It’s early evening, mid-May, in the tiny hilltop city of Horatio’s Promise. Crickets chirp as colors fade from street posts, houses, trees, and pastures, all solidifying to monochromatic silhouettes as Arkansans stroll home for late suppers. By habit, they inhale deeply of the mountain air, chilly and tumbled in apricot across the range of the Ouachita Mountains. Baptist revivals are scheduled to begin in little more than three weeks’ time. And the air, which feels so full of promise in this year of 1950, gives no hint of the coming storm that will turn shower to storm to a squall soon to scour their little area.
But tonight, only a sleepy peace permeates the Memphis House, the community’s biggest boardinghouse. Alfred Spellman is stabbing a thick finger into the lamp-lighted air, his yellowed, cracked fingernail indicating a musical bar printed on a wrinkled sheet of music. “Here, right here, see this note?”
Twelve-year-old Mary Lee, famous in town for the number of turquoise dresses sewn for her by her mother, nods solemnly. “Yes, sir!”
“And”—Alfred moves his finger to the adjacent note— “see this note. Now, is this note different than that note?”
“Then for God’s sake play it that way!”
“Yes, sir!” Mary Lee lifts her violin to her shoulder, the length of the bow magnified by her short arm.
A few minutes later, the clock by the front door starts chiming the hour. “I gotta be getting home, Mister Spellman.” Mary Lee immediately pulls her violin case onto her lap, nestling the instrument inside like it was a babe in a crib. “Momma’s fixing chicken tonight,” she explains while snapping the catch shut.
“Oh, well, chicken,” says Alfred. “Mustn’t be late for that.”
“No, Mister Spellman.” Mary Lee jumps to her feet. “Night, Mister Spellman.”
Alfred swallows a cough. He’s still recovering from a spell of flu with its sore throat, fever, and stiff neck. Expelling a breath, he switches off the lamp illuminating the sheet music. “Good night, Miss Tillman.” He leans back in his chair, hearing the front door close behind the girl.
His eyes settle, not for the first time, on a bookcase across the room. Reflected in its glass door is his own image. The music teacher studies the watery likeness, knowing that, physically, he’s not the most imposing of men. Short, with a barrel chest and a lame right foot that twists to the side like duck’s, Alfred sees only a reflection of pale skin and eyes drooping with what he hopes is wisdom, the kind of hard-won knowledge seen in the heroes of his favorite paperbacks—potboiler thrillers—their covers filled with images of scantily clad women defended by men with some age on them.
But for all his experience, he’s a lover of music. Most any music stirs his passion, allowing him to forget that he’s no Humphrey Bogart. His only other obsession is with a single isolated day that’s now outlined in red ink on a wall calendar upstairs. Air escapes his lips. Like a man slated for execution, he measures his time by a scheduled void ahead. He arrived back in Horatio’s Promise two weeks ago, which leaves only twelve left. A joyful giddiness overcomes him as he remembers how the children had been waiting for him, their itinerant summer music teacher, when he’d gotten off the bus two weeks ago. They’d made motions with their hands, playing imaginary instruments while cheering him.
A tiny blue-eyed girl sitting on the bus bench next to Alfred had clapped her chubby hands upon seeing the other children, her fair ringlets bouncing on either side of an angelic face. “I wanna stay here,” she’d cried with a tug on a nearby woman’s sleeve. “Please, Momma, pleeeeze!”
Seated next to the window, the mother, gazing wearily over the child’s head, had smiled at Alfred. “No, Emmie, we’re not stayin’. We got just one more stop before seeing Daddy.”
“Pleeze, Momma.” Pudgy hands were waving at Alfred’s students as the bus jerked to a stop. “They’re playin’. I wanna play.”
Alfred, having stood to disembark, had grinned sympathetically at the mother. He reached out to pat his hand on the girl’s curls and her blue barrette. “Maybe next time,” he told her genially.
The bus driver, his meaty hand swinging open the bus door, called out his warning, “Ten minutes. Next stop— Hot Springs!”
Wrenching his thoughts back to the present, Alfred tightens his grip on the parlor chair where he sits. Silence is pooling in the room’s shadowy corners. He forces himself to stop dreading the end of a summer he’s barely begun. His eyes close. Around him, his home away from home embraces him in rooms that never change. Each summer, from this chair next to the old upright piano, he can see out the parlor’s door to where, in the vestibule, there hangs the same panel of lace, now faintly yellowing, covering the glass insert of the front door. Inside the parlor, the same pumpkin-hued pine boards line the walls. And on top of them are the same shelves, their recesses filled with the same tattered books and rows upon rows of out-of-date National Geographic magazines.
His tension begins to ease. There’s a promise of a fine summer, with his days already fully scheduled by returning students. He inhales deeply. All he wants is for things to get back to normal. He just wants to forget that last summer ever happened. He stretches out his legs, his hands folding themselves behind his head. Home. The boardinghouse smells of collard greens being cooked in a big aluminum stew pot on the kitchen range. Soon the other residents will drift in, reclaiming the sagging sofa and the golden haze of National Geographics from Alfred’s music.
Footsteps stomp outside on the porch. Suddenly self-conscious, Alfred climbs to his feet as two other boarders, whitehaired men with bent spines, push open the front door while laughing loudly. The smell of fresh-cut grass and someone burning trash two streets over pours inside. Turning his back on them, Alfred lovingly rubs a cloth over his violin’s amber wood before tucking it inside its carrying case. The violin had been a gift out of the blue from his music teacher when he’d graduated from high school twenty-seven years ago.
“You have a real gift, Alfred,” said Irma Cupperman, her eyes shining proudly as she handed him her own prized instrument. “Take this and make wonderful music!”
Alfred had been speechless, literally unable to speak. He’d never thought he’d be able to own his own violin, much less one of such obvious value as his teacher’s. Unable to thank her with words, he’d expressed himself with tears of joy. With the right instrument, he could make a future for himself, earn a place even in a decent orchestra!
Smiling sadly, Alfred folds a thin cloth over the violin. He never plays so well as when he plays on his own violin. The lid, under gentle pressure from his fingers, shuts with a click of a latch. Then another sound interrupts. The sound of a floorboard creaking.
The short, middle-aged man jerks awkwardly around. He faces what had been an empty room. Now less than a foot away from the music teacher stands Iconium White, otherwise known as Icky White, his enormous saucer eyes with their smudge of eyeliner vibrating nervously beneath a pageboy of sandy-blond hair.
Irritated at being startled, Alfred demands, “Where did you come from?”
“Nowhere.” Icky retreats, his tall, thin figure turning to slip from the room and disappear into the hallway. Alfred feels a rare anger. How had that strange young man appeared so quickly?
Visitors at the Memphis House tend to grumble to Leonora White, the landlady, about her son. A youth of twenty, Icky White always wears at least one item of his mother’s clothes, a sweater, usually, or a scarf, and a cloud of outdated Toujours Moi perfume. He tends to annoy the residents with his catlike habit of padding down the halls of the old boardinghouse in the middle of the night, his footsteps triggering creaks in the old floorboards. Alfred, lying in bed in absolute darkness, the worn cotton sheet pulled up to his chin, often shivers at the sound’s eeriness. It reminds him too much of a huge lab rat running on a wheel.
But even Alfred mutters his complaints halfheartedly. And not just because of the fierce defensiveness of the most excellent landlady for her son. If not for his habits, residents would happily allow Missus White the charity of a deviant son. “What are you doing, boy?” Mister Bobby had demanded just the day before, his liver-spotted hand waving his cane at the boy, the latter leaning against the glass of the bay window and moaning after a muscular young man in a T-shirt and dungarees sauntering down Main Street.
“Nothin’,” answered Icky invariably.
“Don’t look like nothin’ to me! Go on now, stop acting a fool.”
No one remembers Icky’s father. Not even Alfred, who’s rented a room at the Memphis House for almost twenty years. Linwood White disappeared back in 1935, right after a bad storm in which wind ripped roofs off houses and even the steeple off the Baptist church. Not only did Linwood disappear, but so did his clothes and other stuff, until even his image faded from people’s minds. One day, he was as alive as anyone else. The next he was replaced by a manshaped absence. Folks look at Icky funny for being fathered by nothingness.
Limping on his bad foot, Alfred heads for the front door. He needs a breath of fresh air to clear the lingering traces of the boy’s perfume. With relish, he steps out onto the wide front porch that spans the Victorian home’s front. The summer before, he’d been forced by the illness of his big brother Hoag to skip his annual pilgrimage to this small mountain city. And so, this year, he had been much relieved when, limping from the bus stop with a crowd of children trailing behind, he had found the boardinghouse looking as it always had: wide and two stories high with a tall center gable, its wood siding still painted white. Its shutters, now glowing in the early twilight, were still the same bright green that matched the color of the whimsically carved gingerbread trim over the front porch.
Noise jerks Alfred’s attention across two-lane Main Street. There, two boys are shouting at each other while racing across a lush lawn.
One boy, Kirk Turley, waves an orange football at Alfred. “Hey, Mister Spellman!”
Grinning, the music teacher waves slowly in reply. Kirk no longer takes lessons. Too busy, Alfred’s heard, winning science contests at school. But his brother, Scott Turley, now hot on Kirk’s heels, is Alfred’s best trombone student. The happy shouts of the boys fade into lengthening shadows.
They remind Alfred of himself and Hoag growing up. “Alfred,” cried Hoag, his arms spinning pinwheels as they ran down the hill, “I’ll race you to the second street sign. Bet you a penny I win!”
Elated, Alfred screamed into the wind, “Never!”
The middle-aged man feels his legs ache as his ten-yearold self increases his speed. Alfred smiles, tasting again the sweetness of childhood. Playing with Hoag and their cousins in their Memphis neighborhood had proved that life could be good after his mother died. A group of pals meant baseball games on long summer afternoons, chasing lightning bugs at dusk, and family dinners of fried chicken at his widowed grandmother’s house every Sunday.
Family had been his whole world at that age. His father, Mac Spellman, could boast of four brothers and six sisters. One brother and two sisters had died in childhood, but he’d still been left with the impressive array of seven siblings. Cousins had been all the friends Hoag and Alfred had ever needed. The Spellman clan claimed a large presence in their neighborhood, and Alfred couldn’t have imagined a time when he’d be left completely alone in the world. Instead, his childhood had been about playing leapfrog, soapbox racers, and going to picture shows at the Orpheum or seeing traveling carnivals whenever his father was flush, which wasn’t often.
He straightens his coat, knowing how he’s not the man that he was when his family was alive. Then, he’d been bigger than just his own skin. Now he feels small and alone. Fingers trembling, he turns away from Main Street to face the boardinghouse.