Everard Jones’s best subject was music. He could sing, play guitar, and pick out a few pieces on the piano. He wanted the kind of experience that would make him a great musician.
“Work at a station for a few years, Everard,” said his high school music teacher, Miss Moore. “Meet people. Make contacts and practice every day.”
“Does it matter where?” said Everard.
Miss Moore shrugged her coat onto her shoulders in an endoftheday gesture he’d grown to love. She said, “For you, for now, Charlottesville is every bit as good as New York or L.A.”
After graduation, he did find work at a station—a gas station—thinking that was what she’d meant. Miss Moore moved away, he didn’t know where. For two years, he filled tanks, checked oil, and kept on singing (in private, in his room in his parents’ house), until it dawned on him that Miss Moore had meant a radio station.
So I am that dumb, he thought. The day he quit the gas station was the Fourth of July. He was twenty. Alone in his old car on a hilltop, he watched roman candles burst over the ridges ringing Charlottesville. A great feeling welled up in his heart and he found words and music for it, writing a song called “Fireworks.”
It changed his life. First he recorded it himself, on some used equipment. Then a recording company paid him a lot of money, and the song played constantly on the radio for months, all over the country. Everyone was singing it, humming it. He listened to it and could hardly believe he’d written it, that the voice on the airwaves was his own.
It was his only hit, in fact his only recording. Yet what a lot he got out of it, a name change, for instance. His agent said, “Nobody will buy a song by Everard Jones. How ‘bout we call you Hurricane, Hurricane Jones?”
“I like it,” said Everard.
So, a hit song, and fame: TV appearances but no concerts until he had more material. “You’ve got to finish that album,” his agent said, but Hurricane Jones never did finish the album, and the world forgot about him.
Except in Charlottesville, where his name still had enough pull to get him a spot on the judges’ panel of a beauty pageant, two long years after “Fireworks.” So much beauty, so little talent. Flanked by the other judges—a deputy mayor, a radio station manager, and the owner of a hair salon—he watched puppeteers, ventriloquists, mimes, and tap dancers. Some of the young women gave interpretive readings or performed clumsy magic or played the xylophone. Too many sang, and none sang “Fireworks.” A slewfooted girl did a soft-shoe.
The last contestant, a bellhaired brunette in a cranberry velvet dress, played the harpsichord and won. Of course she won: the deputy mayor, in the same voice he used to arrest people, declared that she was just what they’d been looking for.
Everard, bedazzled by the harpsichordist, his palm electrified by her manicured handshake, did not share a part in her destiny. From Charlottesville, she would go on to Virginia Beach and be crowned “Miss Virginia.” On the train to Atlantic City, to compete in the Miss America pageant, she came down with mumps and had to go home. That much he would read in the paper.
He had hoped to find his bride among the beauties, but nonetheless got something out of the pageant: at last, a job at a radio station. He was hired by the judge who was station manager. On the air, Everard read ads and football scores and announced songs. The manager encouraged him to talk about “Fireworks.” Everard played the song but was too shy to say he wrote it and sang it. The manager jovially called him “Hurricane,” slapping him on the back. His other coworkers just called him “Jones,” and that was all right with him.
Following a bout with flu, he developed a raspiness in his throat that would not go away. He was too hoarse to go on air. The manager said, “Well, there’s other stuff you can do.” He snapped his fingers. “Publicity! I’ll rent some billboards.”
One hot summer evening, high above the baking sidewalk, Everard unfurled a giant platter of silver sequins on one of those billboards. The breeze caught the sequins and set them fluttering like a thousand butterflies, lit by the hard brilliance of the setting sun. As he tacked the creation in place, he was aware of a woman gliding toward him.
“I love sequins.” The woman’s voice sailed up to him. Her face was a pink petunia. For a long block he’d seen her coming, been charmed by the puffed sleeves of her squashyellow dress.
Climbing off his ladder, he blinked his eyes clear of the grit from passing cars. The woman waited for him. As he opened his mouth to speak, a fire engine screamed by, its siren a frantic wail that made him clap his hands over his ears.
The woman’s smile curved like a slice of peach. He was surprised she lingered; he’d had so little luck with women, even when he was a big star and the nation knew his song. When the siren faded, he asked who she was. She told him she was Paulette Browning, shopping in Charlottesville for the day and heading home now to the farm where she lived with her parents.
“I’m Hurricane Jones,” he said, his voice still scratchy. “Well, Everard Jones.”
“You wrote that song,” she said, “my favorite one.”
The sequins rippled in the breeze. Cars whipped by. Did people see him falling in love with this woman whose arms were bare?
Without a ten-foot disc of silver sequins to paste on the sky, he’d never have won her.
She knew intimately every bit of the land where she’d grown up, her parents’ farm, where she and Everard went to live after they were married. She knew exactly where catnip grew, predicted the day in August when amaryllis would spring fullfledged from the ground, cocked her head at a meadowlark’s cry and said, “That one’s been gone for a year, and now is back.” Everard, a city boy, was impressed.
But Paulette wouldn’t walk in the forest. She told Everard that she had had an older brother named Ray who was mistaken for a deer and shot there, twenty years ago.
“I’m sorry,” Everard said, sorry for the hurt in her eyes as she remembered.
“Maybe for an instant, he was a deer,” she said.
Ray’s photograph hung on the wall in the dining room, his dark eyes watching the family as they ate, and his chair and silver napkin ring remained in place at the table, as if he would be there for the next meal.
Within a year of their marriage, Paulette gave birth in a highbacked bed with only her mother and a nursemidwife to help her. Everard held the newborn in his arms while his wife slept. The nursemidwife whispered goodbye and departed, satchel in hand, stethoscope looped around her neck. Paulette’s mother, who reminded Everard of a big cat in her blond furry clothes, did newgrandmother things: folded linens, stroked her sleeping daughter’s hands. Within the cradle of Everard’s arms, the baby’s eyes snapped open, and his head swiveled to the side.
It was evening, a sweet calm time, summer again. The windows of the birthingroom overlooked a field of scrub cedars and pine. The mountains shone pale blue in the dusk. The room had been Paulette’s forever.
Baby powder burned Everard’s nose, and he sneezed.
“Bless you,” said his motherinlaw and snatched the baby away from him.
Paulette stirred and woke. “Is my baby all right?”
“He’s fine, just fine,” her mother said, patting the baby’s back.
“His name is Ray,” Paulette said and went back to sleep.
The baby was not fine. When he was old enough to walk, he tripped a lot, as if there were too much traction on his shoes. He stuck to the floor like a fly to tape.
“All babies fall a lot,” the doctors said.
“Something’s wrong,” Everard insisted.
By now he had a job at a granite quarry. Paulette stayed at home with the baby. Every morning she packed Everard’s lunch. He could not believe he was married to this beautiful woman and that they had a son. He felt he had picked Paulette out of thin air or found her in a song, one of the Celtic tunes she liked to listen to, with fifes and pennywhistles. When he got home from working at the quarry, he’d find Paulette in their room, nursing the baby. He liked to catch her shoulders from behind and surprise her with a kiss. They would eat supper with her parents and then walk down the road to the river. “Our stroll,” Paulette called it.
A few hippies fished there at twilight, and old men too, wading into the rushing water in their tattered sneakers, casting their lines, bringing up bream and crappie. Everard and Paulette stood on the bridge and waved if a fisherman looked up. When their son could toddle, he went with them, slipping along in his funny little walk. When it was too dark to see anything except pale sky and shiny black water, they went back to the house, where Paulette’s parents sat reading in the living room.
The house: Victorian, it was, caught in time. There was a rosewood piano with ancient drips of wax down the candle holders. Gas lamps, electrified years ago, lit the rooms. Silk curtains gone thin with age draped the windows. Paulette’s mother served three formal meals each day, setting the table with cutglass dishes for pickled peaches, devilled ham, and pepper jelly. The house smelled of the bright leaf tobacco Paulette’s father smoked in his pipe. He was a fierce, kind old man, his stern blue eyes a throwback to the ScotIrish ancestors whose portraits hung on the stairwell landing and whose hair formed the mourning wreaths framed in sweet gum wood that had been cut, a hundred years ago, in the forest behind the house, the forest where the first Ray had been mistaken for a deer.
Paulette smelled like the Dollar Store. Everard earned very little at the quarry. Paulette would not accept any money from her parents. The plastic scent of Dollar Store shopping bags pervaded her jeans and blouses. She was close to her mother, whose name was Deborah. They spent hours laughing over Paulette’s high school yearbooks. The community was tiny; they knew what had become of all of Paulette’s old classmates.
Pointing to one picture, Paulette said, “I see him down at the river, fishing.” She was sitting on the porch glider, with Deborah on one side and Everard on the other.
Everard looked at the yearbook and saw a wildfaced, wildhaired boy. “Was he a boyfriend of yours?” he asked.
Paulette and Deborah stretched out their legs and let Everard push the swing for all three of them. “They all were,” Paulette said, “all these guys.”
“Do you miss your friends?” he asked, realizing she never visited anybody.
“No,” she said, smiling her sliceofpeach smile. He stared at the picture of the wildhaired boy and couldn’t remember seeing him down at the river. He saw himself instead: a young man with a lowwage job, unable to support wife and son without the help of his inlaws. A thousand evenings passed that way. His son turned five, then six, seven years old, and Everard still worked at the quarry and walked with Paulette in the evenings. The trees on the riverbanks grew taller, and he learned their names: box elder, chinquapin. Rarely did he and Paulette go into Charlottesville. He wondered how long the sequin billboard had lasted. His own parents died, first his father, then his mother, and he went to the funerals, but Paulette stayed home. Paulette did not want to leave the farm, even overnight, and at any rate, they had so little money. He was a loner who had married above his station, and she was educated and private like her mother. She did not want to do anything except keep house and tend to their son.
Their son, Ray, was a wizard. To Everard’s relief, he outgrew his limping, tripping step. Inheriting his mother’s passion for nature, he studied science books and explored the fields, darting around to follow birds and butterflies. He climbed up to the loft of an unused barn and collected the pellets of hair and mouseskulls that owls left behind, the part of their diet that they could not digest and had to vomit up, Paulette’s father explained to Everard.
Ray collected the things in a sack and examined them in the sunlight. Tiny bones, exoskeletons of insects, matted fur. Ray sold them to his secondgrade teacher for twentyfive cents apiece, and the class examined the pellets through microscopes. He kept the money in a piggy bank, shaking it to show his parents and grandparents how much he had saved.
“Don’t fool with those nasty things. You could get sick,” Paulette said to the boy. To Everard she said, “Tell him not to climb up into that barn. He could fall.”
But Everard was proud of the boy’s initiative and encouraged him. He accompanied Ray to the barn loft and helped him gather the owls’ strange digestive bundles. He was happier than he’d ever been, there in the dusty loft where the wind blew through the high open doors with a feathery sound. He and Ray never saw the owls. He made Ray wear gloves, and he worried that Paulette was right: maybe the child would get sick. But Ray was fine.
Everard himself grew sick again, his throat painfully ticklish. Deborah, his motherinlaw, urged him to go to a doctor, and when he went and had tests, he was told he had cancer of the larynx. He had to have his voice box removed and a mechanical replacement installed, so that he sounded like a robot when he spoke.
His son was scared of him, bursting into tears at the sound of the voice box. Paulette sat with Everard for hours, rocking on the porch. She liked his new voice, she said. He could turn up the voice box and turn it down, could tune it so it squeaked like the pennywhistles in Paulette’s beloved music. He slept a lot, because his condition exhausted him. He dreamed she died: Paulette. He woke screaming, but no sound came, and his wife slept on beside him.
The quarry closed down, and he was out of work. His inlaws, who had been especially kind since his illness, told him to rest and to take his time finding work he enjoyed. They offered him money to go to college, though he’d have been older than the other students. He thanked them but said he didn’t want to go to college. He was certain he would fail.
He helped his fatherinlaw with the farm, though he was clumsy. He ran the tractor into brambles so thick it had to be towed out. He was afraid of the cattle, with their rolling eyes and their bulk. He felt guilty for being so unproductive. He helped Deborah and Paulette in the kitchen, doing dishes and putting food away, but they shooed him out. So he spent time writing on scored tablets that his motherinlaw gave him for birthdays and Christmas, but the notes sounded discordant when he picked them out on the piano.
Paulette asked, “Can’t you just write another song? If you wrote one, can’t you write a whole bunch? I don’t understand how, if you used to have talent, it could go away.”
“I’ll do better,” he promised her. The piano bore the words “H.C.BayChicago.” He had never heard of that maker, and it sounded exotic and businesslike to him. The keys stuck in the humid air. Everard closed the piano, stowed his scored tablet in the bench, and went to Ray’s room to play electronic games. The boy didn’t mind him as long as he stayed quiet. Ray was smart and quick. He always won.
On a soft, damp day, when bees were stilled by raindrops in the basswood trees, Ray climbed to the open loft of the barn and fell or jumped. He was eight years old, and what exactly happened, nobody would ever know, not Paulette, who grieved with shrieks and screams, and not Everard, whose tears choked his voice box. It was he who found the child lying on the grass.
Everard kept thinking that if they had named him a different name, something luckier, they could undo what was done. Paulette raged: “You should never have let him go up in that loft.” A funeral was held, and the child was buried, and Paulette wept in her mother’s arms. In her hand, she clutched a lock of Ray’s hair. Everard understood that the hair would be added to one of the elaborate mourning wreaths, and the thought chilled him. Surely this was the last family in the world that worked the hair of its dead in such a way.
One day, Everard found a fishing rod in a closet and went down to the riverbank. The other men there didn’t say much, but he felt welcome. He didn’t think any of them knew he was Hurricane Jones, that he’d had a hit song years ago. They only knew he had an artificial voice box and had married Paulette Browning. They knew, too, that he’d lost his son. Their polite nods told him so.
Everard caught crappie and bream until dusk. He went back the next day and the next. He didn’t need to say a word, and when it got dark, he raised a hand to bid his companions goodnight, while he kept the rod in the water.