Poor Bob kept trying to stop the flow of alcohol and kept ending up with another drink himself. Johnny got out a bunch of medical books and laughed his head off at the gory pictures. I sat next to Bob's girl friend and talked a blue streak. I talk a lot anyway. I think I talked a lot about Jamie, but she didn't pay much attention to me. She never took her eyes off Charlie, who laughed and told funny stories and got out his guitar and made up dirty songs (he really could sing) and met people at the door and waved good-bye and passed the drinks around one more time. Charlie was an extremely likeable person.
"Charlie," I said to him seriously, trying to get my eyes focused, "there are people who go places, and people who stay, and I think you're going."
"I've been going all my life, cowboy," he grinned at me. "And I love it."
I thought that was nice, and wondered how I was going to like staying.
Johnny laid down on the floor and flapped his arms like he was swimming. It made perfect sense at the time and I thought about joining him.
Charlie was trying to get us to stay all night.
"I'll call Cole and tell him you've got car trouble."
"I am fine," Bob told him, "I am perfectly fine. I have never had a driving accent, accent ... I mean wreck. Come on, Jonathan."
Bob drunk and trying to act dignified set me and Johnny off on hysterics. But after all he was the driver and therefore boss, so I tried to pull Johnny up on his feet and ended up rolling around on the floor with him. Charlie finally got us standing upright.
"Bobby, you sure you can drive, kid?"
Bob's girl friend belted down her fourth or fifth drink, got up, and said "God, you're gorgeous!" to Charlie. It was the first thing she'd said since we got there. Charlie kissed her on the forehead, hugged Johnny and Bob one more time, shook hands with me, and made sure we didn't fall down the stairs on top of some more people who were coming up.
"Visiting him is like getting hit by a tornado," Johnny mumbled. Both of us wanted to lay down in the back seat, and we got into a shoving match over it. We finally ended up flopped together like puppies in a litter.
The next thing I knew I was home, puking off the front steps into the bushes.
"Mace," I gasped, for some reason sure he was there with me, even though I didn't remember seeing him, "I think I'm sick."
"I think you're drunk." Sure enough, his voice was right there next to me in the dark.
"Robert was drunk, and Johnny was drunk, so I imagine you're drunk, too, seeing how you don't have any tendencies toward car sickness."
Mace pulled me back up before I did a headlong flip over the porch railing.
"Are you mad?"
"Oh, no, I'm thrilled to death. Now get to bed."
On the way there I could tell I was going to throw up again. I detoured into the john, but ended up puking in the tub instead. It was easy to see what kind of junk I'd been eating at the Fair, and it made me sicker. I thought my insides were going to come up. I broke out in a cold sweat all over. Even the inside of my mouth was sweating. Mason handed me a towel and kept me from falling down when I tried to stand up again. When I made it to bed, I curled up and shivered like I was freezing, but I was really hot. The whole room was turning around and around and there were minutes when I'd think I was still on some ride at the Fair, even to hearing the music and noises. I'd heard of people passing out from drinking too much, and figured maybe I would, too, but I think I went to sleep first
"Tex, wake up. Come on, it's okay, you can wake up."
Slowly the room took shape around me. It was still dark. I was at the front door, hanging on to the doorknob. Moonlight was shining in the windows, making the bare floor boards gleam like water.
"Am I asleep or awake?" I whispered. I couldn't tell. I was so scared I couldn't move.
"You're awake now. Come on. You know you're awake." Mason was right there beside me, talking in an easy voice, like he was quieting a spooked horse. He never gets mad at me when I sleep-walk.
He hadn't been touching me, but now he reached over and gently pried my hand off the doorknob. "Come on, you're still drunk, that's all."
"Was I hollerin'?" I had a vague memory of somebody yelling.
"A little bit, not much, come on back to bed."
I let him steer me back to the bedroom. Waking up from that nightmare always leaves me so scared I'm almost paralyzed.
"You ever remember what you're dreaming when you do that?" Mason wasn't asleep like I thought. "I always find you at the front door. Lots of times you don't even wake up, I just lead you back here and you go back to bed."
"Yeah, I remember," I whispered. I was still shaky. "You know that fight Mom and Pop had, just before she died, when she ended up walking out in the snow? I dream about that."
"Geez, Texas, you couldn't remember that! You weren't three years old."
"Well, I remember it, anyway. Sort of. The yelling, everybody seemed so tall, and when she walked out I was trying to stop her, go after her, but I couldn't reach the doorknob."
"I can't believe you remember all that."
I was quiet. I did remember it. Not real clearly, but I did remember some. But it always seemed to me that she died right after that, that she never came back, even though I knew she was home a couple of days before going to the hospital, and she lived for a couple of more days there.
I remember crying a lot at that time, too.
"Sorry I woke you up," I said.
"In the daytime you aren't afraid of anything," Mason said.
That wasn't completely true. There were people who go places and people who stay, and Mason was going. I was afraid of that.
Mason was yelling "Okay, okay, I'm comin', I'm comin'!" and as I woke up I realized somebody was knocking on the door.
My head was pounding. It was like the insides had swollen so much they were pushing on my skull. My eyes hurt real bad. I never noticed the bedroom light being so bright and glaring before. I rolled over to push my face into my pillow, and my stomach couldn't keep up with the rest of my body. For a second I thought I was going to barf.
I must have the flu, I thought vaguely. Man, I was sick.
The bedroom door was wide open and the front door wasn't much on the other side of it, and I heard Mason say, "What do you want?" He has a blunt, rough way of talking that irritates a lot of people, but he sounded even sharper than usual.
"Bob and Johnny came home drunk last night, and I'd like to know why."
It was Cole Collins! I got up quick, with some crazy idea of hiding in the closet, but the room spun around so wild I ended up on the floor instead. I slid under the bed, and lay there gripping the floorboards with my fingernails. The cold floor felt real good against my hot face. Cole Collins!
"They were drinking, I imagine." Mason sounded real calm.
"I know Bob. He's not the kind of kid to do something like that, and he certainly would never let Johnny drink." Cole sounded impatient.
"Well," Mason said, measuring out his words like he was scared he was going to drop one, "if Bob wouldn't drink and wouldn't let Johnny, it sure is strange they came home drunk, isn't it?"
Dear God, I prayed, don't let them get into a fight. Cole Collins was six-four and must have weighed two hundred pounds.
"So somebody got them drunk. And I'd like to know who."
"It wasn't me." Mason bit off each word. He sounded like as far as he was concerned, the conversation was over. Then Cole said, "Where's your brother?"
I froze. I shut my eyes so tight I saw sparks. Tell him I'm at school. Tell him I left home. Say that I...
"It wasn't him either. Why don't you ask Robert who it was?"
There was a silence. Then Cole said, "Bob says he's to blame. He takes full responsibility. He isn't a good liar, though, even to protect someone else ... I'd like to talk to Tex, if you don't mind."
I had an image of him searching the room, dragging me out from under the bed ... if Maso
n could knock my teeth loose, Cole Collins could knock my head right off my shoulders.
"I mind all right," Mason was saying. "I mind a lot, as a matter of fact. Don't you have enough kids of your own to hassle?"
My eyes flew wide open. Now he's done it! I started inching my way out, figuring if they got into it I could help Mason.
Cole was quiet, like he was so mad he couldn't talk. Then he said, "I'd appreciate it if in the future you didn't associate with my kids."
"Tell it to them!" Mason said, and slammed the door so hard the whole house rattled. The sound split through my head like a bolt of lightning.
Mason was swearing a blue streak. I had decided to crawl out from under the bed, but on second thought stayed where I was. Mason came stomping in. "I'd like to know who he thinks he is--associate with his kids, hell! I reckon he thinks we'll corrupt the little darlin's. So Bob's protecting somebody, huh? I could sure tell you who, you--"
He broke off suddenly. "Tex?"
I scooted out from under the bed. I was grimy with dust balls and cobwebs. My stomach started churning around again, and when I sat up funny black lines kept floating across my vision.
"Lose something?" Mason asked, sarcastic. "Well, get up and clean the tub out. You'll sure have to take a bath before school."
"I c-c-can't..." I broke off, sneezing from the dust all over my face. Every sneeze felt like it was going to pop my head wide open. I held my head together with my hands. "I can't go to school," I finally finished. "I got the flu."
"You got a hangover and you're going anyway."
"This is a hangover?" I asked, amazed. "But Mason, I'm really sick!"
I thought about the times Roger Genet came to class drunk or hungover and he groaned about how miserable he was, and everybody'd laugh at him. Shoot, I wouldn't laugh at him no more. What I couldn't figure was, if drinking made you sick, why anybody'd want to do it?
I got up queasily, went to the john, took one look in the tub, and got a case of the heaves. I leaned on the sink, trying to get steady. I got a look at myself in the shaving mirror. All the blood had drained out of my face till my tan looked like a layer of brown paint over white.
"All right," Mason said, pulling on his boots. "You can stay home. Just get that mess cleaned up later."
He gave a short, sudden, mean laugh.
"What you thinkin' about?" I asked, crawling past him to get under the quilts.
"I was thinking about going over to the Collins' and demanding to know who got you drunk last night."
"Hey don't do that," I said, alarmed. "It was Charlie."
"Oh, I knew that. But if Robert wasn't going to squeal, I wasn't either."
I was shivering. "There any cure for a hangover?"
"Aspirins, but we're out. A Bloody Mary's supposed to help."
"Vodka and tomato juice."
"Vodka!" I groaned. "No, thanks."
I spent a lot of that day in bed, sleeping on and off. When I did finally get up, it was like all the energy had been drained out of me. I cleaned up the tub and felt so bad I did the dishes just because I couldn't think of anything else to do. Then I went outside and sat in our tire swing, staring at the empty horse pen, thinking about Negrito. Pop had given me Negrito three years ago Christmas.
It was Monday. I'd miss vocabulary day in English. Well, Miss Carlson would be glad to know I added a new word to my vocabulary, anyway. Depressed. Man, I never knew what the word meant before. I could see where they got it. It was like everything was pressing down on you like a dead weight. I'd been sad before, not much, but some. But man, depressed! It was worse. Like you couldn't see the use of anything, everything was just hopeless. I sat out there and twirled around in the swing, watching the dead leaves blow by. Summer over, Negrito gone, Pop gone for so long I'd just about given up on him, Mason planning on hightailing it off as soon as he could, maybe the Collins couldn't be friends with us anymore. It was like the future was a foggy pit and I was standing on the edge, trying to see the bottom, knowing any minute something was going to shove me in. It was a real uncomfortable feeling.
I sat out there till Mason got back from basketball practice. He brought a carton of ice cream with him, which was lucky, since one whiff of the chili we were having for supper was enough to give me the queasies again.
I couldn't even eat much ice cream, watching Mason wolf down the chili. He eats like a horse.
I spent the evening cleaning all the guns in the house; my .22, Mason's 20-gauge, Pop's old double-barrel 12-gauge. It was something easy to do, that wouldn't put too much strain on my aching head. Mason was studying as usual.
Finally I got a little hungry and got out the ice cream again. There wasn't much left. Mason had really pigged it up.
"What the hell is all that honking about?" He looked up from his book.
I listened. Usually it's so quiet around here you can hear a car coming a mile off. This one was honking the horn full blast.
It got louder and louder, then the car pulled into our driveway on one long last blast.
"Hey, maybe it's--" I jumped up and ran to the door.
"Mason!" a voice hollered. "Tex!"
"It's Lem!" I said. For a second I was sick that it wasn't Pop--then forgot it because I was real glad to see Lem.
He covered the yard in about two strides, and I jumped him in a flying tackle from the porch. He staggered, but didn't fall down, swung me around and let go, throwing me halfway across the yard. He jumped the porch steps to give Mason a bear hug. Mason was laughing. It was the first time he'd really laughed in a long time.
Lem Peters was a friend from way back. We'd known him longer than we'd known the Collins. In fact one of the first things I can remember in my life is hunting snakes under Lem's house. He and Mason had been best friends for years, then they kind of split up until they weren't best friends anymore, but still pretty good friends.
Lem was real good with horses. When we were little kids, all three of us would pile on Lem's white mare and go for miles across the countryside. Lem was someone who had always been there, so it had seemed strange when he got married and moved away last year. It was sort of the first time I realized that things weren't going to stay the same all my life.
Mason was real glad to see him. He glanced at me sideways like a wicked colt and said, "Where's the wife?"
"The wife?" Lem answered innocently, trooping in the house with us, dropping down on the sofa, just missing sitting on my ice cream. "Well, I reckon she's with another man."
Mason and me looked at each other. I had heard enough of Mason's dire predictions about Lem's marriage to get a little worried; but Lem didn't look mad or anything. He looked more like he was about to bust. And sure enough, in a minute he did, with, "But seein' how he's only a couple of hours old, I don't think much will come of it, even if she is crazy about him."
Mason got it before I did. He jumped up and yelled, "You're kidding!"
Lem just beamed at him. I never saw a sober person look so silly. Suddenly it dawned on me.
"You had your baby!" I said.
"Nope. Connie had my baby." Lem looked like a cat with kittens. If you know cats you know what I mean. Everytime a cat has a batch of kittens, she thinks it's the first and only set of kittens in the world. I've had several of them tell me so.
All three of us were dancing around the room, laughing our heads off. Finally we dropped to the floor.
"A boy, huh?" I said.
"Yep. Little Lem."
"Don't call him that," Mason said. He was still laughing, but there was a streak of serious in his voice. "You don't want another Lem Peters."
"Well, to tell the truth, he does look more like Connie, kind of blonde and pug-nosed. Think maybe we ought to call him little Connie instead?"
Mason just shook his head. He didn't much like being named after Pop. I wouldn't have minded it. Mace reached out to slap Lem on the back. "Tell your folks yet?"
Lem's craggy face da
rkened. "Nope. They ain't gonna find it out from me, either. All I heard when me and Connie got married was, 'Don't bring a squalling brat home for us to raise.' Well, they don't need to worry about that."
We were quiet for a minute. Connie's family hadn't been thrilled with the marriage, either.
"How's it going in the city?" I asked. It was hard to picture Lem in the city. He was long-legged, gawky, worse than me about bumping into things and knocking things over. There would be a lot more things to bump into and knock over in the city.
"All right. I got a job at a gas station. It don't pay much, though. Connie had a job for a spell, but it'll be a long time before she can go to work again. Anyway, I don't want her working.
"Hey," Lem brightened up, "I ain't told the Collins yet. Let's go up there."
"This time of night?" Mason said. "You think Cole Collins is gonna break out the champagne or something?"
"Shoot, Cole don't have to know anything about it. We've been in that house when he didn't know anything about it Let's go."
"Mason..." I said, thinking about what had happened that morning. "Maybe..."
"Can this be fearless Tex McCormick, the terror of the town?" Mason mocked me. Lem was looking at me funny, too. He'd always let me tag along, from the very first, because I'd never been scared to do anything he or Mason would do.
"Okay," I said. Cole Collins scared me a little. Not 'cause he was big or rich or vice-president of a company. He just plain didn't act like I thought fathers were supposed to act.
We started off across the field. The cold night air made me feel better than I had all day. I love to go roaming around at night.
"You know," Lem said as we walked along, "I reckon it was a real shock to ole Cole to find out there was people like you and me livin' out here. I think he moved here to get his kids away from all those bad influences in the city."
"I don't care why he moved here," Mason said shortly. "And as far as bad influences go, last night it was one of his do-no-evil heirs that got Tex drunk for the first time in his life."
"Geez. Tex, what were you waitin' on?" Lem asked me. "Your first gray hair?"
"I'll go on ahead and let the dog know we're coming," I said hastily. Mason hadn't bawled me out about last night yet, and I didn't feel like getting it in front of Lem.