Lemoncharles by southern writer John Calvin Hughes
Lemoncharles stirs beneath his blankets and listens to raindrops falling heavily on the roof. Last night there was a storm, and huge drops collected in the trees, trembling, ready to fall. Now and then winds shakes them loose, a flattened, unsyncopated music on the corrugated tin roof. It is still dark. He moves from his cot to the door and swings it open. Cool night air seeps into the one-room cabin like a ghost, and he turns to blow the fire aflame in the old stove he banked last night.
The kindling catches, and he steps into his crusted, unlaced boots and carries the coffee pot out to the pump. The black tongues of his boots flap against his shins. Lemoncharles’s cabin, so far back in the woods no road reaches it, has no electricity or running water.
The sky is marbled black and gray with storm clouds, but the eastern horizon is a solid band of gold light. Still, dark earth, dark swirling sky. He carries the water inside.
Coffee bubbles, more and more birds sing as the sky changes from black to gray and swallows the pale stars. Lemoncharles puts his three books on the table. A week ago he had only two books, a Bible and Life Goes to the Movies. Then yesterday, walking to Mr. Light’s grocery, he found another book by the side to the road. The cover was missing and the first three pages, so he did not know the name of the book or the author. But he read it all afternoon and long into the night. By morning he had decided to write a book.
From that book and from the Bible, Lemoncharles learned the only writing technique he would ever use, the rhetorical question. He decided to call his book What? and the first question would be What is TV? He is only waiting for full morning light to get started because he will first have to go to Mr. Light’s and buy something to write on.
He walks through the woods and comes out on Mr. Silas’s driveway which takes him down to the road where he found his third book and where he can walk the two miles to the grocery.
Lemoncharles buys a tablet of notebook paper from Mr. Light’s son Turl. The tablet has a blue cover, a spiral binding, and two hundred sheets of paper. On the way home, Jack Laird picks him up and carries him down to the end of the Silas driveway and lets him off.
Sitting at his table, Lemoncharles slowly scrapes the price tag off his new notebook with his thumbnail, restoring the field of uninterrupted blue. He opens it and looks at the first blank page. Then he writes the question that has been on his mind for weeks. What is TV?
One morning two weeks later Silas looks over his white coffee mug and sees Lemoncharles standing in the yard. Silas burns his tongue on the steaming coffee, then folds his newspaper, and, carrying his cup, goes out into the yard.
He stops a few feet away and looks Lemoncharles over, wondering how old he is. He does not know that two weeks ago Lemoncharles celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday by buying a blue notebook. Lemoncharles, as far as Silas knows, has always lived in the shack near the property line at the north end of the Silas land. Silas’s father’s will contained several clauses concerning Lemoncharles, detailing his cabin and his pay.
Every Friday Silas (or his wife) pays Lemoncharles fifty dollars. It is nothing to Silas. A trust at the bank puts the extra fifty into his checking account every week. It is matter only of having the fifty dollars on hand in cash every Friday at the back door when Lemoncharles, his hat in his hand, looking steadily at the ground, comes for his pay.
But some Fridays Lemoncharles does not come to the back door, and though they invariably hold his money until the following week, he never takes it. Didn’t work last week, he says. Silas and his wife, Muriel, always laugh over that and wonder what work it is that Lemoncharles is still doing for Silas’s late father.
When Muriel found out that Lemoncharles lived on canned soup, pork and beans, and bacon, she decided to put the money he would not take on her grocery bill and buy him some decent food. When he took him the food, she was so shaken seeing the conditions he lived in she could not speak. Embarrassed, she was afraid she was embarrassing him. She held the bags of groceries out to him, but he would not take them.
Back at her own house, she left the groceries on the back porch and went inside. She poured a generous dollop of vodka into a short glass full of oblong pieces of refrigerator-made ice.
Muriel waited. She was good at waiting. When the glass was frosted all way around, she picked it up and drank it off in three long swallows and shuddered. She turned toward the ornate hall mirror and looked at her face. She had done King Lear a year before she married, and now she tried to shape her features into the face she associated with Cordelia, the patience, the forbearance, the composure. She tried to imagine what it would be to live in a place like that. She would need all of Cordelia’s quiet strength. She watched herself unbutton the second button on her blouse, reach inside, and slide her hand along clean white skin beneath the sheer brassiere, cupping as much of her breast as she could. She closed her eyes and tried to recreate Lemoncharles’s shack. The one dark room, the sooty lamp, the low, narrow cot, the empty table. When she went to bring the groceries in, they were gone.
“What say, L.C.?” Silas says and sips his coffee slowly. “C’mon in, have a cup coffee.” Lemoncharles shakes his head, looking at the ground. Lemoncharles never looks up when they talk. This makes Silas uncomfortable, makes him bend over backward to put Lemoncharles more at ease.
Lemoncharles holds out a sheaf of notebook paper folded once. “Can you tune me up to a ride to the post office, Mr. Silas? I needs a stamp to mail this to New York City, New York.” An address is written on one side of the folded papers, Time-Life Books Inc. New York City, New York. Lemoncharles grins and cocks his head up at Silas.
Silas takes the papers and looks at the address. He does not open them, just holds them and looks at the address. “I’ll drive you to the post office,” he says, “and we’ll get some stamps on this.” He hands the papers back to Lemoncharles who puts them in the large pocket on the front of his overalls.
“I wait in the truck,” Lemoncharles says.
Silas picks up a manila envelope from his desk, puts his nearly empty cup in the sink, then tiptoes down the hall to the bedroom. Muriel is still asleep, on her stomach, face buried in pillows, one hand reaching for the floor, one tangled in her hair. City girl, he thinks.
As they drive out of the yard, Silas thinks, this is what she is missing, morning’s twilight, gray light, cool air. The morning after their wedding he had awakened Muriel very early and led her out into the front yard. He put her in his sleeping bag where they lay warm and naked, though she was not awake enough to make love. Later, she forbid him ever to wake her that early again. So every morning he sits at the kitchen table, cold in his T shirt and khakis, drinks coffee, and watches the light come up in his yard.
At the post office Lemoncharles watches Silas write the address on the manila envelope and slide the papers inside. John Bey, the postmaster, weights the envelope and puts seventy-five cents worth of stamps on it. John Bey hands Lemoncharles the envelope, and Lemoncharles looks at it. He hands it back to John Bey and says, “Send this to New York City, New York.” John Bey nods and puts the envelope under the counter, out of sight.
For lunch Silas makes biscuits, warms up some butter beans, slices tomatoes, and fries pork chops. “Faulkner food,” Muriel grumbles, lurching in from the bedroom and falling into the chair he has pulled out for her at the kitchen table. “Everything’s overcooked or raw. Look, Silas, these biscuits aren’t even brown on top!”
Eating, they discuss Lemoncharles’s mail. Lemoncharles has neither sent nor received mail in Silas’s memory.
“Time-Life?” Muriel says.
” ‘A Report from the Piney Woods’ maybe, for Time magazine,” Silas says.
“An essay for the back page, or a book review. A treatise on global warming,” Muriel giggles.
She drops a half-eaten biscuit into her beans and brushes her hands off over her plate. “I can’t stand it. Would he die if we asked him? Would asking mortify his sense of decorum?” Muriel is leaning over the table, her face very close to Silas’s. He shrugs, but she can tell he thinks it would be all right.
The late afternoon light slanting orange beneath the pine bows casts the woods–trees, bushes, vines, fallen leaves–in bas relief. Lemoncharles is not home, but Silas pushes the door open and they go in. They see the blue notebook on the table. Silently, separately, they wonder how far each other’s respect for Lemoncharles’s privacy will let them go. Finally Silas goes to the table, picks up the notebook, opens it, and reads what is there. Muriel reads over his shoulder.
Where do stars go?
The rest of the pages are blank. He puts the notebook back on the table as near as possible to where it was. Muriel goes to the open door and leans against the frame. Silas sits in a chair near the cold stove.
“L.C.’s a poet,” Silas says and laughs quietly. Muriel does not turn around. “Seriously,” he says, “what’s he writing?”
“I don’t know,” she says. When she turns around, the look on her face is so unfamiliar to Silas he goes to her and takes her in his arms. He feels an emotion he can not name rushing through him, as if he has missed something, forgotten something, something important, nagging, worrying. He thinks she must also feel it, passing into her body from his.
She opens her blouse and pulls his hands up to her naked breasts, holding them there. His hands move beneath hers. She leads him to the narrow bunk against the wall. They undress and he is inside her. She cries out as he finishes and opens his eyes in the darkening cabin. He is worried Lemoncharles will come back. Of course, he will come back. It will be dark soon, but Muriel is lying wet beneath him, holding him tightly with her legs.
Losing all hope they will not be discovered, he pulls the blanket over them. They kiss, and he slips out of her.
“I’m going home, Silas,” she says.
“Me too, girl, soon as I get my pants on.”
“I’m going to L.A. I’ll stay with Violet. I can’t live here anymore.”
Too quick, he thinks. He swallows, trying to clear his constricting throat. She is crying, pressing her face into his shoulder. I need to think, he thinks. Time to think.
When Lemoncharles touches the door of his cabin, he hears Muriel’s cry. He turns and goes back into the woods. The only light is in the sky, the ground and every tree and leaf only black cutouts against the silver sky. It has been a long time, but he knows the sound of lovemaking. He will not have to ask Mr. Silas where he finds life. Where? Lemoncharles wonders where he will spend the night. Now it is almost dark and the ground is rising. Percy’s Hill, the summit of the county. Where is the top of the world? By the time the ground levels out again, Lemoncharles is breathing hard. He looks through the black limbs at the hard stars emerging. Welcome back. Stooping, he gathers twigs for his fire.