Blackwood Farm


Page 9


9

"NOT SIX MONTHS had passed before Little Ida died in my bed one night, and it was Jasmine who found her when she came to wake me for breakfast, wondering why her mother had not come down. I was hustled away from the bed with crazy gestures and summonses and blank looks from Goblin and finally Pops dragging me out of the bedroom. And I, a spoilt brat who had just woken up, was furious.

"Only an hour later, when the doctor and the funeral director came, did they tell me what had gone down. Little Ida was the angel of my youth as surely as Sweetheart was, and she had died so quiet, just like that.

"She looked tiny in the coffin, like a wizened child.

"The funeral was in New Orleans, where Little Ida was buried in a tomb in St. Louis NO. I, which her family had had for well over a hundred and fifty years. A host of colored and black relations were in attendance, and I was thankful that it was all right to cry, if not even wail out loud.

"Of course all the white people -- and there were plenty from out our way -- were a little more subdued than the black people, but a good commingling shed tears.

"As for my mattress back at home, Jasmine and Lolly flipped it over. And that was all there was to that.

"I framed the best picture there was of Little Ida, a photograph taken of her at Aunt Ruthie's house in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and I hung that on the wall.

"In the kitchen now there was general crying, Jasmine and Lolly sobbing about their mother whenever the mood came on them, and Big Ramona, Little Ida's mother, went silent and quit the big house altogether, sitting in her rocking chair all day for several weeks.

"I went out there again and again with soup for Big Ramona. I tried to talk to her. All she said was: 'A woman oughtn't have to bury her own child.¡¯

"Crying came and went with me.

"I took to thinking of Lynelle constantly, and now Little Ida was mixed up with it too, and each day it seemed that Little Ida was more dead and gone than the day before.

"Goblin accepted that Little Ida was dead, but Goblin had never been too crazy about Little Ida -- certainly he had loved Lynelle more -- and so he took it rather well.

"One day when I sat at the kitchen table paging through a mail-order catalog, I saw that they had flannel nightshirts for men and flannel gowns for women.

"I ordered a whole slew of these, and when the goods arrived, I put on the nightshirt in the evening and went out to Big Ramona with one of the gowns.

"Now let me clarify here that Big Ramona is called Big Ramona not because she's big but because she is the grandmother on the property, just as Sweetheart might have been called Big Mama if she had ever allowed.

"So to go on with my story, I came out to this little mite of a woman, with her long white hair in its nighttime braid, and I said:

" 'You come on and sleep with me. I need you. I'm alone with Goblin and Little Ida's gone after all these years.¡¯

"For a long time Big Ramona just looked at me. Her eyes were like two nickels. But then a little fire came into them, and she took the gown from me and looked it over, and, finding it proper, she came into the house.

"Thereafter we slept spoon fashion in that big bed, flannel to flannel, and she was my bedfellow as ever Little Ida had been.

"Big Ramona had the silkiest skin on the planet, and, having kept her hair long all her life, had a great wealth of it, which she always plaited as she sat on the side of the bed.

"I took to sitting with her as she went through the ritual, and we talked over all the trivia of the day, and then we said our prayers.

"Now Little Ida and I had pretty much let prayers go by the boards, but with Big Ramona we prayed for everybody in one fell swoop, reciting three Hail Marys and three Our Fathers and never failing to add for the deceased:

Let perpetual light shine upon them, O Lord,

and may their souls and the souls of all

the faithful departed rest in peace.

"Then we'd chat about how it was a blessing Little Ida never knew real old age, or suffered illness, and that she was surely up there with God. Same with Lynelle.

"Finally, after all that, Big Ramona would ask if Goblin was with us, and then she said:

" 'Well, you tell Goblin it's time to sleep now,' and Goblin settled down beside me and kind of merged with me, and off I went to sleep.

"Gradually, over a period of several months, a semi-calm came over me entirely due to Big Ramona, and I was astonished to discover that Pops and the Shed Men, and even Jasmine and Lolly, credited me with kindness to Big Ramona in her time of grief. It was all our grief. And Big Ramona was saving me from a kind of dark panic which had begun in me with Lynelle and was now creeping closer with the loss of Little Ida.

"I took to going out fishing in the swamp with Pops, something I'd never been all that crazy about before. I got to like it out there as we poked our way through in the pirogue, and sometimes we went deep into the swamps, beyond our usual territory, and I got a kind of fearless curiosity about the swamps, and whether we might find Manfred Blackwood's island, but that we did not do.

"One afternoon, late, we came upon a huge old cypress tree that had a rusted chain around it, grown into it in parts, and a mark carved on it that looked to me to be an arrow. It was an ancient tree, and the chain was made of large links. I was for pressing on in the direction of the arrow, but Pops said no, it was late, and there was nothing out there anyway, and we might get lost if we went any further.

"It was all the same with me because I didn't entirely believe all the stories about Manfred and the Hermitage, and I was sticky all over from the humid air, and so we went home.

"Then Mardi Gras came, which meant that Sweetheart had to go to her sister Ruthie's house, and this year she really didn't want to go. She claimed she was feeling poorly, she had no appetite, not even for King cake, which was already arriving daily from New Orleans, and she thought she might be coming down with the flu.

"But at last she decided to go into the city for all the parades, because Ruthie was depending on her and she didn't want the crowd of her elderly aunts and uncles and all her cousins to be disappointed that she wasn't there.

"I didn't go with her, though she wanted me to, and though her cough worsened (she called Pops every day and I usually spoke to her too), she did stay for the entire time.

"On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent and the very day she returned, she went to the doctor without anybody prodding her to do it. Her cough was simply too bad.

"I think they knew it was cancer as soon as they saw the X rays, but they had to do the CAT scan, and then the bronchoscopy, and finally a biopsy by needle through Sweetheart's back. These meant uncomfortable days in the hospital, but before the final pathology report came in Sweetheart was already breathing with such difficulty that they had put her on 'full oxygen' and had given her morphine 'to lessen the sensation of gasping for breath.' She was in a half sleep all of the time.

"At last they broke the news to us in the corridor outside her room. It was lymphoma in both lungs and it had metastasized, meaning she had cancer all through her system, and they did not expect her to last more than a few days. She couldn't choose for herself whether she wanted an attempt at chemotherapy. She was in a deep coma, her breath and blood pressure getting fainter all the time.

"My eighteenth birthday came and went with nothing much to mark it, except that I got a new pickup truck and drove it back to the hospital as fast as I could to watch by the bed.

"Pops went into a protracted state of shock.

"This big and capable man who always seemed to be the one making the decisions was a shuddering wreck of his former self. As Sweetheart's sister and aunts and uncles and cousins came and went, Pops remained silent and inconsolable.

"He took turns with me in the room, and so did Jasmine and Lolly.

"Finally Sweetheart's eyes opened and would not be closed, and her breathing became mechanical as if she herself had nothing to do with the rhythmic heave of her chest.

"I ignored Goblin. Goblin seemed senseless to me, a part of childhood to be repudiated. I hated the mere sight of Goblin with his inane look of innocence and questioning eyes. I felt him hovering. Finally, when I could endure it no longer, I went down into the pickup truck and told Goblin that what was going on was sad. It was what had happened to Lynelle and to Little Ida, that Sweetheart was going away.

" 'Goblin, this is bad,' I told him. 'This is awful. Sweetheart's not going to wake up.' He looked grieved and I saw tears in his eyes, but maybe he was only imitating mine.

" 'Go away, Goblin,' I said. 'Be respectful and decent. Be quiet so that I can watch with Sweetheart as I should do.' This seemed to work some change in him and he ceased to torment me, but I could feel him near me day and night.

"When it came time to shut off the oxygen, which was by then the only thing keeping Sweetheart alive, Pops could not be in the room.

"I was in the room, and if Goblin was there I didn't know it. Aunt Ruthie and the nurse had the orders from the doctor. Jasmine was there and so was Lolly and so was Big Ramona.

"Big Ramona told me to stand close to the head of the bed and hold Sweetheart's hand.

"Off came the oxygen mask, and Sweetheart didn't gasp for breath. She just breathed with a bigger heave of her chest, and then her mouth opened just a little and blood poured down her chin.

"It was a horrible sight. Nobody expected it. I think Aunt Ruthie went to pieces and somebody was calming her. My focus was on Sweetheart. I grabbed a wad of paper tissues and went to blot the blood, saying, 'I've got it, Sweetheart.¡¯

"But more and more blood came, sliding down her chin, and then Sweetheart's tongue appeared between her lips, pushing out more blood. Someone handed me a wet towel. I gathered up the blood, saying, 'It's all right, Sweetheart, I'm taking care of it.' Pretty soon I had all the blood. And then, after four or five widely spaced breaths, Sweetheart breathed no more. Big Ramona told me to close her eyes, which I did.

"After the doctor came in and pronounced her dead, really dead -- I went out into the hall.

"I felt a dreadful elation, a horror that seemed manic when I look back upon it, a hideous safety from the consequences of Sweetheart's death due to the giant hospital enfolding us, the seamless fluorescent light and the nurses at their station very nearby. It was wild and pleasurable, this feeling. It was as if no other burden on earth existed. It was a great suspension, and I hardly felt the tiled floor beneath my feet.

"Patsy was standing there. She was leaning against the wall, looking all too typical with her huge yellow hair, wearing one of her fringed white leather outfits, her nails glittering with pearlescent polish, her feet in high white boots.

"Only then, as I stared at her, at her painted mask of a face, did I realize that Patsy had never come to the hospital once. I went into a silent stammer. Then I spoke.

" 'She's dead,' I said, and Patsy came back fiercely:

" 'I don't believe it! I just saw her on Mardi Gras Day.¡¯

"I explained that the oxygen had been turned off and it had been very peaceful; Sweetheart had not gasped or suffered, she had never known of any danger, she had never known fear.

"Patsy suddenly flew into a rage. Dropping her furious voice into a loud hissing whisper (we were near the nurses' station) she demanded to know why we had not told her we were turning off the oxygen, and how could we do such a thing to her (meaning herself); Sweetheart was her mother, and who gave us the right?

"Pops appeared, coming round the corner from the visitors' waiting room, and I had never seen him so angry as he was then. He whipped Patsy around to face him and told her to get out of the hospital or he'd kill her, and then he turned to me, shaking all over, choked up and silent and trembling, and then he went into Sweetheart's room.

"Patsy made a move towards the door of the room, but she stopped and turned to me and said a stream of mean things. They were statements like, 'You're always the center of it. You were there, weren't you? Oh, yes, Tarquin, everything for Tarquin.' I can't clearly remember what her words were. Lots of Sweetheart's people were gathering. Patsy went away.

"I left the hospital, got in the pickup truck, vaguely aware that Jasmine was climbing in the seat next to me, drove over to the Cracker Barrel Restaurant, went in and ordered lots of pecan pancakes, slopped them with butter and ate them till I was nearly sick.

"Jasmine sat there opposite me, nursing a cup of black coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette, her dark face very smooth and her manner calm, and then Jasmine said very distinctly:

" 'She suffered maybe about two weeks. Mardi Gras Day was February twenty-seventh. She was at the parades. And here it is March fourteenth. That's how long she really suffered, and that's not all that bad.¡¯

"I couldn't speak. But when the waiter appeared I ordered more pecan pancakes, and I put so much butter on them they were swimming in butter. And Jasmine just went on smoking, and that's how it was.

"The undertaker in New Orleans did right by Sweetheart, as she looked exquisite against the satin in the coffin, with her makeup just the proper way. There was a little eyebrow pencil where she always wore it, and a shade of Revlon lipstick that she loved. She was in her beige gabardine dress, the one she wore in spring for the tours, and there was her white orchid on her lapel.

"Aunt Queen was inconsolable. We clung to each other through much of the proceedings.

"Before they shut the coffin, Pops took the pearls from around Sweetheart's neck and the wedding band from her hand. He said he wanted to save these things, and he heaved a sigh and he bent and kissed her -- the last one of us to do it -- and the coffin was shut.

"No sooner had that lid come down than Patsy broke into sobs. That painted mask of a face just broke into pieces. She just cut loose. It was the most heartrending chorus to hear, as she cried and cried and called out 'Mamma' as the pallbearers lifted the coffin to carry it out. 'Mamma, Mamma,' she kept crying, and that idiot Seymour held her, with a stupid face and a limp hug, saying 'Hush' of all things, as if he had the right.

"I took hold of Patsy and her arms came around me very tight. She cried all the way out to Metairie Cemetery, her body shaking violently as I held her, and then she said she couldn't get out of the car for the graveside ceremony. I didn't know what to do. I held her. I stayed there. I could hear and see the folks at the graveside, but I stayed with Patsy in the car.

"On the long drive back home, Patsy cried herself out. She fell asleep with her head against me, and when she woke up she looked up at me -- I was already about six feet tall at that point -- in a kind of sleepy way, and she said softly:

" 'Quinn, she's the only person who's ever been really interested in me.¡¯

"That night, Patsy and Seymour played the most deafening music yet to come out of the back-shed studio, and Jasmine and Lolly were in a rage. As for Pops, he didn't seem to hear it or care.

"About two days later, after spreading out her suitcases to be packed once more, Aunt Queen told me that she wanted me to go to college. She was going to look for another teacher for me -- someone as brilliant as Lynelle who could prepare me for the finest schools.

"I told her I never wanted to leave Blackwood Manor, and she only smiled at this and said I'd soon change.

" 'You don't have a beard yet, my baby,' she said, 'you're growing out of that dress shirt as we sit here talking, and your shoes must be size twelve, if I have any knack for guessing such things. Believe you me, there are exciting things to come.¡¯

"I smiled at all this. I was still feeling the dazed elation, the cruel excitement that surrounded Sweetheart's funeral for me, and I didn't really care about growing up or anything else.

" 'When that testosterone really hits your blood,' Aunt Queen proceeded, 'you'll want to see the wide world, and Goblin won't seem the fascination that he is now.¡¯

"The next morning she left for New York to catch a flight to Jerusalem, which she hadn't visited in many years. I don't remember where she went after that -- only that she was gone a long while.

"About a week after the funeral, Pops produced a handwritten will from Sweetheart's dressing table drawer that left all her personal jewelry to Patsy along with all her clothes.

"We were gathered in the kitchen when he read out the words, 'For my only girl, my dearest, sweetest girl.' Pops then gave the will to Patsy and he looked away, and his eyes had that same flat metallic look which I had seen in Big Ramona right after Little Ida died.

"That look never went away.

"A trust fund was also left to Patsy, he mumbled, but there was a formal bank paper to deal with that. He produced an envelope of little Polaroid photographs which Sweetheart had made of her heirlooms, identifying each with writing on the front and back.

" 'Yeah, well that trust fund is next to nothing,' Patsy said, shoving the photographs and will in her purse. 'It's one thousand a month and that might have been big money thirty years ago but now it's small change. And I can tell you right now, I want my mother's things.¡¯

"Pops took the pearl necklace out of his pants pocket and pushed it towards her, and she took it, but when he drew out the wedding ring, he said, 'I'm keeping this,' and Patsy just shrugged and left the room.

"For days and nights Pops did little or nothing but sit at the kitchen table and push away the plates of food set before him, and ignore the questions put to him, as Jasmine and Lolly and Clem took over the running of Blackwood Farm.

"I had a hand in the running of things also, and very gradually, as I conducted my first tours of Blackwood Farm and did my best to exert a charm over the guests, I realized that the crazy elation which had carried me through Sweetheart's vivid funeral was breaking up.

"A dark panic was reemerging. It was right behind me, ready to take over. I kept myself as busy as I could. I went over menus with Jasmine and Lolly, tasting hollandaise sauce and b¨¦arnaise sauce, and picking patterns of china, and chatting with guests who had come back to celebrate anniversaries, and even cleaning out bedrooms when the schedule demanded it, and driving the tractor mower over the lawns.

"As I watched the Shed Men lay in the late spring flowers -- the impatiens and the zinnias and the hibiscus -- a desperate sentimental fury possessed me. I clung tight to the vision of Blackwood Manor and all it meant.

"I went walking down the long avenue of pecan trees out front, looking back at the house to treasure the sight of it and imagine how it struck the new guests.

"I went from room to room, checking on toilet articles and throw pillows and porcelain statues on mantelpieces, and the portraits, most definitely the famous portraits, and when the inevitable portrait of Sweetheart arrived -- done from a photograph by a painter in New Orleans -- I took down the mirror in the back right-side bedroom for the portrait to go up in its place.

"I think, in retrospect, it was a cruelty to show that portrait to Pops, but he looked at it in the same dull way in which he regarded everything else.

"Then one day he said in a low voice, after clearing his throat, Would Jasmine and Lolly take all of Sweetheart's clothing and jewels out of their room and put them in Patsy's room above the shed? 'I don't want what belongs to Patsy in my room.¡¯

"Now, Sweetheart's clothing included two ranch-mink coats and some beautiful ballgowns from the days when Sweetheart had been young and single and had gone to Mardi Gras balls. It included Sweetheart's wedding dress and other fashionable suits that were years out of date. As for the jewelry, there were many diamonds and some emeralds, and most of it had come down to Sweetheart from her own mother, or her grandmother before that. There were pieces that Sweetheart had worn when she hosted weddings at Blackwood Manor, and favorite pieces -- pearls, mostly -- that she had worn every day.

"One morning, early, while Pops was in his half slumber at the table over a cold bowl of oatmeal, Patsy quietly loaded all these possessions into her van and drove away. I didn't know what to make of it, except that I knew, as everyone did, that Seymour, Patsy's bum of a backup band and a sometime lover, had a crash pad in New Orleans, and I figured she meant to take these clothes there.

"Two weeks later, Patsy came home in a brand-new van. It was already painted with her name on it. She and Seymour (the bum) unloaded a new drum set and a new electric guitar. They shut the door of the studio and began practicing at full volume. New speakers too.

"Pops was aware of all this, because Jasmine and Lolly were at the screen door commenting on all of it, and when Patsy came through the kitchen after supper he grabbed her by the arm and demanded to know where she'd earned the money for all the new things.

"His voice was hoarse from not speaking and he looked sleepy and wild.

"What followed was the worst fight they had ever had.

"Patsy was up front about the fact that she'd sold everything Sweetheart left her, even the wedding dress and the heirloom jewelry and the keepsakes, and once again, when Pops came at her she grabbed up a big knife.

" 'You threw that stuff into my bedroom!' Patsy screamed. 'You had them cart it out and shove it into my closets like it was trash.¡¯

" 'You sold your mother's wedding dress, you sold her diamonds!' Pops roared. 'You're a monster. You should never have been born.¡¯

"I ran between them and pleaded with them to stop, claiming that the guests in the house could hear them; this had to come to an end. Pops shook his head. He went out the back door. He went towards the shed, and later I saw him out there in a rocking chair, just smoking and looking into the dark.

"As for Patsy, she moved some clothes of her own out of the upstairs front bedroom, where she stayed from time to time, demanding that I help her, and when I demurred -- I didn't want to be seen with her -- she called me a spoilt brat, a Little Lord Fauntleroy, a sissy and a queer.

" 'It wasn't my bright idea to have you,' she said, and then she headed for the spiral stairs. 'I should have gotten rid of you,' she hollered out over her shoulder. 'Damned sorry I didn't do what I wanted to do.¡¯

"At that precise moment, she appeared to trip over her own feet. In a flash I saw Goblin near to her with his back to her, smiling at me. She let out a loud 'Ow!' The clothes fell down on the staircase, and with great difficulty she caught herself at the top step. I rushed to steady her. She turned and glared at me, and the dreadful realization came over me that Goblin had pushed her, or in some other manner made her trip.

"I was horror-struck. I picked up all the clothes quickly and I said, 'I'll go down with you.' The expression on her face, the combination of wariness and excitement, of morbid respect and detestation, is something I'll never forget. But what was in her heart I don't know.

"I was afraid of Goblin. Afraid of what he might do.

"I helped Patsy load all her things in the van so Goblin would know I meant her no ill will. And then Patsy was off, declaring that she was never coming back, but of course she was back in two weeks, demanding to stay in the big house because she ran out of money and there was no place to go but home.

"That night, as soon as Patsy was safely away, I demanded of Goblin, 'What did you do? You almost made her fall!' But I got no answer from Goblin; it was as though he was hiding, and when I went back upstairs to my room and sat down at the computer he at once grabbed my hand and typed out,

" 'Patsy hurt you. I don't like Patsy.¡¯

" 'That doesn't mean you can hurt her,' I wrote, speaking the words aloud.

"At once my left hand was snatched up with extraordinary force.

" 'I made Patsy stop,' he answered.

" 'You almost killed Patsy!' I countered. 'Don't ever hurt anyone. It's not fun.¡¯

" 'No fun,' he wrote. 'She stopped hurting you.¡¯

" 'If you hurt other people,' I answered, 'I won't love you.¡¯

"There came a silence and a chill in the room, and then by his power the computer was turned off. Then came the embrace, and with it a faint loving warmth. I felt a vague loathing of the pleasure this embrace produced in me, and a sudden fear that it would become erotic. I don't remember ever feeling that fear before.

"Patsy had called me a queer. Maybe I was one, I thought. Maybe I was steered in that direction. Maybe Goblin knew. Goblin and me together. Fear stole over me. It seemed like mortal sin.

" 'Don't be sad, Goblin,' I whispered. 'There's too much sadness as it is, at home. Go off, now, Goblin. Go off, and let me think by myself.¡¯

"In the weeks that followed, Patsy never looked at me in quite a familiar way, but I did not want to admit to anything regarding the event on the staircase, so I couldn't ask her what she had felt.

"Meantime everybody knew that in her bathroom in the big house she was vomiting and retching in the morning, and she took to hanging about the kitchen, saying that all the food disgusted her, and Pops, driven away from the table, spent his long hours in the shed.

"He didn't talk to the men. He didn't talk to anyone. He watched the television and he drank Barq's Root Beer, but he wasn't seeing or hearing a thing.

"Then, one night when Patsy drove up late and came into the kitchen claiming she was sick and Jasmine had to make her some dinner, Pops sat down at the table opposite her and told me to get out of the room.

" 'No, you let him stay if you've got something to say to me,' Patsy said. 'Go on, out with it.¡¯

"I didn't know quite what to do, so I stepped into the hallway and leaned against the back doors. I could see Patsy's face, and the back of Pops' head, and I could hear every word that was said.

" 'I'll give you fifty thousand dollars for it,' Pops said.

"Patsy stared at him for a full minute, and then she said, 'What are you talking about?¡¯

" 'I know you're pregnant,' he said. 'Fifty thousand dollars. And you leave the baby here with us.¡¯

" 'You crazy old man,' she said. 'You're sixty-five. What are you going to do with a baby? You think I'd go through all that again for fifty grand?¡¯

" 'A hundred thousand dollars,' he said calmly. And then he said, 'Two hundred thousand dollars, Patsy Blackwood, on the day that it's born and you sign it over to me.¡¯

"Patsy rose from the table. She shot up and backwards, glaring at him. 'Why the hell didn't you tell me that yesterday!' she shouted. 'Why the hell didn't you tell me that this morning!' She made her hands into fists and stomped her foot. 'You crazy old man!' she said. 'Damn you.' And she turned and flew out the kitchen. The screen door banged shut after her, and Pops bowed his head.

"I came into the kitchen and stood at his side.

" 'She's already gotten rid of it,' he said. He bowed his head. He looked utterly defeated. He never said another word about it. He went back to his silent ways.

"As for Patsy, she did lie sick in her room for a couple of days during which Jasmine cooked for her and took general care of her, and then she was up and off in her new van for a series of country jamborees.

"I was very curious. Would Patsy immediately get pregnant just to make two hundred thousand dollars? And what would it be like to have a baby sister or brother? I really wanted to know.

"Pops set himself to solitary tasks around the farm. He painted the white fences where they needed it; he clipped back the azaleas. He laid in more of the spring flowers. In fact, he enlarged the garden patches and made them more brilliant than they'd ever been before. Red geraniums were his favorite flower, and though they didn't last too long in the heat he set out plenty of them in the beds, and he stepped back often to get perspective on his schemes.

"For a while, a brief while, it seemed that somehow things would be all right. The joy had not quite fled Blackwood Manor. Goblin behaved himself, but Goblin's face mirrored my tension and my mounting conflict. The fear was winning over my mind.

"What was I afraid of? Death, I suppose. I longed to see Little Ida's ghost but it didn't happen, and then there was Big Ramona saying that people didn't appear to you once they'd gone to Heaven, unless they had a powerful reason for coming back. I wanted one last glimpse of Little Ida. I knew Sweetheart wasn't going to appear, but I had some peculiar faith in Little Ida. I wondered how long she'd been dead in my bed.

"Meantime, Blackwood Manor went on.

"Big Ramona, Jasmine and Lolly ran the kitchen to perfection as they had always done, handling the tours with equal aplomb, and Pops progressed to a rampage of repairs and renovations to keep himself exhausted all the time, so that he was in bed, out cold, by eight o'clock.

"Big Ramona did everything she could to cheer everyone, baking all her 'secret recipes' and even cajoling Patsy into staying with me for dinner a few times (when Pops was absent on errands), as if she felt that I needed Patsy, which frankly I did not.

"Some interesting guests came and went, Aunt Queen wrote loving letters, and Easter Sunday did see an enormous buffet with people from miles around and music on the lawn.

"Pops didn't help much with this Easter banquet and everyone understood why. He did appear, dressed in a fine white linen suit, but he mainly sat silent in a chair, watching the dancing and looking lifeless, as though his spirit had fled. His eyes were sunken. His skin had a yellowish tinge.

"He was like a man who'd seen a vision, and for whom normal life held no charm.

"When I looked at him, my throat tightened. I could feel my heart pounding. I could hear it in my ears. The sky was a perfect blue, the air was mild and the music of the little orchestra was lovely, but my teeth were chattering.

"Out in the center of the dance floor, Goblin danced. He was very solid, outfitted in a three-piece white suit just as I was. He didn't seem to care whether or not I saw him. He was winding his way in and out of the dancers. Then his eyes fixed on me and he became sad. He stood still and reached out to me with both arms. His face was marked with sorrow. And it was no mirror image, because I knew my face was blank with fear.

" 'No one can see you!' I whispered under my breath, and quite suddenly everyone there seemed alien to me, the way people had in the church at Lynelle's Memorial, or rather I felt myself to be a monster that I could see Goblin, a monster that he was my familiar, and there seemed no possibility of comfort or warmth in all the world.

"I thought of Sweetheart in the crypt in New Orleans. If I went to the gates of the crypt, would I smell formaldehyde? Or would I smell something worse?

"I drifted away. I went down to the old cemetery. There were quite a few guests hanging about down there, and Lolly was passing among them with a bottle of champagne. I saw no ghosts in the cemetery. I saw only the living. Cousins of Sweetheart's talked to me. I didn't hear them. I pictured going upstairs to Pops' bedroom, taking his pistol out of the drawer and putting it to my head and pulling the trigger. I thought:

" 'If you do that, this terror will end.¡¯

"Then I felt Goblin's invisible arms around me. I felt him wrap himself around me. There came what seemed a heartbeat from Goblin and a spiritual warmth. It was not a new thing for me to feel this. It had lately made me feel guilty. Only just now it seemed desperately important.

"And the elation returned to me, the wild elation I felt when I left Sweetheart's hospital room, and tears rolled down my cheeks. I stood under the oak tree, wondering if the sad ghosts of the cemetery could see all these living people. I cried.

" 'You come inside with me,' Jasmine said. She took me by the shoulders. 'Come on, Taw-quin, you come on,' she said. She only called me by my full name, pronouncing it 'Taw-quin,' when she was very serious. I followed her in, and she told me to sit down in the kitchen and have a glass of champagne too.

"Now, being a country kid I had drunk wine and whiskey plenty of times, though never much in quantity -- but very quietly, sitting at the kitchen table -- after Jasmine left -- I drank a whole bottle of champagne.

"That night I was violently sick, my head hurt as though it was going to burst, the Easter party was over and I was vomiting as Big Ramona stood over me declaring in no uncertain terms that Jasmine was never to set me to drinking wine again."</