He hoped his voice wouldn’t change tonight. “Old Man River” was coming up and he could do the accent, the bent back, the glory-struck expression. He knew how to use the whites of his teeth and eyes. He might very well—if he felt the song rolling and he got in safe—be able to cry. There were a few people he’d like to stun. His mother, for one, who sat off to the side and played the high school piano. Miss Mathinson, his fifth grade teacher, was another. She had nodded and clapped her long noiseless hands after he’d sung and tap-danced his way through “Mississippi Mud,” accompanied by his friends—Cub Scout Den 43, Hillcrest Drive—at his back.His friends too, he’d like to stun them. They were all dressed the same—blackfaced and black barefooted, black stockings over their crewcuts, red bandanas around their necks, ragged long-sleeve shirts his mother had daubed with mud, and jeans patched for the occasion—but they were in it for the arrow points which they’d get whether they won the competition or not. All they’d had to do was hum and beat their feet for “Mississippi Mud ” and now to hum and sway and pull on a rope for ’ ’Old Man River.’’ But Dick wanted to give them a taste of real feeling, real tragic suffering. They looked like a line of whipped little monkeys, blacked up as they were. They didn’t even know how to keep time. Waldeck and Conklin looked especially dumb , as if they’d just woken up and wondered where they were. He wanted to put them in the River, in the rhythm of captive life. He wanted to put the whole huge gymful of people there.
But if his voice changed . . . He wasn’t sure what it meant, that phrase. It had the vagueness of a whispered adult future about it, at least as his mother used it. ” We ’ ll have to see when your voice changes ... ” she would say, referring to a song she might teach him. “Yours will probably change soon, then we’ll see . . . ” From what to what? Would his voice get lower, rougher, handsomer? Would he open his mouth and grunt? Would his mother tell him in time so that when he stood in front of an audience he would be able to hit a note without transposing an octave, as she called it, without that awful clunking switch? But there was something in her tone—and in her failure to soften, brighten, or even finish the phrase—that made Dick believe that “voice” and that doleful word he heard at school, “character,” were the same. When his character changed . . . When he was walking along with his ten year old voice and character and the earth opened and took them under and gave him back—if he wasn’t swallowed up himself—another voice and another character that might fit in with nothing he had known . . .