â€śI see. Did they treat you right?â€ť
â€śYes, I suppose. I don’t know. It’s awfully hot in here with all these lights.â€ť
â€śMaybe you could do without some of the lights for now, Mr. Barlow,â€ť said Joanne.
â€śYes, okay. A few more questions and we can be done for the morning.â€ť
Clara Jean dabbed at the sweat on her forehead with a wrinkled, wet hand and Tommy felt ashamed. Where had his father summoned the courage to make such an important lady sweat? The night before, he seemed meek, quiet. Tommy wondered if this man behind the lights would make birdhouses out of scrap lumber and leave them in the garage for mice to inhabit. He wasn’t sure. He watched Clara dig at the skin of her wrist with dull, yellowed fingernails.
â€śWhat did you like to do?â€ť asked his father. â€śWhat were your hobbies?â€ť
Clara looked into the camera and Tommy thought she almost smiled. â€śWell, I like to read. I like mysteries the best. And romance too. I like the television. I like the court shows and the morning talk shows.â€ť
â€śAlright, but what did you like to do then?â€ť sighed his father.
â€śWhat? Oh. Well, I don’t know. Television has been around for quite a few years, Mr. Barlow. And books â€“ â€ť
â€śJesse!â€ť squealed the little girl from across the room.
Tommy’s mother jumped at the sudden noise and let out a small yelp.
â€śOh!â€ť The girl gasped and pushed her hands to her mouth. â€śJesse pinched me! I’m sorry, Mr. Barlow. Please don’t be mad.â€ť
â€śMaddy! You and Jesse go outside this instant!â€ť said Joanne. â€śIf you can’t be quiet you can’t watch. I told you that.â€ť
â€śYes Miss Joanne,â€ť said the girl as she slipped down from the chair and weaved through the lamps. The boy sulked after her.
â€śOh let them stay,â€ť said Clara. â€śI think we are done for the morning anyway. I need to sit in the cold. These lamps, you know.â€ť
Tommy’s parents turned the lamps off one by one. Each popped and hissed quietly as they dimmed.
Tommy was running across the yard barefoot. At first, he had picked his way carefully across the grass, avoiding prickers and bugs perched on browning blades of grass. But now, he ran carelessly after Madeline and Jesse. He scrambled down the rocky slope behind the yard and fell on his knees into the cold river. He gasped in delight.
â€śLook here!â€ť cried Madeline. She was wading further down the river. The water almost came to her waist. â€śA little fish!â€ť
Jesse and Tommy bounded after her, but their feet kicked up a cloud of dirt and the fish was lost. â€śOh you dummies! I was going to catch it and give it to Clara Jean!â€ť
â€śYou give her fishes?â€ť asked Tommy. â€śThe oldest lady in the world?â€ť
â€śWell sure,â€ť said Madeline, attempting to clear the water with a cupped hand.
â€śShe likes the river,â€ť said Jesse. â€śBut she can’t come in because she’s too old and sick. One time, I gave her a smooth shiny rock I found here. She liked it. She kept it, I say.â€ť
â€śNo, she kept mine! I gave her a better one. I gave her one that papa said was probably a little bit of quartz. She likes quartz. She watches shows about it. She said so. She said it on the movie.â€ť
â€śNo you stupid! That’s courts! Like the jail show. Not the stupid rock.â€ť Jesse splashed Madeline and she kicked water at him angrily.
Tommy dunked his head beneath the surface. He shook his head and sent water flitting across Jesse’s face. â€śI bet it’s weird knowing someone so famous,â€ť said Tommy.
â€śWho? Miss Clara Jean?â€ť asked Jesse.
â€śWell, yeah.â€ť Tommy kicked about until he was floating on his back. The river lazily pushed him along.
â€śShe isn’t that famous, you know,â€ť said Madeline. â€śShe’s just an old lady. The news comes on her birthday sometimes and takes her picture. Doctors like to look at her, but there ain’t nothing else. Your daddy is the famous one, silly. He makes movies.â€ť
â€śMaybe she will be famous after Tommy’s dad makes the movie about it. I bet they’ll show it at the theater in Flatwoods. I bet we’ll go and see it,â€ť said Jesse. He too pushed himself onto his back and began to float.
Tommy watched the birds light on the branches of trees above his head as he floated downriver. A woodpecker with a scarlet plume tapped his beak laboriously against a knotted oak. He listened to its rhythmic song and tried to remember the musty smell of his father’s garage.