The Little Known
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by Janice Daugharty
Category: Young Adult
Description: Pulitzer nominee Daugharty (EARL IN THE YELLOW SHIRT, DARK OF THE MOON, WHISTLE) turns her impressive talents to Young Adult novels. Twelve-year-old Knot Crews, an African-American boy growing up in the segregated south Georgia town of Statenville, discovers a robber's lost bag of cash and is nearly overcome with the moral dilemma. Should he return it to the bank or ...-- Knot decides instead to help his needy neighbors, both black and white, and he begins mailing them hundred-dollar bills anonymously. Will the money transform their lives? Maybe, but not in the way Knot expects. The weight of Knot's world can't be lifted by cold hard cash alone. Set during the turbulent 1960's, The Little Known is a classic coming-of-age story full of hope and forgiveness.
eBook Publisher: BelleBooks/Bell Bridge Books, 2010 Trade Paperback
eBookwise Release Date: January 2010
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [333 KB]
Reading time: 220-308 min.
"Janice Daugharty is a born storyteller." Joyce Carol Oates "A natural writer." Pat Conroy "Daugharty does a fine job of demonstrating how ordinary men and women are affected, in unpredictable ways, by race, poverty and geography and by the enduring legacy of important historical moments." - People Magazine
It is all happening so fast it feels slow, runny as the midday heat in the alley, and for a fact Knot can see the sun beaming down from the top of the world. A block of sky like bought ice in the shimmer stage of melting. Shimmery too, at the other end of the alley, is a giant with a warped booger-man face. He is hugging a brown paper sack and running Knot's way, coming to rob him maybe of his play-cousin Lee's bicycle. Knot starts panting like a dog to the strumming of haywire on the front wheel spokes.
No brakes on the bike and Knot has to drag his hurt foot over the hot cobblestones to stop, eyes on the man likewise stopping before the green dumpster midway up the alley between Patterson and Ashley streets. Shucking off what looks like one of Aunt Willie's stockings from his head. Yes, a stocking. Black face, stung lips, teeth white as his eyes. Running again, the big man, big as Winston Riley, back home, makes straight for Knot but keeps close to the rear walls of the street-front stores.
Knot starts to drop the bicycle and run the other way, back toward Patterson Street where he had been cruising, cool and easy, but he can tell the man isn't after him by the way he kind of slinks along the wall, slow now, cool and easy, with his left hand in the pocket of his brown jeans and his right arm encircling the stuffed brown paper sack with the top neatly folded. He looks scared, maybe afraid of Knot because Knot is so ugly--buck teeth, ball head, skinny as a tobacco-stick scarecrow.
Sudden sirens rage along Patterson Street, all around, like peepers before a rain, and the man loops around and heads back the way he came, running hard, and the paper sack slips from his arm and drops to the cobbled brick.
"Hey, mister," says Knot, "you drop yo sack." He just says it because he should say it, to be polite like his rich pretend-kin he's been visiting all summer, but doesn't yell it out and anyway the man knows and the man is turning the corner onto Ashley Street, gone, and Knot is glad he's gone.
Still straddled the bicycle, Knot walks it over to the spot where the sack landed--top still folded down. The kind of sack Aunt Willie carries her groceries in from Harvey's downtown all the way over to Troupe Street. Sirens shatter the time-ticking of haywire on the bike spokes. "I ain't into this," Knot mumbles, "I ain't into this." And Knot is pedaling fast up the alley, good foot bare and nail-jabbed foot in a white sock, then north along Ashley Street, past the stalled cars with horns beeping and shoppers dodging his bike. One block away from the screaming of sirens that makes his gums itch.
So hot, and he would like to be on the east side of town, where he longs to belong, in the shady quiet of row houses whose front yards spill children onto the gravel street. But at the next intersection, he steers the bicycle west, rather than east, and pedals along the sidewalk toward Patterson Street, where not ten minutes before, which seems more like a long fevered sleep, he had been minding his own business: cruising over spilled cola steeping on hot concrete and exploding pigeons the color of courtyard statues.
"I ain't into this," he says to a stout blue-haired woman weighted down with shopping bags. She is scurrying toward a parked car the color of her hair, trying to unlock it while gazing off across the street at the train of black and white police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing. People are gathered around the door of the bank--FIRST NATIONAL BANK, according to the sign on the white stone facade atop the building at the corner of Patterson and Hill.
One more turn down the alley and Knot brakes with his socked foot, stopping next to the paper sack and scooping it up, packing it into the bicycle basket, then pedaling again, up the alley again, onto the sidewalk running parallel to Ashley Street, turning east this time and flying away from the sirens and car horns with pigeons the color of courtyard statues.
He should look, he should look in the sack, but he is afraid he will find money, afraid he will not find money. Looks like old magazines, the squared-off corners of the sack do. "How do?" he says to the brittle old black men seated on the store-front bench, corner of Troupe and Gordon. Hieing south, toward Aunt Willie's house. He knows that the man in the alley was a bank robber, that what is in the sack has to be money. He doesn't have to look, can't wait to look. Instead he looks behind, pedaling regular and sure, south along Troupe Street, and his looking behind causes the bicycle to veer left where three black children are playing with a litter of black puppies. The happy kind, regardless of their station in life.
A tiny girl stands with a puppy hugged up to her bowed belly, hard tail switching at her stubby brown legs.
"Go on, Knot," says her brother, an eight year old with square hair. "This our dogs."
"What I want with no old dogs?" Knot pedals straight up the street to prove he can drive this bicycle right. "What I want with no old dogs?" he repeats to himself and laughs. Then cries. What he wants is to stay at Aunt Willie's house.
He doesn't really belong to Marge, so why can't he belong to her sister?
An old auntie is sitting on one of the row house porches, fanning with a hand fan. Her stockings are rolled at her parted knees. High floors, up and down the street, so high that a boy can play underneath and hear the grownups walking around and talking inside--somebody older over him to protect him from the po-lice, mad dogs, and himself. Big square houses with peeling paint and metal gliders on spacey front porches where people sit in the sunshine after supper. Scraggly crepe myrtle trees with frilly cerise flowers that decorate the order of things that Knot can't name. Just summer on Troupe Street.
Again he checks behind him, for the black and white cars downtown, stretching the distance between them and him and the street opening up ahead, and checks too for anybody who might happen to be listening--he has to keep talking to himself so that the words won't bank in his overloaded head.
"I ain't ask for no money, don't want no money. What business a lil ole knot like me got with money?" All lies ticking off through his teeth to the tempo of the haywire on the wheel spokes.
He can see Marge's celery and rust car parked in front of Aunt Willie's roomy old house, waiting to take him back to the one-room shack in the quarters of Statenville, twenty-five miles east of Valdosta. That's where Marge has to live till she gets cured of drinking and cussing. All of Knot's rich pretend-kin are on the front porch: Aunt Willie sitting in one of the high-back rockers, taking the hem on Cousin Judy Beth's white baptism dress; the old granddaddy in the next rocker with his puffed pinkish lips and white hair; Lee on the end of the porch, watching for Knot and his bicycle around the twine trellis of nooning purple morning glory. Marge, rawboned and tall, is standing on a baluster of the doorsteps in her walked-down black shoes and the black-and-navy striped dress that looks all-black, which she always wears to town. Won't wear color, Marge won't. The women are laughing, hooting, and Aunt Willie play-spanks the seat of Judy Beth's flare-tailed dress. She scoots forward with her bony shoulders slumped and arms limp alongside, play-mad, and stomps through the front screen door, slamming it.
Knot swerves the bike onto the sloped dirt drive, north of the house, and coasts on toward the back yard.
"What you got in the basket?" calls Lee.
"Books," says Knot, passing the chimney with mortar sifting like hour-glass sand from between the red bricks. "Bunch of old books."
Say books, Knot has found out, and nobody will look inside a box or bag.
"That boy do love his books," says Marge and hums a laugh. She tells everybody that, and though she doesn't read herself, she is proud he does read, proud of this lil ole knot, as she calls him, who she had taken to raise after somebody fished him out of the trash twelve years ago. "Get yo stuff, Knot," she yells, "we gotta go."
"Knot step on a nail yesterday, stick it in his foot," says Lee, who figures Marge might care for a change.
Knot is in the back yard, at the sloped edge of the porch, standing straddled the bicycle. The uneven boards of the hip-roofed house used to be painted either green or red; you can't tell which because the paint is scaling, blending, and the effect is a rich tapestry. The fact that Knot is long-gone, hiding out from the po-lice with his stolen money, makes no difference to his family out front. They are still mouthing at him as if he is right there with them. Get Aunt Willie and Marge together and they'll talk.
"What all them sireens about?" calls Aunt Willie.
"Ain't seen no sireens." Knot wipes his eyes on the sleeves of his brown striped shirt, then lifts the paper sack from the basket and lets the bicycle drop on its side. Wheels spinning and haywire clicking on the spokes.
Up the tall wood doorsteps, past the daisywheel of yellow cats eating oatmeal from a bowl and through the door to the sunny yellow kitchen. Toasted bread smells--one more thing Knot loves about city living, about being at his rich pretend-kin's house. Money buys the smell of toast and money buys color. He will buy Marge a toaster and some color for her shack. * * * *
He is still holding the sack of money, or maybe books--now that he has said it he wonders and wouldn't be surprised or even disappointed if it were books. He stands on the curb next to the old car that reeks of mildew and burnt motor oil. Aunt Willie and Marge are loading paper sacks of Lee's hand-me-down clothes into the trunk.
"Be enough clothes to start him back to school," says Aunt Willie and rubs his head hard. "Like Daddy always say, Marge, put a brick on that head if he keep growing."
Mourning doves purl, locusts hum. Way-off rumble and toot of a freight train Knot has seen with his own two eyes. The three black children with the black puppies linger along the street. A slow car passes. Their mother steps to the edge of her wide front porch with her hands on her hips. "Git off that hardroad fore a car run over you."
"You gone nuss them books all the way home, or put em back here?" Marge asks Knot. She has one hand on the raised trunk with a long brown finger hooked through her key ring. Bunch of keys. Though only one serves a purpose. She slams the trunk, hugs and hums over Aunt Willie, Granddaddy and Judy Beth, then goes around to her side of the car.
"Kiss em all bye, Knot," she says.
He hugs the books and kisses Aunt Willie and Judy Beth on the cheeks as they pass along the curb before him. "You behave yourself," says Aunt Willie.
"I'm gone miss yo ugly mug," says Judy Beth.
"That boy be a fool bout them books," hums Marge over the car roof.
Knot is truly ugly, and he likes Judy Beth--maybe loves her--because unlike everybody else she never pretends that he's easy to look at.
The old granddaddy pokes over with his cane and slaps Knot on the shoulder. He wears a suit of gray twill work clothes, starched and ironed. His skin is the gray of his clothes. "You be back here fore you know it. Mind Marge, you hear?"
"Yessir." Knot likes him too--no, loves him--wishes he were his real granddaddy.
Lee is inside, outside, somewhere. The fact that he doesn't come to say good-bye says how sorry he is to see Knot go. All summer they have quarreled over the bicycle, drove Aunt Willie crazy, but now that Knot is leaving, Lee is sorry to see him go. May be crying right this very minute. Knot grins, shining his great white teeth. * * * *
Knot is almost safe, almost free, perched on the front seat with only his eyes moving. But Marge has to run by the drugstore downtown to get her blood pressure medicine. Knot cannot believe that he is downtown again, traveling along Patterson Street again. Light traffic slow-motoring along all four lanes of the one-way street and not a cop in sight.
It has to be books in the sack. Old magazines, probably.
Marge is changing lanes, merging left, turning the celery and rust car onto West Hill, pulling up and backing into the corner parking space with the bank on the northwest corner behind them.
"You coming in with me?" she says. "Too hot out here in the car."
"I'll just sit here."
"You ain't sick?" She feels his forehead with the backside of her hand. "You just sad," she says. "Hating to leave everybody, right?"
"Cause they rich, right?" She hums a laugh because she doubts that. "Well, read you one of them books while I'm gone." She opens the door, checks for traffic, lumbers out and around the rear of the car.
He watches her pass through the glass side door of Bel-Lile Drugs next to the stairs that lead up to the doctor's office where Marge took Knot when he had what's called coronals on his neck, and where there were two waiting rooms--one for blacks and one for whites. Long time ago, and now he goes to school with the whites who treat him okay because he is clean and honest, makes good grades, and never says po-lice, sireen, loot or cop.
Now he can look in the sack; he has to look. Is afraid to look.
He stays stiff, unblinking, as he unfolds the brown paper cuff, peeps inside. He looks up and blows. "Ain't books," he says, biting back a grin.
Stacks of dirty-green hundred-dollar bills with narrow bands like brown paper-sacking marked "1000" in red print.
He blows at his forehead again. Folds the top of the sack down, grips it tighter. Stares straight ahead. He wonders how much money he has. Starts to get out and leave the sack with the loot on the doctor's stairs. Waves of high tight happiness and terror pass over him like hot and cold water.
Suddenly, the driver's door swings wide, and Marge is getting into the car with a white cup of fountain soda in one hand and a white sack of rattley pills in the other. "Here," she says and hands him the cup. "Perk you up."
"Thank you," he says.
"Say somebody rob the bank this afternoon, get 25,000 dollar."
He is sipping the fizzy cold cola and has to bite down on the cup lip to keep from gurking. Sinks his buck teeth into the Styrofoam leaving horseshoe impressions he can see with the tip of his tongue.
Almost out of town, juddering south past the ABC Liquor Store on his right and checking Marge's long brown hands on the steering wheel to see if they will turn the wheel right. Then over the railroad overpass, from which point he can almost see Aunt Willie's fine house and can see her church with the fancy white steeple and cross. He will buy a house like that, he might even buy a church like that, but knows he probably never will--even with all this money--when Marge stops at the Dixie Station and has to count out her dollars and dimes for gas and he cannot so much as hand her one of the hundred-dollar bills from the sack for fear of getting caught. * * * *
Knot dozes with his left hand on the paper sack of worthless money between his cot and the unpainted wall and window of Marge's shack in the quarters. It's too hot to sleep.
But Marge, in the next bed, is snoring--sounds like a small engine sputtering--and next door, in the shack on the right, Winston Riley is beating up his wife Boots. Children scream, flesh splats, a chair overturns, Boots hollers, "No, Winston, no!" In a minute, she will be over here. In a minute, Marge will be doctoring her battered head while preaching to her about leaving Winston.
A door slams. Knot sits up, swings his feet over the edge of the cot and waits for Boots, waits for the heat to let up. Dim light through the screened window facing the woods--starlight thick with the ringing of katydids and the hulled whine of mosquitoes. Rooty smell of hogs in the pen out back, or maybe it's the rotting potatoes in the bag by the front door. Ask Marge why she doesn't clean up the combination kitchen-living room-bedroom and she'll tell you quick that she gets enough of cleaning other people's houses. Besides, she adds, my own dirt, me and mine, don't bother me. Knot feels good when she says the part about "me and mine," because then and only then does he feel he belongs. She's never even hugged him. But she has let him borrow her last name--Crews--same name as the old gray granddaddy.
Knot slaps a mosquito on his arm and scratches the itch till it smarts. Marge has quit snoring, is waiting too.
Feet bound on the porch floor, shaking the entire shack and rattling the windows. Bap bap bap on the door. Ragged breathing, mewling. A baby stifles crying.
Marge moans, stands, pulls the cord on the overhead light. White light showers down on her broomed peroxide hair. She is almost forty, but looks younger because she is skinny, all legs in her man's white T-shirt (Knot cannot remember which man, only that once upon a time there was a man), except for her belly, which is bloated and tight from what the doctor calls liver trouble.
Long bare feet in motion, Marge lumbers over to the front left corner and picks up her old rabbit-eared shotgun, then goes to the vertical-board door and flips the metal latch. Boots with her antennae braids and wild eyes, and a baby on one hip, shoves past Marge and into the room. Three guinea children are clinging to her legs. Boots's nose is leaking blood to her blue cotton smock trimmed in red rickrack; her broad flat nose looks flatter, spattered.
Rotten potatoes scatter and roll across the filthy wide floorboards and out the door where Marge is standing with her shotgun pointed barrel-up to the night sky. She breeches the shotgun and fires. A flashette of orange, the color of her hair, then smoke curling back into the room with Marge. "Come on over here, Winston," she yells in her braying night voice. "I'm waiting on you." Much cussing. Then quiet outside as she slams the door and sets the latch in its hook.
Inside, the children are sniffling, whining, drying up their crying. And Boots has one forearm pressed over her nose, blood leaking over and around it and drip drip dripping on the floorboards.
Marge ambles over to the corner and leans the shotgun against the unceiled wall, then picks up a white washrag from the second-hand yellow dinette table by the door and tosses it to Boots.
"He oughta break your neck for you staying with him."
"I got younguns to feed," Boots says, burbling blood. Then presses the rag to her nose.
Winston shouts through the double walls of his shack and Marge's shack: "Boots, you better get yo ass back over here. Don't, I come in there after you." Sounds like he's in a next room, though neither has a next room.
"Come on," Marge shouts back. "We waiting on you."
"You ole mess-making bitch!"
"Shut up, you S.O.B! Go to sleep."
Winston quits shouting and starts mumbling.
Marge takes the baby from Boots. He wraps his thin, sore-crusted legs about her waist and rests his curly head on her bosom, sucking his thumb. "You babies climb on up there in my bed," she says to the other children, who are variously wandering, gnawing on fingers and staring fix-eyed at their mother. "Boots, you sit here." Marge points to one of the chrome-legged chairs at the dinette table by the door. "Let Doc Marge see to that nose," she adds in a kinder tone.
Boots sits, tilting her horsy face up and holding the towel under her chin to catch the drooling blood. "Yeah, look like he break it this time," Marge says to her. Then to Knot, "Here, buddy, come take this baby."
Knot crawls across his cot in his underwear, goes over and takes the baby. Wet diaper settling on his left arm. The baby cuddles close as Knot pats his warm brown back. There is a living wreath of night beetles and moths around the light.
"Hold still now," Marge says to Boots and stands straddle-legged before her knees, sighting the nose-bone alignment with the precise center of the wide bridge between Boot's inky eyes. Marge yanks hard, Boots grunts. Marge holds the nose between both hands like a caught bird, then steps away. Sighting again.
"I ain't taking it no more," says Boots and sprawls in the chair.
"Yeah, you will," brays Marge. "You gone take it till the undertaker take you."
"You a hateful old thing," says Boots, dobbing blood from her precious fixed nose.
"How come I ain't beat black and blue and you are."
The baby is limp, heavier asleep in Knot's arms; he lays the leggy boy on his wallowed-out cot and lies down beside him. Bony knees and elbows in his back as he turns facing the black window and the paper sack of money. He listens to the two women talking low and the children in the next bed breathing shallow, regular. All but one who is snoring: bad adenoids, according to Marge, who would know, because she used to work for a baby doctor in Valdosta before she got fired for drinking on the job. Then, she had lived in the house with the old granddaddy and Aunt Willie and was welcome as the flowers in May, they said, as long as she didn't drink and raise sand. It has been at least six months since she pitched her last drunk, but the fact that she stays on in the quarters of Statenville means she could very well pitch another drunk at anytime.
Knot lulls himself to sleep with thoughts of moving in with Aunt Willie and her family and how to use the money without getting caught. * * * *
When he wakes the next morning, everybody is gone, his bed is wet, and sunlight is streaming through the double east windows each side of the door. One pane is missing from the window on the right and in its place is a cardboard patch, a blank square in the fifteen-pane window stencil spread across the fused junk and clothes on the wide floorboards. Smells of blood and urine, like mold and ammonia.
Beyond the wall at the head of Knot's bed, Boots is fussing with the children. Back to normal. Winston has gone to work in the pulpwoods, and for two or three days they will get along, then BOOM! all over again.
But life is good now: dogs bark, children play, women hang out their wash, and Knot has finally come up with a way to use the money.
Wearing the same khaki shorts and brown-striped shirt he wore yesterday, same white sock on his injured foot, he limps to the door, out the door, with two of the stiff hundred-dollar bills in his left pocket--one for Marge and the other for Boots--plus chiming coins from Marge's change jar for postage.
It is about ten o'clock and already the sun is heating up the quarters, shining through rags of moss in the oaks. Flocked shadows on the packed gray dirt that hatches broken glass and trash like fleas. Locusts hum and bandy-legged children scamp yard to yard of the unpainted, close-set cabins. Old women on porches rock and swat flies and wait.
Knot takes the gravel horseshoe road along the west curve where the yellow buses will soon circle the school grounds. The softball field on his right is grown up in red bitter weeds, looks like tilled clay. Hands in his pockets, he limps along, past the giant oak that divides the road at the side entrance to the schoolyard. A checkmark breezeway hooks the old portwine brick building to the new red brick building that still smells of wet cement.
At the end of the road, he turns left along the sidewalk, passing the row of white people's white houses, where Marge works now but won't have to work after tomorrow. He doesn't cross Highway 94 to the other side till he gets to the red brick, flat-topped courthouse, directly across from the red-brick, flat-topped post office. * * * *
Just as he'd expected, on Friday evening when Marge gets home from work, she is scooting in her black shoes with the walked-down heels and saying "Hoo-oo-oo!" Hum-laughing. Around the rear of the parked car, across the yard, and onto the porch, calling "Knot, Knot ... hoo-oo-oo!" Through the open door with the white envelope Knot sent yesterday loved-up to her flattened breasts.
It is sunset in the quarters and the orange light slanting through the west woods outshines the trash fires. Smells of smoke and supper cooking as if from the same pot. So hot that the heat seems textured of the locusts' hum. Pickups come and go, delivering the men home from work. They wander cock-sure through the knots of merry children and dogs. The old women on the porches wait for tomorrow, when it will start all over again. That kind of evening.
"Honey, you ain't gone believe what's in here." Marge speaks secretive and low. She dances in a circle with the envelope in the air. Shuffling her big feet to an imaginary beat. "Hoo-oo-oo!" An old-timey dance shuffle that used to embarrass Knot, but now with only the two of them around makes him proud. He feels like Santa Claus.
How many times has he daydreamed about finding money, giving Marge money to make up for her sacrifices: all those cold nights when he'd be sick and she would get bundled up like a witch in her black coat and headscarf and go out to find wood to feed to the hungry black heater.
"What is it, Marge? What?"
"Money, baby, that what."
"Where you get it, Marge?" he says. "How much?"
"A hunderd dollars, baby. One hunderd dollars!" She takes the clean dollar-green bill from the envelope and kisses it. Then fans it at him. Has forgotten the first part of his question.
She dips up and down like a carnival duck, then holds her knees. "We in the money, honey," she says. "Gone get you some new shoes, gone get my hair back like it was--gone get it dyed black, baby." Her brittle orange hair stands out, looks gnawed or singed, for a fact. "Gone get us a TV, baby. Gone get us some new tires on that old jalopy out there."
"And a bicycle," says Knot.
"And a bicycle," she shouts, then shushes herself.
He doubts that one hundred dollars will buy all that, figures he'll have to mail more to her--if all goes well. After all, Christmas is coming up. As for her hair, he doubts that black dye will cover the orange. Last summer, she had gotten Boots to peroxide her hair. They left the bleach on too long because the man who owns the water system in Statenville was waterlogging the pump and Marge couldn't wash it out.
Knot, in the yard, had watched Marge sitting on the porch with her hair growing lighter, brighter--strange shades ranging from sulfur yellow to fire red. She had a round mirror in one hand, and with the fingers of her other hand she was plucking at strands. Boots behind her chair had been warning her that it was time to wash out the peroxide. Lots of yatter and back-and-forth.
"That bleach liable to burn up yo hair."
"Naw--ain't light enough yet."
"It's yo head." Boots laughed and scooped a dollop of white foam from the small blue bowl she was holding and plopped it on Marge's tangerine crown. "It done about all it gone do. Ain't never hear tell of nobody leave it on over a hour."
From the yard, Knot could smell the gunk like the Red Devil lye women used to scrub their porch floors. Marge stank and she looked in pain. Forehead wrinkled and eyes red and watering. Her spiked hair changed before his eyes from tongues of fire to orange Jell-O. Even the gnats wouldn't go near her. Boots had given up on her and taken the children next door for lunch. Still, ever so often Boots or one of the children would pop through their door to look at Marge in agony for the sake of beauty.
Finally, she stood and walked into the house, and next minute she began cussing and screaming. "That sorry SB pick some time to turn the water off." Stomping the floor, she yelled out, "Knot, hurry, run go tell him to turn the water on. Run."
Bare feet digging into the dry dirt of the yard, spinning dust, Knot took off toward the paved road, westside of the school. Behind him, Marge was still shouting and cussing, Boots trying to calm her. Knot's heels were kicking high, elbows pumping for speed. He could feel bugs peppering his face like BBs, hot air whizzing in his ears and his heart keeping time with the slapping of his feet. Breathing, breathing, running to save Marge's hair from burning up.
He used to run all the time, it seemed, until Marge pointed out that running kept him skinny.
When he got to the sidewalk, leading uptown, he took the bend without slowing, outrunning a pulpwood truck rocking west along 94.
Almost to the house of the man who was master of their water, Knot began yelling, "Turn on the water, sir. Pleasesir, turn on the water."
He could see the slight bald man, dressed in khaki twills, at the concrete block pump house behind the white frame house where he lived. He was leaning in the doorway, watching Knot come.
When Knot reached him, trying to catch his breath to explain, the man said calmly, "Now, boy, what's all that fuss? Y'all got a fire around there or what?" His spoked blue eyes were like marbles but didn't roll.
"Turn on the water, mister. Boots put peroxide on Marge's hair and she can't wash it out."
The man smiled. "Don't say." Behind him, inside the pump house, water trickled; it was cobwebby, dim and hollow as a tomb. Cool air breezed through the door.
Then Knot recalled Marge blessing out the waterman last time he had drained the pump. Knot had made a mistake--a big mistake--but one he'd never make again. He learned never to give ammunition to the enemy. They had no water for two or three hours.
So, having hair that barely grows, Marge is stuck with the cap of blinding orange hair.
She grabs Knot now, waltzing, humming, around the walk-space of the small room being daily reduced by junk. Suddenly she stuffs the bill into the bosom of her brown blouse and says, "Now you stay here. Mama Marge gone go get us something fitting for supper--ain't gone eat no beans tonight, baby," and she is out the door, shuffling toward the old celery and rust car. Gets in, coaxes it into starting, and is gone. * * * *
She doesn't come back and she doesn't come back, and it grows dark, darker. Knot had been expecting that too.
And expecting that next door all hell would break loose when Winston got home and found Boots and the babies gone. Hell is breaking glass and wood.
Knot latches the door, turns off the light, and sits on his cot with his socked, throbbing foot atop the money sack, and listens to Winston slam about the house, cussing and threatening to cut out Boots's liver when he finds her.
Knot smiles. * * * *
He stops smiling when he wakes during the night to Marge pawing at the front door and calling him. Her braying night voice now slurred.
He pulls the cord on the overhead light, unlatches the door, and she wobbles in with her eyeballs rolling up and her lids rolling down. She starts to cry as he leads her to her bed, helps her lie down, and takes off her shoes with the walked-down heels. The second toe of her right foot overlaps the big toe. The paler soles of her feet are grained like wood, smell like scorched ironing.
"I forget you, baby, didn't I?"
"I spend all my money and forget you."
"All of it?"
Right arm bent at the elbow, she rocks her hand side to side. "Give it away, throw it away--I ain't have it nomore."
To stop her blubbery crying, he starts to tell her not to worry, there is more money. He starts to show her how much more. Is already walking around the spindled iron foot of her bed, but stops. Knows he'll never give her more money, can't give her money. He looks around at the colorless gloom of the shack, at the dingy light showering down on Marge's few dark dresses and coat hanging from the broomstick rod in the right corner, next to the bathroom door. Even the bloody rag with Boots's blood on it, in the middle of the floor, looks like a dead rose. If he gives Marge money, she will never be welcome as the flowers in May at Aunt Willie's house.
"Poor lil ole Knot," Marge says and places her forearm over her eyes so that her whiskey breath smells stronger, her triangular lips look greedier. "First I chunk you in the trash, then I take off and spend my money on liquor and men."
"Marge," he says and goes to the head of her bed again, "you ain't chunk me in no trash. You the one take me to raise when somebody else fish me out and bring me to you."
Arm still over her eyes, she says low, "Ain't how it went, boy. I had you, didn't want you. That the truth of it." She moves her arm, smeary brown eyes full on him.
"Why you act like I ain't yours then?" He kneels on the floor beside her. "Why you make up that story bout me belonging to somebody else? Say how sorry my real mama be."
"You know me ..." She moans, cries, chugs crying, then, "Know me like my ownself, and know I ain't never want to be tied down to nobody. Be easier, better, to make you think you don't belong to me."
She rolls over, facing away from him, sobbing. Bony back shaking under her sorry brown shirt. "At first, I don't tell you mine cause I don't want you to know I stoop so low. Then, I don't want you to know for the same reason I chunk you in the trash in the first place." Her hot hoarse voice goes suddenly cold: "Now go on. Go on and stay up yonder with Sister and them. I ain't have no claim on you."
"You just sorry for yourself, Marge." He is the one crying now. "You just looking for a excuse to get drunk and stay drunk."
For a fact, she always blows up at him when she is drunk, and for a fact, the next day all is forgiven and forgotten, but this time is different.