Grandmother had panicked after seeing the horse-drawn paddy wagon with Elmwood McKinley, eating his lunch out of a bread can. McKinley would rap his billy club against the wagon, and the horse was skittish as they traveled down the dirt road—even the stones faced away from him, scared of him they were.  The small Southern town was behind the rest of the world, and not ready for the modern ways of police cruisers and motorcycles.

            A red light had been mounted on the timber pole at the town square, and when this red light blinked red, he’d use the call box to reach headquarters.  It was a summon of duty for the police officer, and when it flashed, the police officer on duty, would return to the station, and contact the desk sergeant, who controlled the signal from his office.  McKinley would usually respond, even if he was eating his favorite meal of rye bread and beans. 

            He, of course, remembered her as clear as the day she found him in her employer’s crawl space.  Grandmother had thought that a squirrel or a raccoon had taken to living in the crawl space between the laundry room and the bottom door, only to discover that it was a boy with a piece of madness coming out from his mouth.  She had looked at him with the same nigger pain that her mother’s doctor had looked at her, when he delivered the sad brown baby to the high-yellow woman.  He’d said to her, “That is a shame.  I’d try again if I were you.”

 He’d seen the woman with “Mike.”  He’d seen the benign smile of two happy faces, the movement of slender hands, those cryptic messages coded in a laughter and murmur, one praising the day’s long end, the other hero-worshipping the

softness of privacy. A thick rhythm of sound had guided him inside, and violated the

coal-blackness of his seeing eyes. Elmwood saw pants at the knees, white arms upon black arms, and lips curled up in a pleasing manner.   The laughter was bell-like and watchful, like it had been waiting for him to arrive to stop his feelings.

National Orphans Day had made him run away from the home, that and his mother’s death.  In a dream, he had watched a warm, steam tunnel take her body to the bottom of the hill and tossed into a burial site not far from Denmar.  His skin had become a dark shade of red, and his nose had grown out too far, and he could no longer pass because his mother’s face had become his.  She had grabbed his hand, and he had shouted out her name, “Otelia!”  But a man in white had pulled them apart, and it was the first time that he was face-to-face with one of his enemies.  The other children had tried to pull him away from the whispering mist, but it called his name, and he stood there and watched his mother. 

            Those that knew their mothers believed that the world was a safe place, and they took risks that others would not dare, and he was one of them.  The white folks were kind enough not to say anything about the wet, brown stinky stain on the back of his white pants during the baseball game.  The black folks were kind enough to say something to him about the stain on the back of his pants after the game was over. 

            That they did not notice during the game he had taken off his cap to reveal hair three inches longer than it should have been was enough ammunition for him to realize that he would not be missed on National Orphans Day.  He wrote letters to Philadelphia, Reading, Pennsylvania , Topeka, Kansas, and Santa Fe, New Mexico looking for work with the railroads, only to be told that because it was 1894 and a great depression was still going on, that if labor was needed, it was to be given to the displaced workers already in the towns first.

            Elmwood was already familiar with National Orphans Day, having first heard about it in the poorhouse.  He had first heard about that word that had taken his father years afterward when he was at a nightclub, the young man had repeated it just as smooth as the tear on a baby doll.  He would ask his father, “Daddy, what’s wrong?”  Elmwood would never get a response. 

The laugh lines on his father’s creased face would deepen, and then that almighty black hand would move like thunder through the sky, and then fall down on him, striking the amusement from his son’s face, like the ripple of the sea after getting permission from the sky to move.  Sometimes, his father would spit on him, all rich and moist, heavier than ejaculation, but not as thick.  Elmwood’s orange-yellow world would begin to change. 

            He closed his eyes and watched the orange-yellow and saffron become controlled by the parasitic fungus until they became turbid weeds.  For hours, Elmwood’s father would walk around in the nude—He felt no need to verify himself because as willing as he was to feel as to receive, he could not stop the drone in his ear.  There was nothing he was intimately more afraid of than dying without one of his beloved opium-soaked cigarettes. 

Elmwood would scrounge around the poorhouse for them, and so lazy was his father that when it was whispered that the orphanage’s director took a secondary replacement, hashish, in his tea, Elmwood’s father was too lazy to sneak into the shadow room, leaving the young boy to get it for him.

            The director kept the hashish in a drawer by his bed.  This he needed badly because the medicine man had said so.  The buck dancers and harmonica players

would sing the long song, sing it until the black folks turned and listened.  The black

buck dancers would move around like chickens, and instead of laying golden eggs,

they laid gold advertising cards.  If they gave you one of those advertising cards, and

if you turned bald, that meant you were going to live.  The medicine man was born

thousands of years ago, so surely he would know.

            Somewhere under the magic, laid a ‘yes, ma’am,’ and a ‘no, sir;’ saying

anything else guaranteed hard luck. So that medicine man would keep on

selling, and the black folks would buy it, or he’d tell them to stroll to the cemetery.  The medicine man would work with a pitchman, like Elmwood’s father: Buddy.                They called him Bold Buddy, and not because he invented jazz, but because he’d mix rattlesnake oil for toothaches backstage with moonshine, and then drink it in front of the customers.  He didn’t even know if the snake had been killed before it rattled, but it must have been because he never died of poison.

            Bold Buddy was completely free of humor when he did it, and he did it not for the greed but to authenticate himself.  He had no center, no way of judging whom he really was because his first experience in life had taught him not to count on other people, especially Negroes.  He had clung to his arrogance as the closest thing to a best friend, and they didn’t like that.  There was no dazzle in his eyes when he spoke to others, even white folks, just a blank stare, hiding empty promises.  The men were especially jealous of him because their women were attracted to him. 

            As a child, he had been the prettiest little boy in town, with the darkest eyelashes, the plumpest cheeks, the softest curls, and whiskey brown, watery eyes but as a man, he was just Buddy, ugly, mean, and common.  Weirdness had changed all that, but not knowing that he was weird, and then seeing people’s reaction to it, having lived in a town where the power of salesmanship was considered evil, like smiling too much, or crying before church, and not afterwards, he instantly knew that if he was to survive he would have to pretend to be one of them.

            He would pretend he was not interested in reading dime novels about Sherlock Holmes, or adventures in far-away places.  He would pretend that he’d rather eat mutton stew than the roast beef he was accustomed to eating in the private, elite homes of the middle-class Negroes that he stayed with.  Instead, he played race music on a harmonica that was two inches long, and pretended like he had never met Tom Thumb when they talked about the circus.

            The pretend lift in his eyes appeased the folk’s common senses, that he was just as heavy-shouldered as them, and full of stop-time taps, Washington Cake with just a teaspoon and not a tablespoon of cinnamon, and that when he looked in the mirror, he didn’t see his face. 

Somewhere in the center of everything was a mother without a child.  A faceless black woman among a million faces he saw in everyday life---all of them the same: lonely, brown, and sweet.  He had never known what it was like to be slapped across the face in the dance of anger, the dance of love.  Never known what it was like to have the taste of creamy, white milk on his lips. 

Late at night, he would wake up in a cold, shivering dream-state, longing to return to that one memory he had of his mother: a black shadow that showed no tears, showed no pain.  Just long, long shades of gray that awoke to rain pouring down, dropping down the window, facing the edge of the world.  He lived inside the stream, and collected the high-pitched trill hum of the spring field insects in his ears because the sounds were too far away to be near. 

Prayed that MAN, that G-O-D would turn the farm dirt into water that would evaporate into his hand, and turn that predestined shakiness into a river but that did not happen either.   Whenever he walked along the earth, dust would collect itself, and turn into sand pools in his eyes, and when they opened, there was hair, eyes, nose, and mouth to that shadow. 

That the children were wrong, that there was blackness to that wet light, and that black shadow was more than just a reflection.  He had lived on both sides of that shadow with red skin, and did not believe that he halfway smelled like a wet dog.  And somewhere out there, the Ghost in the Wind whispered, “I have known a mother, not unlike yours.” The sunlight came into the parlor room and down the silver spider webs to the bridge of the nose that bowed in silence and eyes that gently tipped to lips that quietly announced with red paint where they had been.  He blotted his eyes on the white napkin, while the smile stayed frozen forever. 

“And what am I supposed to believe?” he had said.

“Watch it now.  You gettin’ too mean, too soon,” she said.

“I’ve been here for so long.  Tryin’ to figure things out.”

“Some things ain’t worth verifyin.’”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“You get to where you need to, you’ll find the answer.”

But it never happened because at the foot of the stairs, the reflection had looked away from him.  That cryptic smile meant for him didn’t look right, and if it didn’t look right, it didn’t feel right.  However, his glance forward in the presence of others was agreeable, almost asexual.  It was the only way that Buddy could get his mind off being a cowboy, and dark, spiteful places, and form little puddles wherever he walked.

He lived inside the river, floating in and out of the water, aimlessly in two directions, looking for russet faces in fetal positions.  They’d say, ‘You are here,’ to him, and then he’d turn his back on the cold, wet light, turn his back on the deep forest and kneel until they touched his shoulders, and pulled him back up again.  They’d keep coming for him, and someone would speak softly in his ear, and louder in everyone else’s ears.

He’d taken off his clothes, laid them down on quilt scraps, swallowed his spit and bitterness, and stayed there until they had pulled him back up.  He was pushed under the water several times under he saw the light flashing through the reflection.   He’d looked over at the Lily Whites mammoth, soothe-soft faces and they’d floated away.

A leaf floated in the thick layer of grime and pebbles at the lower bank of the river.  Buddy had picked it up and carefully laid it in the pocket of his overalls, since he had no possessions at the orphanage.  He had relaxed a little after he had focused his thoughts to a better hiding spot, and slid the leaf down his overalls, and underneath his privates.

They thought he hid them there because he wanted to protect his privates from being touched. It was not even because he had walked over to the wooden truss bridge, spread out his arms eagle-like, and attempted to jump off into the sparking, icy waters from the open window where her reflection was eagerly waiting beneath the rock shoals.  Another little boy, who had followed him along the nature trail, picking wildflowers along the way, had grabbed his ankles, causing him to hit his head, and when he woke up again, he was alone.  The he-haint that had saved him from the dark, lonely woods, the welcoming river banks, the water filled with salmon and other good-tasting fish, the curly black hair that smelled like wonder soap and fingers that had once played on a 10-cent harp, and defined the person that he would grow up to be, gone. 

Could not remember the weary clouds rifling the air with dampness, and the hill woman with the hand-me-down clothes that had offered him over to the mud people headed north, away from the homes built of fire and brimstone. 

In the cottage had been three of them; two were peach-colored, one deeply-wrinkled and the other, a darker shade of a plum that did not blanch easily even if kept out of the sun too long. They may have spoken of rivers, but the whites of the pupils shared a pale familiarity, and black figures with auburn faces swayed to the rhythm of Sunday morning. 

There is a mystery to life that walks between the trees at night, sick and haunted, that breathes the winter dark that breathes the summer light.  The mystery would disappear in the morning, leaving behind a melancholy sound of death.  A death that rushed around the fear of morning and buried handsome and delicate clouds under the mysterious ardor of loving arms. 

He’d look under the center-stained spot of a featherless pillow, gone.  Looked over into the edge of the woods where an old wooded bench made of rough planks had been abandoned long ago.  Looked under the sleepy movement of a standing-still house dress, gone. 

A journey into seclusion had brought joy of an abandoned three-room farmhouse where they could roll around in gunny sacks and eat cornbread with molasses.  For a second, the world stopped, and then the river fell into a ragged rhythm and dried up.  They’d gathered up everyone and looked around for a place that the water could be. 

They’d lit pine torches at night and uplifted hands.  But there was still no water.  Had they any sense to have drunk more whiskey, everyone would have found the place incapable of presence.  Instead, soles of ashy feet walked the gentleness back into the earth.  Then, there were three, who walked behind the rest, took a different road, and hid when the red soldiers came. 

She was cruelty, for a long strand of coarse, curly hair found in a rust-colored washbasin had brought them back.  The flame of their candle that night shrunk to a blue flicker, but they never looked in that direction.  Some would wait for water-drops, suicidal and right, but the river would dry up first. 

An old black man named Gambia had strummed the banjo from the other side of the dry-now river.  The hill woman’s skirt swirled, despite the skirt’s ceaseless devotion, on that cold, windy day. Dry up like the crackle of the melancholy woman’s voice, who sang her song, and then there was one.

                        Little Boy Lost,

                        I cain’t find my way back home.

                        Little Boy Lost,

                        Mama’s repeated herself, so I’m all alone.

The song was the story of a hill woman who ate fruit from a thorny tree that rarely grew brown leaves.  The unworn dress made of Lowell was spread over the bushes.  Smelled like sweet-gum bark and marked the only color on her body; she was so feel of feeling for this dress that every night at midnight she wore it.  Seven nights a week she done this: Behind the stalks of corn, calloused bare feet bid themselves until it was time to move. 

            One night, the air was light and chilly, the leaves crackled, and the hill woman walked in loose, uncertain steps.  After praying her half-closed eyelids back open, a voice deep inside called out, “Let them hear you sing.”  The animals watched her from the trees, and waited with an expectant look.  Long, salty tears fell from the hill woman’s face and made a respectful path colored with a few old yellow flowers that the yard boy had forgotten to clean up.  And He had followed her. 

            He had been following her since birth. At birth, He had rattled the doorknob of the room she had come into the world in. Past the scratched ankles, caked with manure, and beads of dirty sweat on the tip of her mother’s nose.  She grabbed at the first piece of air that she could find, and wrapped her little tiny hand around a firefly, and squeezed it so hard that she smashed it dead, and He had been chasing her ever since.

From that moment on, the hill woman’s story began.  As she pushed to get closer to the railroad yards from the path behind the one-room cottage, a different sort of tension took over the air, a tension that was whipped with cowhide, that hurt like the cat-o-nine tails, that carried a rabbit’s foot, that ate dried meat from a rope that was placed into old rags and was petrified of the never-ending dread of fingers being stained from eating too many berries.

The closer the hill woman got to the railroad yards, the closer she got to the mounds of fresh, newly-made graves of dirt and no names.  Her face lit up like a pine torch on the byroads as a wild feeling took over her body and completely wet her underclothes.   A few blocks of wood became her sleeping place and she began to feel nostalgic for a cool glass of lemonade and her kitten.  Kitten was a scraggly, little shorthair which she placed a small brass cross around its neck that she’d found in the woods one day.  That was how she’d claimed it as her reward for saving it from the movement of finger taps splashing little drops on its face.