Authors: Andrea Cheng
BOYDS MILLS PRESS
Copyright Â© 2011 by Andrea Cheng
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
Designed by Helen Robinson
Printed in the United States of America
ISBN: 978-1-62979-294-1 (e-book)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2010938271
Boyds Mills Press, Inc.
815 Church Street
Honesdale, Pennsylvania 18431
To the memory of my father
Mr. Willie pulls every last weed in the driveway cracks, then sweeps the concrete clean. Aunt Geneva comes out to pay him, but Mr. Willie doesn't want any money. “A sandwich would be nice,” he says.
“Are you sure?” She holds out the dollar bills, but Mr. Willie shakes his head.
Aunt Geneva makes two peanut butter and jam sandwiches, slices up an apple, and puts it all into a lunch bag. “Jerome, you take these out to Mr. Willie,” she says.
He's sitting on the ground under the ginkgo tree. “Aunt Geneva said to give this to you.” I hand him the bag. He lays out his lunch all in order, then eats steady, not in a hurry but not stopping either. When he ï¬nishes both sandwiches and the apple, he uses the bag to wipe his mouth.
“Where do you stay at, Mr. Willie?” I ask.
He shows me with his chin. “Up the hill. What about you?”
He's never seen me before because I haven't been here long. “My name's Jerome and I just ï¬nished the ï¬fth grade. Now I'm staying with my Aunt Geneva and
Uncle James,” I tell him. His eyes are closed. “Since my mother passed.”
Mr. Willie nods.
“I could stay with Aunt Melinda, but she lives in New York.”
I'm not sure if Mr. Willie heard me or not.
“And I have two more aunts in Atlanta.” “You say New York?”
“Yes. New York City. Aunt Melinda lives there. But Mama said it would be best not to go far.”
Mr. Willie lies down to take a nap.
“That old man's crazy,” my cousin Damon says. “Walking up and down the street, pulling weeds.”
“Why's that crazy?”
“You want to be doing that when you're old?” He turns to his little brother, Monte. “Jerome's going to be a bum.”
“I never said that.”
Damon is dribbling a basketball between his legs and behind his back. He's tall for ï¬fteen, with arms so long they're everywhere at once. He sends the ball my way. It hits my leg, bounces into the street, and starts rolling down the hill. Damon stops it with his foot. “Come on,” he says to his brother, heading toward the basketball rim nailed to a telephone pole.
Damon makes the ï¬rst shot. Monte gets the rebound, tries for a lay-up, and misses. Damon has the ball again.
I head across the street.
Mr. Willie is behind the carriage house digging with a piece of rusty metal. I go close so I can see in the hole. There's something white in there. “What is it?” I ask.
“We're about to ï¬nd out,” he says, handing me a tool just like his.
“Where'd you get this big old nail?” I ask.
Mr. Willie smiles and I see that lots of his teeth are gone. “Called a railroad spike,” he says.
I start digging as fast as I can. I move the clods of clay to the side with my hands so I can see what I'm doing. The sweat is dripping down my forehead, stinging my eyes. Mama said
Dig the garden deep so the carrots grow sweet
. We added sand to break up the clay, mixed in compost too. Rotten banana peels and eggshells and onion skins.
“Slow down, Jerome,” Mr. Willie says. “Don't hit too close or you might chip it.”
I didn't know he even remembered my name. “Chip what?” I ask.
“Can't know for sure quite yet. But I do have an idea.”
I'm careful after that, trying to match Mr. Willie's steady rhythm. We have to make the hole wider before we can get down deep.
Damon and Monte are standing there. “You digging to China, Jerome?” Damon asks.
“Does this look like China?” I ask.
“Never been there,” Monte says.
Damon kicks at the dirt. “Come on,” he says to his brother.
“Wait,” Monte says, looking into the hole.
“Wait for what?” Damon bounces the ball on the ground right next to the hole, making dirt fall back in.
“Stop it,” I say.
“There's something white in there,” Monte says.
“Nothing but rocks.” Damon grabs Monte's arm and pulls him away. He's whispering something about Mr. Willie being crazy, or me being crazy, or both.
“Your brothers?” Mr. Willie asks after they're ï¬nally gone.
“Miss Geneva's boys?”
“Yup. I'm staying there now.”
He doesn't ask why or how long or anything. Our hole's getting wider but it's hard to keep the dirt from falling back and water's starting to come up from below like it does.
“Could use a shovel,” Mr. Willie says.
“I'll get us one.”
Damon and Monte are sitting on the couch watching television. “Do you have a shovel?” I ask.
Damon turns the volume up.
Aunt Geneva is cutting potatoes. “What do you need a shovel for?” she asks.
“I'm helping Mr. Willie,” I say.
“Damon, turn off that television,” Aunt Geneva says. He turns the volume down, but he's still watching.
“You heard me,” she says.
He turns it off and glares at me.
“Now one of you go and get the shovel out of the basement,” Aunt Geneva says. “You know where it hangs behind the door.”
Damon looks at his brother. Monte stares back.
“If one of you doesn't get the shovel, neither of you are watching that TV for a long while,” Aunt Geneva says.
Monte kicks at the ï¬oor, then goes down the basement steps and comes up with a long-handled shovel.
“What are you helping Mr. Willie with?” Aunt Geneva asks.
“Jerome's digging to China,” Monte says.
“Better than wasting your mind on that television,” Aunt Geneva says. She looks at me. “Your mother raised you right.”
I wish she wouldn't say that because it makes Damon mad. He's rolling his eyes. I hurry up the hill with the shovel dragging.
Mr. Willie uses the shovel to pile the dirt into a neat mound. I keep chipping with the railroad spike. We're starting to see more of the white stone. It's rounded on top, like a head, like a dead man's skull except it looks to me like there's curls on the head, and dead people don't have hair. Sometimes living people don't either, like Mama before she passed. Aunt Melinda gave her a wig to wear but I said
I don't like that wig, it doesn't look like you with that wig on
, and Mama said
A bald head scares people, Jerome
, and I said
Not me, the wig scares me
“Time to take a break,” Mr. Willie says. He leans the shovel against the wall, goes into the carriage house, and comes out with a thermos, two cups, and a bag of carrots. I drink the cold water and bite a carrot, but it's not sweet like the ones Mama used to grow.
“Do you stay right here?” I point to the carriage house.
Mr. Willie nods.
“I'm staying with Aunt Geneva and Uncle James,” I say. I pour myself another cup of water.
“You said.” Mr. Willie looks at me like I can say more if I want or not if I don't.
“We didn't think she'd go this quick.”
“Hard to predict,” Mr. Willie says.
“What's hard to predict?”
“When people are born and when they die and all that's in between.” He takes a long drink and pours us both some more. “Your Aunt Geneva makes a good sandwich,” he says.
“Her chili is good too. I'll bring you some next time.”
“That would be nice.”
“Can you cook in there?” I point to the carriage house.
Mr. Willie nods.
“Is there a kitchen?”
“Do people know you stay here?”
“Nobody's business,” he says.
I know that's right. When Mama passed, everyone was in my business. They said they could ï¬nd my daddy and I could stay with him, but he'd been gone so long, who even knew where he was. Mama didn't, that's for sure. We were a temporary stop, she said, a place for him to stay.
Maybe he'll be back
, I said. Mama held me close.
Or maybe not. No matter, Jerome. We're ï¬ne here the two of us, we know that.
I could go to my aunt's in New York and see the Empire State Building and all that. Aunt Geneva said
No, that boy isn't going anywhere far away like that. He's staying with me like his mother wanted. He's our boy now.
I felt my breakfast
come up in my throat. I'm not anybody's boy. I'm Jerome Mason, I'm going in the sixth grade, and I play piano.
The main thing was I didn't want Mama in that cofï¬n with that wig that made her look like a witch. The funeralhome man said
Don't you want your mama to look pretty?
She looks ugly with that ugly wig.
Finally Aunt Geneva said
Listen to the boy, it's his business
, and the funeral-home man took it off.
Mr. Willie gives me a bandana like his to keep the sweat from stinging my eyes and we go back to our digging, but my eyes are burning like ï¬re. Mama said
Sure, Jerome, it's good to think, to consider, but too much thinking is called mulling. You know that word, Jerome?
Mulling is like tires spinning on ice, turning around real fast but getting nowhere. I know Mama's right, but for some reason the digging makes a lump grow in my throat so big I can hardly swallow.
Some of the neighborhood kids come by to see what we're doing. “You're Damon and Monte's cousin, aren't you,” a girl named Ashley asks.
“How old are you?”
“Older than Monte.”
“You staying here now?”
It's whiter than any stone I've ever seen.
“Marble,” Mr. Willie says. “There's white marble, black marble, and pink marble. This here's white, same as the steps.”
We sit back for a minute and Mr. Willie closes his eyes. “On hot days in the big house, I'd lie on one marble step until my skin heated up and then move up to the next until I got to the top, and then I'd start all over again. My mother said, âWilson, get up off there and do something,' but Miss Myrtle said, âLeave him, he's listening.'”
“I didn't know your real name was Wilson.”
“Do you want me to call you Mr. Wilson, then?”
“No matter.” Mr. Willie adjusts his bandana. “Long as I know it's me you're talking to.”
“I like to be called Jerome. Not Jerry.”
“Jerome it is, then.”
“Who's Miss Myrtle?” I ask.
“She was the lady of the house.” Mr. Willie looks up at the big mansion with the windows all busted out and boarded up. “My mother worked there.”
“In that house?”
Mr. Willie nods. “We came every morning.”
“Did you ever sleep in there?”
Mr. Willie considers. “It might have happened a couple of times. Generally we went home at night to sleep in our own beds.”
“Just you and your mother?”
Mr. Willie nods. “The two of us.”
“Like me and Mama,” I say. Mama never planned on having a big family anyway. No need for a crowd, she said. We sat on the porch and watched David across the street with his three brothers and three sisters and two cats and one dog.
That's more than I could handle
, Mama said.
“This here was the carriage house,” Mr. Willie says.
“Were there carriages inside?”
“Before my time.” Mr. Willie is digging and talking at once. “Miss Myrtle kept her car in here.” He laughs. “But she couldn't drive it.”
“What'd she have a car for, then?”
“Mr. James, the chauffeur, he drove Sharon here and there and everywhere.”
“Miss Myrtle's daughter. A couple of months younger than me. We used to play together. Except when Miss Myrtle made her go in and practice the piano. That's when I sat on the marble steps.”
“I play the piano,” I say.
Mr. Willie stops digging. “For some reason, that doesn't surprise me.”
“My mother started teaching me when I was ï¬ve. She said I could pick out tunes soon as I was old enough to talk.” Daddy was there then, sitting on the sofa next to Mama with the light coming in like a rainbow through the front window.
That boy has talent
, Mama told him.
“I was older than that, maybe nine or ten by the time I started. Sharon's teacher gave me a few minutes at the end of each lesson.” Mr. Willie smiles wide and I see the gaps where his teeth were. “We were quite a team back then, me and Sharon. We were going to play tunes for four hands all over the country.” Mr. Willie sweeps his hand.
“Mama and I played duets too.” We were planning to have concerts someday in a real concert hall with a grand piano. I close my eyes. Mama had cataracts so bad at the end she could only see light and dark.
Long as I don't go deaf
, she used to tell me,
I'll be okay. I need music and I need talking too.
I swear, she could hear us even in that cofï¬n, arguing about her wig.
“Does Miss Geneva have a piano?” Mr. Willie asks.
“Monte says they're going to get one.” Suddenly I have this urge to play the Chopin prelude Mama liked so much. “Do you think Sharon's piano might still be inside the big house?”
Mr. Willie shakes his head. “Long gone by now.”
“Stolen. Sold. The house is just a shell of itself by now.” He looks over at the mansion with boards cockeyed where the windows were. “It's been empty a good while, Jerome, since long before you were born.” He thinks for a minute. “Let's see, Sharon must have left about 1930.”
“My daddy left too,” I say. “A few years back.”
“People are most unpredictable,” Mr. Willie says.
Mama told Aunt Melinda that Daddy sent her a postcard from Nashville, and I said
Let's go down there and look in the telephone book for William Mason
, and Mama said
No, Jerome, no need to look for someone who doesn't want to be found.
Mr. Willie stares at the mansion. “The church took it over for their school. That lasted some number of years, and then it closed down for good.” Mr. Willie wipes his forehead. “You didn't know you were going to get a history lesson today, did you?”
“My mother said there's history in everything, in our bones even.”
“I know that's right.” Mr. Willie stops to look at a rock. “You ever heard of white ï¬ight, Jerome?”
“My mother told me about that too.”
“That's what happened around here.” Mr. Willie squints up at the old house. “Nobody wants to buy a big old mansion like this anymore.” He laughs. “It would cost a pretty penny to ï¬x it up and then to heat it in the wintertime. And people with that kind of money are staying far away from here.”
I stand up and look down the street. The houses are big with paint ï¬aking off and rusty mailboxes nailed to the front doors. The yards are full of poison ivy plants as healthy as I've ever seen. On my old street the houses were small but neat. Most everyone had window boxes ï¬lled with ï¬owers on their porches. Mama liked petunias best.
What color, Jerome? Purple and white? You have a good eye, you know that?
When the ï¬owers got too heavy, Mama snipped them with scissors. I collected the blossoms and put them in a bowl of water.
“I'm telling you,” Mr. Willie says, “in its day, that house was magniï¬cent.”
“Maybe we can ï¬x it up,” I say.
Mr. Willie shakes his head. “That will take more than a broom and a dustpan.”
If we ï¬xed up the mansion, there'd be room for as many pianos as we wanted. We could invite Aunt Geneva and Uncle James and the boys and David with his brothers and three sisters to listen to our duets.
We can hear you playing the piano from our house
, David said.
I wish I could stay with you and your mother because it's peaceful at your house, Jerome, and there's always music coming through the windows.
Mr. Willie is digging deep, trying to unearth whatever it is.