"I'm headed thataway -- " Even nodded his head in a direction away from town.
"I'll be on directly. Been reading more about Arkansas and what's stirring there." Canaan tapped the newspaper, still folded in his lap. "Well, you read then, while the light's easy, but I'm tired."
"I guess you are. After what you seen, you don't need an old man's predilections." Canaan picked up the paper and opened it to its center. Spinning the bottle one more time, Even patted his shoulder and stood up, stretching, meaning to head for home.
"When I was a boy, my daddy took me down to the train depot to see a dead whale." Canaan's low voice was behind him, feathery in the hot wind. "Cost him a quarter just so I could sit up on his shoulder and touch the side of that big ole ugly thing. Never seen so many people in all my life, all straining for a look at something big, dead and pitiful. Folks said it'd washed up in Gulfport and some bright boy thought of carting it up from Biloxi, in steamy summer, stinking to high heaven, just to make a buck or two. Gulls followed, too. Thousands and thousands of 'em. They covered the train cars in front and behind, turned 'em white and noisy. Flew over the crowd. Shit over most everbody. All those birds just sitting there staring. All I could think when I saw that whale and its tiny slitted eyes -- barely open and blue-cloudy -- was how ugly a thing it was for us to be standing underneath a broiling sun looking at a thing so pitiful. That's what I thought. Just seven, and 1 thought that. I remember thinking there weren't a tarp big enough to cover a thing of that size, but 1 sure wished there was." He crossed his legs and shook open the newspaper. "Shirts have been lost over lesser things, Even Grade -- I'm sure sorry 'bout those two boys."
Even didn't answer, just raised his hand and waved as he walked underneath the yellow light blinking overhead. He found himself back on the sidewalk and moving past the barbershop and Owl Drug. Canaan's blood there, too. His blood pennies dribbled across half of Petal because some boy in a truck took good aim and hurled a Coke at a wobbly old Negro.
The Quarter was closer now, still not in sight, but closer. Breath came easier thinking of Bellrose Street -- a strange name for a place not at all like a bell or a flower, but where his house sat with its faded front porch and the green metal chair. He passed Virginia Street with its tall trees, then on past Cedar Knot Avenue where a couple of kids were rolling a ball out into the street. By that point his neck was relaxed and in spite of things, he found himself humming.
A sea of curly dock grew wild along the clay road, standing in waist-high clusters. And though he'd never noticed the wildflowers before June, he'd met them since and been told more than once that their seeds, still white and hidden, would turn rust-colored once the weather cooled and the days shortened. He'd been told a tea could be brewed from boiling out the yellow root; a tea good enough to cure the stomach and the gums and certain cases of jaundice. He'd been told the leaves were fresher and better than the juice of a ripe lemon and that the seeds could be ground up as meal or coarse flour and baked up as bread. Thinking on it, he watched the curling leaves, caught up and moving in greenish blue waves. A month ago, the hedge was just one more patch of fast-growing green springing up wild on the side of a road he walked day in and day out. Now that patch had a name and a purpose and a deep-seated sermon. Judy had said to him sometime around the middle of June, "The language of 'dock' is patience -- you remember that, Even Grade, next time you see it growin' alongside the road or in a wasted place." And while he hummed some nonsense song, he did remember and thought on the true patience of a man and what it might mean and put to sum all the other countless lessons such a woman with such a memory might equal. Stretching his neck, hearing it pop in all directions, he hummed louder, his hands swinging free.
Reprinted from Mother of Pearl by Melinda Haynes. Copyright © 1999 Melinda Haynes. Published by Hyperion. No part of this excerpt can be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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