The Complete Stories of Truman Capote, Page 7Truman Capote
And as for my not working, I’d like to know what a man of my abilities, a man who held a perfectly swell position with the Cash ’n’ Carry, would find to do in a fleabag like Admiral’s Mill? There is all of one store here and Mr. Tubberville, the proprietor, is actually so lazy it’s painful for him to have to sell anything. Then we have the Morning Star Baptist Church but they already have a preacher, an awful old turd named Shell whom Eunice drug over one day to see about the salvation of my soul. I heard him with my own ears tell her I was too far gone.
But it’s what Eunice has done to Marge that really takes the cake. She has turned that girl against me in the most villainous fashion that words could not describe. Why, she even reached the point when she was sassing me back, but I provided her with a couple of good slaps and put a stop to that. No wife of mine is ever going to be disrespectful to me, not on your life!
The enemy lines are stretched tight: Bluebell, Olivia-Ann, Eunice, Marge and the whole rest of Admiral’s Mill (pop. 342). Allies: none. Such was the situation as of Sunday, August 12, when the attempt was made upon my very life.
Yesterday was quiet and hot enough to melt rock. The trouble began at exactly two o’clock. I know because Eunice has one of those fool cuckoo contraptions and it scares the daylights out of me. I was minding my own personal business in the parlor, composing a song on the upright piano, which Eunice bought for Olivia-Ann and hired her a teacher to come all the way from Columbus, Georgia, once a week. Postmistress Delancey, who was my friend till she decided that it was maybe not so wise, says that the fancy teacher tore out of this house one afternoon like old Adolf Hitler was on his tail and leaped in his Ford coupé, never to be heard from again. Like I say, I’m trying to keep cool in the parlor not bothering a living soul when Olivia-Ann trots in with her hair all twisted up in curlers and shrieks, “Cease that infernal racket this very instant! Can’t you give a body a minute’s rest? And get off my piano right smart. It’s not your piano, it’s my piano, and if you don’t get off it right smart, I’ll have you in court like a shot the first Monday in September.”
She’s not anything in this world but jealous on account of I’m a natural-born musician and the songs I make up out of my own head are absolutely marvelous.
“And just look what you’ve done to my genuine ivory keys, Mr. Sylvester,” says she, trotting over to the piano, “torn nearly every one of them off right at the roots for purentee meanness, that’s what you’ve done.”
She knows good and well that the piano was ready for the junk heap the moment I entered this house.
I said, “Seeing as you’re such a know-it-all, Miss Olivia-Ann, maybe it would interest you to know that I’m in the possession of a few interesting tales myself. A few things that maybe other people would be very grateful to know. Like what happened to Mrs. Harry Steller Smith, as for instance.”
Remember Mrs. Harry Steller Smith?
She paused and looked at the empty birdcage. “You gave me your oath,” says she and turned the most terrifying shade of purple.
“Maybe I did and again maybe I didn’t,” says I. “You did an evil thing when you betrayed Eunice that way but if some people will leave other people alone, then maybe I can overlook it.”
Well, sir, she walked out of there just as nice and quiet as you please. So I went and stretched out on the sofa, which is the most horrible piece of furniture I’ve ever seen and is part of a matched set Eunice bought in Atlanta in 1912 and paid two thousand dollars for, cash—or so she claims. This set is black and olive plush and smells like wet chicken feathers on a damp day. There is a big table in one corner of the parlor which supports two pictures of Miss E and O-A’s mama and papa. Papa is kind of handsome but just between you and me I’m convinced he has black blood in him from somewhere. He was a captain in the Civil War and that is one thing I’ll never forget on account of his sword, which is displayed over the mantel and figures prominently in the action yet to come. Mama has that hang-dog, half-wit look like Olivia-Ann, though I must say Mama carries it better.
So I had just dozed off when I heard Eunice bellowing, “Where is he? Where is he?” And the next thing I know she’s framed in the doorway with her hands planted plumb on those hippo hips and the whole pack scrunched up behind her: Bluebell, Olivia-Ann and Marge.
Several seconds passed with Eunice tapping her big old bare foot just as fast and furious as she could and fanning her fat face with this cardboard picture of Niagara Falls.
“Where is it?” says she. “Where’s my hundred dollars that he made away with while my trusting back was turned?”
“This is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says I, but I was too hot and tired to get up.
“That’s not the only back that’s going to be broke,” says she, her bug eyes about to pop clear out of their sockets. “That was my funeral money and I want it back. Wouldn’t you know he’d steal from the dead?”
“Maybe he didn’t take it,” says Marge.
“You keep your mouth out of this, missy,” says Olivia-Ann.
“He stole my money sure as shooting,” says Eunice. “Why, look at his eyes—black with guilt!”
I yawned and said, “Like they say in the courts—if the party of the first part falsely accuses the party of the second part, then the party of the first part can be locked away in jail even if the State Home is where they rightfully belong for the protection of all concerned.”
“God will punish him,” says Eunice.
“Oh, Sister,” says Olivia-Ann, “let us not wait for God.”
Whereupon Eunice advances on me with this most peculiar look, her dirty flannel nightie jerking along the floor. And Olivia-Ann leeches after her and Bluebell lets forth this moan that must have been heard clear to Eufala and back while Marge stands there wringing her hands and whimpering.
“Oh-h-h,” sobs Marge, “please give her back that money, babydoll.”
I said, “Et tu Brute?” which is from William Shakespeare.
“Look at the likes of him,” says Eunice, “lying around all day not doing so much as licking a postage stamp.” “Pitiful,” clucks Olivia-Ann.
“You’d think he was having a baby instead of that poor child.” Eunice speaking.
Bluebell tosses in her two cents, “Ain’t it the truth?”
“Well, if it isn’t the old pots calling the kettle black,” says I.
“After loafing here for three months, does this runt have the audacity to cast aspersions in my direction?” says Eunice.
I merely flicked a bit of ash from my sleeve and not the least bit fazed said, “Dr. A. N. Carter has informed me that I am in a dangerous scurvy condition and can’t stand the least excitement whatsoever—otherwise I’m liable to foam at the mouth and bite somebody.”
Then Bluebell says, “Why don’t he go back to that trash in Mobile, Miss Eunice? I’se sick and tired of carryin’ his ol’ slop jar.”
Naturally that coal-black nigger made me so mad I couldn’t see straight.
So just as calm as a cucumber I arose and picked up this umbrella off the hat tree and rapped her across the head with it until it cracked smack in two.
“My real Japanese silk parasol!” shrieks Olivia-Ann.
Marge cries, “You’ve killed Bluebell, you’ve killed poor old Bluebell!”
Eunice shoves Olivia-Ann and says, “He’s gone clear out of his head, Sister! Run! Run and get Mr. Tubberville!”
“I don’t like Mr. Tubberville,” says Olivia-Ann staunchly. “I’ll go get my hog knife.” And she makes a dash for the door, but seeing as I care nothing for death, I brought her down with a sort of tackle. It wrenched my back something terrible.
“He’s going to kill her!” hollers Eunice loud enough to bring the house down. “He’s going to murder us all! I warned you, Marge. Quick, child, get Papa’s sword!”
So Marge gets Papa’s sword and hands it to Eunice. Talk about wifely devotion! And, if that’s not bad enough, Olivia-Ann gives me this terrific
knee punch and I had to let go. The next thing you know we hear her out in the yard bellowing hymns.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the
coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where
the grapes of wrath are stored.…
Meanwhile, Eunice is sashaying all over the place, wildly thrashing Papa’s sword, and somehow I’ve managed to clamber atop the piano. Then Eunice climbs up on the piano stool and how that rickety contraption survived a monster like her I’ll never be the one to tell.
“Come down from there, you yellow coward, before I run you through,” says she and takes a whack and I’ve got a half-inch cut to prove it.
By this time Bluebell has recovered and skittered away to join Olivia-Ann holding services in the front yard. I guess they were expecting my body and God knows it would’ve been theirs if Marge hadn’t passed out cold.
That’s the only good thing I’ve got to say for Marge.
What happened after that I can’t rightly remember except for Olivia-Ann reappearing with her fourteen-inch hog knife and a bunch of the neighbors. But suddenly Marge was the star attraction and I suppose they carried her to her room. Anyway, as soon as they left I barricaded the parlor door.
I’ve got all those black and olive plush chairs pushed against it and that big mahogany table that must weigh a couple of tons and the hat tree and lots of other stuff. I’ve locked the windows and pulled down the shades. Also I’ve found a five-pound box of Sweet Love candy and this very minute I’m munching a juicy, creamy, chocolate cherry. Sometimes they come to the door and knock and yell and plead. Oh, yes, they’ve started singing a song of a very different color. But as for me—I give them a tune on the piano every now and then just to let them know I’m cheerful.
A south-moving cloud slipped over the sun and a patch of dark, an island of shadow, crept down the field, drifted over the ridge. Presently it began to rain: summer rain with sun in it, lasting only a short time; long enough for settling dust, polishing leaves. When the rain ended, an old colored man—his name was Preacher—opened his cabin door and gazed at the field where weeds grew profusely in the rich earth; at a rocky yard shaded by peach trees and dogwood and chinaberry; at a gutted red-clay road that seldom saw car, wagon, or human; and at a ring of green hills that spread, perhaps, to the edge of the world.
Preacher was a small man, a mite, and his face was a million wrinkles. Tufts of gray wool sprouted from his bluish skull and his eyes were sorrowful. He was so bent that he resembled a rusty sickle and his skin was the yellow of superior leather. As he studied what remained of his farm, his hand pestered his chin wisely but, to tell the truth, he was thinking nothing.
It was quiet, of course, and the coolness made him shiver so that he went inside and sat in a rocker and wrapped his legs in a beautiful scrap quilt of green-rose and red-leaf design and fell asleep in the still house with all the windows wide while the wind stirred bright calendars and comic strips he had plastered over the walls.
In a quarter of an hour he was awake, for he never slept long and the days passed in a series of naps and wakings, sleep and light, one hardly different from the other. Although it was not cold he lit the fire, filled his pipe and began to rock, his glance wandering over the room. The double iron bed was a hopeless confusion of quilts and pillows and scaly with flecks of pink paint; an arm flapped desolately from the very chair in which he sat; a wonderful poster-picture of a golden-haired girl holding a bottle of NE-HI was torn at the mouth so that her smile was wicked and leering. His eyes paused on a sooty, charred stove, squatting in the corner. He was hungry, but the stove, piled high with dirty pans, made Preacher tired even to consider it. “Can’t do nothin’ ’bout it,” he said, the way certain old people quarrel with themselves; “sick to death of collards an’ whatevahelse. Just sit here an’ stahve, that be my fate.… Bet yo’ bottom dollah ain’t nobody gonna grieve on dat account, nawsuh.” Evelina had always been so clean and neat and good, but she was dead and buried two springs ago. And of their children there was left only Anna-Jo, who had a job in Cypress City where she lived-in and went cavorting every night. Or, at least, Preacher believed this to be the case.
He was very religious and as the afternoon wore on he took his Bible from the mantel and traced the print with a palsied finger. He enjoyed pretending he could read and continued for some time: plotting his own tales and poring over the illustrations. This habit had always been of great concern to Evelina. “Why you all de time studyin’ ovah de Good Book, Preacher? I declare you ain’t got no sense.… Can’t no mo’ read than I kin.”
“Why, honey,” he explained, “ever’body kin read de Good Book. He fixed it so’se dey could.” It was a claim he had heard made by the Pastor in Cypress City and it satisfied him completely.
When the sunlight made an exact impression from window to door he closed the Bible over his finger and hobbled onto the porch. Blue and white pots of fern swung from the ceiling on wire cords and flowered to the floor, trailing like peacock tails. Slowly, and with great care, he limped down the steps, fashioned from tree trunks, and stood, frail and humped in his overalls and khaki shirt, in the middle of the yard. “Here I is. Didn’t spec I’d do it.… Didn’t spec I had de stren’th in me today.”
A smell of damp earth hung on the air and the wind turned the chinaberry leaves. A rooster crowed, and its scarlet comb went darting through the high weeds and disappeared under the house. “You best run, ol’ crow, else I git me a hatchet and den you bettah watch out. Bet you taste mighty fine!” The weeds swept up at his bare feet and he stopped and tugged at a handful. “Ain’t no use. You just grow right smack back agin, nasty mess.”
Near the road the dogwood was in bloom and the rain had scattered petals that were soft under his feet and stuck between his toes. He walked with the aid of a sycamore cane. After crossing the road and passing through a wild pecan grove, he chose the path, as was his custom, that led through the forest down to the creek and The Place.
The same journey, the same way, and at the same time: late afternoon because, that way, it gave him something to look forward to. The walks had begun one November day when he had reached his Decision and continued all winter when the earth frosted and pine needles clung frozen to his feet.
Now it was May. Six months were gone, and Preacher, born in May and married in May, thought surely here was the month that would see the end of his mission. It was his superstition that a sign marked this day in particular; so he followed the path more rapidly than usual.
Sun pooled in shafts, caught in his hair, changed the color of the Spanish moss, flung limp and long like whiskers across the waterbay branches, from gray to pearl to blue to gray. A cicada called. Another answered. “Shut up, bettle-bugs! Whut you wanna be makin’ so much racket fer? You lonesome?”
The path was tricky, and sometimes, because it was really no more than a thread of trampled ground, difficult to maintain. At one point it sloped downward into a hollow that smelled of sweet gum and here began a thickly-vined stretch where it was night black and the brush trembled with who-knows-what. “Git out o’ there, all you devils! Ain’t nary a one of you kin scare Preacher. Ol’ buzzards and ghosts, bettah watch out! Preacher … he’ll bust you side de haid an’ skin off yo’ hide an’ gouge out yo’ eyes an’ stomp de whole caboodle down to de pit of fire!” But all the same his heart beat faster, his cane rapped searchingly before him; the beast lurked behind; terrible eyes, shining in hell, watched from their lair!
Evelina, he recalled, had never believed in the Spirits and this made him angry. “Hush now, Preacher,” she would say, “I ain’t gonna listen to no mo’ of dat spook talk. Why, man, dey ain’t no spooks ’cept in yo’ haid.” Oh, she had been unwise, for now, sure as there was a God in heaven, she belonged among the hunters and the hungry-eyed waiting there in the dark. He paused, called, “Evelina? Evelina … answuh me, honey.” And he hurri
ed on, suddenly fearful that someday she would hear and, not recognizing, devour him whole.
Soon the sound of the creek; from there The Place was only a few steps. He pushed aside a thorny nettle and, with anguished grunts, lowered himself down the bank and crossed the stream, stone by stone, with studied precision. Nervous minnow schools made finicky forays along the clear and shallow edge and emerald-winged dragons plucked at the surface. On the opposite bank, a humming bird, whirring its invisible wings, ate the heart of a giant tiger lily.
So the trees thinned and the path broadened into a small, cubic clearing. Preacher’s place. Once, before the lumber mill closed, it had been a washing center for the women, but that was long ago. A flow of swallows swept overhead and from somewhere nearby an unfamiliar bird sang a strange, persistent song.
He was tired and out of breath, and he dropped to his knees, leaning his cane against a rotted oak stump on which clusters of devil’s snuff grew. Then, unfolding his Bible to where a silver ribbon lay pressed between the pages, he clasped his hands and lifted his head.
Several moments of silence, his eyes pinched narrow, intent upon the ring of sky, the smoky strands of cloud, like stray loops of tow hair, that seemed scarcely to move over the blue screen, paler than milk glass.
Then, in just a whisper:
“Mistuh Jesus? Mistuh Jesus?”
The wind whispered back, uprooting winter-buried leaves that turned furtive cart wheels across the moss-green floor.
“I’se back agin, Mistuh Jesus, faithful to de minute. Please, suh, pay ’tention to ol’ Preacher.”