I soon found out that Dudley was Carolyn’s boy and they lived in a little white house behind the McLaughlin’s property. Dudley had a brother everyone called Pike ’cause he had a long flat nose like some fish. I never did know Pike’s given name. Pike worked for the McLaughlin’s whenever things needed fixing, like roofs and shingles and such. James Leroy was Pike and Dudley’s father. I saw James Leroy inside the house a lot helping Carolyn and wearing a tuxedo.
Carolyn had hung up all my clothes and those that didn’t hang she put in my dresser drawer. Mama went through everything when she came upstairs and started giggling. Probably couldn’t help but laugh herself silly knowing I’d rather eat a plate full of spinach and drink warm Pepto-Bismol than show myself in something pink or yellow to the general public.
“You’re going to have to wear this stuff,” she said and I could see the humor in her eyes. My mama wanted to burst out laughing.
Several sighs fell from my lips and I turned away. I would have preferred cow dung on the knees of my jeans at my own goddamn wedding than the clothes that woman had picked out for me.
“You can’t hurt her feelings,” I heard Mama say.
“She wouldn’t let me pick out my own clothes,” I said.
“And what would you have chosen?” Mama asked. “Coveralls? Cowboy boots? Shit kickers?”
I didn’t laugh, though I wanted to.
“Well, that’s one way to have gotten rid of her. The old lady would have had a heart attack if I’d tried on a boy’s cap,” I said. “She really your mother?”
“Yes,” Mama said. “And she’s your grandmother and this is her house, so humor her by putting on those pedal pushers. Kyle wants to take you for a walk. Wear the light blue blouse; it’s not as offensive as the pink one.”
I wondered if Mama had heard from Aunt El that Kyle was retarded, but if she let me go out alone with him, she probably hadn’t.
Kyle took me up behind the house and we followed a trail that went across some open fields. The dirt trail wound around ahead of us and I had no idea where it would end. There were hills everywhere I looked that swooped up into the sky and roads that weren’t yet paved ran straight and some ran curved, probably leading to some mysterious dead end. I think it was the prettiest day I’d ever seen. Mama used to say that some days are downright friendly and that nature was just like a person, either snarling at you like a fierce wind, crapping on you like a storm, or loving you up like the sun.
“This is a friendly day,” I announced.
We’d taken the trail down through some woods and it ended at a cove. I could hear the water running, crystal clear, something you wanted to drink, or at least put your feet in. The little rocks were gray and black and the cove was shaped like a heart. Kyle took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pants.
“You coming?” he asked.
Well I wasn’t quite sure of where I was going, but I kicked off my shoes and socks and followed him out through the water. It was cold and it tickled, but it felt good on my skin. I followed Kyle onto a big rock about fifteen feet out. I could feel the sun on me, with a blanket’s warmth.
“I like it here,” he said, climbing up and making room for me. “It’s my special place.”
It was pretty there, that was for sure. You could look all around and see nothing but trees and water. There were birds in the sky that you couldn’t see, but I knew they were there ’cause I could hear ’em. I could even feel ’em close by.
“We got a swimming hole, too. I’ll take you there tomorrow, but it’s prettier here, a whole lot prettier,” he said. “I come here to think.”
I wondered what a boy like Kyle could think about when he was alone and no one around him was making him mad, like Grandma Edna and Aunt Erin had the other night.
“What got you so mad the other night?” I asked. “Was it just about that girl?”
“She’s mean, saying things to you no mother should ever say to her own son, or sister to her own brother.”
“Answered your own question.”
“You do chores at the farm?” I asked.
“What farm?” he said.
“The McLaughlin’s,” I said.
“That’s not a farm we live in, it’s a house.”
I was surprised. I just assumed everyone was farming something in South Carolina.
“Well, how’d they get so rich? Aren’t they farmers?”
“Hell, no.” Kyle started laughing. “They’re industrialists. Granddaddy is a magnate.”
I think my mouth dropped right into the water. So, it seemed my grandfather was still alive, just away on business?
“Your family owns steel mills, Sassy, several of them. Recently sold off a few to Bethlehem Steel, ever hear of them?”
I shook my head. I was soon to learn from Kyle how rich the McLaughlin’s were. I found out that the somber boy in the photograph was my Uncle Liam and, according to Kyle, he ran things right along with my grandfather.
“What about Seth?” I asked. “And my aunts?”
“They keep Seth under lock and key. He can barely make a run into Beaufort much less run a company. They assume, of course, that I’m just like him, dumb and useless.”
“What’s Seth do then?”
“He drinks,” Kyle said.
I looked up when I heard a whistle. I could see Dudley walking through weeds, coming up on us with his grin.
“He know about this place?” I asked, a bit surprised.
“He’s my best friend,” Kyle said.
“How’d I know you were going to bring that girl out here?” Dudley called out.
“She’s okay,” Kyle called back.
Dudley took off his shoes and rolled up his pants and waded out to us. I noticed how the water seemed to glisten on his legs, as though his whole body had been oiled. The water looked like diamonds on his arms shinning in the sun.
“Hi,” Dudley said. “Can I join you?”
Kyle and I moved over and Dudley climbed up. He sat there staring at us for a bit. It made Kyle and I laugh.
Suddenly, Dudley held out his hand. “Dudley James Leroy,” he said. “Me and Kyle are like brothers.”
“Sassy Sweetwater,” I said, shaking his hand. “I guess we weren’t properly introduced.”
“Oh, I’m just part of the landscape, not anyone your grandma is going to want to introduce you to.” He winked at me. “Your family hates the Kennedys so what does that tell you?”
“I’m just part of the landscape, too. Not really permanent, though,” I said.
“You like mysteries, sweet water Sassy?” Dudley asked. He was grinning, of course. He was always grinning. I wondered what he looked like when he wasn’t showing teeth or dimples.
“Yeah, I like figuring things out,” I said.
“Where you been all this time?”
“Glenmora, Louisiana,” I said.
Dudley laughed. “They used to talk about your mama. Never talked about you, though.”
“What’d they say about my mama?” I asked.
“White people only talk in front of Negroes. Did you know that? Negroes don’t hear so they don’t repeat, you understand? And if they do repeat, they know they’ll find themselves in a noose swinging from a tree. Their flesh is cheap. You know any living thing worth less than Negro flesh?”
Dudley kept his wide grin while I stared at him. I wasn’t quite sure how I should react to that.
“Hey, Dud,” Kyle said. “You come all the way out here to toss us a riddle?”
“No riddle,” he said. “Fact. Don’t you know what a riddle is?”
“Want to catch a film later?” Kyle asked him.
Dudley shook his head. “No, I can’t stay long, but I seen you two heading toward the cove. Wanted to make your acquaintance in the proper way.” He smiled at me, and I smiled back.
We sat on the rock tracing nothing in particular with the sticks in our hands and saying nothing at all. After a long while of silence, Dudley suddenly threw his stick far out into the water. Then he stood up and removed his shirt. I saw that he wasn’t skinny at all. He had muscles that made him look strong as an ox.
“What about my Aunt El?” I said to Kyle. “What does she do?”
“Women don’t run steel mills, Sassy. Your Aunt El has taken over the duties of the house, a task worse than death for a woman like her.”
“You know she’s married to Earline?”
“Not married like we could be,” Kyle said.
Dudley slid down the rock and into the water. “You two couldn’t be married, either,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” Kyle asked.
“Look at the two of you, both got different colored hair. Sassy’s is red-gold, Kyle’s is like a lemon. Not a lot of people can say they got hair like that. Got different fathers, I think. But maybe got the same mother, you two. I knew it the minute I saw you Sweetwater Sassy. I remembered how he threw your mama out, even threatened to kill her ’cause of that boy in town, the one she got caught holding hands with. Had hair like flame, too, more than that, his face is stamped on yours.” He looked at me.
Kyle stood up and put his hands on Dudley’s shoulders. “That’s enough, Dud,” he said. “You’ve got no proof of anything like that.”
“Truth don’t need proof.”
I saw the look that came across Kyle’s face. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t understand what Dudley was getting at. Seems he didn’t talk straight, he talked around things.
“No more of this,” Kyle said. “I don’t want to hear this talk. Hair color don’t mean a damn thing.”
Dudley looked at me. “I’m thirty-three years old,” he said. “I remember things. I talk truth, but no one listens to a black man. We got nothing worth hearing.”
“You know that isn’t true,” Kyle said. “I don’t think like that.”
“Gonna be a riot in town, black students marching into Littleton & Son demanding to be served. Whole country is gonna burn up over that ’cause they ain’t taking no for an answer.”
I looked off. I knew what was going on around me, lots of angry heat over black people, but Mama said it’s going to all be ironed out one day and made right.
Kyle laughed. “Good thing Granddaddy is up North or he’d be down here burning crosses.”
“Sure enough,” Dudley said, “just not on my front lawn.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish