Back in the drought of '34, when the crops dried and brown in the field and folks in the town going heat crazy, Cooper'd be at the General Store warm bottle of Coke in his hand, sitting on a barrel of nails, his long legs pinched to his chest like he were a grasshopper, and he'd talk real slow, saying things about France and the war, when your life was made close and fragile -- glass-brittle -- and you've let another man guard it, hold it, how you'd seen that man -- your bunkmate, Lucas -- die; and when death stares so closely that its breath dances on your cheek and stirs your eyelashes, how that breath smells like honeysuckle off a line-dried sheet . . . Cooper'd be telling it, head rocking over his knees, his whole body keening, explaining to us that then, men are more like to who they really are as men. Or Cooper'd be standing at the crossroads on the outskirts of town in the middle of all that red drought-dust -- pale skinned, head heavy and dipped low, tawny-hair hanging above a wide open face with one lazy eye, the other wild and burning like a light bulb filament, big hands, too big as if all of him'd been thrown together haphazard -- sucking on a lemon half, and then the lemon thudding to the ground, twitching there a bit and sopping up the dirt and tiny stones, and Cooper'd be suddenly crying, tears wetting down all that dust and giving him a red mask around his eyes like a coon, shouting at God. With Cooper it got so that his speeches were nothing more than a low drone, crickets in the evening, not heard by anyone anymore, probably not even him, 'cause everyone'd ordered their life around it. Everything about Cooper was like that. So that even when he first started taking his car down to Nigger Row at night when the sky was still and a bruised, purple-black, billowing out coolness like the swishes of a woman's cotton skirt as her hips and bare feet grind on splintered floorboards to the thump-thump chord, pen-knifed pluckings of a guitar, nobody seemed to have noticed.
The jook house on Nigger Row. Lulu's house. Sagging front porch steps, the window's filmed with tar-black dust. Smells of burned chicken grease, rum sweet and spunk-like from the downstairs, and the upstairs reeking of so much sex and perfumed sweat you could roll it in your mouth. But downstairs, the chairs pushed back to the sides, old coffin lid stretched across some crates and barrels for her bar. And a wide open space for dancing, where, after it'd been brushed down and scrubbed with lye along past nightfall, men'd hoot, nod their heads, grin, hands on their thighs, rocking, nodding, while the women, not worrying about their ironing their hair, let it get all kinky. Then the music would work its way up between their thighs, and the guitar plucks hit drum-hard; and the dancing would start, feet in yellow shoes, in workboots, pounding, stirring things so that everything slid away with the ease of a chord change, and problems moved like fingers along that guitar neck.
It was here at Lulu's that Cooper'd gone to find Evan Dodds.
Dodd's was at a table, buried back there where none of the other coloreds paid him much mind; Dodds, a boy who's own people wouldn't talk to him, eclipse-black, his eyes, warm, wet, and then tensing into the hardness of a creek bed stone; brown hair fried and combed back in waves, head hypnotically swaying, elbow resting on the table top, cigarette, one long ash, dangling in his slender hand between his fingertips from the end of a thin shapely arm. He was in a collarless white shirt, smeared with three day's grime, heavy in the pits with a circle of musk and sweat, blue serge pants frayed at the cuffs, suspenders.
Cooper sat in a stool next to him, slid him an half-pint of whiskey, "Here," his voice solid. Cooper knew he was being watched, that they were sizing him up, men's finger's itching, feeling for razors in back pockets to cut away what was out of place, women's tongues pressed against the inside of cheeks, heads shaking. Dodd's head rocked to the licks of a guitar, licks like the tongue of a lazy cat. "Man," his tone was mellow, "don't need no hooch," he lifted his head in the direction of the guitarist sitting at the stool across the room, "this is just as good."
Cooper nodded, the skin at his chin tightening all the way to his lower lip. He lit a cigar, watching the match light flicker on Dodds's face, burning up shadows, Dodds's skin blue-black, then glowing to a deep coffee shine, rich with sulfur light and the texture of razor stubble; and then he puffed the earthiness of the cigar, warm, almost creamy on his lips, it sank into his chest, expanding there and pulsing with the backbeats of the piano and the harmonica's wails. And Gavin Cooper seemed to slip away in it all and drift off with the smoke, the blues, the sounds of feet rasping and pounding on floorboards, of whiskey bottles clinking, dice shaking and gamblers shouting; slip away with Dodds, the shape of the boy's head, the curve of his neck, long and lithe, his legs crossed thigh over thigh, dangling ankle tapping out rhythm. . . . Then the whole room saw why he was there, what exactly it was Cooper wanted, and then looked away, nodded along with the music as if the nods telegraphed coded whispers, and none of them saw Dodds's hand on the white man's knee. They didn't have to.
Cooper'd first seen Dodds helping Netta, his cook, in the kitchen -- lean, sinewy body, sweaty skin like wet dark chocolate, bundling firewood in a stack next to the stove. Their eyes met and Cooper'd felt a pull, something in the way that Dodds's looked at him -- like his eyes were filled with hunger pangs, tight and focused, and then relaxed, full of an emptiness begging to be filled -- and Cooper'd tipped his hat, before realizing the inappropriateness of it. He'd asked Netta about him and she explained he were her nephew, that he were out of work on account of some lies or such that the other coloreds told about him and what he done, and that she asked him to help her on account of her getting too old to move the firewood anymore. When Cooper took to sitting in the kitchen on afternoons to watch Dodds, his feet propped up on the kitchen table leaning back long in the chair and his eyes hidden behind a book, peeking out over the top every so often to stare at Dodds, Netta had it figured that Cooper reckoned they were robbing him -- cold chicken from the ice box, bundles of pressed linen, old unused silver.
Then, one day Cooper made Dodds stop wondering. Cooper'd been at the table, creaking his chair and flapping the pages of his book like they were moths to be batted out of the air, just to let his presence be felt. Dodds stopped stacking the firewood, looked over at Cooper. Cooper's head emerged and it was then that Dodds knew that Cooper weren't concerned with no chicken or silver. A man don't watch another man -- especially not a Negro -- he figgers is stealing from him with those eyes.
Cooper closed the book, watched as Dodds eyed it and then holding the spine so the length of the book traced its way up his arm, offered it to Dodds.
"You read?" Cooper asked, smile spreading across his freckled face. The question, the smile, Cooper's genteel certainty of a Negro's ignorance, all of it, Dodds knew was part of the ritual of skin-shame and what he felt -- an ache like a small clawed hand, tearing from the inside -- he was to keep buried, not showing nothing but Jim Crow -- wide-eyes, white teeth. Forcing a smile, Dodds nodded and reached for the red book, his fingers touching the back of Cooper's hand. Skin touching nerve like electricity from frayed wires. Cooper surrendered the book -- an ease in submission neither had expected -- and the slim volume passed between their hands.
"Yeah," Dodds grinned, dipping his head to show his profile. "I read," he said, scanning the pages of the book and recited.
The other two, slight air and purging fire,
Are with thee, wherever I abide;
The first my thought, the other my desire,
These present-absent with swift motion glide.
Dodds closed the book, spoke nothing awhile. Stared at Cooper hard-like, eyes trying to decipher Cooper's meaning, absorb context from blank-whiteness, see the movement beyond the stillness. Cooper's eyes were scared; they shifted, darting away from Dodds's. A vein along his Adam's apple pulsed.
"It's Shakespeare," Cooper's voice rushed to fill the awkwardness of silence. "The book, it was a . . . friend's. He's passed. In the war. I'm not much on poetry, but he was."
"Me," Dodds offered, "I like the music they got at Lulu's better."
"I'd like to hear it some time."
"Yeah, well . . ." Dodds's voice trailed off. They were quiet. They looked at each other, trying to read what was underneath the other's expression.
It was August and there still weren't any rain, and there was an old dog uneasiness in the looks of folks, pensive and abrasive, like the sun had dried them up too and they were wood kindling waiting for a spark to flare them up. Talk was that Cooper was buying Dodds things, clothes, food, phonographs and such, like they were married, and one of them Jordan boys, who'd stand there in the rosebed outside of Cooper's parlor window in the summer to listen to the radio, he told his pappy that he'd seen Cooper dancing with that colored boy, them locked arm in arm, feeling the heaviness of each other's limbs on their own skin, bodies fit like skin, swaying til the sun set and there weren't even a single mote that could be seen swirling in front of the window pane. That's when folks started gossiping, back of hands held to lips, heads dropped and faces looking through the heat into knitting, whispering to the lace, about how Cooper had taken up with a nigger, living up there as man and wife with him, and how Cooper was shaming his own blood, up there in that house that his grandpappy built.
Evan, Evan, Cooper tells it to himself, not really to Evan. The moment like tranquility, like standing in a dust cloud, letting it surround; thousands of red particles feathering my skin, everything around my body so alive. (And there in the church, underneath the cross of salvation -- sanctification by grace -- it is there that the town goes to hear the Right Reverend -- the clang of cymbals silenced, fans the sound of murmuring voices. And there is stillness as the preacher calls the Word. Holy! Holy! the response. His voice like wings -- powerful, soaring -- and he reads: But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, encompassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter . . .) Cooper knows he is lost, dream time, at the crossroads, standing there, now knowing where to go, hearing churchbells and gospel, steel on guitar strings, slide, slide and Cooper's hands playing the muscles on Evans back like chords, playing him blind, by feel. (. . . And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came into thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them . . . And the congregation nods. They feel the heat of the Word -- know in their hearts it is true. Holy! Holy! And they feel the heat of the sanctified church -- and the heat -- the smell of bodies and of the flax soap that has scrubbed the pews, it is humid, sticking to their bodies and they watch the sweat cling to the Reverend's skin as he reads the Gospel, knowing he speaks of Cooper. Of Dodds.) Blood as drums, he tells himself. Naked, and this is, this is. Lips parting, eyelids closed, breath honeysuckle sweet. Pink palms heavy on his shoulders, black backs like the tops of rain puddles, all surface tension, all stillness -- moonlight drifts over and stillness. (. . . The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar. Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven . . . They see the strength in the Book, the Living Word, know that it can rock this earth's foundation.) Night alive with cicadas and crickets, radio static and dance music from a ballroom in Memphis -- gooseflesh; Evan's back alive with it; like it were tickled with dust, both kneeling on the floorboards thigh to thigh, his dark face buried in Cooper's neck, Evan, Evan, Cooper tells it to him now, lips warm, like pulse, like blood. (. . . And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground . . .) Hands strong, steady at the shoulder, crying now, his tears on Evan's skin -- the coolness close to death, he feels it again, like when he stands at the crossroads -- and he knows that this is what he wants -- feels it again like he felt it the first time in the trenches with Lucas -- the other soldiers, they never knew what was underneath -- Evan, Evan, and Evan holds him tighter, pulls him, absorbs him. (. . . And he looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of the furnace . . . And the spirit moves them and it is made new in them again and they know that they will never walk alone. Holy! Holy! And the Right Reverend mops his face, closes the book. For the town, this is right. The Word burning truth into their hearts. Truth made plain -- their souls satisfied. And all has been revealed in words and whispers -- spinning there in the vaulted ceiling of the sanctuary like so much dust.) this is, this is
First sign of trouble was in town at the General Store. Cooper'd driven there with Dodds sitting up there in the front seat alongside him, like there weren't nothing the matter with it, as if it were just the natural thing to do.
He left Dodds in the front seat, smiled at him, catching his eye through the dusty windshield and glaze of heat waves that were rising from the hood of the Ford like ripples of water. Evan eyed both sides of the street, squinting, and grinned, and lowered his head, the way a woman does when she starts to blush. His fingers fumbled with his cap, outlining the brim, losing sight of Cooper when he stepped through the darkness into the store.
There was a tenseness in the store, Cooper felt it, as if someone had been playing a phonograph and then it just suddenly stopped, filling the room with the silent sounds again, the creaking of floorboards, the hollow footfalls of boots, pendulum tick of a grandfather's clock and from outside, the uneven jostle of a horse wagon, its bumps and jerks like a sewing machine stitching heavy fabric. Cooper's eyes were heavy with the shadows of sunblindness, and there was a panicked moment, where he sensed himself lurching forward, stumbling like he couldn't see, as if the room were filled with smoke, and he caught hold of himself, blinked, centered himself, putting out his arms for balance.
Then he saw them, the men's eyes, Eli, Jasper, and Thompson the clerk, staring back at him, angered but without heat, disgust so evident upon their faces that their lips need not form words; it was in the way that they carried their bodies, that mock ease of the limbs when one lit a match, another rolled a toothpick on his tongue, and another slid a straw hat to the crown of his head, but there was a tension in the joints beyond that limberness, a stiffness like they'd drawn their razors and were ready for a fight. Cooper stepped up to the counter, knowing that he had his back to Eli and Jasper; Eli leaning long in the doorframe, toothpick plucked from his lips and pinched between finger and thumb, squat Jasper, fat like a rooster, to his left, perched on a stool next to a crate full of bolts of gingham and calico fabric. Thompson, arms folded and rested on top of his broom, chin tucked into his forearms, nodded at Cooper, said nothing.
"Gallon of molasses, sack of flour, box of shirt collars." Cooper set a bucket on the counter, scratched at the back of his neck, looked over his wrist, cross the room at Jasper -- plug of tobacco in one hand, knife in the other, blade picking up the sharp glints of sun from the doorway, reflecting a white spot onto Cooper's face like he were aiming it into his eye. Thompson shuffled to the molasses barrel, tin bucket swinging at his knee.
"Swell automobile, Cooper," Eli called from the doorway, his head weaving in and out of the sunlight, from the car to Cooper. He was working rolling paper and shag in both hands, eyes concentrating on the motion of his fingers, but voice and ears drawing a bead on Cooper. "T'ain't new, is it?"
"You know it ain't, Eli," Cooper said flatly. "You know how long I had it." His throat felt tight. He tried making out Eli's expression to guess what was on the tall man's face, but the silhouette of light from the doorway blurred his profile. Thompson creaked off the sticky barrel top, spooned ladlefuls of the syrup into Cooper's bucket. Jasper's lips gummed chew as the short, round man slid down from the stool, the handle of his ivory-inlaid knife still lose in his palm. Eli made a short shake of his head and Jasper froze midstep, folded up his knife, put it in his back pocket.
"Didn't reckon hit was new," Eli spoke, saying it like he weren't saying it to no one but himself. He licked the edge of the rolling paper, grunted in affirmation, and let the cigarette find his lips. Thompson was behind the counter, punching the keys of the brass cash register, and Cooper reached into his pocket for his wallet, set a bill on the register, and turned to face the doorway.
"Still," Eli added, "there's something 'bout hit that makes me think that way. Something 'bout hit that I ain't never seen in these parts." Cooper could tell he was staring in the front seat. "You reckon you know, Cooper?"
"Reckon it's that I got a colored boy in the front seat." Cooper plucked up his change, grabbed the wire handle of the bucket, marched to the door. Eli stretched that long leg of his out across the doorway and rested his foot atop the a crate, blocking Cooper's exit. He retied the laces of his boots, struck a match against the leather side, and lit his cigarette in a billow of sulfur. Smell of the match burned Cooper's nose, reminding him of the smell of hair on fire.
There was something there, something anxious-like on Cooper's face, the sweat-wetness of his five o'clock shadow like dew on grass; his lips were tense, his big white Adam's apple like it were gagging from the smell of molasses -- that sickening sweetness that chokes a throat with its mouthwatering funk -- and his eyes darted, shifting cat-like from Jasper and Thompson; Jasper again pawing his blade and Thompson whisking his broom on the wood floor, filling his shop with the sounds of scuffling of dry feet, ignoring the whole thing on account of it not being his business, not even giving Cooper so much as a glance; Cooper's head moving toward the car where that nigger, dark as buried midnight, was perched up in that front seat -- hands folded in his lap -- like he was king of all Africa. Colored boy all gussied up in store-bought suits from Cooper, just sitting there, not knowing what was happening.
Jasper pressed his hand into the small of Cooper's back the way a church deacon would. "Gavin, son," Jasper's voice was wet and gravelly, "people are beginning to gossip and carry on 'bout you and that fella Dodds. Things they're saying shouldn't be spoken of."
"If that's what they want to say, let'm say it."
"But t'ain't true!" Jasper protested, cupping his palm to Cooper's elbow. Jasper's face was red and puffed like a snakebite. Thompson had stopped sweeping. "'Sides, you're disrespecting your family honor if you says nothing."
"Course, maybe what folks is saying is true," Eli grinned, flicking ashes to the floor. His eyes were hard, fixed there on Cooper, burning holes into him. But Cooper stood glacier-like, not being effected by the stare, almost as if he couldn't see it -- his mind elsewhere, drifting into one of his dreams -- so it seemed to Eli, and for a moment, Eli wondered if the boy in Cooper's car knew which dream.
Cooper shrugged away Jasper's hands and pushed past Eli's leg, stepping through the doorway and into the street.
"That's it Cooper, you just run along. Run along and be the good little wife for that nigger of yours. Jest know that nothing good'll come of this!"
The sun and the dust of the road was alive on Cooper's skin, touching it hot, gentle and quick with the weight of butterfly wings; it was Evan all around him; and Evan there, face wavy through the windshield, through the air that melted and drifted up from the motor of the car; Cooper almost smiled, instead nodded his head, bucket tapping against his knee, and Evan leaned across the front seat and opened the door for Cooper.
"What were the hold up?" Evan asked, his fingers touching Cooper's knee, massaging it through the wool slacks. Cooper kept his eyes forward, felt the skin at his eyes tighten, held the steering wheel so tight that they play of muscle could be seen through his shirt sleeve. "Gavin?"
Cooper didn't answer, just held Evan's thigh for a moment, released it, shifted the car into gear and drove. He saw Eli, Jasper, and Thompson in the rear view mirror, staring at him -- eyes so intent that Cooper felt a string of tension starting at the steps of the store and ending at the car, a string pulled so taut it threatened to snap. Cooper wanted to stay hid in that Ford, down underneath that steel roof.
"And you ain't gonna talk, is you?" Evan asked in a voice heavy as an old boot. Dodds's face was scared, searching Cooper's profile for reassurance. Cooper did not need to look to see Evan, chin to chest, corpse-still, dark hands spread like bird wings across the knees of his cream-colored pants. Cooper wouldn't face him; didn't want to look. Rather, he let himself go numb from the motion of the car moving slowly toward a horizon it seemed it would never reach, the engine's hiccuping the only thing breaking the road's dream-like tranquility.
"Back there, they said somethin', didn't they?"
"I reckon you know what were said." Something inside Cooper's voice broke, snapped. It were him talking, only it weren't. Like that thing that were deep down inside him making him who he was -- his soul -- it were just like it broke off from him and was floating around there inside him, spinning and drifting like a curled piece of wood shaving, and Evan knew that it were Cooper's soul that broke; that it had been planed hard, shaved down to almost nothing. All that had been said, Cooper'd taken deep inside him like he could bury it all underneath, but it weren't so. It had been eating at him slowly as if it were fire on green wood -- drying it, then catching hold and burning. Then Evan saw that deep inside Cooper's soul and it weren't apiece of wood shaving, it was an ash -- thin, gray and light with heat. They'd been burning Cooper and now it was as if there weren't no place in Cooper for him and there never had been a place -- so it seemed -- no union; a separation, always the skin between them (there, there it was the cowardice what kept him from becoming a man) and now there is no shade, Dodds thought, no shade, only a union of hate, a hate of skin, of their bodies pressed closely, of self, of him; and Dodds knew the sanctuary was a lie, even the house, the phonographs, the dancing, they were lies, too
"Stop the car," Evan said, his voice level and cool despite the dust thickening in his throat.
Cooper didn't ask why, didn't look over at Dodds. He put the clutch in, the break on, shuddering the car into a stop. and in silence, a man's body cannot hide truth as his tongue can, Dodds thought, and it is in Cooper's body -- locked shoulders, vein at the forehead pulsing drumbeats, the tense grip on the steering wheel -- where Dodds sees flesh scorched to salt-bitter lies. Cooper's gestures say more than lips, witnessing, testifying, confessing that it has ended, that what they had has been burned away (match striking dry wood, friction and flame; lighting exposed surfaces first, then igniting depths). There is no safety in silence, and this is how Dodds knows it has ended, knows the sanctuary is now rubble and ash
"There just ain't no room for me in you, is there, Gavin?"
Cooper's body was iron as he held in the clutch, vibrating with the engine's hum. His fingers pinched the bridge of his nose, top of his hand brushing against the brim of his hat.
"I'm beginning to wonder if there ever were," Dodds continued.
Cooper said nothing and Evan pushed the door open, climbed out, slammed it shut. Cooper leaned forward, not seeing the tears in Evan's eyes, only seeing the expanse of the horizon ahead of the car through the dusty windshield -- the horizon that seemed to promise something different, better, if you could just get there. For a moment, he watched Dodds in the rearview mirror -- Evan holding the box of shirt collars and walking slowly along the red gulch back to Nigger Row. Then saw him disappear into the gulch and it were as if they were taking Evan away from him. Lucas, then Evan. Evan, Evan
him gone, gone like red dust; and upstairs an empty bed, and now there is nothing, just the stillness of an unmade bed
Cooper just drove on home, but most say that a man'd know that they'd be waiting for Dodds, that'd Cooper'd have known that he'd pushed it too far, but it were as if Cooper were beyond caring -- like the piece of him that felt had died. He'd just gone home, sat there in the parlor listening to records on the gramophone, smoking cigarette after cigarette, staring out the window at the low branches of the maple tree, not moving. Like his soul'd been raped, thinking, my grandfather's bed, when Evan would be under me, his arms holding me, the cotton sheet wet and sticky beneath us, him clinging to my back, holding me with a giant hand; just below his skin, his muscles throbbing, a dull ache; and here there was stillness then, and there was form giving shape to love, a solidity of courage, an infinite capacity of the moment, weighted with the certitude of bravery that Cooper'd found with Lucas, losing all lies and fear; sanctuary, there there'd been sanctuary -- there was not where I was, there was where I became, there was where the spirit moved; and there in the bed, unmade and empty was where I'd learned to be brave again
And Cooper's large hands fell from his face, tears beading in tawny hair at his wrists; and it were as if his hands were inside him -- growing, reaching for that piece of him that had snapped free -- Cooper himself sensing that this time he had no choice but to hold the glass-brittleness of him and Dodds, and in the holding of it there was strength, the feel of something strong in his palm, feeling its shape -- hard like stone -- the need to own it and not let go so present in him, so solid that Cooper, towards evening of that day, went down to Nigger Row and stood outside Dodds's shack, pistol hanging limp in his hand.
(Some tell it like it were known by Cooper that Dodds had been lynched, that Cooper'd felt it happening -- like radio waves rising from the gulch where it happened and washing through the ozone to crackle on his skin. The coloreds, they say that Dodds's murder had been signified to Cooper by the birds, the way they suddenly took to flying when all day it'd been too hot to fly, their wings beating starch-stiff air, their caws like bell clangs. Most of us say that Cooper were a lick more sensible than all that, and that he done figgered that the town'd come after him next, put him in an institution, so Cooper realizing this, he took to hiding where no white man'd care to set foot. None seemed to consider that Cooper went down there to kill.)
The front door of the shack had been kicked open, and it hung loosely, dangling from its snapped hinges opened like a screaming mouth; like it were a record of Evan screaming, played back and that were enough for Cooper to know, for it to be learned into his body, what had happened. The box of shirt collars, trampled, ghost image of a dusty footprint, blood and splintered wood on sagging steps, blood dried -- in mud, hardened like stone, in dust . . . Evan, Evan . . . the shattered phonographs, overturned chair, the bloodstained walls. Cooper heard it, saw it in his mind all too clearly what they'd done to Dodds the shack hot with the sound of Evan's voice; here there were footsteps, heavy boots stomped and smashed wood, a pistol backhanded, cut skin -- Dodds falling, his legs twisting out from under him -- and sprayed the wall and floor in bloodmist, red like dust; and Evan, face slashed open at the mouth, hands and knees straining against the floor, teeth clenched, eyes searching for an opening, the weak point to lash at; and boots kicked, snapping Evan's ribs like dry tree limbs; Evan's body rising up, arm slicing air, body collapsing on to his back and from behind him, a rope tearing into his neck, ripping skin raw, Evan's hands struggling to tear free and for Cooper it was too much and he felt himself crumbling from the inside. Voices screamed in his head -- Evan's, Lucas's -- screamed so loudly that it made his skull seem to vibrate. He smashed the heels of his hands against his temples in an effort to smother the voices, to squeeze them into silence, but the pressure made it worse, bending their cries into a twisted, banshee wail. His head spun and Cooper felt blackness surrounding him. His forehead pulsed and was alive with sweat -- the glistening wrinkles that caught light like rolling water, pale glimmers washed into the fluidity of darkness -- and hot tears melted from his eyes and burned his cheeks. It was as if his body was groping without moving; searching through everything -- the layers of buried pain, the guilt, the shame -- feeling with blind hands for that something solid that would bring order, that would silence pain.
Groping without moving like there in France -- there in no-man's land, gas masked and crawling under rolls of barbed wire beneath a moonless sky. Him and Lucas on their stomachs, fifty feet apart, cold mud hugging their chests and arms, as they made their way from the trenches where an unexploded German shell had hit. Hit where an hour ago, under the cover of darkness, they had made love -- quickly and silently, bodies rubbing hard against smoothness; lips finding necks, mouths; hands the smalls of each other's backs. Cooper was aware of everything as he crawled -- the machine guns, the hollow booms of the cannons felt in the ground underneath him, the pinging sound of dirt raining on his metal helmet, the taste of Lucas's saliva still warm and sweet on his lips, the smell of his hair still in his nostrils -- sweat and stale cigarettes, the memory of the trace of heat where the shoulder met the neck. Then an explosion of a land mine, echoing with the solemnity of a churchbell's clang, and Cooper searched the horizon for Lucas, straining to see through the blast of earth geysering up from its steaming hole and spreading, torn-out, across everything. and Cooper was suddenly standing, then lunging forward to find Lucas, not feeling the barbed wire shred his fatigues and tear at his knees, not hearing the staccato sparks of the machine guns spit at him from their hidden nests; his rifle fell, twisting loose from his hands as he collapsed to his knees in front of the hole, sobbing, scooping up clumps of mud and hugging them to his chest. It were as if he were trying to make form from the formless, bring life from clay; as if there were power in his hands -- memory -- so that in their movements, in their retracing of the small of Lucas's back, the sharp angle of his jaw, the shade of his ribcage under his arm, he could bring it back to life.
And there sitting on the stoop of Evan's shack and nudging the trampled box of shirt collars with the barrel of his pistol, Cooper again longed for power in sightless hands. From across the street, a car door clicked open, slammed shut.
Cooper's eyes drew a bead on the voice which echoed low like summer thunder.
Eli stepped away from the car, dusted the brim of his hat with quick slaps of it to his thigh, and weaved toward the stoop, looking like some great skeletal bird hopping its way into flight. Eli, sensing that Cooper weren't likely to respond, rolled his hat between his hands, pushed it to the crown of his head, lit a cigarette, studying the dance of match flame before shaking it from his fingertips to the dust, acting like he were ready to wait Cooper out, but the shifting of his weight, his body rocking sideways, heel-to-heel, telling otherwise.
Cooper's eyes, wolf-like, stayed narrowed on Eli's chest as if they were staring through the fabric of his shirt, through the skin, burrowing straight to bone and Eli found himself looking up, blinking the blindness of the sun's blaze from watery eyes. He held the gun between his legs, still pointed at the ground.
Tired of waiting, Eli stepped forward, snapped the cigarette from his lips, tossed it to the ground, spoke.
"Well, Gavin Cooper, you got the whole town in an uproar, I reckon. Anyhows, some folks, they got together and sent me down here to see if I could find ya. They want to send you off to a sanitarium in Memphis," Eli's voice had the timbre of an undertaker, flat and inflectionless. "Most of 'em . . . well, not most of 'em, most ain't talking 'bout it, it being what hit was and all . . . but the ones that is talking, why they're saying you went crazy -- falling in love with that nigger boy." Eli crouched in front of Cooper, who sat on the stoop, facing him eye-to-eye, not detecting any emotion from Cooper, his face like a hollow. Eli reached to touch him, finger stretching toward a knee, and then hesitated, letting his arm fall to his side. "Me, I got it figgered different. A fella like you ain't crazy. No, I reckon there was something more."
"What would you know about it, Eli?" Cooper asked, rubbing the top of a foot against the heel of the other.
"Not a damn thing," Eli stood, stepped, pivoting on his boot heels so his back were to Cooper, "'cepting that this boy jist kept calling your name, begging for you, and you weren't nowhere to be found . . . or so I've heard it told."
Eli turned again and Cooper saw his smile were like an ax swipe cutting a wide red gash across his jaw, twisting his mouth upward. His face looked washed in evil.
"Figger you're right, I don't really know a damn thing about hit. But after hearing about that boy like that and knowing that you weren't there, Cooper, I gotta wonder what you know about."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Cooper asked, aware of his own throat and the sinking, heavy feeling that choked it, gagged it. He felt panicked. His skin the tingly pricking of a heat rash. And Cooper could see that there was something in Eli's face -- the dance of light in his eyes, gleaming sulfur swirls in blue matchflame; pale lips, curled and coiled over tobacco-stained incisors; the practiced casualness of the smile -- which suggested more; as if everything about Eli were like a silhouette -- dark form pressed to white, revealing shape but not depth or detail. Silhouette like Evan's blood, there in front of him at the pistol barrel's end, red on a field of white shirt collar.
"Reckon you know what it's supposed to mean, Gavin. Reckon you know that you ain't crazy, that this were all just play-actin' on your part. Seems if you'd been crazy enough to spite the whole town by flaunting that boy out there in front of Thompson's General store, it follows that you'd been crazy enough not to let him get hisself killed. See, Cooper, I do know somethin' 'bout hit, but what I don't know is why you wanted to play at loving a nigger boy. Enough of that, though. Town's itching for me to take ya up to Memphis."
"Who said it were playin', Eli?" Cooper rose, his voice cracking, eyes watery. His hand tightened around the pistol. His body seemed like lighting -- electrically charged, tense with energy, and threatening to unleash. Eli's eyes fixed at Cooper's hand, sharpening on the tension of the index finger, judging the pressure on the trigger. "Who said it were playin'?" he demanded.
And it's been told that it were like Cooper weren't seeing nothing then, or maybe that weren't it at all. Maybe Cooper, for the first time, was seeing; all the silhouettes, the lies, the fear, everything that had been kept underneath; burning away and that somewhere, something deep inside Cooper found form again -- like when he'd first found Lucas and when he first met Dodds. Cooper's rage -- like bone burned white -- drove him forward and Eli edged his way backwards, saying something to calm Cooper who heard none of it.
Cooper's face was white, motionless -- a statue's bust with eyes lost long in time; jaw and mouth set, dead lips shrouded in tawny whiskers. What must've scared Eli the most was that it seemed like there weren't nothing there, that Cooper'd ceased to exist. Cooper leveled the gun at Eli's chest and sunlight caught itself in reflection in the oil of the blue-black barrel, and reflected again in the mirrors of Cooper's eyes. Eli lifted his hands to shield himself and struggled not to trip as he backed toward his car.
The explosion from the gun echoed like the rattle of a slammed door and scared crows into flight from their tree perches. The pistol, warm and still resonating from the discharge, seemed alive in Cooper's hand -- like it were a heart, fleshy and organic and its slow-beating sought a way to record itself into his body, to make Cooper's own pulse match its numbing rhythm -- and Cooper blinked it from his vision and saw Eli in front of him, collapsed on his knees, one hand bracing the fender of his roadster for support, the other clutching his chest, his hat overturned and surrounded in dust, a trickle of blood squeezed from clenched fingers on to the front of his white shirt red on a field of white and Evan, Evan; the stillness here, the silhouette's form gaining shape, detail; and sanctuary, finally sanctuary -- where the spirit moved and their flesh -- Evan, Evan -- became one; this is, this is . . . finally holding all that had been lost Eli's lip quivered, his eyes torn open and full of light, seemed to plead with Cooper for meaning; Cooper's face and body one of accepted resignation; the righteous at the Second Coming. Everything about Cooper saying that it were over for the both of them.
Cooper crouched down next to Eli, the backs of his fingers smoothed the skin of Eli's jawline, rested briefly at his chin, and then fell away. Disgusted and terrified, Eli tried to rear back and distance himself from Cooper, but each movement pumped more blood from between his fingers. Cooper smoothed the back of Eli's head, tenderly caressed his hair, then dipped a finger to a spot in the the dust that had been touched with Eli's blood, and tasted it. Iron and salt -- like sweat on skin, like Evan in bed. and there was something about the taste that let Cooper feel like he'd been there in the shack with Evan. He stood, brushed red dust from the knees of his slacks, watched Eli's lifeless body sag and drop forward, and walked home.
The sheriff said that it weren't arson, that it were on account of the drought and Cooper's probably having fallen asleep listening to the radio, lit cigarette in his hand, that Cooper was burned alive when his house caught fire. Most folks, even the sheriff, knew that that weren't so, what with folks like Jasper, Mr. Thompson, and Everett Jordan bragging about how they'd gone up there to Cooper's place after they'd found out what he'd done to Eli. But the sheriff's story got to be like the stories that Cooper used to tell about France; it just became part of the natural order of things and the truth of what happened during that drought when the heat made folks crazy; the truth it was buried underneath, and like the dust at the crossroads and the drone of the cicadas at nightfall, it went unnoticed.
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