Le comportement privé du lecteur, assis en tête-à-tête en face de son livre dans la solitude, peut être considéré comme intermédiaire entre celui du spectateur de théâtre – halé seconde après seconde dans le sillage de l’action sans rupture de tension aucune, jusqu’au dénouement – et celui de l’amateur de peinture, vivant, conversant, déjeunant, rêvassant entre ses tableaux pendus au mur, et entretenant avec eux, en somme, le même genre de commerce qu’avec un mobilier choisi, différent des tableaux surtout en ceci que, ce mobilier choisi, on ne l’interroge jamais comme on interroge un tableau, qu’on n’a pas avec lui d’aparté. En ce sens, la peinture est originellement un art de compagnie – comme il y avait autrefois des demoiselles de compagnie – et le théâtre – fondamentalement — une prestation heureuse en psychologie des foules, comme l’est l’art oratoire : il n’y a pas de théâtre du seul. Si l’écrivain avait la possibilité d’assister, invisible, au genre de tête-à-tête qu’entretient dans la solitude un de ses lecteurs, avec un de ses livres, il serait sans doute choqué du « sans façons », et même de l’extrême incivilité, qui s’y manifeste. Ce tête-à-tête est un mélange déconcertant de distraction et d’attention. La lecture est coupée, le plus souvent à des intervalles inégaux et assez rapprochés, par des pauses de nature diverse où le lecteur allume une cigarette, va boire un verre d’eau à la cuisine, ou replace un livre dans sa bibliothèque, ce qui l’entraîne à en feuilleter un moment un autre, téléphone une commande qu’il avait oubliée, ou s’informe des résultats du tiercé, vérifie l’heure d’un rendez-vous sur son agenda, ou repose un moment le livre sur la table pour une rêvasserie intime, dont le seul lien avec le contenu du livre est souvent celui du coq-à-l’âne. En gros – mobilité en plus – c’est le comportement moyen en classe d’un élève qu’on jugerait plutôt dissipé. Qu’est-ce qui permet la bonne entente paradoxale de ce comportement distrait d’un isolé qui semble occupé à « tuer le temps » avec une lecture qui en fin de compte s’achèvera pour lui lisse, rassemblée, sans couture, exempte de toute solution de continuité ? Pour tenter d’y répondre, il faudrait prendre en compte les singularités qui marquent les rapports d’un lecteur avec son livre. Il ne s’agit pas ici de la présence passive, entièrement évasive et congédiable, qui est celle d’un tableau accroché à un mur. Ni, non plus, de la parenthèse temporelle, rigoureusement close et même minutée, dans laquelle nous enferme, l’audition d’un morceau de musique. Le lien, qui relie le lecteur à sa lecture est certes inséparable de l’écoulement du temps, mais rien n’en marque la durée, le rythme, ni la fin, ni même la continuité (que de livres lus par tranches successives, que séparent parfois de longues années !) Un livre se perd de vue et se retrouve, tantôt fané, tantôt réarmé de séduction. Sa beauté est journalière, au sens balzacien ; il a ses bons et ses mauvais moments. On connaît avec lui la séduction à laquelle on cède trop vite, tout comme la lente reconquête, par des qualités d’abord voilées. Il se prête à des découvertes successives (tout n’y est pas apparent tout de suite) à l’automatisme de l’accoutumance, à l’usure rapide du premier éblouissement, tout comme à l’entente parfois nouée jusqu’à ce que la mort advienne. Il voyage avec nous, parfois convivial et disert, parfois plus fermé qu’on ne voudrait. Il vieillit près de nous, tantôt comme un vin, tantôt comme une femme, tantôt passivement, tantôt activement ; il ne déserte jamais tout à fait la mémoire ; on vieillit avec lui : commode, présent, familier, logeable. Bref, les rapports qu’on a avec lui sont, plus que pour un autre produit de l’art, proches de ceux qu’on entretient avec un vivant, qui, entré une fois dans votre existence, y reste, en sort, y revient, s’y fait place, s’éloigne, mais avec qui le contact plus familier qui a été une fois celui de l’intimité ne laisse jamais prescrire sa note singulière. Disons-le : rien ne mène le mariage – le hasard de sa rencontre, ses aventures, ses aléas, les nouvelles relatives qu’il fait naître, ses séductions à éclipse, les pouvoirs muets de sa présence toujours disponible – comme les rapports qu’on entretient avec un livre qui compte. On regarde un tableau, on écoute une musique, on prend un livre – locution expressive ! – pour un mariage précaire certes le plus souvent, mais pourtant un peu comme on prend femme : pour un contact d’une intimité plus quotidienne que n’en procure aucun autre art. Quoi d’étonnant à ce que les rapports qu’on a avec lui dès le début revêtent le sans-gêne, assez vite rodé, qui naît de la vie commune ? Livres de chevet… Nulle production de l’art n’est plus que le livre familière de la chambre à coucher, nulle ne nous parle davantage, toute réticence, toute litote larguée, et, comme dans une promiscuité intime, sur l’oreiller. Il n’y a guère de cohabitation en art qu’avec un livre. Il n’est pas sûr que cela ait été dans le passé toujours le cas. Les rapports du lecteur de l’antiquité avec son rouleau manuscrit étaient autres, peut-être à-demi liturgiques : l’attitude, la lenteur des gestes, la station debout. Feuilleter un livre, et dans tous les sens, a été dans son histoire l’épisode dernier qui – autant sensuel que mental – a achevé pour lui la danse des sept voiles, a dévêtu le livre pour le lecteur comme aucune production de l’esprit ne l’avait encore été avant lui. Mais le tête-à-tête avec le livre appelle d’autres réflexions. Elles concernent l’insigne faculté de dilution, d’émiettement et de fragmentation – sans perte réelle de présence, ni d’efficacité – qui est la sienne. Disloqué, démembré, par les trous, les distractions, les « absences », brèves ou prolongées qui sont celles du lecteur, on dirait que le livre repousse dans l’esprit (ainsi font les articles endommagés de certains insectes) et tend à reformer opiniâtrement son unité et son intégrité. Il est doué d’une aptitude insolite, à se rassembler dans l’esprit aussitôt autour d’un simple fragment, à recomposer sa figure intégrale à partir de ses éléments isolés. De même qu’il n’est guère possible d’évoquer quelque détail physique d’une personne qui vous est familière, sans qu’elle reprenne vie sympathiquement et se réanime toute dans le souvenir, de même la faculté d’évocation caractéristique de la fiction écrite, ne s’exerce pas seulement sur les images et les souvenirs extérieurs à elle, mais s’exerce aussi de chacune de ses parties, même infimes, sur sa propre totalité. Si je reviens à une page d’un livre qui m’est familier, c’est le livre entier : sous ces espèces (comme on dit) qui vient me repeupler. La mémoire des livres est une mémoire bourgeonnante, étrangement multipliée parce que chacun de ses éléments est lui-même un petit monde toujours en puissance d’éclosion. Elle est consultable, et elle est un peu (ce n’est pas la mémoire d’une pièce musicale ou d’un tableau) monnayable, susceptible d’être introduite et de circuler – fragmentée, mais en fragments à son effigie – dans des milieux qui lui sont organiquement étrangers.
The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. "Now look here, Bailey," she said, "see here, read this," and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did."
Bailey didn't look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children's mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green head-kerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit's ears. She was sitting on the sofa, feeding the baby his apricots out of a jar. "The children have been to Florida before," the old lady said. "You all ought to take them somewhere else for a change so they would see different parts of the world and be broad. They never have been to east Tennessee."
The children's mother didn't seem to hear her but the eight-year-old boy, John Wesley, a stocky child with glasses, said, "If you don't want to go to Florida, why dontcha stay at home?" He and the little girl, June Star, were reading the funny papers on the floor.
"She wouldn't stay at home to be queen for a day," June Star said without raising her yellow head.
"Yes and what would you do if this fellow, The Misfit, caught you?" the grandmother asked.
"I'd smack his face," John Wesley said.
"She wouldn't stay at home for a million bucks," June Star said. "Afraid she'd miss something. She has to go everywhere we go."
"All right, Miss," the grandmother said. "Just remember that the next time you want me to curl your hair."
June Star said her hair was naturally curly.
The next morning the grandmother was the first one in the car, ready to go. She had her big black valise that looked like the head of a hippopotamus in one corner, and underneath it she was hiding a basket with Pitty Sing, the cat, in it. She didn't intend for the cat to be left alone in the house for three days because he would miss her too much and she was afraid he might brush against one of her gas burners and accidentally asphyxiate himself. Her son, Bailey, didn't like to arrive at a motel with a cat.
She sat in the middle of the back seat with John Wesley and June Star on either side of her. Bailey and the children's mother and the baby sat in front and they left Atlanta at eight forty-five with the mileage on the car at 55890. The grandmother wrote this down because she thought it would be interesting to say how many miles they had been when they got back. It took them twenty minutes to reach the outskirts of the city.
The old lady settled herself comfortably, removing her white cotton gloves and putting them up with her purse on the shelf in front of the back window. The children's mother still had on slacks and still had her head tied up in a green kerchief, but the grandmother had on a navy blue straw sailor hat with a bunch of white violets on the brim and a navy blue dress with a small white dot in the print. Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.
She said she thought it was going to be a good day for driving, neither too hot nor too cold, and she cautioned Bailey that the speed limit was fifty-five miles an hour and that the patrolmen hid themselves behind billboards and small clumps of trees and sped out after you before you had a chance to slow down. She pointed out interesting details of the scenery: Stone Mountain; the blue granite that in some places came up to both sides of the highway; the brilliant red clay banks slightly streaked with purple; and the various crops that made rows of green lace-work on the ground. The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled. The children were reading comic magazines and their mother and gone back to sleep.
"Let's go through Georgia fast so we won't have to look at it much," John Wesley said.
"If I were a little boy," said the grandmother, "I wouldn't talk about my native state that way. Tennessee has the mountains and Georgia has the hills."
"Tennessee is just a hillbilly dumping ground," John Wesley said, "and Georgia is a lousy state too."
"You said it," June Star said.
"In my time," said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, "children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!" she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. "Wouldn't that make a picture, now?" she asked and they all turned and looked at the little Negro out of the back window. He waved
"He didn't have any britches on," June Star said.
"He probably didn't have any," the grandmother explained. "Little riggers in the country don't have things like we do. If I could paint, I'd paint that picture," she said.
The children exchanged comic books.
The grandmother offered to hold the baby and the children's mother passed him over the front seat to her. She set him on her knee and bounced him and told him about the things they were passing. She rolled her eyes and screwed up her mouth and stuck her leathery thin face into his smooth bland one. Occasionally he gave her a faraway smile. They passed a large cotton field with five or fix graves fenced in the middle of it, like a small island. "Look at the graveyard!" the grandmother said, pointing it out. "That was the old family burying ground. That belonged to the plantation."
"Where's the plantation?" John Wesley asked.
"Gone With the Wind" said the grandmother. "Ha. Ha."
When the children finished all the comic books they had brought, they opened the lunch and ate it. The grandmother ate a peanut butter sandwich and an olive and would not let the children throw the box and the paper napkins out the window. When there was nothing else to do they played a game by choosing a cloud and making the other two guess what shape it suggested. John Wesley took one the shape of a cow and June Star guessed a cow and John Wesley said, no, an automobile, and June Star said he didn't play fair, and they began to slap each other over the grandmother.
The grandmother said she would tell them a story if they would keep quiet. When she told a story, she rolled her eyes and waved her head and was very dramatic. She said once when she was a maiden lady she had been courted by a Mr. Edgar Atkins Teagarden from Jasper, Georgia. She said he was a very good-looking man and a gentleman and that he brought her a watermelon every Saturday afternoon with his initials cut in it, E. A. T. Well, one Saturday, she said, Mr. Teagarden brought the watermelon and there was nobody at home and he left it on the front porch and returned in his buggy to Jasper, but she never got the watermelon, she said, because a nigger boy ate it when he saw the initials, E. A. T. ! This story tickled John Wesley's funny bone and he giggled and giggled but June Star didn't think it was any good. She said she wouldn't marry a man that just brought her a watermelon on Saturday. The grandmother said she would have done well to marry Mr. Teagarden because he was a gentle man and had bought Coca-Cola stock when it first came out and that he had died only a few years ago, a very wealthy man.
They stopped at The Tower for barbecued sandwiches. The Tower was a part stucco and part wood filling station and dance hall set in a clearing outside of Timothy. A fat man named Red Sammy Butts ran it and there were signs stuck here and there on the building and for miles up and down the highway saying, TRY RED SAMMY'S FAMOUS BARBECUE. NONE LIKE FAMOUS RED SAMMY'S! RED SAM! THE FAT BOY WITH THE HAPPY LAUGH. A VETERAN! RED SAMMY'S YOUR MAN!
Red Sammy was lying on the bare ground outside The Tower with his head under a truck while a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a small chinaberry tree, chattered nearby. The monkey sprang back into the tree and got on the highest limb as soon as he saw the children jump out of the car and run toward him.
Inside, The Tower was a long dark room with a counter at one end and tables at the other and dancing space in the middle. They all sat down at a board table next to the nickelodeon and Red Sam's wife, a tall burnt-brown woman with hair and eyes lighter than her skin, came and took their order. The children's mother put a dime in the machine and played "The Tennessee Waltz," and the grandmother said that tune always made her want to dance. She asked Bailey if he would like to dance but he only glared at her. He didn't have a naturally sunny disposition like she did and trips made him nervous. The grandmother's brown eyes were very bright. She swayed her head from side to side and pretended she was dancing in her chair. June Star said play something she could tap to so the children's mother put in another dime and played a fast number and June Star stepped out onto the dance floor and did her tap routine.
"Ain't she cute?" Red Sam's wife said, leaning over the counter. "Would you like to come be my little girl?"
"No I certainly wouldn't," June Star said. "I wouldn't live in a broken-down place like this for a million bucks!" and she ran back to the table.
"Ain't she cute?" the woman repeated, stretching her mouth politely.
"Arn't you ashamed?" hissed the grandmother.
Red Sam came in and told his wife to quit lounging on the counter and hurry up with these people's order. His khaki trousers reached just to his hip bones and his stomach hung over them like a sack of meal swaying under his shirt. He came over and sat down at a table nearby and let out a combination sigh and yodel. "You can't win," he said. "You can't win," and he wiped his sweating red face off with a gray handkerchief. "These days you don't know who to trust," he said. "Ain't that the truth?"
"People are certainly not nice like they used to be," said the grandmother.
"Two fellers come in here last week," Red Sammy said, "driving a Chrysler. It was a old beat-up car but it was a good one and these boys looked all right to me. Said they worked at the mill and you know I let them fellers charge the gas they bought? Now why did I do that?"
"Because you're a good man!" the grandmother said at once.
"Yes'm, I suppose so," Red Sam said as if he were struck with this answer.
His wife brought the orders, carrying the five plates all at once without a tray, two in each hand and one balanced on her arm. "It isn't a soul in this green world of God's that you can trust," she said. "And I don't count nobody out of that, not nobody," she repeated, looking at Red Sammy.
"Did you read about that criminal, The Misfit, that's escaped?" asked the grandmother.
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he didn't attack this place right here," said the woman. "If he hears about it being here, I wouldn't be none surprised to see him. If he hears it's two cent in the cash register, I wouldn't be a tall surprised if he . . ."
"That'll do," Red Sam said. "Go bring these people their Co'-Colas," and the woman went off to get the rest of the order.
"A good man is hard to find," Red Sammy said. "Everything is getting terrible. I remember the day you could go off and leave your screen door unlatched. Not no more."
He and the grandmother discussed better times. The old lady said that in her opinion Europe was entirely to blame for the way things were now. She said the way Europe acted you would think we were made of money and Red Sam said it was no use talking about it, she was exactly right. The children ran outside into the white sunlight and looked at the monkey in the lacy chinaberry tree. He was busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.
They drove off again into the hot afternoon. The grandmother took cat naps and woke up every few minutes with her own snoring. Outside of Toombsboro she woke up and recalled an old plantation that she had visited in this neighborhood once when she was a young lady. She said the house had six white columns across the front and that there was an avenue of oaks leading up to it and two little wooden trellis arbors on either side in front where you sat down with your suitor after a stroll in the garden. She recalled exactly which road to turn off to get to it. She knew that Bailey would not be willing to lose any time looking at an old house, but the more she talked about it, the more she wanted to see it once again and find out if the little twin arbors were still standing. "There was a secret panel in this house," she said craftily, not telling the truth but wishing that she were, "and the story went that all the family silver was hidden in it when Sherman came through but it was never found . . ."
"Hey!" John Wesley said. "Let's go see it! We'll find it! We'll poke all the woodwork and find it! Who lives there? Where do you turn off at? Hey Pop, can't we turn off there?"
"We never have seen a house with a secret panel!" June Star shrieked. "Let's go to the house with the secret panel! Hey Pop, can't we go see the house with the secret panel!"
"It's not far from here, I know," the grandmother said. "It wouldn't take over twenty minutes."
Bailey was looking straight ahead. His jaw was as rigid as a horseshoe. "No," he said.
The children began to yell and scream that they wanted to see the house with the secret panel. John Wesley kicked the back of the front seat and June Star hung over her mother's shoulder and whined desperately into her ear that they never had any fun even on their vacation, that they could never do what THEY wanted to do. The baby began to scream and John Wesley kicked the back of the seat so hard that his father could feel the blows in his kidney.
"All right!" he shouted and drew the car to a stop at the side of the road. "Will you all shut up? Will you all just shut up for one second? If you don't shut up, we won't go anywhere."
"It would be very educational for them," the grandmother murmured.
"All right," Bailey said, "but get this: this is the only time we're going to stop for anything like this. This is the one and only time."
"The dirt road that you have to turn down is about a mile back," the grandmother directed. "I marked it when we passed."
"A dirt road," Bailey groaned.
After they had turned around and were headed toward the dirt road, the grandmother recalled other points about the house, the beautiful glass over the front doorway and the candle-lamp in the hall. John Wesley said that the secret panel was probably in the fireplace.
"You can't go inside this house," Bailey said. "You don't know who lives there."
"While you all talk to the people in front, I'll run around behind and get in a window," John Wesley suggested.
"We'll all stay in the car," his mother said.
They turned onto the dirt road and the car raced roughly along in a swirl of pink dust. The grandmother recalled the times when there were no paved roads and thirty miles was a day's journey. The dirt road was hilly and there were sudden washes in it and sharp curves on dangerous embankments. All at once they would be on a hill, looking down over the blue tops of trees for miles around, then the next minute, they would be in a red depression with the dust-coated trees looking down on them.
"This place had better turn up in a minute," Bailey said, "or I'm going to turn around."
The road looked as if no one had traveled on it in months.
"It's not much farther," the grandmother said and just as she said it, a horrible thought came to her. The thought was so embarrassing that she turned red in the face and her eyes dilated and her feet jumped up, upsetting her valise in the corner. The instant the valise moved, the newspaper top she had over the basket under it rose with a snarl and Pitty Sing, the cat, sprang onto Bailey's shoulder.
The children were thrown to the floor and their mother, clutching the baby, was thrown out the door onto the ground; the old lady was thrown into the front seat. The car turned over once and landed right-side-up in a gulch off the side of the road. Bailey remained in the driver's seat with the cat gray-striped with a broad white face and an orange nose clinging to his neck like a caterpillar.
As soon as the children saw they could move their arms and legs, they scrambled out of the car, shouting, "We've had an ACCIDENT!" The grandmother was curled up under the dashboard, hoping she was injured so that Bailey's wrath would not come down on her all at once. The horrible thought she had had before the accident was that the house she had remembered so vividly was not in Georgia but in Tennessee.
Bailey removed the cat from his neck with both hands and flung it out the window against the side of a pine tree. Then he got out of the car and started looking for the children's mother. She was sitting against the side of the red gutted ditch, holding the screaming baby, but she only had a cut down her face and a broken shoulder. "We've had an ACCIDENT!" the children screamed in a frenzy of delight.
"But nobody's killed," June Star said with disappointment as the grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side. They all sat down in the ditch, except the children, to recover from the shock. They were all shaking.
"Maybe a car will come along," said the children's mother hoarsely.
"I believe I have injured an organ," said the grandmother, pressing her side, but no one answered her. Bailey's teeth were clattering. He had on a yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed in it and his face was as yellow as the shirt. The grandmother decided that she would not mention that the house was in Tennessee.
The road was about ten feet above and they could see only the tops of the trees on the other side of it. Behind the ditch they were sitting in there were more woods, tall and dark and deep. In a few minutes they saw a car some distance away on top of a hill, coming slowly as if the occupants were watching them. The grandmother stood up and waved both arms dramatically to attract their attention. The car continued to come on slowly, disappeared around a bend and appeared again, moving even slower, on top of the hill they had gone over. It was a big black battered hearselike automobile. There were three men in it.
It came to a stop just over them and for some minutes, the driver looked down with a steady expressionless gaze to where they were sitting, and didn't speak. Then he turned his head and muttered something to the other two and they got out. One was a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it. He moved around on the right side of them and stood staring, his mouth partly open in a kind of loose grin. The other had on khaki pants and a blue striped coat and a gray hat pulled down very low, hiding most of his face. He came around slowly on the left side. Neither spoke.
The driver got out of the car and stood by the side of it, looking down at them. He was an older man than the other two. His hair was just beginning to gray and he wore silver-rimmed spectacles that gave him a scholarly look. He had a long creased face and didn't have on any shirt or undershirt. He had on blue jeans that were too tight for him and was holding a black hat and a gun. The two boys also had guns.
"We've had an ACCIDENT!" the children screamed.
The grandmother had the peculiar feeling that the bespectacled man was someone she knew. His face was as familiar to her as if she had known him all her life but she could not recall who he was. He moved away from the car and began to come down the embankment, placing his feet carefully so that he wouldn't slip. He had on tan and white shoes and no socks, and his ankles were red and thin. "Good afternoon," he said. "I see you all had you a little spill."
"We turned over twice!" said the grandmother.
"Once", he corrected. "We seen it happen. Try their car and see will it run, Hiram," he said quietly to the boy with the gray hat.
"What you got that gun for?" John Wesley asked. "Whatcha gonna do with that gun?"
"Lady," the man said to the children's mother, "would you mind calling them children to sit down by you? Children make me nervous. I want all you all to sit down right together there where you're at."
"What are you telling US what to do for?" June Star asked.
Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth. "Come here," said their mother.
"Look here now," Bailey began suddenly, "we're in a predicament! We're in . . ."
The grandmother shrieked. She scrambled to her feet and stood staring. "You're The Misfit!" she said. "I recognized you at once!"
"Yes'm," the man said, smiling slightly as if he were pleased in spite of himself to be known, "but it would have been better for all of you, lady, if you hadn't of reckernized me."
Bailey turned his head sharply and said something to his mother that shocked even the children. The old lady began to cry and The Misfit reddened.
"Lady," he said, "don't you get upset. Sometimes a man says things he don't mean. I don't reckon he meant to talk to you thataway."
"You wouldn't shoot a lady, would you?" the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.
The Misfit pointed the toe of his shoe into the ground and made a little hole and then covered it up again. "I would hate to have to," he said.
"Listen," the grandmother almost screamed, "I know you're a good man. You don't look a bit like you have common blood. I know you must come from nice people!"
"Yes mam," he said, "finest people in the world." When he smiled he showed a row of strong white teeth. "God never made a finer woman than my mother and my daddy's heart was pure gold," he said. The boy with the red sweat shirt had come around behind them and was standing with his gun at his hip. The Misfit squatted down on the ground. "Watch them children, Bobby Lee," he said. "You know they make me nervous." He looked at the six of them huddled together in front of him and he seemed to be embarrassed as if he couldn't think of anything to say. "Ain't a cloud in the sky," he remarked, looking up at it. "Don't see no sun but don't see no cloud neither."
"Yes, it's a beautiful day," said the grandmother. "Listen," she said, "you shouldn't call yourself The Misfit because I know you're a good man at heart. I can just look at you and tell."
"Hush!" Bailey yelled. "Hush! Everybody shut up and let me handle this!" He was squatting in the position of a runner about to sprint forward but he didn't move.
"I pre-chate that, lady," The Misfit said and drew a little circle in the ground with the butt of his gun.
"It'll take a half a hour to fix this here car," Hiram called, looking over the raised hood of it.
"Well, first you and Bobby Lee get him and that little boy to step over yonder with you," The Misfit said, pointing to Bailey and John Wesley. "The boys want to ast you something," he said to Bailey. "Would you mind stepping back in them woods there with them?"
"Listen," Bailey began, "we're in a terrible predicament! Nobody realizes what this is," and his voice cracked. His eyes were as blue and intense as the parrots in his shirt and he remained perfectly still.
The grandmother reached up to adjust her hat brim as if she were going to the woods with him but it came off in her hand. She stood staring at it and after a second she let it fall on the ground. Hiram pulled Bailey up by the arm as if he were assisting an old man. John Wesley caught hold of his father's hand and Bobby I,ee followed. They went off toward the woods and just as they reached the dark edge, Bailey turned and supporting himself against a gray naked pine trunk, he shouted, "I'll be back in a minute, Mamma, wait on me!"
"Come back this instant!" his mother shrilled but they all disappeared into the woods.
"Bailey Boy!" the grandmother called in a tragic voice but she found she was looking at The Misfit squatting on the ground in front of her. "I just know you're a good man," she said desperately. "You're not a bit common!"
"Nome, I ain't a good man," The Misfit said after a second ah if he had considered her statement carefully, "but I ain't the worst in the world neither. My daddy said I was a different breed of dog from my brothers and sisters. 'You know,' Daddy said, 'it's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters. He's going to be into everything!"' He put on his black hat and looked up suddenly and then away deep into the woods as if he were embarrassed again. "I'm sorry I don't have on a shirt before you ladies," he said, hunching his shoulders slightly. "We buried our clothes that we had on when we escaped and we're just making do until we can get better. We borrowed these from some folks we met," he explained.
"That's perfectly all right," the grandmother said. "Maybe Bailey has an extra shirt in his suitcase."
"I'll look and see terrectly," The Misfit said.
"Where are they taking him?" the children's mother screamed.
"Daddy was a card himself," The Misfit said. "You couldn't put anything over on him. He never got in trouble with the Authorities though. Just had the knack of handling them."
"You could be honest too if you'd only try," said the grandmother. "Think how wonderful it would be to settle down and live a comfortable life and not have to think about somebody chasing you all the time."
The Misfit kept scratching in the ground with the butt of his gun as if he were thinking about it. "Yestm, somebody is always after you," he murmured.
The grandmother noticed how thin his shoulder blades were just behind his hat because she was standing up looking down on him. "Do you every pray?" she asked.
He shook his head. All she saw was the black hat wiggle between his shoulder blades. "Nome," he said.
There was a pistol shot from the woods, followed closely by another. Then silence. The old lady's head jerked around. She could hear the wind move through the tree tops like a long satisfied insuck of breath. "Bailey Boy!" she called.
"I was a gospel singer for a while," The Misfit said. "I been most everything. Been in the arm service both land and sea, at home and abroad, been twict married, been an undertaker, been with the railroads, plowed Mother Earth, been in a tornado, seen a man burnt alive oncet," and he looked up at the children's mother and the little girl who were sitting close together, their faces white and their eyes glassy; "I even seen a woman flogged," he said.
"Pray, pray," the grandmother began, "pray, pray . . ."
I never was a bad boy that I remember of," The Misfit said in an almost dreamy voice, "but somewheres along the line I done something wrong and got sent to the penitentiary. I was buried alive," and he looked up and held her attention to him by a steady stare.
"That's when you should have started to pray," she said. "What did you do to get sent to the penitentiary that first time?"
"Turn to the right, it was a wall," The Misfit said, looking up again at the cloudless sky. "Turn to the left, it was a wall. Look up it was a ceiling, look down it was a floor. I forget what I done, lady. I set there and set there, trying to remember what it was I done and I ain't recalled it to this day. Oncet in a while, I would think it was coming to me, but it never come."
"Maybe they put you in by mistake," the old lady said vaguely.
"Nome," he said. "It wasn't no mistake. They had the papers on me."
"You must have stolen something," she said.
The Misfit sneered slightly. "Nobody had nothing I wanted," he said. "It was a head-doctor at the penitentiary said what I had done was kill my daddy but I known that for a lie. My daddy died in nineteen ought nineteen of the epidemic flu and I never had a thing to do with it. He was buried in the Mount Hopewell Baptist churchyard and you can go there and see for yourself."
"If you would pray," the old lady said, "Jesus would help you."
"That's right," The Misfit said.
"Well then, why don't you pray?" she asked trembling with delight suddenly.
"I don't want no hep," he said. "I'm doing all right by myself."
Bobby Lee and Hiram came ambling back from the woods. Bobby Lee was dragging a yellow shirt with bright blue parrots in it.
"Thow me that shirt, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. The shirt came flying at him and landed on his shoulder and he put it on. The grandmother couldn't name what the shirt reminded her of. "No, lady," The Misfit said while he was buttoning it up, "I found out the crime don't matter. You can do one thing or you can do another, kill a man or take a tire off his car, because sooner or later you're going to forget what it was you done and just be punished for it."
The children's mother had begun to make heaving noises as if she couldn't get her breath. "Lady," he asked, "would you and that little girl like to step off yonder with Bobby Lee and Hiram and join your husband?"
"Yes, thank you," the mother said faintly. Her left arm dangled helplessly and she was holding the baby, who had gone to sleep, in the other. "Hep that lady up, Hiram," The Misfit said as she struggled to climb out of the ditch, "and Bobby Lee, you hold onto that little girl's hand."
"I don't want to hold hands with him," June Star said. "He reminds me of a pig."
The fat boy blushed and laughed and caught her by the arm and pulled her off into the woods after Hiram and her mother.
Alone with The Misfit, the grandmother found that she had lost her voice. There was not a cloud in the sky nor any sun. There was nothing around her but woods. She wanted to tell him that he must pray. She opened and closed her mouth several times before anything came out. Finally she found herself saying, "Jesus. Jesus," meaning, Jesus will help you, but the way she was saying it, it sounded as if she might be cursing.
"Yes'm, The Misfit said as if he agreed. "Jesus shown everything off balance. It was the same case with Him as with me except He hadn't committed any crime and they could prove I had committed one because they had the papers on me. Of course," he said, "they never shown me my papers. That's why I sign myself now. I said long ago, you get you a signature and sign everything you do and keep a copy of it. Then you'll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see do they match and in the end you'll have something to prove you ain't been treated right. I call myself The Misfit," he said, "because I can't make what all I done wrong fit what all I gone through in punishment."
There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report. "Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain't punished at all?"
"Jesus!" the old lady cried. "You've got good blood! I know you wouldn't shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I'll give you all the money I've got!"
"Lady," The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, "there never was a body that give the undertaker a tip."
There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, "Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!" as if her heart would break.
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
"Maybe He didn't raise the dead," the old lady mumbled, not knowing what she was saying and feeling so dizzy that she sank down in the ditch with her legs twisted under her.
"I wasn't there so I can't say He didn't," The Misfit said. "I wisht I had of been there," he said, hitting the ground with his fist. "It ain't right I wasn't there because if I had of been there I would of known. Listen lady," he said in a high voice, "if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn't be like I am now." His voice seemed about to crack and the grandmother's head cleared for an instant. She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children !" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
Without his glasses, The Misfit's eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. "Take her off and thow her where you thown the others," he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.
"She was a talker, wasn't she?" Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.
"She would of been a good woman," The Misfit said, "if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life."
"Some fun!" Bobby Lee said.
"Shut up, Bobby Lee," The Misfit said. "It's no real pleasure in life."