Read The Neon Bible Online

Authors: John Kennedy Toole

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary

The Neon Bible (9 page)

Mother was worried about the letters she got from Poppa. He was right in the middle of the fighting in Italy. In one letter he said he was living in an old farmhouse that was about a thousand years old. He wrote about the olive trees, and that made me think, because I always saw olives in a bottle, whole or with the red stuff in the middle, but I never thought they grew anywhere. He said he had marched along the Appian Way, too, which was a very famous road that I'd read about in history and would be able to tell my teacher about. The sun wasn't prettier anywhere else, he said, than it was in Italy. It was the brightest and yellowest he ever saw, much brighter than in the valley in the middle of the summer. He saw where the pope lived, too, and I had heard about him plenty times when the preacher was talking over the radio in place of
Amos 'n' Andy,
who I liked. The beaches were nice there too, he said. When he returned he was going to take me to the ocean, because I never went there, so I could see what a beach was like with the waves rolling up it. In the end he said he missed every one of us more than he ever thought he would.

All his letters Mother kept in a tin box in the kitchen over the icebox. Aunt Mae read them all twice or more, especially the ones where he described how pretty Italy was. Aunt Mae said she always wanted to go there and see Rome and Milan and Florence and the Tiber River. One letter Poppa sent had some photographs of some Italian people in it. They looked healthy, and even the old woman in the picture was carrying a big bundle. Poppa was standing between two Italian girls in one picture. None of the girls in the valley had thick black hair like they did. Mother smiled when she saw the picture, and I did too. Poppa was so serious it was funny to see him standing smiling with his arms around two girls. Aunt Mae laughed when she saw it and said, "My, he must have changed."

Down in school I was doing alright in Miss Moore's. It was my last year with her. In spring I would get out of sixth and go into Mr. Farney's. With Miss Moore we went all over on field trips. After we finished going all through the valley, we went to the county seat and saw the courthouse. The school didn't have a bus because it was easy for everybody to get to who lived in the valley. It would have been harder to get a bus into the hills than to have everybody just walk there. For our trip to the county seat Miss Moore got the state to send a bus to the school. Everybody went "pew" when they got inside, because it smelled bad. I thought I knew the smell from somewhere before, and I thought for a while, and then I remembered Mrs. Watkins' breath. It smelled just like that.

I always thought Miss Moore was a little deaf. I know some other people thought it too, but I never said anything to anybody about it because there was always some way that stories got back to her. When we got in the bus and everybody went "pew," Miss Moore didn't say anything. She sat down on the front seat and started wiggling her nose. She asked the driver if he could open the windows, and he said that they were sealed because some children tried to jump out once while the bus was moving. I never felt a bus shake you up and down so much as that one did. Even when it hit the smallest bumps it made everybody go "uh." Miss Moore made us start singing some song we knew from school. Because of the bus the long notes always sounded like "uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh" and never straight like they should be. Some of the bad boys who were sitting in the back started singing other words that they made up. For about the past year I understood what they were singing about. Miss Moore didn't hear them, though, and when we stopped she said, "That was nice."

But the singing started the bad boys, so they began to tell jokes and recite poems that no one said out loud. None of the girls laughed because it wasn't nice for them to do it, and any girl who did was pretty bad. There was one girl, though, named Eva, who didn't laugh but just giggled. The other girls looked at her and probably told their mothers when they got home. Up front the driver was laughing at what they said. Miss Moore smiled at him. She probably thought it was nice for an old man to have such a happy disposition. I didn't know what to think about the bad boys. Some of the things they said were pretty funny, but I didn't know if I should laugh, so I just looked straight ahead like the girls and pretended I didn't hear them. They started saying things about Miss Moore I didn't believe. Even if she wasn't too smart, she was still a nice woman.

At the courthouse there was a statue of a naked woman holding a big vase. The bad boys stood around it in a circle and laughed and pointed at things. Miss Moore and the rest of us didn't even look at it when we passed, but I got a pretty good idea of what it looked like out the corner of my eye. Miss Moore wouldn't go back and get the boys, so some man who worked at the courthouse told them to move on. There wasn't much to see there, though, besides the statue. We sat in the courtroom and listened to a judge talk to some colored man about taking somebody's mule. Then there was a man who was drunk, and that was all.

We sat out on the grass in front of the courthouse and ate the sandwiches we brought, and Miss Moore asked us how we liked it, and we said it was okay. The courthouse was a real old building. At the top it had colored glass windows in one place instead of a roof. All the time we ate, the bad boys were up in the windows making signs. Miss Moore couldn't see them because she was sitting with her back to the courthouse. If she had turned around and seen them up there she probably would have put them out of school. Everybody knew what those signs meant, and the girls looked down at the grass and pretended to be looking for clovers. Miss Moore saw them doing this and started looking for clovers herself. After a while I saw a man come up behind the boys in the window and pull them away. About a week after we came back from that trip, the judge at the county seat wrote Miss Moore a letter that she read to us about how bad we were at the courthouse. Miss Moore didn't know what he was talking about, and she got mad and wrote him back a letter that we all helped her write, especially the bad boys, that said the judge must have had the wrong school on his mind.

When spring came I was almost out of sixth grade. We were going to have a play at the end of school that Miss Moore wrote. The day we started practicing for it, we didn't get out of school until five o'clock. It was a nice spring afternoon, just like all the ones we had in the valley. In town everybody's garden was full of flowers. The grass in the yards was green and full of dandelions. The warm breeze that always smelled a little like the pines in the hills was blowing through the streets.

In the spring the prettiest place in the valley was the hills. Up along the path all the wildflowers were beginning to come out. If there was snow that winter, the ground would be damp and warm. We did have a lot of snow that year that made it hard to get down the path to school, but now the only thing that would tell you it had been there was the wet mud. All the pines looked greener than they had for a long time. The warm air smelled strong of them, much stronger than in town. All the birds were back too, and they sang and flew from pine to pine and dropped down to the ground and flew back up again. Sometimes I would see a broken egg along the path that fell from a nest up in the pines, and I thought what a fine bird it might have been. Sometimes a little baby bird would fall out too, and I saw it there dead and blue. I didn't like to see dead animals. I never hunted like plenty people in the valley did. Some just shot at a bird to test their aim.

Spring was really the time I was glad we lived in the hills. Everything was moving. The breeze made the pines sway, and the little animals played in the grass and the low bushes. Sometimes a rabbit would run across the cinders in our front yard. Everything was moving that evening I was walking home. It made you feel you weren't alone on the path. Every step I made, something would move. Down in the wet mud I could see the holes that the worms made and the bigger holes of some bugs. I wondered what it would be like to live down in the wet mud with the water going by you every time it rained and your home liable to be knocked in when someone stepped on it, or else be trapped when someone just closed the opening and you couldn't get out. I wondered what happened to bugs that were just trapped and if they starved to death. I wondered what it would be like to starve to death.

Up ahead the house was sitting right in the middle of the cinders. It looked like it was a part of the hill, just a big box of wood without any paint on it. It looked brown like the trunk of a pine, and the mold on the roof was a greenish color. The only part that made it look like people lived in it was the white curtains blowing out of Aunt Mae's bedroom window and the pair of woman's pink underwear hanging on a clothes hanger from the window shade to dry.

I went in the front door and put my books and my copy of Miss Moore's play on the stairs. Mother usually sat on the front porch these spring afternoons because she liked the pine breeze. I hadn't seen her there, though. Something began to smell like it was burning, so I went into the kitchen, and there was a pot on the stove full of smoke and Mother was sitting on a chair with her head on the table crying. At first I didn't know if she was crying or what, because she let out little screams every now and then and scratched her nails into the oilcloth. I picked up the piece of yellow paper on the table. It was a telegram. We never got one. I only knew about them from the movies. No one in the valley got telegrams. It was addressed to Mother. It was from the government. It said Poppa was dead. Killed in Italy.

I held it in my hand. Poppa was dead? We just got a letter from him the day before saying he thought the worst of the fighting was over. I went over to where Mother was sitting and tried to make her sit up, but she acted like she didn't even feel my hand on her. She kept screaming and scratching the oilcloth. I shook her by the shoulders, but she just screamed louder, so I let her alone and went over to the stove and turned off the fire under the pot.

I went outside to get away from the burning smell in the kitchen. We didn't have any chairs on the back porch, so I sat down on the back steps and looked up into the hills. Aunt Mae was still at the plant. She had a party to sing for tonight that they were giving in the county seat for some soldier home on a furlough. I wondered if she'd go to it. Poppa and Aunt Mae never got along. She didn't have any reason to feel bad.

I looked back at the telegram and thought of how funny it was that a few black letters on some yellow paper could make people feel the way it made Mother feel. I thought what it would do if the black letters were just changed around a little to read something else, anything. I wondered where they had Poppa now so far away from home where he should have died. No one I ever knew well died before. This was the first time, and I didn't know how to feel. I always thought people should cry, but I couldn't. I just sat there and thought about where Poppa was, and if they were going to send his body home like they did some. What was it like to have your father's grave somewhere where you could never visit it like you should or put flowers on it or know he was resting in peace? Then I imagined what Poppa looked like now that he was dead. I only saw one funeral in my life, and the person looked all white. Poppa's skin was red and oily, and I couldn't think of him being white and powdery-looking.

Behind the house I could see the place Poppa tried to grow some things, the place Mother took care of after he left until the things all came up. That was about a year ago. The ground was wet like all the other ground in the hills, and grass was beginning to grow in it where he had it all cleared and there wasn't any shade from the pines. You could still see the high places where the rows were, but they were beginning to wear down from the snows, and now that the grass was out, everything looked almost even. A few seedling pines were growing up there too, and I knew that when a few more years came and they were tall, the whole little place would look just like any other place in the hills and you'd never know anyone spent almost all of one week's pay on it and put in a lot of time too. You'd never think in a few more years someone almost left his house over that piece of clay and hit his wife in the jaw and scared his son. But besides me, that was the only thing Poppa did while he was living that you could see now. I thought of the letter where he said he was going to take me to see the beach and the waves when he got home, and Poppa's little cleared land got all blurry, and I knew I was crying.

 

 

 

Six

 

Then the war was over. The paper had headlines six inches high, and the drugstore gave away free firecrackers that everybody shot off on Main Street. It was summer, and it was hot in the valley. In the summer there wasn't any breeze. It was just still and hot. I sat on the porch and listened to the firecrackers down in town. You could hear them all over the valley, even from the county seat. When night came the whole town lighted up except a few houses where men had been killed, like ours. I could sit there and pick them out. The big gray one on Main Street where the woman's husband was killed in Germany, the small old one where a colored woman lived whose son was killed on some island, one or two clean white ones on the street where the rich people lived, a house on the hill across from us where an old maid's brother was killed who was a bachelor and lived with her, and some others I didn't know about but just saw the dark space in between all the other lights.

That night was just like the day had been, hot and still, even in the hills. I could hear radios playing loud from down in town. Some had the baseball game, but most were listening to the news about the end of the war. Our radio was playing upstairs where Mother and Aunt Mae were listening to it, but it was some waltz music from someplace in New York. Down on the streets people were still going to one another's house or meeting on the street and laughing. The preacher's Bible was on like always. Once in the war we had an air raid practice in the valley and he got into trouble with the sheriff because he wouldn't turn it off. The preacher was probably glad the war was over too. While it was going on, not many people attended, not even the ones who stayed with him after the Bobbie Lee Taylor thing.

The next day everybody's clothesline was full of bedclothes and shirts for the husbands and brothers and sons who were coming home. By the time Christmas came, plenty were home. They all had babies from the girls they married on their furloughs. Everybody had up a Christmas tree but us and those other houses where the lights weren't on the night the war was over. They still had their service flag in the window where they didn't want to or forgot to take it down. We still had ours on the front door too. None of us wanted to touch it.

By the next spring the seedling pines in Poppa's cleared land were getting tall and beginning to look like real pines. Down in town all the babies were beginning to walk, and there were new ones coming in. When I walked home from Mr. Farney's class in the evening all the girls were out on the front porches where they lived with their parents or their husband's parents, and I could see they were all going to have other babies soon too. Almost all the soldiers were in then. Some of them went off to the college at the capital with their wives and babies, but plenty stayed right in town because they hadn't even been to the high school at the county seat.

Mr. Watkins wrote a letter to the paper that he had never seen so many pregnant women on the streets and that he was disgusted with the sight of them. Then the paper got a lot of letters from the pregnant women asking him what they were supposed to do about it. One woman wrote she was curious to know why Mr. Watkins and his wife never had any children. The next Sunday night Mrs. Watkins got on the preacher's radio program and said she was glad she never had any children to have to bring up in this sinful world alongside of the kind of children that woman would have.

Some of the men came back to the valley with women they married in Europe. The town people wouldn't have anything to do with them, so they all got together and moved to the capital. On the radio the preacher said it was good riddance and that he didn't want to see the good American blood of the valley lose its purity. That won a lot of the town people back to his side, so pretty soon the church rolls were filled again and kept on growing. Some got together in the church hall and organized a society to keep the valley blood pure and Christian and free from the heathen blood that might ruin it and bring damnation to the valley. Not everyone in town joined it, but it had a pretty big membership. It met once a week for a while until all the soldiers who weren't killed got home, and then they didn't need it anymore.

Some of the killed men started coming home too. They delivered them at the station just like mail. About once a month one would come to the valley, but just his people went to get the body. No one thought too much about the dead ones. The living ones were all over with their new babies and families. I don't guess anyone wanted to think about the ones who came to the station in the long wooden boxes. Anyway, no one did, except maybe the newspaper editor, who always had something in the paper about it when one came in. The women who hadn't cried since they heard about their son or brother or husband getting killed cried all over again when the bodies came in at the station. Then they were put in somebody's truck and taken to the graveyard up in the hills. Sometimes I'd see one of those trucks going down Main Street with a woman sitting up front crying and a man driving with the long box bumping in the back. The little children would run away when they saw one coming because it frightened them. After they got out of town, they turned up the north hill to the graveyard. If the woman was on the preacher's rolls, they'd stop at the church to get him to go with them. Then they came down from the hill about an hour later and left the preacher off, and the woman was still crying.

Poppa never did come home. They buried him in Italy somewhere. Mother got a picture of the place. It was nothing but rows and rows of white crosses, and Mother wondered which one was Poppa's. Aunt Mae had to hide the picture from her because she just sat down and looked at it and said, "Maybe this one," and pointed, or "It could be that one, Mae," or she'd ask Aunt Mae which one she thought it was. When she couldn't find the picture, she got mad, so Aunt Mae had to give it back to her. Pretty soon it was all torn and yellow, and the crosses were smeared and greasy from Mother rubbing her finger across it. When Aunt Mae went out to sing at night, I'd sit with Mother and watch her look at the picture. She never even knew I was there, but just sat and felt the picture, and then she'd turn it over and look on the back and laugh when she saw there wasn't anything there. I knew I shouldn't be frightened of my own mother, but I was, and I'd wait for Aunt Mae to come home and hope she'd hurry up.

The war plant closed, so Aunt Mae didn't have her job anymore. The only money she made was at night when the band went out. She tried to get a job down in town, but all the men who returned had all the jobs. The only thing she could do was be a maid for the rich people who lived on the street to the north, and Aunt Mae didn't want a job like that. All the colored girls would call her white trash if she took a job like that, so she stayed around the house while I was away at school and helped Mother, who couldn't seem to do anything anymore. Mother would begin to clean and then go get the picture from her room and sit and look at it, or else she burned the food when she tried to cook and didn't even smell it to take it off the stove. One day Aunt Mae told her to go sit on the porch while she worked in the house. When I got home from school that afternoon, Aunt Mae ran down the path to get me with a wild look in her eyes. I was scared when I saw her coming and didn't know what was wrong. She grabbed me by the shoulders and said she told Mother to go sit on the porch and now she couldn't find her. That strange feeling ran up my legs and stopped, the one I always get when I'm scared. I told Aunt Mae I didn't see her coming up the path. We went back to the house and looked all over, but we couldn't find her. It was getting dark. Mother was nowhere in the house, so I went up into the hills to walk around and try to think where she could be. I walked through the old place that Poppa had cleared. The pines there were a fine size now. The twilight was always pretty in the pines. I stopped and looked around and thought I heard something by the base of one of them. It was Mother digging at the ground. She looked up and saw me and turned back to the pine and smiled.

"Oh, David, aren't your father's cabbages growing big! I never thought his vegetables would get anywhere in all this clay, but just look. Big, big cabbages your poppa grew."

 

 

Aunt Mae got up in the mornings now and made my lunch for school. She learned more about cooking by now and didn't do so bad. When I got off she dressed Mother and let her go outside.

In school I was almost out of Mr. Farney's, which meant I was almost out of grade school. Mr. Farney was different from the other people in the valley. I heard he was from Atlanta, but that wasn't why he was different. It was the way he acted that made him strange. He didn't walk like the other men did. He walked more like a woman who swayed her hips. You could always tell Mr. Farney by his walk, no matter what clothes he was wearing and even if his back was turned to you. He had small feet that sort of pointed in when he walked. He had thin black hair that just lay soft on his head like a baby's. The main thing about Mr. Farney that was different when you saw him was his face. I knew he was almost thirty, but his skin was smooth, and you could see thin blue veins in his forehead and his nose and on his hands. His eyes were the clearest blue you ever saw and were big and wide. Everything else about him was thin, his nose, his mouth, and his body. No matter whether it was warm or cold his ears were always red, and you could almost see through them in some places.

If he wasn't so smart the boys in our class would have laughed at him. They talked about him all the time, but they never did anything in class. He could recite anything in the line of a poem or something from a famous book, and no one else in town even read poems or many books. Sometimes he wrote poems himself. The editor of the paper would print them, but nobody knew what they meant. Oh, some people who thought they were smart said they did, but I knew they didn't. His poems didn't rhyme like everybody thought they should, so Mr. Watkins wrote a letter to the editor and asked him to stop printing that trash. The editor was from up east, though, and said the poems were very good but that only a small group could understand and appreciate them. Mr. Farney took this out of the paper and put it on the board in the room.

Mr. Farney liked plants. All over the windowsills in the room he had them in pots and jars. When one started to droop, he could just touch it with his thin fingers full of the light blue veins, and pull off the bad leaves so that the plant hardly shook at all, and the next few days he had it standing up straight again. He liked violets more than anything else because he told us they were shy and delicate. He could take violet plants and pick the violets right out from under the leaves where nobody else could ever find them.

Mr. Farney lived in a little house in town with another man who gave music lessons. It was painted blue and white and had pink curtains in the front windows. Both of them never were in the war. They were some of the few men who were left in town. The people who took music lessons from the other man said the house was pretty on the inside and had all light-colored things in it and plenty plants in pots. Mr. Farney's garden was the prettiest in town. Women used to ask him about how to grow this and that, and he always helped them because he was a very nice person. Mr. Farney called the other man "dear" once when they were in the drugstore together. Everybody heard about it sooner or later, and some laughed and some shook their heads and some wanted to see him leave the valley. But he was the best teacher our school ever had, so nothing ever came of it.

Maybe you would have thought Mr. Farney was alright if you didn't hear him talk. He sort of emphasized some words more than others, and he'd take a deep breath before he said anything. When he was talking, you always watched his hands because he used them a lot.

"Now,"
he would say, "I hope you all can sit
still
for just a
little
minute while I get this record on. I
do
wish the state would send us a phonograph worth
mentioning.
The one I have at home is
so
much better. There. This is one of my
own
records, and it is a Beethoven quartet, Opus Eighteen, Number One. Notice the
homogeneity
of interpretation. Oh, I
do
wish that boy in the third row would stop
leering
at me. It's only
English
that I'm speaking. Tomorrow we
must
have a vocabulary review.
Do
remind me."

Nobody laughed at Mr. Farney when he spoke. He knew too much about things like classical music that we didn't know. I did think we had a little too much music that last year, though. That and poems. The poems he read to us were better than the music because most of them were pretty, but some of the music he played for us sounded off key, or like the instruments in the band were trying to outdo each other. Mr. Farney liked it, though, so it must have been good. One poem he read to us he made the whole class learn, and we recited it at graduation. It was by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the only thing I knew he wrote was "Paul Revere's Ride," which we learned for Miss Moore because she said it was the only poem she ever heard that she liked. This one was different from "Paul Revere's Ride." It was the only beautiful thing I ever heard, especially one part:

 

Then read from the treasured volume

The poem of thy choice.

And lend to the rhyme of the poet

The beauty of thy voice.

And the night shall be filled with music,

And the cares, that infest the day,

Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,

And as silently steal away.

 

I recited it for Aunt Mae, and she said it was beautiful, just like I thought. I didn't tell anybody in school that I liked it, or they would have thought I was crazy. Everybody learned it because they had to, but they thought it was stupid and wanted to sing a song instead. Mr. Farney said we could sing a song too, so that made them feel better. The class voted to sing "Dixie."

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