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Westwords, Chapter 6

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About 94,000 words First Serial Rights 1990 Lewis W. Heniford

August, 1943

The next day, West sat in the kitchen, shelling and snapping beans. He had guiltily volunteered and picked them first thing that morning.

The beans came from the garden that extended side to side, corner to corner of a plot as large as the one on which the home stood. A few years earlier, a small, weathered house had occupied that plot just west. Interesting poor folks, the Treadways, had lived in the house for a time. Then they had simply treaded away. The garden replaced the house. His father had developed row after row of flourishing vegetables to add to the food supply of the family and, even more, of the neighborhood.

"Would you like a mess of beans?" his mother would ask around.

The neighbors would. Then West had to pick enough to make a big meal for them. Each new sprout through the soil meant weeks of work to come, and he resented the certainty of more work once the seed were in the soil.

On one occasion, he had planted a pinch of salt beside each bean. His father had worried about the unusual crop failure and even had dug some of the beans out to study. His father had frowned after each daily check for a week, promising that West would be sorry if he had had anything to do with this failure. West had worried about having been seen planting salt with the beans. Yet, although the beans still had not sprouted, his father had not delivered the punishment. The ground was retilled, replanted, and the bean crop reborn. This time, however, his father accompanied West in the planting, the two working in strained silence. The new crop flourished. Thick bushes provided messes of beans throughout the neighborhood.

His family regarded him as lazy. He mulled their opinion, as he sat shelling and snapping. He distinctly did do his share of work. He may not do so much work as any one of them, but he hated it more, which evened the score.

A sound reached him like a searching pole bean tendril that could not develop until it took hold. The music found West wanting to be found.

He stopped shelling, went onto the back porch, and called to his mother. "Mr. McHenrie is playing." West abandoned the beans and awaited his mother's coming in with eggs from the hen house. He impatiently edged out of the kitchen into the hallway and toward the side porch. He thought, oh boy, I wish Chuck could hear this.

His mother called in a delighted whisper, "Wait. Don't just go out there."

"He may stop."

"He won't. He'll go on playing for several weeks now, like he always does."

Mr. McHenrie, a local legend, had shown promise as a pianist, enough to have performed on a radio station, then he had married, had had three children, now grown, had lost his wife, and had taken to staying indoors. Nobody had any idea where the money to live on came from. Perhaps twice a year for brief sessions, this man would come outdoors. He would leave the house to hang wet clothes on the line in their backyard, at the property line just beyond the grapevines. He might sometimes speak hurried greetings . More often, he would only smile in courtesy. Occasionally, he would not acknowledge a neighborly presence. West had only recently learned that Mr. McHenrie drank. Town folks, at least in the company of children, called such people troubled. "Never say anything about anyone unless it's nice" was the catchword. But people did say other things. Since West was growing up, he had begun to learn more about adults. The common politeness which barred adult gossip in front of children did not mean that there was no gossip. Some revealing conversations had fallen on West's ears as he got older, and folks seemed to be speaking differently. He had learned about--

"Here, take your beans. It'll look just like you are supposed to be doing them."

"Oh, Mom . . . ."

"Come on, now, take them. Here, I'll help you finish them. We can sit on the side porch until they're done. I'll even bring the sweet corn to shuck, and you can take the silks off."

West knew that would take a while. He and his mother could sit openly preparing vegetables. The side porch was the best place to appreciate the music that came from only about forty feet away.

The only better point, about halfway between the porch and Mr. McHenrie at the piano, was high in the pecan tree. West used to climb to the uppermost fork and listened to shouts within the house next door. Once, he had been high in the tree eavesdropping--not really, because some speeches were unclear and he could catch only single words--when he saw Mr. McHenrie race distractedly from the rear door, yelling nonsense. A voice from within coaxed him to return. He moved toward the grapevine on the property line and closer to the pecan tree in which West was hiding. He headed straight for that tree but suddenly stopped, turned silently, and abruptly reentered the house. For more than an hour after that in the topmost fork of that pecan tree, West had kept very still, fearful of what would have happened had he been discovered.

With the beans arranged for snapping and shelling, sweet corn at the ready, the son and mother busily prepared the dinner vegetables. There would probably be enough for supper, too, if they did them all.

"We might have enough to give Mrs. Robinson a mess."

He had a special place in Mrs. Robinson's life. Each New Year's morning, urged by his mother, he hurried over to Mrs. Robinson's to be the first person to cross her threshold: if a man is the first to cross a threshold for the year, good luck comes to that home. West had heard that the Scots yet had a variation of that custom, with the man's being dark and carrying coal.

"Shusssh," he pleaded, so they could hear Mr. McHenrie's playing.

The music had had no beginning. It reminded him of when he had traced the canal down across the back field, or of ant trails, and even of the universe: he had found no true beginnings. Mr. McHenrie's irregular recitals had always been in progress when he discovered them. Did the old man hide the beginning of his playing, as God hid His beginnings, or did his music just go unfound until someone in West's home called to the others? "Mr. McHenrie is playing." The music always was so wonderful it raised a question. What was in the Mind of God when he allowed music? Was it a message?

In the second grade, when West had been staying over with a friend, he had worked out the start of the universe. He had described to Donny J. when only a bolt and a nut had existed: these two things had rubbed together, and that created the start of everything. Donny J. had accepted this. West had not only come up with the question, but also he had answered it. Donny J. willingly left Creation at that. In the third grade, Donny J. had moved one hundred and twenty-five miles away to Charleston. West visited him between the seventh and eighth grades at Folly's Island, and on that occasion explained sex as finally as he had explained religion, but Donny J. was less content with the later lesson.

Still the Mind of God echoed in Mr. McHenrie's music. Music without beginning, without ending. It echoed in West's mind. Was God talking to him through the music? How would God try to reach him if He tried? Was God sitting naked, like Chuck, when He made music? On what instrument would He play?

"That's 'Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,'" his mother said.

West did not answer. He knew it was "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.'" Still, that was only part of what it was. How much did a person know about something when he put a name on it? In Drang's class, he had learned "The map is not the territory." He had always known, really, that names and things differ. Someone had once said, "Names are what man swapped for his sense of smell." He liked that.

Words obsessed him. Early on, he had discovered their power in struggles against his brother. Vince Junior, the stronger through being a year and a half older, often kept a distance to avoid the younger boy's words. West would hurl them when he was cornered, ones that he knew his brother did not know. He skillfully threw word after word against the older boy, confusing him, causing him to see that muscles could not cope with words from his weird little brother.

West knew his mother was looking at him, but he could not allow her to share these thoughts. She always wanted him and Vince Junior to get along together. She would not like his fighting his brother, with words or anything else. She understood and forgave so much and no more. No, that was not exactly fair. She did not understand some things, but she always forgave him. No other mother all over the world could be such a good person. Still, she would not grasp his thoughts about words and music.

West saw that the regular, deft movements of his mother's hands had finished all the beans except those left on the Richmond News Leader spread in his lap. He looked toward her. Oh, she understands so much, he thought.

His mother smiled back and reached over for the remaining beans.

West crossed to sit on the banister. His chair was so close to his mother's that the two had been rocking in unison.

From the banister, he often watched humanity pass on the sidewalk and street. He loved this foot-wide, cool cement railing that enclosed not only the side porch but also the front porch and repeated on the side wall of the porte cochere. It connected the squat, square porch colonnades on the sides and front of the house, except, of course, for the breaks at the front door and porte cochere.

Sometimes, he used to move even nearer to the passersby. He would climb the chinaberry tree that hung over the sidewalk. From there, he could look directly down onto people. Sure enough, that could get him into trouble. A particular time, he had rigged a tin can in the tree with a string to his hiding spot behind a front porch column. The arrangement resembled the snares he had found in nearby woods. With the can full of chinaberries, he had waited until the next person had happened by; then he had pulled the string, raining the contents onto the startled victim. One or two disgruntled people had hustled away, but the next, an old Negro man in torn clothes had not. His anger had brought West's mother from the house. She had apologized, had made West apologize, and had said in a sharp gasp, "Just wait until your daddy gets home." Ultimately, the father's heavy hand had written the message on West's backside that a chinaberry shower was poor hospitality to passersby. The boy could remember sitting on the cool cement banister to ease the pain of the spanking. This ledge brought many memories.

None would match the death of Carrie, Nora Nell's younger sister, though. He could still see the tragic moment in front of her house across the street, next to Mrs. Robinson's. He shoved that from his mind. He did not even want to think of it.

West stretched his full length on the lower level of the banister nearest the music. He closed his eyes to concentrate. The part of him that always stood aloof and watched his every deed taunted him that his reclining was a pose. So, he shifted to a sitting position, his back cool against the cement incline between where he sat and where a fern loomed.

To keep his eyes open, he focused downward on a crack in the rough cement. A trail of ants rushed with their burdens from somewhere to somewhere else. He would have checked, normally, but that would confuse the moment. With an effort, he stared beyond the ants to the facing incline of the banister. Gradually, his eyes slipped out of focus, as if he were looking at a point in midair. Then the music became all there was.

When the spell broke, he saw his mother at the screen door. She had risen, picked up the beans and corn and trash onto the Richmond News Leader, and was returning to the kitchen by way of her bedroom. West saw the two chairs were still slightly rocking. His had been so close to hers that it had locked arms and would continuing moving as long as hers did. When either one stopped, that would cause the other to stop. The thought frightened him.

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