At 4:00 a.m. desperate dreamers come awake screaming, tormented by nightmare-clotted brains. On any given morning, but not then in Lenny’s household, lights burned in the houses of the forlorn at 4:00 a.m., the peak hour of the emotional wasteland.
Long before the sunrise in any given year in any given place, the troubled walked, jogged, and tried to burn away anxiety on pavements, in gyms, on stationery bicycles, on sidewalks, at tracks near schools. Or they paced like caged ocelots in their small rooms.
Lenny had not yet met a prostitute, but he would meet many. He did not know then that 4:00 a.m. is the hour when streetwalkers quit for the night. He had not yet met priests who doubted God and called on the Almighty at 4:00 a.m. for a sign, but he would. The only drugs he knew about were the ones Doc Bennett gave him, but in time he would be offered plenty of recreational drugs. He did not yet know addicts, formerly innocent boys and girls, who would find their stash empty at 4:00 a.m. Whiskey had not burned down his young throat, but it would soon enough. In an era when a speedball was just a ball going fast, he did not know heroin addicts passing into oblivion at 4:00 a.m., sleeping in places they would not recognize when awaken bewildered in the painful sick morning. He did not know the dead - although he now believed in death for the first time because of his grandmother’s viewing and his grandfather dead in the cold gutter.
4:00 a.m. is for the lost an hour without hope, without music, without song, except perhaps the blues, music he had not yet truly heard. 4:00 a.m. is a time when a father strikes his daughter, a wife curses the man she loves, perhaps her husband, and children hate parents. It is the peak hour of desolation. It is a time when thieves count what they have stolen and find they have come-up short. It is the hour of being alone and sleepless in a cold void. It is and was and will always be the time when a siren from an accident or a crime bestirs the sleeping brainstem. It is the hour when the adult in the bed beside you moans terribly and you wonder who it is you are sleeping with or if they will harm you. It is the hour when things die, when you die. It is the time when husbands or wives roll over and beg spouses, even if they are tired of them or hate them or are in love with someone else, to make love in order to calm jumping, twitching neurons; dreaming instead of the other beloved, the one they cannot have.
At this hour on highways, living things are struck by truck drivers barreling their rigs in darkness; flesh left behind bloodied and mangled while wheels sing a loud humming song of death on asphalt highways, echoing across the vast emptiness to where the hopeless toss and turn, imprisoned in their torturous beds. Hot and cold, sweaty and clammy, covered and uncovered, the bedeviled toss, while trains cross America, making up for lost time, their lonely whistles coming and receding, rattling wheels at crossings, humming on the rails, life on the move, death not so much. And planes are ripping through the air, roaring ascent or whistling downward to their destinations. Electricity crackles on high-tension lines, and distant transformers explode in the stillness. While on suburban streets it is quiet, except for the tap tap tap trotting of the pads of a lone dog or the shriek of something caught.
It was the hour when Lenny could not stay asleep any longer, because death came to his house, came to his family. He had ben put back in the room where the crazy woman had suffered and where he feared the appearance of her ghost, a room he no longer wanted to sleep within, a prison in fact. In the 1950’s, in a Florida suburb at the edge of the sea, on any given night at 4:00 a.m., the blameless slept, but no longer Lenny.
A solitary bark from a wandering dog pierced his sleep, as did the sound of a car turning onto the street, likely Sheriff Eddie Taylor's police cruiser or the car bringing the newspaper to be tossed (plop, plop, plop, plop) onto the asphalt driveways of the now crowded subdivision around the house his father built. Sprinklers chattered in the process of keeping lawns green, and sprinkler water drummed loudly on garage doors.
Some nights, he attempted to return into the safety of his parents' bedroom, where he curled protected from death against the safe warmth of his father. The tune Rebel Rouser ran through his head; a rocking melody from Dwayne Eddy. There was no place in his world then more secure than sleeping beside his father and nothing to put him to sleep faster than Rebel Rouser. Although being beside Len never failed to put Lenny to asleep, he was too old for this, his father objected, and he was expelled from the garden.
Ejected from the security of his parents’ bed, sometimes he slept on the throw rug beside his father’s side of the bed. True, Lenny had been on the hard floor and listened as an inadvertent spy on his parents’ throes of love, but it was not clear to him yet what he was hearing. Nonetheless he was cast out of their bedroom floor, for he was to be manly, not a frightened baby.
Lenny walked the lightless house alone in the quietude of early morning. The only sounds: his father's snoring, the ever present ticking of clocks, the occasional ringing of bells on the cat's collar when it scratched at a flea, and the rising of grandmother Catherine and her treading unsteadily along the hallway, hands touching the walls for guidance the entire way, for one of her many nightly, unproductive trips to the bathroom, he trip lighted only by a flashlight beam.
One evening Catherine bumped into Lenny, a startling so severe that she said it nearly gave her a heart attack. Her scream so loud brought his father at the run.
So the child Lenny abandoned his home to the night terrors and commenced wandering outside. He was more afraid of his own bedroom, where the ghost of his crazed maternal grandmother might lurk because he had failed her in prayer, than he was of the unknown outer night world with wild creatures moved and bats flew.
He left the door to his house unlocked, for he had no key, returning undetected before sunrise. He might return to his bed and sleep late into the morning, if it were summer or a weekend. If school was in session, he slept what little he could and was difficult to raise. He consequently made up for sleep in class and his normally high grades dropped.
He never needed a key to get back into his home because he was let in after school or the door was unlocked. A single push button, not a series of deadbolts, locked the house; but the button was only pushed by Catherine at her bedtime, otherwise the house remained unlocked. It happened one night, upon finding the door unlocked that Catherine locked Lenny out, but the backdoor was not locked.
Less than a half-mile away form home, he wandered the darkness of the Walton’s immense yard. He looked out upon the dark bay on nights when the bay was still and nights when it was frothy, and he heard the familiar wind singing an ancient song through the clumps of bamboo.
Miles into town and miles along the bay front he wandered, sometimes barefoot, down sidewalks and roadsides sparse with cars. The Chapacola Diner, replaced since by a twenty-four-hour drug store, was then the only business open all night within fifty miles. The diner never closed, not even for Christmas. At the police station, lights went off around midnight, and the lone dispatcher slept on a cot, awakened only by emergency radio calls or the ringing phone carrying weird complaints from nutty folks of prowlers, peeping Toms, UFOs, the neighbor's music, wild parties, reckless drivers - while the lights of the diner glowed beacon-like through rain and fog and on clear nights.
Behind the diner stood an enormous mound of glistening white objects, like bones; these were the shells of shucked bay oysters served raw at the diner. Like the long gone Indians who had lived in the area, the diner owner was building a shell mound that reeked of bay bottom.
Tunes from the diner's jukebox wafted through nearby portions of the empty downtown, while the diner's gaudy lights shown into the regional general hospital across the street, where the sick and operated upon lived or died. In heavy fogs, the diner stood out brighter than the hospital, bright enough to guide slow drivers across the rickety wooden bridge over the river.
Sounds of The Tennessee Waltz, Patti Page, The Platters, and Fats Domino floated into the night, while the aroma of foods, particularly of bacon, came through the front glass door when it opened.
Heavenly shades of night are falling
It's twilight time
In summer and most of winter, the diner's wide delivery doors hung propped open to let out the cooking and dishwashing heat. In the kitchen’s blazing light, a large, barrel-shaped, black fry cook might be seen dressed in dirty khaki pants and a white T-shirt, his massive belly partially exposed, a man perhaps of three hundred pounds. Sweat dripped from the fry cook's broad forehead and seeped through his clothing. The dishwasher, a skinny black man, likewise dressed in khaki pants and a white undershirt, smoked cigarettes between batches of plates, silverware, pots, cups, glasses, pans, and trays. The two black men bickered over work, taunted each other over imagined slights, and insulted each other to fill the long nightshift. The diner's owner, Blue Fenton, at times a robed leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, was as fat as the fry cook; only his giant protruding belly was white. Blue arrived unannounced before the dawn for inspection, always hoping to find the dishwasher asleep. Blue's loud shriek of "Henry!" sometimes startled the dishwasher into wakefulness, an event that never failed to amuse the fry cook. Besides bacon, the smells were of sausage, eggs, fried steak, sweets, and rich gravies. Omelets were made with oysters, scallops, or shrimp, ham and cheese, and served with buttery grits, cheese grits, toasts, buttery hash browns, ham, and pancakes with thick, slow-pouring maple syrup, consumed by hungry truck drivers passing through and early rising or sleepless locals. All these smells and the rich aroma of coffee mixed in the night air, while the putrefying remains in the dumpster gave off an awful odor more offensive than the mound of oyster shells. To the dumpsters came the raccoons and sometimes bears.
On weekends, late revelers came to the diner before the dawn. These were usually kids on the end of their dates. Among the teenagers, Lenny sometimes saw Travis with different teenage girls and Ann in the company of one young boy or another, but he never saw Ann and Travis together again. She came and went in the cars of boys with her arms around their shoulders, and she hung onto their hands when walking to and from the diner. Sometimes she stumbled, sometimes she was giddy and laughed too loudly, and at other times she seemed subdued and unhappy. Boys lit cigarettes for her, and everyone smoked. Boys opened car doors for her. He thought Ann never saw him, but he was wrong.
Commercial fishermen were among the early morning crowds seven days a week who ate breakfast at the diner. Camouflaged hunters also arrived before the sunrise on early Saturdays and Sundays to have a breakfast before killing deer, hogs, and turkey. On operating mornings, three healers gathered at the diner to drink pre-operation coffee, although Doc Bennett sometimes drank strong, hot tea as if he were English. Bennett put honey in his tea or coffee, tupelo honey, if they had it. The doctors talked of their patients' odds of survival, told medical jokes, discussed medical accidents (such as removing the wrong diabetic foot), complained about patients who could not or did not pay, and spoke of wifely extravagances. Doc Bennett bragged of his poker winnings; Lenny knew this was true from his father’s reports of the games at Feeney House. Lenny listened with a warm ear pressed against the cold window glass, wet from the condensation on the air-conditioned glass in summer and cold as ice in winter. Lenny was struck by his physician’s easy acceptance of medical accidents and death, at least in others, and Doc’s pride over making a few extra dollars off of wealthy gamblers who lacked wisdom.
Truck drivers read newspapers and studied maps before driving to western or eastern obscurity on US-98. Truckers played the jukebox and talked road conditions and highway patrol. They came and left and some came again, while Lenny was stuck in limbo.
All I want is a party doll, played the jukebox.
To come along with me when I'm feeling wild.
To be ever loving, true and fair.
To run her fingers through my hair.
Come along and be my party doll.
Come along and be my party doll.
Come along and be my party doll.
And I'll make love to you, to you.
I'll make love to you.
Lenny saw mysterious things that he couldn’t understand. Outside a bar called The Blue Flame, the barber’s son, Frankie Angle, ran by Lenny, blood running from his broken nose. The Blue Flame, a bar for African American men, was a favorite haunt for freckle-faced, redheaded Frankie. A female taxi driver, who dressed like a man and had her black hair cut short, parked her car with her female fares near the Avenue D Dock. The fares she parked with were never men. Avenue D Dock was an active area, where men drove cars to meet women, who drove their own cars. A woman living in the Fleetwood Apartments opened the door of her apartment, while dressed only in a robe, and let out a different man most mornings. And then there was Flora Taylor, wife of Hamilton Taylor, Attorney, mother of Ham Bone Taylor, classmate; she stood naked and silhouetted against her bedroom windowpane, and without bothering to dress drove her car fast through Chapacola Estates in hopes of being stopped by the police; and she was stopped time and again. Family friend, Deputy Eddie Taylor, said with a hearty laugh to Lenny’s father that he stopped Flora as often as he could.
The dripping faucet in the bathroom became a locomotive roaring down on the family’s house. The sound changed from a deadly locomotive into the swirling wind of a tornado. The powerful tornado came and blew apart the house and carried Lenny up into the sky. Where he landed was not Oz, but a cold, dark place where he was trapped with no exit.
Doc Bennett mused to his parents that Lenny’s nocturnal wanderings were not mental illness but merely a sign of a very intelligent, restless, imaginative, and overly sensitive child. Of course, Len or Bernice could take him to a psychiatrist, which would cost a pretty penny, and they'd probably have to take him to the big city, like Margaret had taken Ann when she cut her wrist, but it wouldn't do much good either.
“The boy will grow out of it," the healer declared, and Bennett advised a simpler solution.
When Lenny was called to dinner, his mother rang a cowbell so she didn't have to shout for him, and the bell could be heard clearly a half-mile away at Todd's house. Doc Bennett advised attaching cowbells to household doors. When, one morning before operating, Bennett spied Lenny walking the streets by the diner, he assumed the cowbells had not been hung. He was wrong. The windows had easily removed screens.