Testimony of Pilot – Original Text | shortsonline (2024)

When I was ten, eleven and twelve, I did a good bit of my play in the backyard of a three-story wooden house my father had bought and rented out, his first venture into real estate. We lived right across the street from it, but over here was the place to do your real play. Here there was a harrowed but overgrown garden, a vine-swallowed fence at the back end, and beyond the fence a cornfield which belonged to someone else. This was not the country. This was the town, Clinton, Mississippi, between Jackson on the east and Vicksburg on the west. On this lot stood a few water oaks, a few plum bushes, and much overgrowth of honeysuckle vine. At the very back end, at the fence, stood three strong nude chinaberry trees.

In Mississippi it is difficult to achieve a vista. But my friends and I had one here at the back corner of the garden. We could see across the cornfield, see the one lone tin-roofed house this side of the railroad tracks, then on across the tracks many other bleaker houses with rustier tin roofs, smoke coming out of the chimneys in the late fall. This was nigg*rtown. We had binoculars and could see the colored children hustling about and perhaps a hopeless sow or two with her brood enclosed in a tiny boarded-up area. Through the binoculars one afternoon in October we watched some men corner and beat a large hog on the brain. They used an ax and the thing kept running around, head leaning toward the ground, for several minutes before it lay down. I thought I saw the men laughing when it finally did. One of them was staggering, plainly drunk to my sight from three hundred yards away. He had the long knife. Because of that scene I considered Negroes savage cowards for a good five more years of my life. Our maid brought some sausage to my mother and when it was put in the pan to fry, I made a point of running out of the house.

I went directly across the street and to the back end of the garden behind the apartment house we owned, without my breakfast. That was Saturday. Eventually, Radcleve saw me. His parents had him mowing the yard that ran alongside my dad’s property. He clicked off the power mower and I went over to his fence, which was storm wire. His mother maintained handsome flowery grounds at all costs; she had a leaf-mold bin and St. Augustine grass as solid as a rug.

Radcleve himself was a violent experimental chemist. When Radcleve was eight, he threw a whole package of .22 shells against the sidewalk in front of his house until one of them went off, driving lead fragments into his calf, most of them still deep in there where the surgeons never dared tamper. Radcleve knew about the sulfur, potassium nitrate and charcoal mixture for gunpowder when he was ten. He bought things through the mail when he ran out of ingredients in his chemistry sets. When he was an infant, his father, a quiet man who owned the Chevrolet agency in town, bought an entire bankrupt sporting goods store, and in the middle of their backyard he built a house, plain painted and neat, one room and a heater, where Radcleve’s redundant toys forevermore were kept—all the possible toys he would need for boyhood. There were things in there that Radcleve and I were not mature enough for and did not know the real use of. When we were eleven, we uncrated the new Dunlop golf balls and went on up a shelf for the tennis rackets, went out in the middle of his yard, and served new golf ball after new golf ball with blasts of the rackets over into the cornfield, out of sight. When the strings busted we just went in and got another racket. We were absorbed by how a good smack would set the heavy little pills on an endless flight. Then Radcleve’s father came down. He simply dismissed me. He took Radcleve into the house and covered his whole body with a belt. But within the week Radcleve had invented the mortar. It was a steel pipe into which a flashlight battery fit perfectly, like a bullet into a muzzle. He had drilled a hole for the fuse of an M-80 firecracker at the base, for the charge. It was a grand cannon, set up on a stack of bricks at the back of my dad’s property, which was the free place to play. When it shot, it would back up violently with thick smoke and you could hear the flashlight battery whistling off. So that morning when I ran out of the house protesting the hog sausage, I told Radcleve to bring over the mortar. His ma and dad were in Jackson for the day, and he came right over with the pipe, the batteries and the M-80 explosives. He had two gross of them.

Before, we’d shot off toward the woods to the right of nigg*rtown. I turned the bricks to the left; I made us a very fine cannon carriage pointing toward nigg*rtown. When Radcleve appeared, he had two pairs of binoculars around his neck, one pair a newly plundered German unit as big as a brace of whiskey bottles. I told him I wanted to shoot for that house where we saw them killing the pig. Radcleve loved the idea. We singled out the house with heavy use of the binoculars.

There were children in the yard. Then they all went in. Two men came out of the back door. I thought I recognized the drunkard from the other afternoon. I helped Radcleve fix the direction of the cannon. We estimated the altitude we needed to get down there. Radcleve put the M-80 in the breech with its fuse standing out of the hole. I dropped the flashlight battery in. I lit the fuse. We backed off. The M-80 blasted off deafeningly, smoke rose, but my concentration was on that particular house over there. I brought the binoculars up. We waited six or seven seconds. I heard a great joyful wallop on tin. “We’ve hit him on the first try, the first try!” I yelled. Radcleve was ecstatic. “Right on his roof!” We bolstered up the brick carriage. Radcleve remembered the correct height of the cannon exactly. So we fixed it, loaded it, lit it and backed off. The battery landed on the roof, blat, again, louder. I looked to see if there wasn’t a great dent or hole in the roof. I could not understand why nigg*rs weren’t pouring out distraught from that house. We shot the mortar again and again, and always our battery hit the tin roof. Sometimes there was only a dull thud, but other times there was a wild distress of tin. I was still looking through the binoculars, amazed that the nigg*rs wouldn’t even come out of their house to see what was hitting their roof. Radcleve was on to it better than me. I looked over at him and he had the huge German binocs much lower than I did. He was looking straight through the cornfield, which was all bare and open, with nothing left but rotten stalks. “What we’ve been hitting is the roof of that house just this side of the tracks. White people live in there,” he said.

I took up my binoculars again. I looked around the yard of that white wooden house on this side of the tracks, almost next to the railroad. When I found the tin roof, I saw four significant dents in it. I saw one of our batteries lying in the middle of a sort of crater. I took the binoculars down into the yard and saw a blonde middle-aged woman looking our way.

“Somebody’s coming up toward us. He’s from that house and he’s got, I think, some sort of fancy gun with him. It might be an automatic weapon.”

I ran my binoculars all over the cornfield. Then, in a line with the house, I saw him. He was coming our way but having some trouble with the rows and dead stalks of the cornfield.

“That is just a boy like us. All he’s got is a saxophone with him,” I told Radcleve. I had recently got in the school band, playing drums, and had seen all the weird horns that made up a band.

I watched this boy with the saxophone through the binoculars until he was ten feet from us. This was Quadberry. His name was Ard, short for Arden. His shoes were foot-square wads of mud from the cornfield. When he saw us across the fence and above him, he stuck out his arm in my direction.

“My dad says stop it!”

“We weren’t doing anything,” says Radcleve.

“Mother saw the smoke puff up from here. Dad has a hangover.”

“A what?”

“It’s a headache from indiscretion. You’re lucky he does. He’s picked up the poker to rap on you, but he can’t move farther the way his head is.”

“What’s your name? You’re not in the band,” I said, focusing on the saxophone.

“It’s Ard Quadberry. Why do you keep looking at me through the binoculars?”

It was because he was odd, with his hair and its white ends, and his Arab nose, and now his name. Add to that the saxophone.

“My dad’s a doctor at the college. Mother’s a musician. You better quit what you’re doing. . . . I was out practicing in the garage. I saw one of those flashlight batteries roll off the roof. Could I see what you shoot ’em with?”

“No,” said Radcleve. Then he said: “If you’ll play that horn.”

Quadberry stood out there ten feet below us in the field, skinny, feet and pants booted with black mud, and at his chest the slung-on, very complex, radiant horn.

Quadberry began sucking and licking the reed. I didn’t care much for this act, and there was too much desperate oralness in his face when he began playing. That was why I chose the drums. One had to engage himself like suck’s revenge with a horn. But what Quadberry was playing was pleasant and intricate. I was sure it was advanced, and there was no squawking, as from the other eleven-year-olds on sax in the band room. He made the end with a clean upward riff, holding the final note high, pure and unwavering.

“Good!” I called to him.

Quadberry was trying to move out of the sunken row toward us, but his heavy shoes were impeding him.

“Sounded like a duck. Sounded like a girl duck,” said Radcleve, who was kneeling down and packing a mudball around one of the M-80s. I saw and I was an accomplice, because I did nothing. Radcleve lit the fuse and heaved the mudball over the fence. An M-80 is a very serious firecracker; it is like the charge they use to shoot up those sprays six hundred feet on July Fourth at country clubs. It went off, this one, even bigger than most M-80s.

When we looked over the fence, we saw Quadberry all muck specks and fragments of stalks. He was covering the mouthpiece of his horn with both hands. Then I saw there was blood pouring out of, it seemed, his right eye. I thought he was bleeding directly out of his eye.

“Quadberry?” I called.

He turned around and never said a word to me until I was eighteen. He walked back holding his eye and staggering through the cornstalks. Radcleve had him in the binoculars. Radcleve was trembling . . . but intrigued.

“His mother just screamed. She’s running out in the field to get him.”

I thought we’d blinded him, but we hadn’t. I thought the Quadberrys would get the police or call my father, but they didn’t. The upshot of this is that Quadberry had a permanent white space next to his right eye, a spot that looked like a tiny upset crown.

I went from sixth through half of twelfth grade ignoring him and that wound. I was coming on as a drummer and a lover, but if Quadberry happened to appear within fifty feet of me and my most tender, intimate sweetheart, I would duck out. Quadberry grew up just like the rest of us. His father was still a doctor—professor of history—at the town college; his mother was still blonde, and a musician. She was organist at an Episcopalian church in Jackson, the big capital city ten miles east of us.

As for Radcleve, he still had no ear for music, but he was there, my buddy. He was repentant about Quadberry, although not so much as I. He’d thrown the mud grenade over the fence only to see what would happen. He had not really wanted to maim. Quadberry had played his tune on the sax, Radcleve had played his tune on the mud grenade. It was just a shame they happened to cross talents.

Radcleve went into a long period of nearly nothing after he gave up violent explosives. Then he trained himself to copy the comic strips, Steve Canyon to Major Hoople, until he became quite a versatile cartoonist with some very provocative new faces and bodies that were gesturing intriguingly. He could never fill in the speech balloons with the smart words they needed. Sometimes he would pencil in “Err” or “What?” in the empty speech places. I saw him a great deal. Radcleve was not spooked by Quadberry. He even once asked Quadberry what his opinion was of his future as a cartoonist. Quadberry told Radcleve that if he took all his cartoons and stuffed himself with them, he would make an interesting dead man. After that, Radcleve was shy of him too.

When I was a senior we had an extraordinary band. Word was we had outplayed all the big AAA division bands last April in the state contest. Then came news that a new blazing saxophone player was coming into the band as first chair. This person had spent summers in Vermont in music camps, and he was coming in with us for the concert season. Our director, a lovable aesthete named Richard Prender, announced to us in a proud silent moment that the boy was joining us tomorrow night. The effect was that everybody should push over a seat or two and make room for this boy and his talent. I was annoyed. Here I’d been with the band and had kept hold of the taste among the whole percussion section. I could play rock and jazz drum and didn’t even really need to be here. I could be in Vermont too, give me a piano and a bass. I looked at the kid on first sax, who was going to be supplanted tomorrow. For two years he had thought he was the star, then suddenly enters this boy who’s three times better.

The new boy was Quadberry. He came in, but he was meek, and when he tuned up he put his head almost on the floor, bending over trying to be inconspicuous. The girls in the band had wanted him to be handsome, but Quadberry refused and kept himself in such hiding among the sax section that he was neither handsome, ugly, cute or anything. What he was was pretty near invisible, except for the bell of his horn, the all-but-closed eyes, the Arabian nose, the brown hair with its halo of white ends, the desperate oralness, the giant reed punched into his face, and hazy Quadberry, loving the wound in a private dignified ecstasy.

I say dignified because of what came out of the end of his horn. He was more than what Prender had told us he would be. Because of Quadberry, we could take the band arrangement of Ravel’s Boléro with us to the state contest. Quadberry would do the saxophone solo. He would switch to alto sax, he would do the sly Moorish ride. When he played, I heard the sweetness, I heard the horn which finally brought human talk into the realm of music. It could sound like the mutterings of a field nigg*r, and then it could get up into inhumanly careless beauty, it could get among mutinous helium bursts around Saturn. I already loved Boléro for the constant drum part. The percussion was always there, driving along with the subtly increasing triplets, insistent, insistent, at last outraged and trying to steal the whole show from the horns and the others. I knew a large boy with dirty blond hair, name of Wyatt, who played viola in the Jackson Symphony and sousaphone in our band—one of the rare closet transmutations of my time—who was forever claiming to have discovered the central Boléro one Sunday afternoon over FM radio as he had seven distinct sexual moments with a certain B., girl flutist with black bangs and skin like mayonnaise, while the drums of Ravel carried them on and on in a ceremony of Spanish sex. It was agreed by all the canny in the band that Boléro was exactly the piece to make the band soar—now especially as we had Quadberry, who made his walk into the piece like an actual lean Spanish bandit. This boy could blow his horn. He was, as I had suspected, a genius. His solo was not quite the same as the New York Phil’s saxophonist’s, but it was better. It came in and was with us. It entered my spine and, I am sure, went up the skirts of the girls. I had almost deafened myself playing drums in the most famous rock and jazz band in the state, but I could hear the voice that went through and out that horn. It sounded like a very troubled forty-year-old man, a man who had had his brow in his hands a long time.

The next time I saw Quadberry up close, in fact the first time I had seen him up close since we were eleven and he was bleeding in the cornfield, was in late February. I had only three classes this last semester, and went up to the band room often, to loaf and complain and keep up my touch on the drums. Prender let me keep my set in one of the instrument rooms, with a tarpaulin thrown over it, and I would drag it out to the practice room and whale away. Sometimes a group of sophom*ores would come up and I would make them marvel, whaling away as if not only deaf but blind to them, although I wasn’t at all. If I saw a sophom*ore girl with exceptional bod or face, I would do miracles of technique I never knew were in me. I would amaze myself. I would be threatening Buddy Rich and Joe Morello. But this time when I went into the instrument room, there was Quadberry on one side, and, back in a dark corner, a small ninth-grade euphonium player whose face was all red. The little boy was weeping and grinning at the same time.

“Queerberry,” the boy said softly.

Quadberry flew upon him like a demon. He grabbed the boy’s collar, slapped his face, and yanked his arm behind him in a merciless wrestler’s grip, the one that made them bawl on TV. Then the boy broke it and slugged Quadberry in the lips and ran across to my side of the room. He said “Queerberry” softly again and jumped for the door. Quadberry plunged across the room and tackled him on the threshold. Now that the boy was under him, Quadberry pounded the top of his head with his fist made like a mallet. The boy kept calling him “Queerberry” throughout this. He had not learned his lesson. The boy seemed to be going into concussion, so I stepped over and touched Quadberry, telling him to quit. Quadberry obeyed and stood up off the boy, who crawled on out into the band room. But once more the boy looked back with a bruised grin, saying “Queerberry.” Quadberry made a move toward him, but I blocked it.

“Why are you beating up on this little guy?” I said. Quadberry was sweating and his eyes were wild with hate; he was a big fellow now, though lean. He was, at six feet tall, bigger than me.

“He kept calling me Queerberry.”

“What do you care?” I asked.

“I care,” Quadberry said, and left me standing there.

We were to play at Millsaps College Auditorium for the concert. It was April. We got on the buses, a few took their cars, and were a big tense crowd getting over there. To Jackson was only a twenty-minute trip. The director, Prender, followed the bus in his Volkswagen. There was a thick fog. A flashing ambulance, snaking the lanes, piled into him head on. Prender, who I would imagine was thinking of Boléro and hearing the young horn voices in his band—perhaps he was dwelling on Quadberry’s spectacular gypsy entrance, or perhaps he was meditating on the percussion section, of which I was the king—passed into the airs of band-director heaven. We were told by the student director as we set up on the stage. The student director was a senior from the town college, very much afflicted, almost to the point of drooling, by a love and respect for Dick Prender, and now afflicted by a heartbreaking esteem for his ghost. As were we all.

I loved the tough and tender director awesomely and never knew it until I found myself bawling along with all the rest of the boys of the percussion. I told them to keep setting up, keep tuning, keep screwing the stands together, keep hauling in the kettledrums. To just quit and bawl seemed a betrayal to Prender. I caught some girl clarinetists trying to flee the stage and go have their cry. I told them to get the hell back to their section. They obeyed me. Then I found the student director. I had to have my say.

“Look. I say we just play Boléro and junk the rest. That’s our horse. We can’t play “Brighton Beach” and “Neptune’s Daughter.” We’ll never make it through them. And they’re too happy.”

“We aren’t going to play anything,” he said. “Man, to play is filthy. Did you ever hear Prender play piano? Do you know what a cool man he was in all things?”

“We play. He got us ready, and we play.”

“Man, you can’t play any more than I can direct. You’re bawling your face off. Look out there at the rest of them. Man, it’s a herd, it’s a weeping herd.”

“What’s wrong? Why aren’t you pulling this crowd together?” This was Quadberry, who had come up urgently. “I got those little brats in my section sitting down, but we’ve got people abandoning the stage, tearful little finks throwing their horns on the floor.”

“I’m not directing,” said the mustached college man.

“Then get out of here. You’re weak, weak!”

“Man, we’ve got teen-agers in ruin here, we got sorrowville. Nobody can—”

“Go ahead. Do your number. Weak out on us.”

“Man, I—”

Quadberry was already up on the podium, shaking his arms.

“We’re right here! The band is right here! Tell your friends to get back in their seats. We’re doing Boléro. Just put Boléro up and start tuning. I’m directing. I’ll be right here in front of you. You look at me! Don’t you dare quit on Prender. Don’t you dare quit on me. You’ve got to be heard. I’ve got to be heard. Prender wanted me to be heard. I am the star, and I say we sit down and blow.”

And so we did. We all tuned and were burning low for the advent into Boléro, though we couldn’t believe that Quadberry was going to remain with his saxophone strapped to him and conduct us as well as play his solo. The judges, who apparently hadn’t heard about Prender’s death, walked down to their balcony desks.

One of them called out “Ready” and Quadberry’s hand was instantly up in the air, his fingers hard as if around the stem of something like a torch. This was not Prender’s way, but it had to do. We went into the number cleanly and Quadberry one-armed it in the conducting. He kept his face, this look of hostility, at the reeds and the trumpets. I was glad he did not look toward me and the percussion boys like that. But he must have known we would be constant and tasteful because I was the king there. As for the others, the soloists especially, he was scaring them into excellence. Prender had never got quite this from them. Boys became men and girls became women as Quadberry directed us through Boléro. I even became a bit better of a man myself, though Quadberry did not look my way. When he turned around toward the people in the auditorium to enter on his solo, I knew it was my baby. I and the drums were the metronome. That was no trouble. It was talent to keep the metronome ticking amidst any given chaos of sound.

But this keeps one’s mind occupied and I have no idea what Quadberry sounded like on his sax ride. All I know is that he looked grief-stricken and pale, and small. Sweat had popped out on his forehead. He bent over extremely. He was wearing the red brass-button jacket and black pants, black bow tie at the throat, just like the rest of us. In this outfit he bent over his horn almost out of sight. For a moment, before I caught the glint of his horn through the music stands, I thought he had pitched forward off the stage. He went down so far to do his deep oral thing, his conducting arm had disappeared so quickly, I didn’t know but what he was having a seizure.

When Boléro was over, the audience stood up and made meat out of their hands applauding. The judges themselves applauded. The band stood up, bawling again, for Prender and because we had done so well. The student director rushed out crying to embrace Quadberry, who eluded him with his dipping shoulders. The crowd was still clapping insanely. I wanted to see Quadberry myself. I waded through the red backs, through the bow ties, over the white bucks. Here was the first-chair clarinetist, who had done his bit like an angel; he sat close to the podium and could hear Quadberry.

“Was Quadberry good?” I asked him.

“Are you kidding? These tears in my eyes, they’re for how good he was. He was too good. I’ll never touch my clarinet again.” The clarinetist slung the pieces of his horn into their case like underwear and a toothbrush.

I found Quadberry fitting the sections of his alto in the velvet holds of his case.

“Hooray,” I said. “Hip damn hooray for you.”

Arden was smiling too, showing a lot of teeth I had never seen. His smile was sly. He knew he had pulled off a monster unlikelihood.

“Hip hip hooray for me,” he said. “Look at her. I had the bell of the horn almost smack in her face.”

There was a woman of about thirty sitting in the front row of the auditorium. She wore a sundress with a drastic cleavage up front; looked like something that hung around New Orleans and kneaded your heart to death with her feet. She was still mesmerized by Quadberry. She bore on him with a stare and there was moisture in her cleavage.

“You played well.”

“Well? Play well? Yes.”

He was trying not to look at her directly. Look at me, I beckoned to her with full face: I was the drums. She arose and left.

“I was walking downhill in a valley, is all I was doing,” said Quadberry. “Another man, a wizard, was playing my horn.” He locked his sax case. “I feel nasty for not being able to cry like the rest of them. Look at them. Look at them crying.”

True, the children of the band were still weeping, standing around the stage. Several moms and dads had come up among them, and they were misty-eyed too. The mixture of grief and superb music had been unbearable

A girl in tears appeared next to Quadberry. She was a majorette in football season and played third-chair sax during the concert season. Not even her violent sorrow could take the beauty out of the face of this girl. I had watched her for a number of years—her alertness to her own beauty, the pride of her legs in the majorette outfit—and had taken out her younger sister, a second-rate version of her and a wayward overcompensating nymphomaniac whom several of us made a hobby out of pitying. Well, here was Lilian herself crying in Quadberry’s face. She told him that she’d run off the stage when she heard about Prender, dropped her horn and everything, and had thrown herself into a tavern across the street and drunk two beers quickly for some kind of relief. But she had come back through the front doors of the auditorium and sat down, dizzy with beer, and seen Quadberry, the miraculous way he had gone on with Boléro. And now she was eaten up by feelings of guilt, weakness, cowardice.

“We didn’t miss you,” said Quadberry.

“Please forgive me. Tell me to do something to make up for it.”

“Don’t breathe my way, then. You’ve got beer all over your breath.”

“I want to talk to you.”

“Take my horn case and go out, get in my car, and wait for me. It’s the ugly Plymouth in front of the school bus.”

“I know,” she said.

Lilian Field, this lovely teary thing, with the rather pious grace of her carriage, with the voice full of imminent swoon, picked up Quadberry’s horn case and her own and walked off the stage.

I told the percussion boys to wrap up the packing. Into my suitcase I put my own gear and also managed to steal drum keys, two pairs of brushes, a twenty-inch Turkish cymbal, a Gretsch snare drum that I desired for my collection, a wood block, kettledrum mallets, a tuning harp and a score sheet of Boléro full of marginal notes I’d written down straight from the mouth of Dick Prender, thinking I might want to look at the score sheet sometime in the future when I was having a fit of nostalgia such as I am having right now as I write this. I had never done any serious stealing before, and I was stealing for my art. Prender was dead, the band had done its last thing of the year, I was a senior. Things were finished at the high school. I was just looting a sinking ship. I could hardly lift the suitcase. As I was pushing it across the stage, Quadberry was there again.

“You can ride back with me if you want to.”

“But you’ve got Lilian.”

“Please ride back with me . . . us. Please.”

“Why?”

“To help me get rid of her. Her breath is full of beer. My father always had that breath. Every time he was friendly, he had that breath. And she looks a great deal like my mother.” We were interrupted by the Tupelo band director. He put his baton against Quadberry’s arm.

“You were big with Boléro, son, but that doesn’t mean you own the stage.”

Quadberry caught the end of the suitcase and helped me with it out to the steps behind the auditorium. The buses were gone. There sat his ugly ocher Plymouth; it was a failed, gay, experimental shade from the Chrysler people. Lilian was sitting in the front seat wearing her shirt and bow tie, her coat off.

“Are you going to ride back with me?” Quadberry said to me.

“I think I would spoil something. You never saw her when she was a majorette. She’s not stupid, either. She likes to show off a little, but she’s not stupid. She’s in the History Club.”

“My father has a doctorate in history. She smells of beer.”

I said, “She drank two cans of beer when she heard about Prender.”

“There are a lot of other things to do when you hear about death. What I did, for example. She ran away. She fell to pieces.”

“She’s waiting for us,” I said.

“One damned thing I am never going to do is drink.”

“I’ve never seen your mother up close, but Lilian doesn’t look like your mother. She doesn’t look like anybody’s mother.”

I rode with them silently to Clinton. Lilian made no bones about being disappointed I was in the car, though she said nothing. I knew it would be like this and I hated it. Other girls in town would not be so unhappy that I was in the car with them. I looked for flaws in Lilian’s face and neck and hair, but there weren’t any. Couldn’t there be a mole, an enlarged pore, too much gum on a tooth, a single awkward hair around the ear? No. Memory, the whole lying opera of it, is killing me now. Lilian was faultless beauty, even sweating, even and especially in the white man’s shirt and the bow tie clamping together her collar, when one knew her uncomfortable bosoms, her poor nipples. . . .

“Don’t take me back to the band room. Turn off here and let me off at my house,” I said to Quadberry. He didn’t turn off.

“Don’t tell Arden what to do. He can do what he wants to,” said Lilian, ignoring me and speaking to me at the same time. I couldn’t bear her hatred. I asked Quadberry to please just stop the car and let me out here, wherever here was: this front yard of the mobile home would do. I was so earnest that he stopped the car. He handed back the keys and I dragged my suitcase out of the trunk, then flung the keys back at him and kicked the car to get it going again.

My band came together in the summer. We were the Bop Fiends . . . that was our name. Two of them were from Ole Miss, our bass player was from Memphis State, but when we got together this time, I didn’t call the tenor sax, who went to Mississippi Southern, because Quadberry wanted to play with us. During the school year the college boys and I fell into minor groups to pick up twenty dollars on a weekend, playing dances for the Moose Lodge, medical-student fraternities in Jackson, teenage recreation centers in Greenwood, and such as that. But come summer we were the Bop Fiends again, and the price for us went up to $1,200 a gig. Where they wanted the best rock and bop and they had some bread, we were called. The summer after I was a senior, we played in Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas. Our fame was getting out there on the interstate route.

This was the summer that I made myself deaf.

Years ago Prender had invited down an old friend from a high school in Michigan. He asked me over to meet the friend, who had been a drummer with Stan Kenton at one time and was now a band director just like Prender. This fellow was almost totally deaf and he warned me very sincerely about deafing myself. He said there would come a point when you had to lean over and concentrate all your hearing on what the band was doing and that was the time to quit for a while, because if you didn’t you would be irrevocably deaf like him in a month or two. I listened to him but could not take him seriously. Here was an oldish man who had his problems. My ears had ages of hearing left. Not so. I played the drums so loud the summer after I graduated from high school that I made myself, eventually, stone deaf.

We were at, say, the National Guard Armory in Lake Village, Arkansas, Quadberry out in front of us on the stage they’d built. Down on the floor were hundreds of sweaty teenagers. Four girls in sundresses, showing what they could, were leaning on the stage with broad ignorant lust on their minds. I’d play so loud for one particular chick, I’d get absolutely out of control. The guitar boys would have to turn the volume up full blast to compensate. Thus I went deaf. Anyhow, the dramatic idea was to release Quadberry on a very soft sweet ballad right in the middle of a long ear-piercing run of rock-and-roll tunes. I’d get out the brushes and we would astonish the crowd with our tenderness. By August, I was so deaf I had to watch Quadberry’s fingers changing notes on the saxophone, had to use my eyes to keep time. The other members of the Bop Fiends told me I was hitting out of time. I pretended I was trying to do experimental things with rhythm when the truth was I simply could no longer hear. I was no longer a tasteful drummer, either. I had become deaf through lack of taste.

Which was—taste—exactly the quality that made Quadberry wicked on the saxophone. During the howling, during the churning, Quadberry had taste. The noise did not affect his personality; he was solid as a brick. He could blend. Oh, he could hoot through his horn when the right time came, but he could do supporting roles for an hour. Then, when we brought him out front for his solo on something like “Take Five,” he would play with such light blissful technique that he even eclipsed Paul Desmond. The girls around the stage did not cause him to enter into excessive loudness or vibrato.

Quadberry had his own girlfriend now, Lilian back at Clinton, who put all the sundressed things around the stage in the shade. In my mind I had congratulated him for getting up next to this beauty, but in June and July, when I was still hearing things a little, he never said a word about her. It was one night in August, when I could hear nothing and was driving him to his house, that he asked me to turn on the inside light and spoke in a retarded deliberate way. He knew I was deaf and counted on my being able to read lips.

“Don’t . . . make . . . fun . . . of her . . . or me. . . . We . . . think . . . she . . . is . . . in trouble.”

I wagged my head. Never would I make fun of him or her. She detested me because I had taken out her helpless little sister for a few weeks, but I would never think there was anything funny about Lilian, for all her haughtiness. I only thought of this event as monumentally curious.

“No one except you knows,” he said.

“Why did you tell me?”

“Because I’m going away and you have to take care of her. I wouldn’t trust her with anybody but you.”

“She hates the sight of my face. Where are you going?”

“Annapolis.”

“You aren’t going to any damned Annapolis.”

“That was the only school that wanted me.”

“You’re going to play your saxophone on a boat?”

“I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“How . . . how can you just leave her?”

“She wants me to. She’s very excited about me at Annapolis. William [this is my name], there is no girl I could imagine who has more inner sweetness than Lilian.”

I entered the town college, as did Lilian. She was in the same chemistry class I was. But she was rows away. It was difficult to learn anything, being deaf. The professor wasn’t a pantomimer—but finally he went to the blackboard with the formulas and the algebra of problems, to my happiness. I hung in and made a B. At the end of the semester I was swaggering around the grade sheet he’d posted. I happened to see Lilian’s grade. She’d only made a C. Beautiful Lilian got only a C while I, with my handicap, had made a B.

It had been a very difficult chemistry class. I had watched Lilian’s stomach the whole way through. It was not growing. I wanted to see her look like a watermelon, make herself an amazing mother shape.

When I made the B and Lilian made the C, I got up my courage and finally went by to see her. She answered the door. Her parents weren’t home. I’d never wanted this office of watching over her as Quadberry wanted me to, and this is what I told her. She asked me into the house. The rooms smelled of nail polish and pipe smoke. I was hoping her little sister wasn’t in the house, and my wish came true. We were alone.

“You can quit watching over me.”

“Are you pregnant?”

“No.” Then she started crying. “I wanted to be. But I’m not.”

“What do you hear from Quadberry?”

She said something, but she had her back to me. She looked to me for an answer, but I had nothing to say. I knew she’d said something, but I hadn’t heard it.

“He doesn’t play the saxophone anymore,” she said.

This made me angry.

“Why not?”

“Too much math and science and navigation. He wants to fly. That’s what his dream is now. He wants to get into an F-something jet.”

I asked her to say this over and she did. Lilian really was full of inner sweetness, as Quadberry had said. She understood that I was deaf. Perhaps Quadberry had told her.

The rest of the time in her house I simply witnessed her beauty and her mouth moving.

I went through college. To me it is interesting that I kept a B average and did it all deaf, though I know this isn’t interesting to people who aren’t deaf. I loved music, and never heard it. I loved poetry, and never heard a word that came out of the mouths of the visiting poets who read at the campus. I loved my mother and dad, but never heard a sound they made. One Christmas Eve, Radcleve was back from Ole Miss and threw an M-80 out in the street for old times’ sake. I saw it explode, but there was only a pressure in my ears. I was at parties when lusts were raging and I went home with two girls (I am medium handsome) who lived in apartments of the old two-story 1920 vintage, and I took my shirt off and made love to them. But I have no real idea what their reaction was. They were stunned and all smiles when I got up, but I have no idea whether I gave them the last pleasure or not. I hope I did. I’ve always been partial to women and have always wanted to see them satisfied till their eyes popped out.

Through Lilian I got the word that Quadberry was out of Annapolis and now flying jets off the Bonhomme Richard, an aircraft carrier headed for Vietnam. He telegrammed her that he would set down at the Jackson airport at ten o’clock one night. So Lilian and I were out there waiting. It was a familiar place to her. She was a stewardess and her loops were mainly in the South. She wore a beige raincoat, had red sandals on her feet; I was in a black turtleneck and corduroy jacket, feeling significant, so significant I could barely stand it. I’d already made myself the lead writer at Gordon-Marx Advertising in Jackson. I hadn’t seen Lilian in a year. Her eyes were strained, no longer the bright blue things they were when she was a pious beauty. We drank coffee together. I loved her. As far as I knew, she’d been faithful to Quadberry.

He came down in an F-something Navy jet right on the dot of ten. She ran out on the airport pavement to meet him. I saw her crawl up the ladder. Quadberry never got out of the plane. I could see him in his blue helmet. Lilian backed down the ladder. Then Quadberry had the co*ckpit cover him again. He turned the plane around so its flaming red end was at us. He took it down the runway. We saw him leap out into the night at the middle of the runway going west, toward San Diego and the Bonhomme Richard. Lilian was crying.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He said, ‘I am a dragon. America the beautiful, like you will never know.’ He wanted to give you a message. He was glad you were here.”

“What was the message?”

“The same thing. ‘I am a dragon. America the beautiful, like you will never know.’”

“Did he say anything else?”

“Not a thing.”

“Did he express any love toward you?”

“He wasn’t Ard. He was somebody with a sneer in a helmet.”

“He’s going to war, Lilian.”

“I asked him to kiss me and he told me to get off the plane, he was firing up and it was dangerous.”

“Arden is going to war. He’s just on his way to Vietnam and he wanted us to know that. It wasn’t just him he wanted us to see. It was him in the jet he wanted us to see. He is that black jet. You can’t kiss an airplane.”

“And what are we supposed to do?” cried sweet Lilian.

“We’ve just got to hang around. He didn’t have to lift off and disappear straight up like that. That was to tell us how he isn’t with us anymore.”

Lilian asked me what she was supposed to do now. I told her she was supposed to come with me to my apartment in the old 1920 Clinton place where I was. I was supposed to take care of her. Quadberry had said so. His six-year-old directive was still working.

She slept on the fold-out bed of the sofa for a while. This was the only bed in my place. I stood in the dark in the kitchen and drank a quarter bottle of gin on ice. I would not turn on the light and spoil her sleep. The prospect of Lilian asleep in my apartment made me feel like a chaplain on a visit to the Holy Land; I stood there getting drunk, biting my tongue when dreams of lust burst on me. That black jet Quadberry wanted us to see him in, its flaming rear end, his blasting straight up into the night at mid-runway—what precisely was he wanting to say in this stunt? Was he saying remember him forever or forget him forever? But I had my own life and was neither going to mother-hen it over his memory nor his old sweetheart. What did he mean, America the beautiful, like you will never know? I, William Howly, knew a goddamn good bit about America the beautiful, even as a deaf man. Being deaf had brought me up closer to people. There were only about five I knew, but I knew their mouth movements, the perspiration under their noses, their tongues moving over the crowns of their teeth, their fingers on their lips. Quadberry, I said, you don’t have to get up next to the stars in your black jet to see America the beautiful.

I was deciding to lie down on the kitchen floor and sleep the night, when Lilian turned on the light and appeared in her panties and bra. Her body was perfect except for a tiny bit of fat on her upper thighs. She’d sunbathed herself so her limbs were brown, and her stomach, and the instinct was to rip off the white underwear and lick, suck, say something terrific into the flesh that you discovered.

She was moving her mouth.

“Say it again slowly.”

“I’m lonely. When he took off in his jet, I think it meant he wasn’t ever going to see me again. I think it meant he was laughing at both of us. He’s an astronaut and he spits on us.”

“You want me on the bed with you?” I asked.

“I know you’re an intellectual. We could keep on the lights so you’d know what I said.”

“You want to say things? This isn’t going to be just sex?”

“It could never be just sex.”

“I agree. Go to sleep. Let me make up my mind whether to come in there. Turn out the lights.”

Again the dark, and I thought I would cheat not only Quadberry but the entire Quadberry family if I did what was natural.

I fell asleep.

Quadberry escorted B-52s on bombing missions into North Vietnam. He was catapulted off the Bonhomme Richard in his suit at 100 degrees temperature, often at night, and put the F-8 on all it could get—the tiny co*ckpit, the immense long two-million-dollar fuselage, wings, tail and jet engine, Quadberry, the genius master of his dragon, going up to twenty thousand feet to be cool. He’d meet with the big B-52 turtle of the air and get in a position, his co*ckpit glowing with green and orange lights, and turn on his transistor radio. There was only one really good band, never mind the old American rock-and-roll from Cambodia, and that was Red Chinese opera. Quadberry loved it. He loved the nasal horde in the finale, when the peasants won over the old fat dilettante mayor. Then he’d turn the jet around when he saw the squatty abrupt little fires way down there after the B-52s had dropped their diet. It was a seven-hour trip. Sometimes he slept, but his body knew when to wake up. Another thirty minutes and there was his ship waiting for him out in the waves.

All his trips weren’t this easy. He’d have to blast out in daytime and get with the B-52s, and a SAM missile would come up among them. Two of his mates were taken down by these missiles. But Quadberry, as on saxophone, had endless learned technique. He’d put his jet perpendicular in the air and make the SAMs look silly. He even shot down two of them. Then, one day in daylight, a MiG came floating up level with him and his squadron. Quadberry couldn’t believe it. Others in the squadron were shy, but Quadberry knew where and how the MiG could shoot. He flew below the cannons and then came in behind it. He knew the MiG wanted one of the B-52s and not mainly him. The MiG was so concentrated on the fat B-52 that he forgot about Quadberry. It was really an amateur suicide pilot in the MiG. Quadberry got on top of him and let down a missile, rising out of the way of it. The missile blew off the tail of the MiG. But then Quadberry wanted to see if the man got safely out of the co*ckpit. He thought it would be pleasant if the fellow got out with his parachute working. Then Quadberry saw that the fellow wanted to collide his wreckage with the B-52, so Quadberry turned himself over and cannoned, evaporated the pilot and co*ckpit. It was the first man he’d killed.

The next trip out, Quadberry was hit by a ground missile. But his jet kept flying. He flew it a hundred miles and got to the sea. There was the Bonhomme Richard, so he ejected. His back was snapped but, by God, he landed right on the deck. His mates caught him in their arms and cut the parachute off him. His back hurt for weeks, but he was all right. He rested and recuperated in Hawaii for a month.

Then he went off the front of the ship. Just like that, his F-6 plopped in the ocean and sank like a rock. Quadberry saw the ship go over him. He knew he shouldn’t eject just yet. If he ejected now he’d knock his head on the bottom and get chewed up in the motor blades. So Quadberry waited. His plane was sinking in the green and he could see the hull of the aircraft carrier getting smaller, but he had oxygen through his mask and it didn’t seem that urgent a decision. Just let the big ship get over. Down what later proved to be sixty feet, he pushed the ejection button. It fired him away, bless it, and he woke up ten feet under the surface swimming against an almost overwhelming body of underwater parachute. But two of his mates were in a helicopter, one of them on the ladder to lift him out.

Now Quadberry’s back was really hurt. He was out of this war and all wars for good.

Lilian, the stewardess, was killed in a crash. Her jet exploded with a hijacker’s bomb, an inept bomb which wasn’t supposed to go off, fifteen miles out of Havana; the poor pilot, the poor passengers, the poor stewardesses were all splattered like flesh sparklers over the water just out of Cuba. A fisherman found one seat of the airplane. Castro expressed regrets.

Quadberry came back to Clinton two weeks after Lilian and the others bound for Tampa were dead. He hadn’t heard about her. So I told him Lilian was dead when I met him at the airport. Quadberry was thin and rather meek in his civvies—a gray suit and an out-of-style tie. The white ends of his hair were not there—the halo had disappeared—because his hair was cut short. The Arab nose seemed a pitiable defect in an ash-whiskered face that was beyond anemic now. He looked shorter, stooped. The truth was he was sick, his back was killing him. His breath was heavy-laden with airplane martinis and in his limp right hand he held a wet cigar. I told him about Lilian. He mumbled something sideways that I could not possibly make out.

“You’ve got to speak right at me, remember? Remember me, Quadberry?”

“Mom and Dad of course aren’t here.”

“No. Why aren’t they?”

“He wrote me a letter after we bombed Hué. Said he hadn’t sent me to Annapolis to bomb the architecture of Hué. He had been there once and had some important experience—French-kissed the queen of Hué or the like. Anyway, he said I’d have to do a hell of a lot of repentance for that. But he and Mom are separate people. Why isn’t she here?”

“I don’t know!”

“I’m not asking you the question. The question is to God.”

He shook his head. Then he sat down on the floor of the terminal. People had to walk around. I asked him to get up.

“No. How is old Clinton?”

“Horrible. Aluminum subdivisions, cigar boxes with four thin columns in front, thick as a hive. We got a turquoise water tank; got a shopping center, a monster Jitney Jungle, fifth-rate teenyboppers covering the place like ants.” Why was I being so frank just now, as Quadberry sat on the floor downcast, drooped over like a long weak candle? “It’s not our town anymore, Ard. It’s going to hurt to drive back into it. Hurts me every day. Please get up.”

“And Lilian’s not even over there now.”

“No. She’s a cloud over the Gulf of Mexico. You flew out of Pensacola once. You know what beauty those pink and blue clouds are. That’s how I think of her.”

“Was there a funeral?”

“Oh, yes. Her Methodist preacher and a big crowd over at Wright Ferguson funeral home. Your mother and father were there. Your father shouldn’t have come. He could barely walk. Please get up.”

“Why? What am I going to do, where am I going?”

“You’ve got your saxophone.”

“Was there a coffin? Did you all go by and see the pink or blue cloud in it?” He was sneering now as he had done when he was eleven and fourteen and seventeen.

“Yes, they had a very ornate coffin.”

“Lilian was the Unknown Stewardess. I’m not getting up.”

“I said you still have your saxophone.”

“No, I don’t. I tried to play it on the ship after the last time I hurt my back. No go. I can’t bend my neck or spine to play it. The pain kills me.”

“Well, don’t get up, then. Why am I asking you to get up? I’m just a deaf drummer, too vain to buy a hearing aid. Can’t stand to write the ad copy I do. Wasn’t I a good drummer?”

“Superb.”

“But we can’t be in this condition forever. The police are going to come and make you get up if we do it much longer.”

The police didn’t come. It was Quadberry’s mother who came. She looked me in the face and grabbed my shoulders before she saw Ard on the floor. When she saw him she yanked him off the floor, hugging him passionately. She was shaking with sobs. Quadberry was gathered to her as if he were a rope she was trying to wrap around herself. Her mouth was all over him. Quadberry’s mother was a good-looking woman of fifty. I simply held her purse. He cried out that his back was hurting. At last she let him go.

“So now we walk,” I said.

“Dad’s in the car trying to quit crying,” said his mother.

“This is nice,” Quadberry said. “I thought everything and everybody was dead around here.” He put his arms around his mother. “Let’s all go off and kill some time together.” His mother’s hair was on his lips. “You?” he asked me.

“Murder the devil out of it,” I said.

I pretended to follow their car back to their house in Clinton. But when we were going through Jackson, I took the North 55 exit and disappeared from them, exhibiting a great amount of taste, I thought. I would get in their way in this reunion. I had an unimprovable apartment on Old Canton Road in a huge plaster house, Spanish style, with a terrace and ferns and yucca plants, and a green door where I went in. When I woke up I didn’t have to make my coffee or fry my egg. The girl who slept in my bed did that. She was Lilian’s little sister, Esther Field. Esther was pretty in a minor way and I was proud how I had tamed her to clean and cook around the place. The Field family would appreciate how I lived with her. I showed her the broom and the skillet, and she loved them. She also learned to speak very slowly when she had to say something.

Esther answered the phone when Quadberry called me seven months later. She gave me his message. He wanted to know my opinion on a decision he had to make. There was this Dr. Gordon, a surgeon at Emory Hospital in Atlanta, who said he could cure Quadberry’s back problem. Quadberry’s back was killing him. He was in torture even holding up the phone to say this. The surgeon said there was a seventy-five/twenty-five chance. Seventy-five that it would be successful, twenty-five that it would be fatal. Esther waited for my opinion. I told her to tell Quadberry to go over to Emory. He’d got through with luck in Vietnam, and now he should ride it out in this petty back operation.

Esther delivered the message and hung up.

“He said the surgeon’s just his age; he’s some genius from Johns Hopkins Hospital. He said this Gordon guy has published a lot of articles on spinal operations,” said Esther.

“Fine and good. All is happy. Come to bed.”

I felt her mouth and her voice on my ears, but I could hear only a sort of loud pulse from the girl. All I could do was move toward moisture and nipples and hair.

Quadberry lost his gamble at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. The brilliant surgeon his age lost him. Quadberry died. He died with his Arabian nose up in the air.

That is why I told this story and will never tell another.

Testimony of Pilot – Original Text | shortsonline (2024)

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