Monday, 27 July 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 16 Mary

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It is hard for me to imagine someone whose entire life has been spent within a twenty mile radius of a hard-scrabble shack in the middle of the woods. Someone who has never seen a mountain or a skyscraper or eaten Chinese food. Mary was from a different era. She had never wanted it any differently. Her son Jake had gone off to war to fight the Japanese and his stories of the outside world were enough for her. She had never summoned up the curiosity to go much past Washington, and even then she had only been there once. She had been easy to find. We didn't rely on Tess's memory, but stopped to ask the first black person we saw coming out of a church near Deltaville, a few miles outside Matthews. He happened to be the preacher, and when we asked him if he knew Mary Pickett, he looked at us as if we were daft. "Of course," he said, as if everybody knew of Mary Pickett. He directed us down the highway, closing by saying: "If you find her though you'll have seen her more than me. She ain't the church going kind." We followed his directions down a long dirt road heading away from the water. The soil was sandy and the pines were stunted and scraggly. "Bottom land," said Tess. "Not good for much." In the agrarian society hierarchy, those at the lowest rung of the ladder had to make do with what was left over. Jake's house was what a carpenter friend of mine used to call an afterthought. After they built a door, they thought of adding a window; after the walls, some insulation; after a story, another story. The whole building had sort of an improvised and half-finished look, like a man arriving at the office with shaving foam on his chin and his shirt-tail out. Out front there was an old Ford pickup up on blocks. The carcass of a refrigerator loitered around the side. Despite having landscaped Valhalla's gardens, Jake had never brought his briefcase home from the office, so to speak. There was a half-hearted attempt at a bush by the front door, and the rest of the place was left to grow whatever nature had deposited there, with only the most occasional trimmings. In spite of the chill in the air, the front door was open though the screen in front of it was shut and the hook and eye fastened. There didn't seem to be a doorbell of any kind. "Hello!" I yelled. Sometimes you can sense the presence of someone even when there is no response. The house just didn't feel empty. "Hello!" we both shouted in unison as I knocked on the frame of the door. Finally a voice called out from the adjacent room. "What is it you people want? I done told you once that Jake sent the check in last week." Tess looked at me, shrugged her shoulders, and gave an ironic half-smile. "Mary? Is that you?" she called out. There was a pause. "Who wants to know?" said the voice. "Mary, it's me. It's Tess. Tess Haynes," Tess said, trying to eke out some trust from the suspicious old woman. "Tess?" The door to the other room opened and the small hunched figure of the old woman inched out into view. "Let me get a good look at you, girl," she said. She looked through the screen door with her head cocked to one side and one eye squinting. Finally she cackled to herself and lifted the hook off the clasp to open the door. "Lord have mercy, child. You liked to scared me to death. I though you was them buzzards from the finance company come to git Jake's car." She pronounced finance like high-nance, with the accent on the drawn out first syllable. We stood outside the door while she looked Tess over first, finally casting her eye on me. Tess broke in. "Mary, this is my friend Evan." I reached forward to shake Mary's hand, gnarled and knotty like the puny pines around her house. She took it reluctantly. "Friend?" she said skeptically. "Ain't you got yourself a husband yet?" I liked her directness. By age ninety you are entitled to say whatever you want. You haven't got much breath left in you to waste on niceties. "Not yet," Tess said, a bit embarassed. The old woman harrumphed disgustedly. "You best be getting a move-on, girl," she said. "Time's a-wasting." She looked at me like I was to blame. She opened the door and indicated for us to come inside. We went into the living room and sat on her Naugahide couch. The house was dark with an indescribable musty odour, a mixture of stale cooking oil, dust, and human scent. It was tidy but not clean, and I imagined what bottles of disinfectant she had around were still in glass containers, sixties vintage. The whole place had a depressing air to it. Perhaps not to Mary though. She was quite animated. "I remember you when you was a little polecat, an ornery little polecat. You used to poke Stokely's eyes when you fought, didn't you Tess?" She reached out and poked Tess for confirmation, wheezing and chuckling to herself. She continued to run briefly through long forgotten incidents from Tess's childhood, most of which centered around Tess's tomboy adventures. It was her way of getting situated, as she put it. "I'm just getting situated here," she kept on saying as she launched into another monologue which only Tess and she could appreciate. Finally she stopped and looked Tess straight in the eye. "Now whatch-you two come here for?" she asked. "You ain't never been to my house before, Tess. I thought y'all done forgot an old bones-bag like me. All of you. I ain't seen nobody in your family since Aunt Mary died. Lord, that was ten years ago, must have been." There was no point in beating around the bush with her. She was having none of it. She didn't want to hear any excuses either. She knew we came from different worlds. Tess realised this too. "We want to ask you some questions about my great grandfather Helmut," Tess said. Mary let out a hoot. "Lord, you're talking ancient history now, child. I was half your age then." "I realise that. I just wanted to know what you remembered about him." Mary's face turned towards the door and her eyes seemed elsewhere. "Your great grandfather Mr. Hoeflinger," she said wistfully. "He was a real gentle-man." She pronounced gentleman as if it were two words. "Now mind you he wasn't no easy man. No ma'am, not at all. He done told people what to do and they went and did it. He was the boss. But he could convince a body that the sky wasn't blue. He could make you believe anything. Why he done made me believe I could swim." "And you can't?" I offered up. She looked over at me, distracted for a moment. "Lord no, child. I'd sink like a stone. I ain't never been no use around the water." She paused, drawing in her breath, and then continued. "But Mr. Hoeflinger, he just up and told me in that funny accent of his, he said, Mary, ve vill be on de boot togezzuh. Dere is nuttink to vorry about. And I just went. That was the first time and the last time." She shook her head. "Poor Mr. Hoeflinger." "The boat?" Tess interrupted. "Which boat?" "Why the Eric, child. That fancy high-falootin yacht of his. He done told my mama he wanted me to go up and serve for him on the boat, up to Washington and back. I was scareder than I've ever been and I screamed and kicked and carried on like I was going to run away. But my Mama didn't pay me no mind. She done told me I was sixteen years old and it was high time I quit acting like a baby. So I just kept my mouth shut and went and got on that boat. But I'll tell you there ain't no way I'da ever done that for no man cept Mr. Hoeflinger. That's why it was so bad when it happened." "When what happened, Mary?" Tess's eyes honed in on the old woman's face, straying over to me for the briefest of moments. "When he died, child. When he died on the way back to Valhalla." This time Tess looked over at me and raised her eyebrows. I noticed that we were both leaning forward with our hands under our thighs, looking for all the world like ski jumpers hanging on the winds of her words. My heart suddenly did double time. "You mean you were there when he died, Mary? You were there at Haynes Point?" Tess asked incredulously. It seemed almost too unbelievable. Mary suddenly quietened down. "Yes, I was there child. It was turrible, just turrible. The worst day of my life." "Can you tell us what happened?" Tess asked. "Why do you want to know about that, child?" Mary wanted a good reason to dig up old ghosts. My mind went blank, but Tess quickly responded. "Aunt Lillian is nearly dead. You're the only person who knows anything about that time. I want to find out...for the family." The mention of Lillian in the same breath seemed to elevate Mary to a level she had never reached previously in the Hoeflinger universe. She nodded. "I remember that trip like it was yesterday. It was the first time I done left home and I never went again. No ma'am. His dyin' was a sign. We sailed up on that boat to Washington and I stayed in that house of theirs and I ain't never seen nothing like it since. They was gas lights and a butler who put on airs and called me a little pickaninny till I told him to mind his mouth. Mizz Hoeflinger she bought me a nice dress at some big store, Gar-something. We stayed for 'bout one month till it was time to come back down to Valhalla. I didn't want to come back home by then, no ma'am. Being up there was like being in a different world and I was gettin' customed to it. I mean I was supposed to be learnt how to be a maid but I spent most of my time playing with Lillian and Mary." She shook her head, and it bobbed up and down in a circle like one of those puppets on television. The memory of this brief spell as a sixteen year old transfixed her for a moment. "Then?" prompted Tess. "Then it ended. Just like that. Mr Hoeflinger, he come back one night and said he was going back to Valhalla with some of his friends and he wanted me to come along and cook and clean and so we left the next afternoon, the seven of us, to go back on that damn boat." "The seven of you?" I asked. "That's right. Me, the captain, the mate, Mr. Hoeflinger, and his three friends." "Who were they?" Tess was drawing information out of the old woman like a maestro extracting music from an orchestra. "There was Mr. Ford. I didn't know he was so famous at the time, I was so ignorant. Then there was Mr. Hoeflinger's partner Tom, though I ain't never seen two partners go at one another like the two of them. Then there was their doctor friend." Tess and I looked at each other. "Doctor friend?" "That's right. Fat lot of good he did, though I spect it was too late anyway." "Too late for what?" "To save him...when Mr. Hoeflinger had his heart attack," she said, suddenly biting her lower lip as she talked. "We was all sleeping right before sunup. All of a sudden the Cap'n, he was roustin' me and yelling for me to come and we were out by that damn lighthouse and we had to carry Mr. Hoeflinger across to the beach and go through those waves and I kept screaming that I couldn't swim and the Cap'n he smacked me upside the head and told me to shut up. Then we came onto the beach and we had to wait forever for the ambulance. Like I said, by that time it was too late. He was already dead when it came...that damn ambulance." The recollection of the event was painful for her. She spat out the word ambulance, rhyming it with dance, and it seemed to echo around the room. "And where did you go then?" Tess continued to lead her on. "We went on down to the hospital in Gloucester, and then we went on back to Valhalla, cept for Mr. Tom. He said he had to go to Washington to take care of things...for the family, you know." "Washington?" I asked. "You're sure he said Washington?" She gave me a puzzled look. "That's what I remember, child." Suddenly her attitude seemed to change course. She had had enough of dredging up bad memories. "I didn't never go nowhere again," she said, slamming the door of the conversation shut. "I don't want to talk about that no longer. Everything changed after that." There was an awkward silence that seemed to empty the room, halted finally by me. "Can I ask you one more question, Mary?" Reluctantly she nodded her head. I was an interloper. "Go ahead, son. I ain't got all day." "Can you remember the doctor friend's name?" She looked at me like she was picking ticks off a dog, wondering why in the heavens I would want to know that. I thought she wasn't going to answer, when finally she said: "I remember that, child. I remember cause when I met him the first time I thought he was askin' me to come over. Malcolm. That was his name. Doctor Malcolm."

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