Missouri was the wife of Two-Tone Henry, neighbor as well as maid. She was six inches shorter than Two-Tone, who was just Randy’s height, five-eleven, but Two-Tone claimed she outweighed him by a hundred pounds. If this was true, Missouri weighed around two-forty. But on this morning, it seemed to Randy that she had dwindled a bit. “You dieting, Mizzoo?” he said.

“No, sir, I’m not dietin’. I got nerves.”

“Nerves!” Missouri had always seemed nerveless, solid, and placid as a broad, deeply rooted tree. Two-Tone been giving you a bad time again?”

“No. Two-Tone been behavin’. He down on the dock fishin’ right now. To tell you the truth, Mister Randy, it’s Mrs. McGovern. She follow me around with white gloves.”

Missouri worked two hours each morning for Randy, and the rest of the day for the McGoverns, who lived half a mile closer to town. The McGoverns were the W. Foxworth McGoverns, the Central Tool and Plate McGoverns, formerly of Cleveland, and the parents of Lib McGovern, whose proper name was Elizabeth. “What do you mean, Mizzoo?” Randy asked, fascinated.

“After I dust, she follow me around with white gloves to see has I dusted. I know I cleans clean, Mister Randy.”

“You sure do, Mizzoo.”

Missouri plugged in the vacuum cleaner, started it, and then shut it off She had more on her mind. “That ain’t all. You been in that house, Mister Randy. You ever seen so many ashtrays?” “What’s wrong with ashtrays?”

“She don’t allow no ashes in ‘em. That poor Mister McGovern, he has to smoke his cigars outside. Then there was that roach. Big roach in the silver drawer. Mrs. McGovern opened that drawer yesterday and saw that roach and screeched like she’d been hit by a scorpion. She made me go through every drawer in the kitchen and dining room and put down fresh paper. Was that roach sent me to Doctor Gunn yesterday. Mrs. McGovern she can’t ‘bide bugs or little green lizards and she won’t go out of the house after dark for fear of snakes. I don’t think the McGoverns going to be with us long, Mister Randy, because what’s Florida except bugs and lizards and snakes? I think they leave around May, when bug season starts good. But Miss McGovern, she won’t want to leave. She stuck on you.”

“What makes you think so?”

Missouri smiled. “Questions she asks. Like what you eats for breakfast.” Missouri glanced at the decanter on the bar. “And who cooks for you. And does you have other girls.”

Randy changed the subject. “You say you went to see Doctor Gunn. What’d he say?”

“Doctor says I’m a complicated case. He says I got high blood, on account of I’m heavy. He says it’s good I’m losin’ weight, because that lowers the high blood, but frettin’ about Mrs. McGovern white-glovin’ me is the wrong way to do it. He says quit eatin’ grits, eat greens. Quit pork, eat fish. And he gives me tranquil pills to take, one each day before I go to work for Mrs. McGovern.”

“You do that, Mizzoo,” Randy said, and, carrying his mug, walked out on to the screen upstairs porch overlooking grove and river. He then climbed the narrow ship’s ladder that led to the captain’s walk, a rectangle sixteen by eight feet, stoutly planked and railed, on the slate roof. Reputedly, this was the highest spot in Timucuan County. From it he could see all the riverfront estates, docks, and boats, and all of the town of Fort Repose, three miles downstream, held in a crook of sun-flecked silver where the Timucuan joined the broader St. Johns.

This was his town, or had been. In 1838, during the Seminole Wars, a Lieutenant Randolph Rowzee Peyton, USN, a Virginian, had been dispatched to this river junction with a force of eighteen Marines and two small brass cannon. Lieutenant Peyton journeyed south from Cow’s Ford, its name patriotically changed to Jacksonville, by longboat. His orders from General Clinch were to throttle Indian communications on the rivers, thus protecting the flank of the troops moving down the east coast from St. Augustine. Lieutenant Peyton built a blockhouse of palm logs on the point, his guns covering the channel. In two years, except during one relief expedition overland to New Smyrna, he fought no battles or skirmishes. But he shot game and caught fish for the garrison pot, and studied botany and the culture of citrus. The balmy weather and idyllic life, described in a log now in a teak chest in Randy Braggs office, inspired the Lieutenant to name his outpost Fort Repose.

When the wars subsided, the fort was decommissioned and Lieutenant Peyton was assigned to sea duty. Four years later he returned to Fort Repose with a wife, a daughter, and a grant from the government for one hundred acres. He had picked this precise spot for his homestead because it was the highest ground in the area, with a steep gradient to the river, ideal for planting the oranges just imported from Spain and the Far East. Peyton’s original house had burned. The present house had been built by his son-in-law, the first Marcus Bragg, a native of Philadelphia and a lawyer eventually sent to the Senate. The captain’s walk had been added for the aging Lieutenant Peyton, so that with his brass spyglass he could observe what happened at the junction of rivers.

Now the Bragg holdings had dwindled to thirty-six acres, but thirty were planted in prime citrus-navels, mandarins, Valencias, and Temples– all tended and sold in season by the county co-operative. Each year Randy received checks totaling eight to ten thousand dollars from the co-operative. Half went to his older brother, Mark, an Air Force colonel stationed at Offutt Field, Headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, near Omaha. With his share, plus dividends from a trust established by his father, and his occasional fees as an attorney, Randy lived comfortably. Since he drove a new car and paid his bills promptly, the trades people of Fort Repose thought him well-to-do. The rich newcomers classed him with the genteel poor.

Randy heard music below, and knew that Missouri had started his record player and therefore was waxing the floor. Missouri’s method was to spread the wax, kick off her shoes, wrap her feet in rags, and then polish by dancing. This was probably as efficient, and certainly more fun, than using the electric waxer. He dropped into a deck chair and focused his binoculars on Preacher Henry’s place, looking for that damn bird in the hammock of pines, palmettos, and scrub oak. The Henrys had lived here as long as the Braggs, for the original Henry had come as slave and manservant to Lieutenant Peyton. Now the Henrys owned a four-acre enclave at the east boundary of the Bragg groves. Preacher Henry’s father had bought it from Randolph’s grandfather for fifty dollars an acre long before the first boom, when land was valued only for what it grew. Preacher was hitching his mule, Balaam– the last mule in Timucuan County so far as anyone knew– to the disk. In this month Preacher harrowed for his yam and corn planting, while his wife, Hannah, picked and sold tomatoes and put up kumquat preserves. He ought to go down and talk to Preacher about that damn bird, Randy thought. If anyone was likely to observe and recognize a Carolina parakeet floating around, it was Preacher, because Preacher knew all the birds and their calls and habits. He shifted his glasses to focus on the end of the Henrys’ rickety dock. Two-Tone had five bamboo poles out. Two-Tone himself reclined on his side, head resting on his hand, so he could watch the corks without effort. Preacher’s younger son, Malachai, who was Randy’s yardman, and reliable as Two-Tone was no-account, was not about.

Randy heard the phone ringing in his office. The music stopped and he knew Missouri was answering. Presently she called from the piazza, “Mister Randy, it’s for you. It’s Western Union.”

“Tell her I’ll be right down,” Randy said, lifted himself out of the deck chair, and backed down the ladder, wondering who would be sending him a telegram. It wasn’t his birthday. If some thing important happened, people phoned. Unless-he remembered that the Air Force sent telegrams when a man was hurt, or killed. But it wouldn’t be Mark, because for two years Mark had been flying a desk. Still, Mark would get in his flying time each month, if possible, for the extra pay.

He took the phone from Missouri’s hand and braced himself. “Yes?” he said.

“I have a telegram, Randy– it’s really a cable-from San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s signed by Mark. It’s really very peculiar.” Randy let out his breath, relieved. If Mark had sent the message, then Mark was all right. A man can’t pick his relatives, only his friends, but Mark had always been Randy’s friend as well as brother. “What’s the message say?”

“Well, I’ll read it to you,” Florence said, “and then if you want me to read it again I’ll be glad to. It says, `’Urgent you meet me at Base Ops McCoy noon today. Helen and children flying to Orlando tonight. Alas, Babylon.”‘ Florence paused. “That’s what it says, `Alas, Babylon.’ Do you want me to repeat the whole thing for you, Randy?”

“No thanks.”

“I wonder what `Alas, Babylon’ means? Isn’t it out of the Bible?”

“I don’t know. I guess so.” He knew very well what it meant. He felt sick inside.

“There’s something else, Randy.”

Вы читаете Alas, Babylon
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату