Barbara said, Thats a lot of trouble.
Aint no trouble at all, Jay said. Its nice out on Gilead. Next time you get a day off, we should take you both. Cook hamburgers and hotdogs on the back deck. Bring that boyfriend of yours, Mr. Bodin, out, if yall can stand us for an afternoon.
Oh, Momcome on! Im seventeen, now. I wanna go out there. Todaytonight! Please?
Jay said, He aint got to be back at work with Dynamite on the garbage run till Tuesday. The boy can come on out and see the place. We aint gonna let him stay up all night, believe me. Were up and movin by four-thirtywell have him back here when you get in for your shift. And well give you a call.
Twenty feet away, below the shingle, the sea made the sound of something rushing off somewhere, even while late-summer waves moved in toward grass, sand, and rock. At the worlds rim, an elongated gray-green scab crossed part of the horizon, one end thicker than the other: Gilead Island.
Barbara started up the steps, a sack hanging from each hand by twine handles. She looked back. All right. You can go. Thank you, Jay, Mexreally, thats nice of you two. I mean its something for Eric to do besides sitting around at Dynamites all afternoon.
You thank Mr. MacAmonand Mex. She managed to open the door and went in.
Well phone you, Jay said. We wont let him forget.
So, among anticipations of new orgies and excesses, with the two boatmen Eric wandered down dusty Front Street to the wooden gate of the Gilead Boat Dock, joking and relating his recent adventures on the garbage run with Dynamite and Morgan, while Jay swaggered and laughed and fumed in disbelief, and, with his blasted face, barefoot Mex looked about the silent autumn and western light gilded the glass and made white enameled window frames near platinum on the evening street. Now and again Mex commented on the sexual tales with big, quick fingers. A third of his signs Eric knew by now, though he couldnt quite turn them into sentences. So he laughed and nodded more or less when Jay did.
On two previous passangerless trips, theyd gotten out on the island dock. But theyd gone no further inland. This time when they pulled in, Eric said, I gotta take a piss.
Off the side, Jay said.
So, in the island boathouse, while talkative Jay and mute Mex tied up the scow, Eric stood at the edge, tugging his fly aside with a forefinger, looking down at concentric rings expanding from his falling water, its sound drowned in the sea. He wondered if either man would come over and put his hand under his stream. But Jay stood with a work shoe up on the base of one of the cleats on the boathouse dock, swinging a rope around it.
Neither joined him.
In the two earlier trips theyd never left the boathouse itself, but now they walked out and across the dock, up the wooden steps into Gileads uneven greens, ferns, and rocks, jungle thick, left and right, while evenings mist dulled details.
If youd asked Eric after that first visit, he would have said Jay and Mex lived three-quarters of a mile from the island dock. Actually it was slightly more than a mile-and-three-quarters up the six-and-a-half mile island. During that walk, night fell and filled sky-colored spaces between hemlock branches and scrub pines and the earth-hued interstices between ferns and sumac. A couple of times in the blackness, Eric asked, Whats that . . .?
Thats water down there. Jay was just behind him. Were pretty near the edge, here. Or hed thought Jay was behind himonly, no, the voice was in front of him. So the wordless rustle behind him was Mex.
Oh . . .
At other places, Eric wondered how the boatmen negotiated this journey through the night andas he stumbled on root or rockif coming here had really been a good idea. Then Mex dropped a hand on Erics arm, steadying him in the dark; and Jay said, Watch outit gets a little steep, goin down. Or, This parts easy, now. Or, You got about seven steps to climb. Yeahhold this railing. Eric heldand climbedbut could see nothing.
Then they stopped.
Eric asked, How much more . . .?
Were here, puppy. Jay chuckled. Hold on a second.
Above was a dusting of stars. To the right, something blocked many of them: a hulking rectangular shape, at one with the black ground. There and there he could detect light around what must be closed shutters or heavy drapes, all on the first floor.
He heard a soft snap.
On the other side of overgrown grass, flame-shaped lights rose at either edge of a door, between wooden columns. In silhouette Eric could see Jay, belly, shoulders, and broad belt tongue sticking forward, for all the night like a cock to match the bulge his enlarged testicle made, pushing out his jeans. Jay stood before some sort of podium, which must have held switches on its upper panel. Jay fingered another one: a voice crackled from a speaker: Hi, thereyou fellas home?
Hey, there, Hugh. Yeah. We brung the puppyEric heard the grin, saw, then felt, Jays hand fall rough and warm for three, even four seconds on his nape we was tellin you about.
Thats nice. Shad and mes waitin uplike usual.
Maybe we could get a carpenter in here and have him tear out another couple of doorways so that we could get to the kitchen without ever seein the old bastard.
Mex gave his breathy laugh.
Geeand I was hopin the old bastard done got tired and gone to bed. Well, were comin in.
Fifteen feet of stone flags cut through overlong lawn to the door. As he looked around the dim façade, Eric realized the house was three stories.
No, over there he could make it out: four!
Come on, Jay said.
They started toward the building, while Eric tried to shake from his imaginings the housemaybe a little bigger than Dynamites cramped cabinhed been expecting.
Was it twenty-five rooms? Was it thirty-five . . . ?
Here in the island woods, it was more than twice the size of Mr. Condottis entire house back in Atlanta!
On the porch, under the night light, the paint was as blistered as that on Dynamitesor Ms. Louisessteps, even if these were three times as high, and as wide, and roofed over, too. At the top, Jay pushed in the door, and Mex guided him into and through a glassed-in vestibule, with mahogany walls and a checkered stone floor, black and maroon.
Jay pushed open a second door. A curtain quivered behind its glass. It put them in a hall where a stairway curved down to the wide, worn carpet. A dozen heavy newels supported the banister. Near the bottom, one had broken off.
From an arch that went halfway up the wallthe ceilings were at least twenty feet high, and there was even a balcony insidea bald black man came in wearing a bathrobe and slippers.
Hey, Hugh, Jay said. This heres Eric. We got any dinner?
Hello, young fella, Hugh said warmly. You got some okra, Jay. You got some lima beans. You got some stewed tomatoes with onions and peppers. And you got some chicken stewwith corn and mushrooms. Yall gonna come in and say good evenin to Shad? Hes in his chair, in the livin room.
Far as I recollect, there aint no way to the kitchen except through that place, unless we go outside and come in the back. So I expect we dont got much choice. Jay walked into the room. I dont mind bein a little rude. But I aint quite got to that pointyet. He glanced at Eric, then back at Hugh. You said you was gonna get that room across from ours ready for Eric here?
Hugh nodded. I think youll be comfortable. He smiled at Eric. If there is something you need, you tell them or me.
Yes, sir, Eric said, bewildered by the sizethe scaleof things.
Thanks, Hugh, Jay said. Thanks a heap. Jay turned around, looking about the high-ceilinged hall. Maybe we could get a carpenter in here and have him tear out another couple of doorways so that we could get to the kitchen without ever seein the old bastard. But, then, life aint supposed to be that easy, now, is it? Lets go.
They followed Hugh under an archway, through two smaller rooms, in one of which no light burned at all. They emerged into a larger. A ratty rug covered the floor. Several holes in it were wide enough to see warped planks beneath. Above a fireplace, big enough to step into, a stone eagle spread its wings mantel end to mantel end.
Above it, a stained rectangle told of an absent painting.
Across the room, with wispy hair and rounded shoulders, sitting in a wheelchair with wooden wheels, an old man in a colorless sweater faced slightly away.
Hey, there, you mean ol bastard. With a grin, Jay threw himself down in an armless leather chair. How you doin today? What you been up to? He turned to Eric. Go on. Sit downon the couch there. With Mex.
They sat, and, because of the sofas sag, Mexs leg slid against Erics. Its warmth surprised himand felt good.
I said, Jays voice doubled in volume, how you been? What you and Hugh been doin?
Hair overlonglike the lawn outsideShads head turned toward Jay, but probably not enough for Shad to see him.
This here is our friend, Eric. He come to stay over with us. His Mamas Mrs. Jeffersworks at the Lighthouse Coffee and Egg.
You do as many nice things as you can, boy, for as many people as you can. You do good things for people for the same reason you beat offit makes you feel good.
The old man coughed.
In a normal voice, Jay told Eric, Thats his way of sayin good evenin. He dont look like hes gonna be too talkative tonightwhich is a blessin. Otherwise youd have to listen to him go on about how youre goin to hell, like me and everybody I know. When I was a kid your age, his favorite thing to do was killin my petshe done poisoned three dogs and kilt four cats and busted the heads off more toads and chipmunks and rabbits than I can count. At least he ate the rabbits.
Having followed them in, Hugh stood with his hands in his robe pockets. Thats cause he thought you was havin unnatural relations with them animals, Jay. They had to be purifiedthe only way you can purify a beast is to kill it. Thats what he believed. Lots of people around here used to think that way.
I was, Jay said, havin unnatural relations with em. At least with the dogs. Other than Dynamite and your cousin Kyle, them dogs was the closest thing I had to a regular love life. Course the dogs all seemed to feel it was pretty natural. But how you gonna have unnatural relations with a cat?
Hugh laughed and looked at Eric. Jays just sayin that to shock you.
And with a rabbit? Them thingsll bite you if you mess with em wrong. I liked em cause they was soft and fluffyJay was going onbut he kilt em on me anyway. Im glad knowin him turned me into an atheist. Otherwise I woulda put his ass out to live in the street. Thats what Christians around here do to each other what dont measure up to their idea of what a Christian ought to be. At least the ones I knowed. Naw, Gods too much about paybackkillin off this tribe cause of what it believed and destroyin that city cause of what its sinners done. Ill tell you, bein good to people because theyre innocent, poor, and powerless is just as sick as bein good to em cause theyre cruel, rich, and despoticwhich is what most people are into, anyway. Revenge? Reward? Cleanliness is next to godliness? So you send the clean people to heaven and let the dirty ones go to hell. Naw. You do good to folks cause it makes you feel better. Hey, when I realized all Shads God bullshit was just thatpayback; and, yeah, he had a shitty life, so he had a lot to pay back forI realized you could be a good person not cause that was the way you wanted everybody to treat you, but because you thought it would make the whole world better, by doin somethin right. So I took him inand Im glad I did. But Im glad he cant hear no more, too. And I only have to listen to him tell me how evil and depraved and wicked I am two or three times a month, when he goes off on one of his anxiety toots.
Hugh said, Jay, what you are is a contrarian. You just like to say things and do things thats gonna shock people.
Jay looked at Eric. You shocked?
No, Eric said. I dont . . . think so.
See there? Jay raised his bearded chin and looked at Hugh sideways. You do as many nice things as you can, boy, for as many people as you can. Feed em. Give em a place to sleep. Hug em and keep em warmcause its gonna keep you warm too and make you feel better, if youre down. You do good things for people for the same reason you beat offit makes you feel good.
See? Hugh said. I told you he just wants to shock you. Heyyou gonna show the youngster around the house?
I just want some goddam dinner. Thats what I want. Jay rocked forward, stood, and walked to the old man. Bending, he put his arm around the hunched shoulderand took a breath. I sure dont love you. But maybe if I do enough good things for you, to you, with you, I may learn how. Right? He hugged the old fellow. I feel sorry for you, thoughI hope thats a start. Standing up, he looked around. Come on out to the kitchen.
Eric stood quickly, Mex slowly.
They followed Jay, till, at the door, he stopped. As Eric stepped up, Jay looked down at the molding on the walls base. The rugs frayed edge came almost to it.
You got to pardon me, this evening. But Im hungry and Im tired. And we gotta get up at four. (Only now did Eric realize Jay was talking again to him.) Ill show you one thing, though. Theresee that mark? The black one, right there? Jay looked down. On the molding, a black dent darkened the varnish, as if hard rubber had struck it and left some of itself.
Eric looked puzzled.
Thats where the ol bastard kicked my cat, Cindy, to deathwhen I first come out here to livetwenty, twenty-three years ago. I was stayin here with Hugh and Kyle, and he come out to bring me home. This your cat, aint it? I was wonderin where she got off to. But you brought her with you, didnt you? I swear, I can look at him today and see how he was smilin when he said it. Only then he was a fifty-nine-year-old man standin up, not a seventy-nine-year-old man sittin in no wheelchair. And the next thing he done was hauled his boot back and kicked her all the way across the room, broke half her ribs, then come up and stomped on her head. Then he kicked her against the wall, againhard, too, to make sure she was kilt. See, he probably didnt want her to suffer any more than she had to, since he was gonna stomp her brains out. Which is what he did. Then he turned to me. Okayyou still wanna stay, now? You wont have Cindy no more to keep you company. And then he laughed.
Ill phone your ma, and you can let her know we aint hog-tied you and violated your honoryet.
But, see, he didnt think I should ever have no pets. Because of the dogs. At all. Yeah, he was drunkbut thats how he was. And I said, yeah, Id still stay. Two weeks later, on the mainland, right after his birthday, he had his accident. So, cause I was the only family he had, once they let him out the hospital, I took him in. Jay turned one way, then the other, as if, momentarily, he was unsure where to go. Hey, why do I kid myself? I hate im as much today as I did back then. But I do try to be nice, even so. Some people said cause him and one of Johnstons men was both drivin on I-22 at nine oclock at night, drunk as skunks in opposite directions, and whammed into each other and Shad caromed off into that ol hemlock and broke his back, shattered his shoulder, smashed his hip and broke one leg in three places and the other in four, it was Gods retribution on em both. Johnstons feller was dead and gone and I cant even remember his name, cept he was red-headed and only about nineteen. Farklin? Franklin? Somethin like that. But I say it was luck bein cruel to a couple of men who both drunk way too much. And down here, probably they had their reasons. Fact is, Im surprised Shad hadnt kilt hisself already. Yeah, I took him in. I mean both his damned step daddies beat on him all the while he was growin up, so he wouldnt be no sissylike me. And two wives done already left him . . . I think he even loved one of em. But both just wanted to take him for all they could getas if there was somethin else you could do with a bastard like that. Jays laugh was harsh.
Then, behind them, harsher: Youre all damned sinnersdamned and goin to hell! Thats what I say!
It was loud enough and surprising enough that Eric flinched.
But Jay was grinning. See? There he goes.
Eric glanced back. But, in his wheelchair and sweater, Shad didnt seem to have moved.
Thats Shads good-night to you. Right, Mex? And Jay walked away through a dark hall, pushing aside a hanging drape and chuckling. . . . Crazy coot. They followed, while, before them, he shook his head. Next time we come out here, Ill take you around and show you a few other things. Its an interestin old place. But, like I say, tonight Im kinda beat.
As he walked, Mex smiled. In the shadow, it looked to Eric like general embarrassment.
They came into the long kitchen. On the ceiling, in rows of four, florescent lights were already on.
Fifteen feet down the space, barefooted Mex went to the refrigerator. Over the counter, sink, and stove, the windows were black.
Jay strolled to the range. Im turnin on the big burner for you, he said in Mexs direction. Then he nodded to Eric. Go on, sit down, there. A table was covered with red and white-checked oilcloth. Ill phone your ma, and you can let her know we aint hog-tied you and violated your honoryet.
When Jay let him speak to Barb, on the blocky red phones receiver, the first thing Eric said was: They live in a real big house out here.
Yes, Barb said. Thats what Clem told me.
The chicken stew Mex heated up was good.
Between spoonfuls, Eric asked: This is . . . your house?
Its Hughs, now. Outside, cicadas chirped. It used to be KylesHugh is Kyles cousin. I mean Kyle still owns it. Jays spoon clinked the ceramic rim as he helped himself to more. Mex had also heated up a bowl of corn-off-the-cob with cut-up green and red peppers and onions and another bowl of okra. With their wrinkled edges blackened, the red peppers in the corn were hotter than Eric expected.
Noticing he hadnt taken any okra, Jay said, You know how to eat that stuff, dont you?
Huh? Eric asked.
Put a piece in your mouth Jay forked up a green tube like a piece of green dowelingthen press it against the roof with your tonguejust once, nowfor the flavor. Then you swallow it right down. Dont chew itdont chew it at allor itll make a goosh pretty much anyone would up-chuck over, once it goes to slime. Press and swaller. Press and swaller. Aint that right, Mex? Mex nodded, while Jay put the okra in his mouthand (it looked like) pressed and swallowed. Do it the right way, though, and its damned good.
Oh . . . Eric said. He reached over to get the two liter bottle of Pepsi Mex had set out and refilled his glass.
Samuel R. Delany is a novelist and critic and is Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Temple University. His most recent novel, Dark Reflections, won the Stonewall Book Award. His story in this issue is excerpted from Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, forthcoming in early 2011, and appears here by permission of the author and his agents, Henry Morrison Inc., Bedford Hills, New York.