he made no attempt to hide the moisture.

And at first I thought he looked like Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion. But then I realized I was dry as any hot brick, and I felt a little shamed. In fact, for the first time in my life, I felt truly horrified.

It was well before the days when Lawmen wouldn't so much as search a baby carriage without guns drawn. They more or less assumed a safe world and were mostly right. So Barber didn't touch his pistol. But when we got indoors, he did wave me forward and say "You lead."

I led him down to the bunk bedroom.

He got to within an arm's reach of Adelle -- she was eye-level to us -- but he said "Noble, touch her and tell me what you feel."

It was also before the days when crime-scene contamination was much of a concern. Still, except for lifting her shirt when I found her, I hadn't really touched her alive since breakfast the previous morning. I distinctly remembered telling her she had a Grape-Nut stuck to her upper lip. She couldn't seem to find it, so I reached out and flicked it off. She was warm as toast then. Now I laid a slow hand on her forehead. She was cool -- not as cold as Arch but way under normal -- and I told Barber so.

Then he came closer and knelt by Arch's head. Under his breath Barber said "Help me, Lord." He touched the spot under Arch's jaw where they check for pulses in good police movies. "You're right about one thing," he said back to me. "They're both long gone."

By now the whole weight was settling on me, but still my body was choosing to bear up. I'd been the man around here for so long, I couldn't think of being a child again. Yet I waited for Barber to tell me what next.

He stayed on his haunches down by Arch. "She strangled them then?"

"No, Barber, they were stabbed."

"Then where's all the blood?"

"No blood," I said. "An ice pick through the heart, neat as a surgeon. All you got to do is ease it in between the ribs, the whole way in. Then you swipe it slightly up and down and that's it. Ball game." In my hitchhiking days one of my rides had described the technique and told me always to carry an icepick when I was on the road (had I ever told Mother? -- I've never known).

Barber stood up and looked at me closely. For the first time, I knew, he was checking me. Had one more member of the family gone crazy? Was he in any danger? His right hand feinted toward his pistol, but he never touched it.

I said "The weapon's in the kitchen" and pointed him toward it.

But Barber shut his eyes and shook his head hard. "Much as I hate to ask you, son -- show me their wounds."

So, despite the fact that Barber was the Law, I had to go through that again -- Arch one more time and then Adelle. And what I remembered from Arch's example turned out to be true. His wound was a little darker now but was still no bigger than three grains of rice. Adelle's was smaller -- her skin was so tender -- and she had shed one thin trail of blood about four inches long. It hadn't even stained her pajamas. I looked straight at Barber as he saw the sights.

His whole face confirmed that I hadn't dreamed the worst.

From a selfish point of view, the actual worst would have been if I'd died too. I even thought it at the time -- how much my joy from the previous night had left me glad that Mother had spared me. She had to have known I was in my bed, deep asleep in full fatigue; but she'd let me be. The question Why? would wait a good while, maybe forever. Till then, considering how long I'd dealt with a stove-in soul (my afflicted mother), I felt like Barber was my present nearby needy human in need of attention.

But the color slowly came back to his face, and he asked for a phone.

Once he'd called for more help from the station, the new men gathered what evidence there was -- the ice pick of course, some letters of Mother's from various government agencies. She'd recently protested a lot of things and got form replies that more or less said she didn't know what she was talking about. Everybody from the local garbage service to the Oval Office had answered her politely but with no help at all. She probably hadn't had a truly personal letter since her own mother died in a state nursing home for the feebleminded as they were called. Then we saw the two bodies off to the coroner, and the other Lawmen left.

The chief of police was another tall man with a face like Abraham Lincoln's if Lincoln had shaved the afternoon before Booth shot him. As the chief left he touched my shoulder and said "I've heard some praise of you from several teachers and of course your track coach. You're too smart for this."

For an instant I thought he meant I was too smart to kill two sleeping children and also make my mother and her car disappear.

I must have looked as weak as he had a minute ago; so he gripped my shoulder and said "I'll do everything in my power to ease you through this, and I'm not a weak man." He didn't reach for his handcuffs but smiled and left as quietly as any young moth.

It was almost late afternoon by then. Barber was the last to go, and I followed him out. As he leaned to get down into his car, he thought to pause and look back at me. "Ace, you need a place to sleep tonight?"

Ace was a name left over from the World Wars. One of my sure recollections of Dad was how he called me Ace, more than once anyhow. It got to me now. That and the fact that I hadn't given the slightest thought to where I'd sleep. I shook my head No to Barber and pointed plainly behind me -- the house, the place I'd lived since birth.

Barber said "You sure you want to sleep there?"

I didn't understand he meant was I scared of Mother.

I told him I was tired, and that much was true.

He said "You got anything left to eat?"

Considering his leanness I remember a moment of surprise that Barber valued the presence of groceries.

I told him I had some sardines and crackers. Mother always kept those on hand for me, a major component of the male diet then.

Barber must not have liked canned fish. He frowned but then he actually gave me an official salute, silent as any Canadian Mountie on splendid horseback thanking a moose for failing to charge. And he went on his way.

His car was fading before I recalled the first time I'd met him -- seven years ago on Halloween night. Two friends and I had rigged up a way to stop passing cars by suddenly raising a rope across the street, a rope hung with streamers of rags and ugly masks. It hadn't dawned on us of course that we could cause serious harm, but somebody called the cops and young Barber came. He was new on the job and looked as scared as us. The other boys ran -- both older than me -- and I tried to join them. Barber yelled me back, read me a stiff warning and then -- of all things -- reached into his pocket, found a ballpoint pen with a peephole in it that showed a blond with massive boobs in a lime-green bikini. When he let me see her, in the glow of his flashlight, he said "If you give me your solemn word you'll live a clean life, I'll give you that pen." So I gave him my word and he surrendered the pen. I kept it till I was way gone in puberty and wore it out.

Before I turned back now and headed indoors, I took a slow look at the dogwoods again. Dark was settling on them like octopus ink flushed into clear water. No sign of what I'd seen before. No hands, just flowers. I've never been a man that cares much for flowers, but it was a help to know that something besides me and two or three Lawmen had survived this killing and might very well still be here tomorrow.

* *  *

Once I was inside I didn't feel scared. If my mother had meant me to die, she'd have managed that. I sleep like a brick. You could treat me any way your heart desired, and I'd never stop you. I did lock the doors, though, and cook myself a fried egg sandwich and a can of red beans. Mother hadn't bought any sardines after all. What I wanted to do more than anything else was call the friend who'd cheered my body so lavishly yesterday. For reasons I'll make clear, that wasn't likely to work this soon. I had a few friends from the track team, but they were my age, and considering Mother's unpredictability I'd never been able to ask them to the house. I knew if I called them now I'd just have to lay out all I knew about this day and the recent past. I had no more close kin in hailing distance. The nearest was an uncle who might have come to get me if I'd phoned him and begged hard, but that would have taken a three-hour drive. And up till then I'd never begged anybody for anything, not since I was a baby anyhow.

So I took my second shower of the day, and that got me focused again on my body. With all the endless reserves of a boy, I stayed in that warm flood till I'd drained my mind of all its present hungers. In the circumstances, some people may condemn me still. Maybe I should have been on my knees, thanking God for my life and praying for the soul of my desperate mother, wherever she was. I thought very likely she was dead in a ditch with her own throat cut by her own hand. But I doubt most grown men will think I was wrong to console myself in absolute private in a way that cost nobody alive but me a single cent.

Even after I was dried off and lying naked on my bed in the dark, I found the strength to do it again and finally plunge myself into sleep. Surely that was no excess reward for a boy seventeen who'd just learned to enter another human being with no worse intent than the hope for warmth on both sides, a boy who'd just undergone a loss that was very nearly total. Anyhow, unpleasant as it may be for some to consider, I believe it's a fact worth setting down -- a good many young boys have saved themselves from desperation and suicide through free resort to their own kind skin.

After that I only woke once, thinking I heard footsteps. Somehow it didn't scare me, and I got up to check. Once I was upright and had cleared my head, I knew I was alone. Then I said to myself "You think you're alone since that's what you asked for so many times." And I'd asked for solitude the way boys in general do. Here it was apparently, in pure black spades. But I went on and checked all the beds again to be sure I hadn't dreamt up the footsteps and the sadness.

So I was wide awake when I got back to my room and took a last look out the window toward the back. Even in the pitch dark, the trees and the whole yard were changed again. As real as the spread of hands I'd seen in the early evening, I saw our whole deep yard in moonlight populated by actual stars. At first I thought it was lightning bugs. But I knew it was too early for them. They'd show up in June. I took another long careful look, and Yes it was stars down low to the ground. Each was the size of the pure high blaze from a kerosene lamp, and each was moving slightly. This time none of them outshone the others, and nothing seemed to beckon me on. But I had the feeling that, if I could have stayed awake longer, I'd have figured that they were doing some kind of dance. Immensely slow but the answer to everything.

Tired as I was, my mind half guessed them to mean I would somehow survive and have a life that I could bear, most times at least. In sleep it seemed like a simpler proposition than my life has proved to be. It's not over yet and I'd be the last one to say it couldn't yet gutter out in smoke and fumes with heavy damage to me and others. But so far the blaze has seldom vanished for longer than a few months here and there. Like my poor mother, I'd never been given to church and prayer. As I lay down to wait for morning though, I spoke to whatever might be listening. Oddly I just said "Many thanks."

I was a senior in high school, a few weeks from graduating and hunting a job that would let me eventually go to night classes or somehow earn enough to go to maybe two years of real college. So Monday morning should have been a school day, but I'd forgot to set my clock. I slept on through till the sound of a key in the back door woke me.

Then a voice said "Nobie?"

There was no other voice in the natural world remotely like it -- much higher pitched than bats could have heard. I knew it was Hesta, though -- Hesta James, Jarret's aunt who'd cooked for us years ago (you could get a good cook for seven dollars a week). She must have kept her key all this time. Not that anybody worried much about keys in our safe town. It had stayed almost incredibly safe, even this deep into Vietnam and the civil rights struggles.

I called out to say I was in my room. "Wait for me in the kitchen."

By the time I'd put on yesterday's clothes and washed my face, Hesta was cooking the breakfast we used to have before things changed. Eggs, plenty of bacon, grits, toast and homemade pear preserves. She'd brought the ingredients as her contribution. I came up behind her at the stove and hugged her. She was under five feet tall and weighed maybe seventy pounds in her heavy dark clothes, which were always good enough for church. She'd said more than once that she fully expected to be caught up into Heaven first thing at Jesus' Last Judgment, and she had no plans whatever to leave in less than the best dress she could afford on her famous savings that she sometimes alluded to, her one known mystery.

I held on to her firmly, but she wouldn't look back to meet my kiss. So I said "You still think you'll pass me on the fast road to Heaven?"

"Not a shred of doubt," she said. "You and nine out of ten white folks, not to mention every sorry black soul -- man or woman."

She'd never been married nor lived with a man, and she'd never had children of her own to raise. Or so Jarret said. She was his oldest aunt, but she took him in when his mother got killed (long before his father was executed); and she raised him right, he always said. Yet I'd heard Hesta say many times that childlessness was one of God's blessings from her point of view. Now she was still turning bacon in the pan, but she finally reached up with her free hand and squeezed my wrist. "Sit down here and eat this good food. Food makes up for a lot."

I obeyed her and found I was hungry as a wolf. Back then of course I had to ask her to sit down beside me. She'd have never taken that action on her own.

She was silent but she picked up every crumb I dropped and held them all in the palm of her hand. I remembered then how she'd always done that. She'd throw them outside for the birds once I finished. I finally said "I guess Jarret told you."

Hesta shook her head No. "Radio," she said. "They had it on there early this morning."

I said "Oh Christ -- "

And she put her hand across my mouth. "Beg His pardon, Nobie. He kept you alive."

I said "Something did, that's for sure."

Hesta said "You'll find out His name years from now."

I smiled. "You want to explain that?"

Hesta said "He'll call you when He wants you."

"You're speaking of Jesus?"

"I don't talk about no other man." But then she laughed to show she was sane. "Where you think she's gone?"

I knew she meant Mother. Hesta had quit working here the day Mother threw a butcher knife at her -- and just because Hesta was drying a cheap jelly glass that fell and broke. I said "I guess she's either killed herself and is lying somewhere not far away, or she's gone off free the way she always claimed she wanted."

Hesta said "She's crazy. You know that, don't you?"

"I know she gets her blue spells a lot more often than most people. I know she has those yelling fits and flings things around till I call the Law. They calm her down."

Hesta said "You called the Law on your mama?"

I said "Wasn't that on the radio too? No, an officer came maybe two or three times -- an old boy I know named Brady. We'd get her halfway calm and talk her into spending the night in a clean jail cell till her mind could steady itself. Then she'd be fine for a while." Hesta was nodding impatiently so I said "Surely you know all that."

Hesta said "Her demon. I told her she could flush him if she came to my preacher. Preacher Delphus Jenkins told me he could heal her any minute she asked him."

I wasn't old enough to argue with a woman as convinced as Hesta. My own guess was that, Yes, Mother was insane. But I was too young -- and from the wrong time and place -- to judge whether demons were involved or not. Still I knew even then that there was such a thing as evil. This house, this kitchen table where I sat eating a bountiful breakfast, had known real evil just yesterday. That hadn't quite dawned on me till then, and it went down badly. Not thinking what I meant, I said "I shouldn't stay in this house, should I?" I realized I was asking Hesta for earnest advice. Who else could I ask?

She said "No, baby, that's why I'm here." She'd always had the longest hands I'd ever known on a truly short person. Her right hand reached out now and ringed my whole left wrist. "You staying with me."

Right off, I thanked her.

She said "Are the bunk-bed sheets still bloody?"

I told her they were still on the beds -- no blood.

She said "Let me strip em then, them and your mother's. Then I'll wash these dishes. You gather your things and we'll move to my place for as long as you need it. I won't take a penny of rent and won't charge a penny to feed you. The Lord's blessed me with money, and it's yours if you need it."

I said "Hesta, that's too good and you know it."

"It is," she said. "You right about that. But old as I am -- and mean as I been -- I'm buying my way into Heaven for sure."

The two of us knew she'd likely never done a wrong thing in her life. But even in that sad house, so close on the heels of mad death, we managed to laugh. And my whole life took one more new wide swerve that slowed and shaped me deeply, though in ways I couldn't imagine for years.

Copyright © 2002 by Reynolds Price

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