by JOAN WILLIAMS
THE owner-manager (who was also ticketseller and -taker and would have been projectionist too if labor regulations hadn’t forced him to hire a licensed one) didn’t take his first customer for a loony, and tried to charge him full admission.
The man next in line said quietly, “He don’t usually pay but half fare.”
The owner looked at the customer warily then; he didn’t look like a loony — was tall, thin, stoopshouldered, with a weather-beaten face that seemed to know all about struggle and with eyes that looked as if he were thinking, even as if he were looking for something; they weren’t empty, like the eyes of most loonies. The eyes were what fooled him.
He was hesitant: they might be trying to pull some kind of deal. You couldn’t, ever tell. He’d been taking his movie around in the back country for three years and didn’t understand these people yet. Why’d they live in country like this, bother with the little they eked out of it?
Then the loony tried to say something, opened his mouth, and nothing came out except saliva. It drooled on his pink hanging lip a minute, then ran down his chin and dropped onto his shirt when he moaned.
The owner followed the loony’s eyes, and finally he took the thin sweaty dime out of the uncurled hand.
The loony hoisted up his overalls strap and went toward the tent. The owner looked after him, still wary; he’d had trouble with too many loonies after they got into the show. “How long’s he been that way?” he said.
The man next in line looked at his wife. “Reckon ‘bout forty years?” he said.
“Reckon so,” she said; “long’s however old he is.”
The man turned back. “Reckon ‘bout forty years,” he said.
The owner tore off two tickets, took the man’s thirty cents. “Think he’s liable to cause any trouble?” he said cautiously.
The man turned to his wife. “Don’t reckon so, do you?” he said.
“No,” she said, still standing where she was, “might just moan a little.”
“Naw, might jist moan a little,” said the man, going on toward the tent, his wife going along behind.
When he had filled all the camp-stools in the tent, lined the kids up around the sides, the owner told the rest to come back tomorrow night, and went inside. Christ, it was stuffy and smelled. He walked along the little aisle left in the sawdust, feeling their eyes in the dark watching him expectantly. When he got to the small white screen set up in front, he turned. “Joe, a light,”he said.
The projection man at the back of the tent threw the spotlight on him and a chorus of “ohs” rose from the crowd. The light came from behind a piece of cardboard with holes covered over by red and green and blue cellophane, so that it played across the owner’s face like a rainbow. “Ain’t that the berries,” he said, smiling out.
He could see only those sitting along the aisle where the fight came; he noted where the loony was sitting, second aisle scat on the right. “Now, don’t worry,” the owner said, “I’m not going to make a speech.” He paused, and everybody laughed. “I just want to tell you how glad I am to be back here,” he went on, still smiling. “All the places I go I tell that the finest folks I ever met are in Redmud, Mississippi, and from one summer till the next I look toward gelling back here. So I just had to say these few words. Thank you all for coming and I hope you like the show. Let’er go, Joe,” he said, and went to sit down.
But the light didn’t go off, it just kept on playing where his face had been, only now against the white silent screen. Everybody waited. “Joe, the owner said, wiping his forehead.
Finally somebody in the rear said, “He’s outside smokin’.”
“Well, couldn’t you tell him to come in?”
“Reckon so,” the voice said. The tent flap was lifted and everybody looked at the thin blue line of twilight showing, commented on how no air came in. “The man says for you to come on in and git the picture started.‘’
A red glow showed against the blue, then Joe flipped away his cigarette and closed the flap. He cut off the spotlight, started the little black box whirring, and threw the movie beam where the spotlight beam had been. Only he threw it too high. Black and white words slid across the tent top upside down, while thin jumpy music began to play. Everybody sat quietly; no one would laugh, except the owner himself. He jumped up from his seat toward the side, where he could keep an eye on things, laughing nervously. “Just a minute, folks, everything’ll get straightened out,” he said, waving them back down as if someone had thought of leaving. It was quiet while the projection man clicked off the whirring, then started it again. The light-beam came like sundust down the aisle, and the title and the thin music came from the screen this time. There was a rustle while everybody got settled — no one would move much after the picture started — and a steady drone of voices, reading off what the titles said to those who didn’t know.
The owner went back and sat down. He leaned back into the dark and had himself a good quiet laugh. “Oh my God,” he said to himself when he had finished and had taken out his handkerchief and was wiping his forehead. He’d seen the loony leaning way down off his campstool almost on his head, watching the movie on the tent top.
JAKE straightened up when the writing disappeared. He didn’t know where it or the music had gone. No one else moved, so he sat quietly and folded his hands. He remembered the man who didn’t want to take his dime, and saw him looking at him and laughing. So he grinned back. But the man’s face went back into the dark. Then he heard the sound again, a whirring as the snake made when he tried to pick it up, and he looked for it on the tent top.
“There,” the thin little girl next to him whispered, and she put her hand on his face and pulled it down, pointed it frontward.
The unexpected touch of the hand coming out of the dark sent him bolt upright. He stared straight ahead at the words, without seeing them. Then he sat back, let himself feel again how the hand had felt: soft.
Softness he understood.
The dark, the movie, the people around were lost to him now, while he was remembering softness. One thing at a time he could know.
Some things he had learned, repeated things. And some things he knew instinctively, animallike: tones, touches; whether they were kind, or not. The child’s hand had touched him as his mother’s did whenever he put his head in her lap and she held his face close. It touched him as his mother did when she gave him the dime.
He always wanted to hold hands when they touched him this way. But his mother had pulled back. “Now don’t,” she had said, “now don’t.” When he tried to put his arm around her then, she had run, saying brokenly, “Oh, Gawd, don’t let him want to do that. Maybe you oughtn’t to go. Naw, naw, you kin go, don’t cry.” She had followed him as far as the gate. “But don’t touch nobody, Jake. Don’t touch nobody,” she said all the time he was going down the road, as she had said so many times before.
Remembering, because it hadn’t been very long, Jake didn’t try to find the hand in the dark now.
The movie music had begun at first softly, but now it came loud and thin, came to him slowly; then he began to listen and there was nothing else. It came to him beautiful and sourceless and birdlike, filled the tent, and he heard it not with his ears, but way inside him. In the pit of his stomach he heard it and tasted with it his supper, the sour warm taste of corn bread and buttermilk.
Then as always when something moved him, the music began to creep up inside him, and he tightened his legs together. “Jake,” his mother had said before he left, “if you got to go, go outside behind a tree. Please Gawd, let him.”
He held himself rigid on the narrow campstool, and continued to listen.
The music was in his chest now, hurting. It would move on up to his mouth, then it would be soundless he knew. He knew he had to catch it before it was soundless. He waited in the dark for the right moment, while the music sang to him as the birds do before they fly away.
“Caw, caw,” the little boys would cry when Jake reached up after the birds, “I’m a bird, Jake. Catch me.”
The music rose, and it seemed to Jake soaring, going away. This was the moment and he began to run after it, and it seemed so close he thought this time he had caught it. Then something held him and he turned, looked into the face he had seen before with colors on it, and the owner dragged him, pushed him into his seat roughly. “Stay down, Jake,” everyone called.
He felt the water running down his leg, but he sat still. The music had ceased and he had forgotten it. He simply found himself without surprise sitting in the dark, as often he seemed to wake from a long sleep and find himself places, and he felt if he sat quietly long enough, it would come to him why he was there. But the small voice next to him soon whispered in his ear, “Look at the pictures.”
THEN Jake became aware of the picture before him, and he looked at it, began to fit things together, piecemeal: two men were on the white sheet; they were on horses; they held guns and pointed them in the air toward hills; one took off a big wide hat, put it on again; they tied something over their faces. The men began to talk and Jake watched their mouths, opening and closing. He listened carefully, bent forward on his stool to hear them better.
He heard what they said, heard each one. One said something and he heard him distinctly; then the other said something and he heard him, but then he couldn’t remember what the first had said. He started over again. He leaned forward more, watched and listened carefully to each man; would begin to think what one had said when the other would speak — and he turned his head quickly and began to think what he was saying. There wasn’t enough time, and he began to feel the tightness coming on again.
People, sometimes even his mother, always spoke to him too fast. They said a word and he began to think about it, but when they continued to say words, it all became a jumble. He tried again and again to go back to the first word, but too many others had come between, and even his first faint glimmer would be gone. If there was time, he felt he could know what was said; he was sure. Often he felt that if only he had time, he could even answer.
For he felt words inside him the way he felt music. The words came to him, starting in his stomach, and he listened to them carefully while they moved on up to his chest, began to hurt him; then in a rush the words would be in his mouth and he would open it. He would hear the sounds he made and would be sure he had said the words clearly, and he would smile proudly; but he knew he hadn’t when they looked away and said, “Wipe off your mouth, Jake.“
On the screen the two men went riding away suddenly toward the hills; the music came again very loud. Jake jerked up to listen, but it was not the bird music. This music went pound pound pound, faster and faster. It went galloping loud. It rose out of the dark and sounded terribly in his head. It went thumpty thumpty thump, louder and faster, came closer and closer and he felt it was coming after him; there was no time to run from the tent. He screwed his eyes shut and pulled his head into his shoulders, held his hands over his cars hard. He ran within himself now, as he did when the little boys chased him beating tin pails with rocks.
“I’m a bird, Jake. Listen to the birdies,”the little boys would yell running after him, beating horribly. And he would run crazily for miles holding his ears, and long after he outran them he still heard the poundings, and not until he came to a place that was quiet, and had sat for a long time, could he take down his hands; then he would cry, rubbing his ears. Now he began to cry. “Shut up that noise, Jake,” several of the men called out behind him in the dark.
One of the ladies leaned toward the owner, “He always tries to sing when he hears music,” she explained. The movie man nodded condescendingly.
Jake stopped crying when the men yelled at him. He understood the tone in their voices. The music quieted, faded, but he sat bent over on his campstool with his head down, his hands still holding his ears.
The men spoke to him in the same tone whenever he saw them in town, leaning back in straightlegged chairs against the store fronts, hounds sleeping in circles at their feet. He had long wanted a dog; he would stop to ask the men where he could get one. As he leaned over to pat the soft warm bellies of their hounds, he would begin to tell them how he wanted a dog too. Banging their chair legs to the porch, they would jump up and yell, “Git on away, Jake. Gil him away from my bitch. Git on, slop that there moanin’.”
Then he would take himself away, telling them he would come back tomorrow to find out where he could get him a dog.
“Wake up, Jake.” Behind him, a man caught hold of his overalls, jerked him up. His eyes opened, astonished. He saw the tent over his head, felt the people around him in the dark, was aware of a mosquito; he remembered something had jerked him, a voice had said something. He listened to the breathing around him.
Between the light coming down the aisle he saw faces, all looking straight ahead. He looked ahead too. He saw the picture, remembered he had seen it before, and realized mutely that this was why he was there, to look at the picture. He looked at it intently.
But he felt tired, as if he had been running for a long time; he couldn’t think what the picture was — it was only black and white shadows. His mouth fell open and he stared straight ahead of himself.
The thin childish voice next to him began to whisper in his ear quietly, slowly, “They’re riding over the hill to rustle the cows. They’re the badmen.“
Jake nodded his head slowly with each word, shook it at the last.
His mother had primed him. She sat him down for a long time before he came and told him what he would see; having been to the movie three summers ago, she knew. “You’ll like the cows, the horses, the hills,”she said, and made him nod his head. “But not the badmen.”Then she made him shake it. His mother never let him talk, though he wanted to. “You don’t have to talk, son,”she would say, “you don’t have to. Be quiet now.”
It was hotter than ever in the tent now, as il twenty-five people sitting still for an hour had breathed up all the air. Next to the child a woman began to fan herself, and when she leaned around and fanned the child too, Jake felt a small breeze; he let himself feel it and smell the smell that came with it, sweet, the way his mother smelled when she put powder on her face.
The woman looked away and he followed her gaze. He saw a man riding a horse, coming slowly down a road. Everyone in the crowd began to clap; the little boys in the back whistled. Jake smiled, then he laughed, cupped his big paw-like hands together and pulled them apart, made a slapping sound like everyone else. He watched his hands going together, coming apart, making a noise; then the little girl voice whispered, “Quit now,” and he quit.
He looked where the little girl looked, watched the man on the horse again. The man opened his mouth and began to sing. Jake rocked back and forth on his campstool as the man rocked back and forth on his horse, and he heard the singing inside him, smiling to himself. He had known for a long time that he could sing. Whenever he was alone he would sing, but he kept it a secret.
THE man sang loudly and Jake grinned now, knowing the sounds in him are the same as the man made. When the child next to him, lost in the movie, leaned against his shoulder, he turned and looked at her face, small, perspiring, openmouthed; he saw her breath going in time to the music and he remembered her voice touching his ear, her hand touching his face a long time ago, and it came to him suddenly to tell her he could sing. Softly, with closed eyes, he began to sing, wanting just this one small face to know his secret. Abruptly the face hissed close to his, snake-like, “Shhh, you shut up that moanin’,”and he felt a breeze beat into his face very hard. He opened his eyes and looked into an angry face with a tongue shooting out like the snake’s did, with eyes that were two hard slits. The woman had jerked the little girl away, was there in her place.
Jake turned away frightened, hunched up on his stool, keeping himself away, his song forgotten. Was he supposed to run? He didn’t know. He sat on in the dark trembling until his back began to ache so he had to move. Cautiously he slid his feet from under the stool, gradually straightened his cramped legs; the face didn’t turn on him. Stealthily then he eased out his back, sat up. Over the head in front of him, he saw the movie again.
A man got off a horse, went up to a girl, stroked her long hair, talking softly. Jake’s eyes followed the stroking up and down, and slowly his fingers began to curl, uncurl, against the rough knee of his overalls.
“Shh, shh,”the snake face said. Jake jumped, but the face wasn’t looking at him; it was turned toward the back where the little boys hooted like owls.
He watched the stroking again — soft, soft, he knew remembering Sarah Jane. He began to ache remembering Sarah Jane.
“Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane,”he would moan softly over and over, stroking her. And she never moved, she never pulled away from him. She just listened to him. When he had finished all he had to say, she would look at him with unwavering eyes. Spent with telling at last, he would sit down then and, leaning his head into her stomach, begin to milk her. When the sweet warm milk came he would begin to cry sometimes, because of the stillness and the listening that was Sarah Jane; he would tell her then how she was the only one who would listen. But soon his mother would come running down to the cowshed screaming, “Git away from her now, Jake. Git away.”And she would take him away. All the time going to the house he tried to tell her about Sarah Jane, but she would say, “Hush now, hush.”Then he would cry, looking back at Sarah Jane watching him with her calm brown eyes.
When the man stopped stroking, Jake’s fingers hesitated, half-curled. He sat waiting, but the screen flickered, the scene changed and the man was gone. There were horses instead, pounding frightfully going over a hill, and the sound of gunshots. Not only the next face but all the faces hissed and twenty-five pairs of feet thudded dully against the sawdust. Jake laughed, picked up one of his feet, then the other, set each down in the sawdust stomping too.
Suddenly through a cloud of dust on the screen, he saw a cow face come toward him with wild frightened eyes, mooing loudly and mournfully. He stood up. “Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane,” he cried out, a gaunt figure waving mute and frantic arms before the on rushing herd of cattle.
“Sarah Jane, Sarah Jane,”he called again and again, beginning to run. The owner grabbed him by his crossed straps and one sleeve, dragged him down the light-beam through the aisle of snickering faces, and out into the night. “Goddamn you, loon,”he muttered.
Jake pulled back toward the tent but the man shook him hard, then Jake forgot about the tent. He stood bewildered with the man’s face breathing close to his. “You’re not getting back in there, the owner gritted out between his teeth.
With no thought left of what was inside the tent, Jake stood limply while the owner held him. Finally the owner released him and lit a cigarette, stood facing him waiting to overcome his anger. “Just God damn you,”he said as he drew on the cigarette, which glowed faintly red against his face in the dark.
And this faint red glow stirred up, as much as possible, a memory in Jake. When he had seen the owner with the spotlight playing across his face, he had associated it with the one thing of color indelibly etched on his mind — the sunset — because he watched it daily, and now he knew that he had seen this face before with color on it. He began to tell the man. “Take your hands off me. Get on away,”the owner said, giving him a good shove before he threw away his cigarette and went on back into the tent.
Jake turned after him, knew from the tone of the voice not to follow, and stood holding on to the outside fold of the tent flap, beginning to tell the man about the sun going down red against a darkening sky. In a little while someone stuck his head out, “Shut up that noise and go home,”he said, and while the tent flap was open Jake glimpsed a man and a girl, heard music, saw a horse with its mane waving in the wind; then he was staring at; nothing, with his nose up against the closed flap of the tent.
He turned, ran his hand over his nose where the rough tent had scratched it, and went on slowly, down the faint road. The moon came out smiling from behind a cloud, opened up a while path; he followed it, listening to the staccato sounds from katydids hiding in the tall grass alongside the road, listening to the shrill loud screaming of locust from somewhere overhead, listening to the stumbling craunch of his own feet on the gravel, all sounds.
Alone, he began to call up words from way inside him, A bird fluttered in one of the poplar trees and he looked for it between the white leaves. It sang sleepily way up, and he went on. He went instinctively, not having to think where he was going. Because it was quiet, the words came easily, but formed slowly one by one, and he waited for them to come as he walked.
When he had been in the quiet for about a mile, he began to remember: music. He stored up words to go with the music. After a while he remembered the horse, and he stored up words to go with the horse; he remembered the wind.
He turned out of the moonlight and went through the dark again, his feet following surely the thin side-road.
When he saw the little house, with one lighted window, he went up to it and looked inside. A woman knelt by a cot and he watched her. As she stood up and got into bed, he saw without surprise that it was his mother and knew he was home. His mother sat in the bed by the lamp and he knew she was waiting for him. He waited, watching her. The night sounds continued around him; they had become a part of his hearing now and he didn’t have to listen to them consciously. With the sounds around him, with the words inside him, he felt again the uncontrollable thing that guided him, and he wanted to make sounds too. He moved his hand out in a sweeping gesture, stood outside the window nodding his head up and down, shook it once.
But the words still stirred him, wanting to be said. Suddenly he found himself going away from the window, and he went, went as if he were following himself.
He went quietly through the tall dew-wet grass, felt it itch his leg, but he forgot it before he could remember to stop and scratch it. He went on with the words carefully inside him. The music began, churned inside him with the words, words about the horse with its mane waving in the wind, and he held everything inside him together as much as he could, till the moment to tell them.
He found himself at the gate, lifted it and set it back in its rut. Then he went silently smelling the ragweed, heard frog music, and he heard it and set it apart slowly from his own music. Instinctively he went on through the dark and circled wide around the place where he had seen the snake.
As he went down into the summer-dried ditch, came up again, the words jarred loose from his chest and he started running, telling them.
As he heard the faint bell tinkle, he was running faster telling about the wind, waving his arms.
He smelled the pasture for the first time as he came up to her and he lay down immediately with his head on her soft flank. When he felt her stillness and her warm breath smelling of grass, he began to tell her about the music and he knew, as much as he could, that through the long summer he would come here again and again.