Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Furnace Creek

 

For years I didn’t know why it was called Furnace Creek, even though I’d been uncovering bullets in the vicinity ever since I was old enough to explore the creek on my own. The bullets in question were misshapen slugs of Confederate vintage, buried in the flinty soil, scattered in the underbrush, and sometimes wedged between the rough-hewn slabs that made up the sides of that rocky mound built on the steep embankment overlooking the creek—rocks whose proclivity to tumble earthwards had been frustrated by decades of creeping ivy and a skein of Virginia honeysuckle.

That was the “furnace”—a towering outdoor stone oven in which molten lead had once been shaped into the slugs we kids showed off whenever we unearthed them from their recesses one hundred years later. It was one of the countless Civil War relics that haunted the mountains and valleys of Franklin County, reminders of a cause that, long since vanquished, stubbornly refused to vanish. But to my young fancy, the blackened furnace, hidden in the woods on the edge of town, looked more Egyptian than Confederate: it loomed in my childish imagination as a four-sided pyramid whose top had been whacked off twelve feet above the ground.

And whacking off was the fine art I learned there the summer of 1965, lying prone on those grim stones as Furnace Creek—taking its name from this landmark—churned and chortled through the forested landscape surrounding my perch.

In that initial onslaught of adolescence, as I was coming into my first and most vivid impressions of a wider world lying in wait, just beyond the horizons of my vision, and readying to pounce, I had found a haven for my solitary vice, so recently learned and so eagerly cultivated, on the top of that old relic. Stretched out on its summit, hidden from the world by a shroud of greenery, visible only to unquiet jays hopping from branch to branch overhead, I found a refuge from the domestic surveillance that attended every creaking bedspring or locked bathroom door in my parents’ well-regulated house. Here, dappled in sunlight that purified the act whose pleasure even then was obscurely related to the guilty suspicion that I ought not be doing what I so obviously wanted to do, I learned to bring myself to delirium with strokes as sensuous as those summer hours of daylight were long. That was the summer when semen still smelled astonishingly fresh, an elixir of unfathomed potency. That was the season of unmediated expectation, when the simple ecstasy of touch was all that was needed to bring me off again and again up in my leafy eyrie, my hideout from the world, ten-bike-minutes away from the chores I was avoiding at home.

How vividly I still remember the day I first came into a sense of my place in the world—that is, my place as something more culpable than a thirteen-year-old boy whose greatest misdeeds had hitherto been bullying his younger brother, tracking muddy prints across the newly waxed kitchen floor, or forgetting his prayers. I was lying atop the furnace on that particularly blazing and humid July afternoon, shirtless and the elastic waistband of my shorts pushed to my knees. It was that kind of hazy day when the air conspired to look as thick as it felt, so that the sweat generated by the humidity and compounded by my handy exertions swamped me in a lubricant as much a deterrent as a stimulus to satisfaction. My vision had gone white from staring at the sun straight overhead, and just as my pent-up labors verged on completion, a dark fist bore down on my chest, a rasping voice demanded “Give me your name, Boy, quick!,” and my world turned upside down.

Jolted from my reverie, I nearly levitated in shock. At that very moment, a loop of liquid unspooled from deep in my loins and splattered the hand that had clamped down so hard on my chest. I was as mortified as I was frightened.

Before I had time to react to the strong fingers pinioning me in place, the interloper had climbed higher up the mound, till she—for I now saw it was a she, a powerfully built negro woman sweating even more mightily than myself as she gasped for breath—loomed over me, eclipsing the overhead sun. So intent was she on fixing me with her stare that she didn’t notice, or at least notice enough to care, the milky ribbon clouding her walnut-brown fingers and spectacularly shaped, vermillion-painted nails.

“You’re the Seward boy, I know you!”

At the instant that she identified me, I recognized her: Zithra Jackson Brown, the neighbor’s maid till last year. I’d observed her across the laurel hedge separating our backyard from the Leroys, hanging out the wash to dry, shaking clouds of fluff from the dust mop, emptying the trash in the gray uniform favored by the hired help in our neighborhood.

“Well I’ll be, by bejesus,” she said, and I didn’t think I was imagining the gloating sound in her voice, broken by wheezing gasps as she tried to catch her breath. “Here I am after a place to hide and what do I find? Newt Seward the Deacon’s boy, abusin’ hisself like he ain’t never heard tell of the wages of sin. It’d be a pity, Lord save your soul, if word gotten out on how you been wastin’ your seed . . . ”—at which point she paused and, a bit too graphically for my adolescent taste, reminded me of the inopportune moment at which she had interrupted my raptures, by wiping her soiled hand on the shapeless blue smock she wore.

I was too terrified to reply. As her free hand ground my shoulder blades into the sharp rock surface, Zithra Jackson Brown smiled a gold-capped smile that was anything but friendly.

I uneasily watched a beam of calculation light up her knowing eyes.

“An’ it would be a cryin’ shame if folks was to hear you forced poor ole Zithra to partake of your sinful pleasures, wouldn’t it now?”

“You daren’t!”

“Oh yes I dare say I would, and it ain’t the only shameful thing ole Zithra knows about you. Oh yes, Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes, I done seen into your bedroom window when you and your friends—” whereupon she leaned forward and hissed into my ear her version of the despicable acts that she’d espied from her observation post on the second floor of the Leroy house, on an afternoon I’d conveniently erased from memory. “I swear to God the world is about to learn all the sins you been up to, unless you do ‘xactly as I tell you.”

The fruits of her surveillance shamed and petrified me. All I could do was blurt out, “What do you want from me?”

She smiled her unfriendly smile, breathing heavily as she glanced at my now limp manhood, shriveling in the puddled residue of my ill-spent pleasure.

“I wants you to pull your pants up over your butt crack and hightail it home like the Devil is riding your back. I know all you white folks is leaving for the fireworks soon, and when your family takes off you got to find a reason to stay behind or else there’ll be your Life to pay. . . .”

 I’d forgotten that this memorable day in my dawning awareness of my place in the universe was the fourth of July. Within the hour the whole neighborhood would load picnic hampers, lawn-chairs, and swim gear into their station wagons and head to Bonner Lake for the Independence Day festivities repeated from year to year: kids cooling off in the murky water while the non-abstemious among the adults mixed whiskey sours, a forgettable speech by the head of the VFW followed by an earnestly off-key chorus of “God Bless America,” the firing of charcoal grills and spreading of checkered tablecloths to receive the fried, pickled, and jellied feast for which we gave ample thanks, and then—twilight deepening to ultramarine—the fireworks display set off from the diving platform bobbing in the middle of the lake.

I realized, with a jolt of dismay, how late I was in returning home: I’d lost track of time in service of my solitary vices. But the trouble I was going to be in for being late was nothing, I sensed, to the trouble presently looming over my head in the form of Zithra Jackson Brown. Who continued to hold me down with two preternaturally strong hands until she had finished relaying the criminal deeds I must execute once I was alone at home.

“I’ll be waiting here till you get back, and, remember, my friends’ll be watching to make sure you done just like I said. They’ll know the second you git to Taliaferro Lane. Swear on your life you won’t tell a soul. Swear!”

With lighting speed she grabbed my tender gonads, squeezing to this side of acute pain. I gasped for breath. “I won’t, I swear, I won’t!”

“Cause if you don’t follow my instructions to a Tee, honey-chile,” she continued, not yet relinquishing her hold, “Zithra Jackson Brown will proclaim to the wide world how you, the Deacon’s Son, had your wicked ways with me and the good Lord knows how many others. Trust me, your friends will laugh you out of town when they hear where your precious pecker’s been.”

At which point she gave the offending member a condescending shake, hot palm glued to sticky skin as she laughed, the rasp in her voice as discouraging as a mockingbird’s jest. “Lil tadpole, all tuckered out and gone to waste.”

“Just let me go,” I croaked. “I promise I’ll be back by dark.”

“Then skedaddle.” With unearthly calm, Zithra let go of my privates and settled her substantial bottom on the edge of the furnace’s top as she crossed her legs and pulled a strange object out of her shock of hair that glinted with a metallic flash.

I saw that it was an extremely long and sharp-looking fingernail file, and for a crazy instant I thought she meant to slit my throat with it then and there. My dark thoughts weren’t appeased when she  proceeded to wipe a substance looking suspiciously like dried blood from the file onto the hem of her smock. That’s when I noticed the words stamped above the breast pocket of her garment: County Correctional Center for Women. My heart leapt like a frog that’s landed on a hot skillet instead of a lily pad.

“Damn rocks near wrecked my pretty nails,” I heard her mutter to herself. Then she turned back to me as she filed her glistening talons, which flashed with a life of their own. “I’se goin’ to be waiting right here, Mr. Newt Seward the Deacon’s Son, and I give you till sunset to hightail it back. You figure out how to do what I told you by then, or my Spies will let me know. If you let me down, just watch me scream bloody murder to the world.” Whereupon she wheezed a crazy laugh whose lower registers called the heavens above into question. “Don’t I know something about that, Mister Newt. Things you never want to know, if you mean to save your soul from the boogeyman!” She laughed again, rasping for breath. “Lord-a-mercy, what a day!”

I could hardly agree more as I took my departure, scrambling down the mound and tearing my way through the thorny foliage that surrounded that crumbling monument to a failed and failing cause. Not too soon, the sound of her heavy breathing was lost in the slurps and trills of Furnace Creek as it coursed down its rocky bed, singing the same greedy song to which my forebears had cast unfriendly bullets in another world, another time

 

*  *  *

Now why, you might well ask, didn’t I hightail it to the police station, housed along with City Hall in a tawdry brick Victorian extravaganza dominating the intersection of Rocky Hill’s two main streets? Or, if that seemed too daunting, why didn’t I immediately seek out my father—a forgiving soul if ever there were one—to report the crime I’d been commissioned to do? It was 1965, after all, and who would believe the ravings of a crazy black woman over an honor-roll student who (so I assumed) beamed innocence and truth? Put yourself in my place, try to remember what it felt like to be thirteen years old, literally caught with your pants down in a time and place where sex wasn’t uttered, where the parental gift of For Boys Only would not mysteriously appear on my nightstand for another year, where my best friends and I had yet to fess up to our guilty self-discoveries. Think back to that time in your life, and you’ll understand, perhaps, why it didn’t even occur to me to attempt to turn the tables on my persecutor. As I furiously pedaled up and coasted down the hilly slopes that led from Furnace Creek to Willow Woods, the residential subdivision where Rocky Hill’s most upstanding citizens had built new split-level homes, all I could think of were the dark eyes peeking out from behind the sheers of every picture window and over the evenly trimmed boxwoods of every lawn I passed—the conspiratorial eyes of a network of maids and gardeners, handymen and deliverymen, working in league with Zithra, each of whom had the miraculous means of letting her know the minute I failed to make good on the promise she’d extracted from me under duress.

Thus my panicked state of mind as I skidded to a stop in our driveway. As I feared, there awaited my mother, dressed to the nines, loading food containers, cooler, and picnic paraphernalia into the back of our station-wagon like a fury, assisted by my prim older sister Katie and my hapless younger brother Jubal, as I—sweaty, shirtless renegade—hopped off my bike. It took one second to see Mother was on a rampage of the first order.

“New-TON!” she screeched, shaking me by the shoulders in a manner bringing to mind Zithra’s vice-like grip minutes before. “Where’ve you BEEN? You were due home an hour ago. An hour ago, and LOOK at you!” As her volume rose, my heart sank. “Covered in dirt and sweat, head to toe. What’s come over you, boy?”

Let me be frank: the dizzying pace of the last hour of my small existence, from orgasm to terror, from threats against my very being to this mad charge home, all helped me accomplish what I determined as my only recourse, as 326 Taliaferro Lane spun into view. I heaved the remains of my lunch at Mother’s feet.

What followed, after her shrieks and my siblings’ elated ejaculations of horror, were my contrite apologies but oh I felt so sick; Dad’s appearance, freshly showered, shaved, and Brilliantined, giving me the benefit of the doubt; Mother’s grudging acquiescence (having made sure her open-toed canvas pumps had escaped my graceless splatter); and, after a whispered parental consultation that bespoke years of tense negotiation, I was dosed with Pepto Bismol, ordered to bed, and forbidden to sneak out of my room to watch television. At which point the rest of the Sewards departed to partake of the celebration of our country’s founding on the southwestern outskirts of town.

And so I found myself alone, left to my own wicked devices for the second time in as many hours, all on that fateful fourth of July when I stumbled into a threatening world beyond my control—a boy blackmailed into committing an offense against family and community, a pip of a lad whose most recent deceit (declaring myself sick) was only one in the expanding list of crimes I was doomed to commit in a single day.

Which, half an hour later, after I was sure the neighborhood had emptied, I set out to execute in earnest. Zithra’s instructions drumming in my ears with a beat whose insistence drowned the surrounding silence, I surveyed our house for loose cash, taking amounts whose absence I prayed would escape observation: some of the pin-money Mother kept in the jelly jar beside the potted African violets on the window sill over the kitchen sink; four crisp notes from the stash of half-C bills I’d spied my father secreting between the pages of his high school yearbook over the last two years when he thought no one was watching; and, with a sigh of regret, the thirteen silver dollars in my desktop savings bank shaped like the Empire State Building, each coin a birthday tribute from Uncle Rafe in Waynesboro. Rummaging in the storage closet, I chose a shapeless skirt Mom might not miss, along with a button-down sweater top that had seen better days, both of which I stuffed into my school satchel. Next, a map of Franklin County pirated from Dad’s Fairlaine and a flashlight. Zithra had grumbled that she hadn’t eaten in ages, so I grabbed a jar of Skippy’s and some Sara Lee rolls from the tin breadbox decorated with the image of a rooster lustily crowing amidst his covey of adoring hens.

It wasn’t twilight, not quite yet, but the sky had turned that deadening shade of white that precedes sunset, and the crickets were singing full-chorus as I slipped out the sliding glass door into our backyard. A school of starlings dipped from the woods behind our house, settled down in the oak tree by the patio, then lifted off on their way to other limbs of repose.

I made my move.

It was wrong;, in my heart I knew I was proceeding down a criminal path of no return, but there was no turning back. I gingerly turned the knob of the rear door to the Leroy residence—and as Zithra predicted, it opened effortlessly. Holding my breath, I glided down the shag carpeting of the long hall into Judge Leroy’s paneled study. As if in a dream, I saw the heavy bronze bust Zithra had said would be on his massive walnut desk—a tawny likeness of George Washington—and when I moved it aside, I saw the button worked into the pattern of the wood veneer, a disc I would never have discovered had I not been told where to look.

I held my breath and pressed. When the compartment built into the side of the desk sprang open, I sighed in relief—I half suspected that a desk with a secret compartment might have its own alarm system. There, amid sheaves of legal-looking papers and three dog-eared issues of Playboy was the black ledger Zithra had instructed me to bring back to her. I lifted it out, tucked it into my satchel and pushed the compartment shut, and replaced George’s bust, whose “I-Never-Told-A-Lie” eyes stared at me accusingly. I hesitated, cowed by that glare, but then decided: if the Judge can spare his diary, he might also forfeit one of his skin rags. A day that had begun in a sexual fever might as well end in one.

The deed accomplished, my mood instantaneously transformed from fear to elation. Thief that I had become with such ease, I deemed this the perfect opportunity to reconnoitre the house. So I worked my way through the premises, picking up and setting down knick-knacks displayed in rooms as tidily ordered as a photo spread in House Beautiful, till I found myself upstairs in the gleaming master bath that opened off the frilly bedroom of the Judge and his wife. Brazenly I lowered the crusty waistband of my shorts and took a leak, neither raising cushioned toilet seat nor flushing—let them wonder which Leroy had defiled this antiseptic sanctuary of wan tile and flickering fluorescent lights. As I shook myself dry, I noticed Mrs. Leroy’s collection of fingernail polishes lining the countertop—hues from lightest rose to deepest burgundy. The image of Zithra filing her impressive talons flashed to mind. Without a second thought I reached for a fuchsia shade that caught my eye and added it to my hoard of stolen goods.

Obviously, I was experiencing a growing appetite for petty crime. I looked into the mirror over the two sinks--his and hers--and smiled.

*  *  *

At Furnace Creek, the sun was lowering in the western sky and the air was growing heavy as I pushed through the prickly underbrush into the copse of pines, sumac, and oak saplings that separated the road where I’d left my bike from the creek gurgling downhill and out of sight. As I ventured forward in the increasing darkness of the woods, I felt considerably less of the swagger that had come over me at the Leroys. Every unsuspected tree limb that brushed against me, every unfamiliar nocturnal noise, set my heart thumping, and the lightning bugs blinking in the dark seemed alien eyes intent on spying on me. By the time I reached the stone heap, I could barely make out its black silhouette, and the horizon beyond the treetops had turned fiery orange.

“Zithra?” I called in a whisper. “You up there?”

Two hands clamped down on my shoulders from behind, and Zithra stepped out of the shadow of a giant oak tree. Her face inches from my own as she roughly spun me around, she glared intently into my eyes.

“You promise you ain’t brought no one with you?”

“I promise! It’s just me . . . Ma’am.” A little politeness, I felt, was due an escapee from the County Correctional Center who’d so recently prisoned my privates in her palm.

“You got everything like I asked?”

“Yes Ma’am,” I said, sighing with relief as she released my shoulders. They were aching mightily from the way they’d been recently set upon, first by Zithra, then Mother, now Zithra again. “Here, I’ll show you.” I reached in my pockets and pulled out my fistful of cash—more money than I’d ever held in my thirteen years—as I detailed the yields of my foraging raid.

Zithra chuckled gleefully, humming “Oh Happy Day!” as she took the bills and coins in hand. I divested myself of the remaining fruits of my labor. First, Judge Leroy’s black book, which she grabbed with a whoop of satisfaction.

“My ticket outta here!” She waved the book at me, nodding her head as if I knew everything about it there was to know. “It’s payback time for all the troubles that’s done been heaped on my back. What else you got for me?”

I handed over Mother’s skirt and sweater, which Zithra donned then and there, stepping out of her prison garb without a hint of self-consciousness. The sight of the ample curves of her dark flesh, offset by white brassiere and panties, temporarily made me forget my precarious situation. Zithra caught me staring as she buttoned the sweater over her commanding bosom and wiggled her way into the elastic-waisted skirt, surreally calling to mind the hula dancers I’d seen backing up Don Ho on Ed Sullivan.

“Don’t tell me you’re wantin’ to play with your little thing again!”

I blushed furiously. But I needn’t have worried, as Zithra changed topics without missing a beat. “Take these ole rags and burn ’em. High time Miss Zithra got herself a new look! Am I a lady now or what?”

She spun in a circle, laughing with the delight of a child, or perhaps a lunatic, as I gaped. Finally she stopped, wheezing at her exertions as she brandished the jar of Skippy’s.

“Now, soon’s as I serve myself a little dinner, I’ll disappear. And, you do understand, Mister Newt Seward, you never saw me. Whether I make it out of this god-forsaken place alive or not, you don’t know a thing. Breathe a word and your life ain’t worth a dang-long diddle. My friends will be watching you!”

I solemnly promised I’d never seen her, and could I go now?

“Wait a minute, chile,” Zithra said, using her fingernail file as a knife to spread the chunky peanut butter onto the burnt bottom of a dinner roll. She munched, while I waited at attention, one roll, then another, till she reached the bottom of the jar. Licking the file clean and inserting it back into her hair, she flipped the flashlight on, letting it play over the woods till the beam picked out the animal trail that followed the creek upstream.

“Time I git going.”

The exuberance filling her spirits seconds ago had vanished faster than steamy breath on a windowpane, and she heaved a deep sigh as she faced the last gleams of sunset filtering through the trees, looking for all the world as if she had just caught glimpse of a future that held no rosy endings for her kind. Out of nowhere, I found myself feeling sorry for the convict, and a warning sprang to my lips.

“Not that way. You have to cross too many roads and might get caught.” I had not spent years roaming these backwoods for nothing. “Go downstream, and just before you come to Route 7”—I paused, pondering the enormity of the iniquity I was about to propose—“you’ll come up on the old Jackson place, it’s the only house in sight.” Randy Jackson had been my best friend since the third grade, and I knew, as I now told Zithra, that the family was out of town. “Their second car is parked in back. A black Chevy. They always leave the keys behind the driver’s visor.”

Zithra thrust the rim of her flashlight flush to my chin, so that the light shone up into my face. All I could see was the translucent pink of my eyelids as my eyelashes danced in my line of vision like an albino centipede’s flailing legs.

“You be meanin’ what I think, Newt Seward?”

I nodded, solemnly, and she lowered the lamp as she straightened up. Its beam caught the glint of an object shining in the gloom of the needle-covered ground near my satchel.

“What’s that?”

I picked up Mrs. Leroy’s nail-polish bottle and pressed it into Zithra’s warm palm. “It’s for you.”

Total darkness had now overtaken the woods, and all of a sudden the air filled with popping sounds, first faint, then louder, of firecrackers. Half-veiled by the branches overhead, distant bursts of color lit the sky: the fireworks display at the lake had commenced. I imagined my family and their friends gasping in delight as they settled comfortably onto woolen blankets spread over the dewy grass, the unfurling explosions of beauty above suffusing them with a glow of belonging and community, an insidership from which my recent deeds had exiled me forever.

“Well me-oh-my, a gift for Zithra . . .”
 
It was of course now too dark to see the expression in her eyes, but in later years, as my imagination revisited and embellished that eventful day, I liked to think they had watered up and, perhaps, shed one tear for the boy whose life Zithra had precipitously enmeshed in her own. All I know for sure is that she soon walked away, periodically flicking the flashlight on and off as she followed the faint path that led downhill along the edge of the creek. I watched until she disappeared into the darkness before turning to walk in the opposite direction. A curtain seemed to rise before me as I stepped free of the saplings and briars by the roadside and looked up at the kaleidoscopic colors that traversed the sky; and, as I mounted my bike for the dark ride home, I felt as though I had crossed an invisible barrier and entered a new world, one in which a reborn Newton Seward harbored a secret past and, for the first time in his life, faced the immense melancholy of an unknown and terrifying future.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gender Studies Professor of Gender and Media in English at the University of Southern California, Joseph Allen Boone is the author of three books of nonfiction and a musical drama, CONMAN: An Apocalypse, based on a Herman Melville novel. His contribution here is the opening chapter of a debut novel, Furnace Creek, which transposes the world of Dickens' "Great Expectations" to the American South of the 1960s and 70s. In the past year Boone has placed four stories in literary journals, received Third Prize in the Hackney short story competition, and was named finalist in the New South fiction contest. He is the recipient of various awards, including  Guggenheim, ACLS, NHC, Stanford Humanities Center, Huntington, and Rockefeller fellowships.