Read The Neon Bible Online

Authors: John Kennedy Toole

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The Neon Bible (4 page)

"Oh, Frank, what's all that?" She looked at the bags over his shoulder and the big wrapped packages on the steps.

He walked past her and threw the bags on the floor near the kitchen door.

"Seeds, Sarah, seeds."

"Seeds? What are they for? Frank, are you really going through with that crazy plan to grow things on the hill? What did you buy them with?"

"With the money I got paid at the gas station. All of it." He turned away and started to go up the stairs, but Mother grabbed his arm, and a terrible scared look came into her eyes.

"All of it? All of the gas station money, Frank? No, no, you couldn't do that, not for seeds that are never going to grow. What are we going to eat this week? There's no more food in the house."

He went up two more steps, but Mother grabbed him again.

"Damn it, let me go. I can spend my money like I want. There's money to be made back in the hill, do you hear me, plenty money."

"But you can't use the money we live on to go after it, Frank. Take those seeds back to town tonight and get the money back." Mother was hanging on to the cuff of his shirt. She was frightened now to let go of him.

"Get off me. Damn it to hell, get off. You can always get food for this week. Go sell some of Mae's jewelry down at the barroom. There's some women upstairs there that like that kind of stuff. Let me go!"

"Frank, you fool, you stupid fool. You have a son to feed. I can take anything you say, go ahead and say it. Call Mae what you want to. I know what you think of her. I just need the money. We have to eat. We can't sit and starve and wait for a few seeds to work where even trees can hardly grow. There's still time to get down to town and get your, our, money back. Oh, Frank, please, please."

I saw Poppa's knee coming up, and I called out for Mother to get off the stairs. She was crying and didn't hear me, and Poppa's knee was already at her chin. She screamed and rolled backward down the stairs. I got to her just as she reached the floor. The blood was already flowing out the sides of her mouth.

When I looked up, Poppa was gone, and since he hadn't passed me, he must have gone upstairs. Aunt Mae was coming down the stairs to where Mother and I were. Her eyes were wide.

"David, what happened?" she called. She didn't come any lower, and I thought it must have been the blood on Mother's chin that frightened her. She was afraid of blood or anything like that.

"Aunt Mae, come down quick. Mother's hurt, and I don't know what to do." Mother was moaning and rolling her head from side to side. Aunt Mae was crying now. The noise must have got her up, because her hair was all loose and hanging in her face, and through her tears I could see her eyes all sleepy and surprised.

"You must call a doctor, David, that's all. I wouldn't know what to do for her." She began to cry harder, and it made me feel frightened.

"But you can just help me to move her, Aunt Mae, then I can call the doctor."

"Alright, David, I'll come down, but forget about the doctor. I don't think there's any money in the house to pay him with."

Aunt Mae came down the stairs shaky. Her face was white, and her hands couldn't keep a hold on the rail. She took Mother's feet, and I took the head, and we moved her to the old sofa in the front room. Mother moaned and kept rolling her head.

"Look in her mouth, Aunt Mae, that's where it's bleeding from." I was holding Aunt Mae by the arm because she was about to go back upstairs.

"No, David, no. I don't know what to do. I'm scared. She might be dying."

"Just look in her mouth, Aunt Mae. That's where the blood is coming from." I must have really looked anxious, or half mad, if someone can look that way at seven years old. Anyway, Aunt Mae stopped pulling away from me and said, "Alright."

She opened Mother's mouth and stuck her finger slowly in. At that moment Mother moaned again and closed her teeth. Aunt Mae screamed and pulled her finger out fast. When she had quieted down enough, she stuck it back in again and said, "I don't know, David, but all I can see and feel is that a tooth has been knocked out. Let's pray that it isn't anything more."

Later, when we had Mother upstairs, Aunt Mae got around to asking me what started all this. I began to tell her, but I remembered Poppa hadn't passed me on the stairs earlier. I jumped up and started going through all the upstairs rooms. Poppa was nowhere, so I went back to Mother's room and told Aunt Mae that Poppa was gone.

"When I heard all the crying and noise, I got out of bed and was almost knocked down by your father running through my room. He went out the window onto the porch roof," Aunt Mae told me as she changed the ice pack on Mother's cheek to another place. Mother hadn't come around yet, but she was mumbling and her eyes were flittering.

Then I wondered what had happened to Poppa. I didn't want to see him again, but I was curious to know where he had gone. I went downstairs and onto the porch. All his things that he bought were gone. The moon was shining so white on the cinders in the yard that they were shining like diamonds. It was a still night in the valley, and the pines on the hill were swaying just ever so slightly. Down in town people's lights were going off in their windows, leaving only a few neon lights on Main Street still burning. I could see the big neon Bible all lighted up on the preacher's church. Maybe it's lighted up tonight, too, with its yellow pages and red letters and big blue cross in the center. Maybe they light it up even if the preacher isn't there.

I could see the old section where we used to live, even the exact house. There was somebody new living in it now. I thought about how lucky they were to have a nice house in town without cinders in their yard and four feet of clay under that. Mrs. Watkins lived next door. All the lights were out there. She always told us how early she went to bed. She never had any fighting in her house. She got a nice check from the state for teaching school, too, so she never had to fight with her husband over that.

I leaned back against the porch post and looked at the sky. All the stars were there. It was such a clear night that you could even see some that you only saw about once or twice a year. My legs were beginning to get cold from the air that was setting in, and I wished I was old enough to wear long pants. I felt little and small from the cold and the stars, and I was frightened about what was going to happen to us with Poppa gone. My nose began to hurt in the tip. All of a sudden the stars got all blurry as the tears filled up my eyes, and then I began to shake hard from the shoulders, and I put my head on my knees and cried and cried.

The last neon sign on Main Street was just going out when I got up to go into the house. My eyes felt funny because my lashes were stuck together and the lids were sore. I didn't lock the front door. Nobody in the valley ever locked their door at night or any other time. The seeds were gone from where Poppa had put them near the kitchen door, so he must have come to get them when Aunt Mae and I were upstairs taking care of Mother. I wondered if Poppa had gone forever. I wondered where he was now. Back in the hills, or maybe down in town somewhere.

All of a sudden I realized I was hungry. In the kitchen the hush puppies that Mother had made were on the table in a bowl. I sat down and ate some and drank a little water. The fish were in the pan where Mother turned off the fire when Poppa came in, but they were cold and greasy and didn't look very good. Over my head the one bulb that hung from the electric cord was pretty greasy too, and it made long shadows after everything and made my hands look white and dead. I sat with my head in my hands and ran my eyes over the design in the oilcloth on the table again and again. I watched the blue checks turn into the red and then into the black and back into the red again. I looked up at the light-bulb and saw blue and black and red checks before my eyes. In my stomach the hush puppies were heavy. I wished I hadn't eaten anything.

Upstairs Aunt Mae was covering Mother as I came into the room.

"She'll be alright, David," Aunt Mae said when she saw me in the doorway. I looked at Mother, and she seemed to be sleeping.

"What about Poppa, Aunt Mae?" I was leaning on the door.

"Don't worry about him. There's nowhere else for him to go. We'll have to take him back when he shows up, though I can't say how I want to."

It surprised me to hear Aunt Mae talk like that. I'd never heard her talk sensible that way before. I always thought she was afraid of Poppa, and here she was deciding what to do about him. I felt proud of her. She made me lose some of the frightened feeling I had. Behind her the moonlight was shining into the room so that it made her look all silvery around the edges. Her hair was down on her shoulders, and the light made every separate hair shine like a spider's web in the sun.

Aunt Mae looked big and strong. Just standing there, she looked like a big statue to me, a silver one, like the one in the park in town. She was the only one in the house that could help me, the only strong person older than I was. I ran to her all of a sudden and stuck my head in her stomach and held my arms tight around her back. She felt soft and warm and like something I could hold on to that would take care of me. I felt her hand on my head, petting me softly. I squeezed her tighter until my head went in her stomach so much that it hurt her.

"David" -- she ran her hand down my back -- "Are you afraid? Everything will be alright. When I was on the stage, I was hurt worse than you are now. I was never really very good, David, as an entertainer. I always knew that, but I loved the stage, and I loved to have the spotlights blinding me and the noise of a band under me. David, when you're on a stage and you're singing and you can feel the beat of the band shaking the boards on the stage, you feel like you're drunk. Yes, you do, baby. The stage was like liquor to me, like beer or whiskey. It hurt me at times, just like liquor hurts a drunk man, but it hurt me in my heart, that's what made it different. I was lucky whenever I got a job in some little dance hall in Mobile or Biloxi or Baton Rouge. What did I get paid? Just enough to live in a cheap hotel and buy a new costume now and then.

"There were times, David, when I didn't know where my next meal was coming from. Then I went into the dime store in whatever town I was and got a job. The last few years they wouldn't even give me a job there because they want young girls, and I had to work as a cleanup woman in the hotel I was staying in to get enough money to leave town. Then I'd do the same thing in the next town usually.

"I never sang good, honey, but when I was younger at least I was better-looking. Sometimes I could get a job just because I looked good in my clothes. The men liked me then. They came just to see me, and I went out a lot. They made promises, and I believed the first few, but after I saw how I was fooled, I was hurt, hurt so that I thought my heart would break. Then I couldn't hope to be honest to any man by letting him marry me, because you see, he'd be getting a used-up piece of goods, so to speak. After that there was nothing but my career, and that was slowing down. I couldn't take any more after those last ten years. No one would give me a job, not even some of those men who had made promises to me. The ones I had given so much to wouldn't answer the phone when I called. They had all married other girls and had grandchildren. Those were the times when I sat in my hotel rooms and cried on the smelly pillows. All the other women my age could look out their kitchen window and see the wash drying on the line, but all I could see out my hotel window was a dirty alley full of old papers and lushes' broken wine bottles and garbage cans and cats and dirt. Was I hurt then, David? I wanted to commit suicide with the old rusty razor blades in those cheap bathrooms. But I wouldn't let those other people make me kill myself.

"The last job I had before I came to live with you all was in a real dump in New Orleans. I don't know why the man hired me, because he was a real tough dago with an eye on the cash register. He had about five girls he got from the bayous around town who did strips. They took their clothes off while three or four hopheads played some music. He got a lot of seamen from the boats in town for customers. They sat right under the stage and grabbed at the girls' ankles while they danced, or moved around, anyway, because they were just Cajun girls who came to the city on a promise and fell for it the way I did once.

"It was my second night there, and I didn't feel like going on because the musicians were so full of dope they played my music all wrong the night before. I had to keep the job, though, because I owed on my room and I needed some cash. When I went out, the lights were on me and the music was beating, and I felt better. The sailors were noisy that night like always, but there was one big one sitting near the door who began to laugh and call at me when I started singing. I was just going into the second chorus when I hear the dago shout from behind the bar, 'Watch out, Mae!' Before I knew what he was yelling about, I felt something hit me hard on the head. It turned out that sailor threw a beer bottle at me, a big, thick brown thing. Those Cajun girls were so good to me, honey. They paid for the doctor who brought me to and fixed my head, and they paid the hotel and got me a train ticket when I said I wanted to come here.

"I was hurt that all those years ended that way. I wanted to be happy with you all here, but I've made the people in the town hate me, and I didn't want for that to happen. I've always dressed bright, and maybe I went on the stage to show off, but no one ever paid any attention to me in the cities. Here I've been just a sore thumb, David, you know that. I know what they think of me here, and I didn't want them to.

"I never told anyone these things, David, not even your mother. Maybe it was good to save them for now when I could show you how small your hurt is next to all the ones I have."

I looked up into Aunt Mae's face. I couldn't make out the expression on it in the shadows, but the moonlight shining on her cheeks showed how wet they were. I felt a warm drop fall on my forehead, and it tickled as it ran down my face, but I didn't move to wipe it off.

"Come on, David, you can sleep with me tonight. I feel lonely."

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