The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Jewel’s room was nearly dark, but he could see the old dresser and the bureau, a tiny rocking chair and some toys scattered over the rug. The lace curtains that had flared out billowing in a black and storm-crazed spring night of his memory when the strobic lightning illuminated them struggling against each other on the bed now hung still and unmoving. There didn’t seem to be a breath of air in the room tonight.
He stripped off the condom and went down the hall to the bathroom where a small light was plugged into the wall socket and flushed it down the commode. Then he went back into the bedroom and lay down beside her again. The whiskey was sitting on the bedside table and he reached and got it and tilted a drink down his throat. She put her hand on his leg.
“Can you stay the night?” she said.
They listened to each other breathing in the darkness.
“Lord that was good,” she said. “It’s been so long. You don’t have to go.”
“I got to.”
“Will you come back?”
He didn’t answer that. He found his clothes in a pile on the floor and he sorted through them for a sock or an undershirt. They were tangled with her things.
“Don’t you want to see him?”
He paused and looked over his shoulder at her. “See him?”
“Yeah. I bet he’d like to see you.”
He pulled on his socks and slipped his shorts over his hips, remembering a big baby in a crib who had stared up at him with dark eyes beneath a cheap mobile that spun slowly, blue fairy horses with knurled horns on their heads, orange suns and yellow stars, little pink bunny rabbits. A silent child who looked like him.
He sat there and buttoned his shirt.
“Hell, he don’t know me.”
“He’s four. He knows you. I showed him the picture.”
“What the hell did you go and do that for?”
“I’ll go see if he’s awake,” she said. The lamp came on and he saw her arm pull back from it. She got up from the bed naked and pulled her robe off the chair nearby. She put it on and went barefoot out the door, down the darkened hall. He took another drink. It felt like something near death in here to him. He put the rest of his clothes on and combed his hair in front of the dresser next to the bed. When he turned to face a small noise at the bedroom door she was standing there holding the boy on her hip.
“There’s Daddy. See Daddy?” she said to him softly. He was not a baby anymore yet he looked small for his age. He fixed Glen with a look of intense interest and rubbed at one eye with a dimpled fist to see him better maybe.
“Ain’t he growed?” she said. “Look what a big boy.”
Watching this Glen reached and got the whiskey off the bedside table.
“Put him back in bed. It’s late.”
“I just wanted you to see him.”
“Take him back.”
She spun quickly and went down the hall almost running. Glen walked through the living room and out the front door. He stood on the porch and took another drink of the whiskey. Then he went and sat in the car and waited for her to come out.
He heard a noise. The screen door flapped faintly and she was a pale form moving rapidly across the black grass toward him. She bent down to the window and her voice had turned cold.
“Are you not going to stay with us? After all this time? I want you to see him. You get back out of that car.”
He didn’t turn to her, just looked out across the hood.
“I ain’t ready for that. I was still at Parchman last night if you know what I mean.”
She put her hand on his arm and he felt the strength in her fingers when she tightened her grip.
“I told you I need to talk to you. Does all this time I’ve waited not mean nothin to you? Trying to raise this baby by myself?”
“I got to go.”
“Don’t you leave me like this, Glen. You come back in here and you sit down and talk to me.”
He leaned back in the seat and looked at her. Her hair was loose and wild and the gown she’d slipped on was open at the top so that he could see her full breasts and her big nipples. All the nights he had dreamt of her and gone to sleep thinking about her, all the days in the cotton patches when only the thought of this night got him through, commanded him to get out of the car and take her hand and fall back into her bed and sleep with her and smell her hair and skin.
He reached forward and cranked the car, pulled the headlights on.
“I’ll see you later, Jewel,” he said, and let out on the clutch. She stepped back from the car and said some things, but by then he was going down the driveway and he didn’t bother to listen to whatever they were.
Virgil was asleep. He was naked in his bed and turned on his side. The Redbone puppy whined through the screen door and a lamp with a few moths batting around it showed the cigarette butts knocked from the ashtray and empty beer cans on the floor, a chewed paper. The news played on the TV screen unheard and the light flickered on his mangled body, the scars that ran up his back and the hole in the side of his leg where they had twisted the bayonet and probed his living flesh with wide grins to his howls for mercy. The marred hands composed now, at rest.
Glen crossed the room without looking at him much and turned on the hall light and went back to his old room. The Winchester was still there, leaning in the corner. He went to it and picked it up. The receiver and the barrel had some rust showing, but he pushed the release and shucked the slide halfway back easily. A green Remington showed itself at the ejection port, the brass softly shining in the breech. He rechambered it and turned the gun toward the bed and pumped it, the shells tossing and flipping onto the quilt with little muted thumps. He sat down and looked at them. Birdshot mostly, but the first one that had come out was 00 buckshot.
“Shit,” he said quietly. He stuck the buckshot back in and chambered it and uncocked the hammer and laid it on the bed. He got up and walked into the kitchen and turned on the light. Dirty plates and ruined scraps. Bugs crawling away. He started opening drawers. The first one had a broken glass in it, some bent spoons, a box of matches. He shut it and opened another one. What looked to be an ancient rubber and some big red shells. One was a 10-gauge. Two were three-inch magnums, 12-gauge. His gun was a 12 but it was an old 12 and he didn’t want to blow it up in his own face. He figured that’d be worse than getting shot.
“What do you want with these damn things?” he said to the room. He slammed the drawer and opened another one. Some old green bread was in there and a plate somebody had eaten off several years ago, looked like.
“Goddamn,” he said, and slammed that one too.
He moved to the other side of the sink where some of his mother’s dish towels were hanging on a little wooden rack. He took one and stuck it in his pocket and opened the last drawer. There were four rounds of 12-gauge buckshot in there on a saucer. He picked them up and looked at them. They looked like they’d shoot. There was some dried dog shit on the floor. He guessed the Redbone puppy had been coming in some. The linoleum was torn and scuffed, ripped loose in places. The room was full of dead plants in pots. He turned the light off and walked out.
In the bedroom he picked up the gun by the stock and slipped the shells in one at a time, pushing them up with his thumb. He checked it one more time to see that one was in the chamber, then turned off the light and went back up the hall.
In his sleep, his father looked like some huge broken mannequin. Glen studied the gun in his hands and remembered when it used to hang above the kitchen door. It had been in canebrakes and the deep jungle woods of coons on steaming nights with spotted dogs leaping and howling and trying to climb the trees with their toenails, men standing in water amid cypress knees, men with flashlights in their hands searching in the vine-choked growth of leaves and poison ivy above for two red eyes. It had been in river bottoms on mornings when ice cracked underfoot and the sudden yammering of dogs came through the woods gaining decibels and the deer broke free from the cover and rocketed 40 feet in a second. It had been held beneath beech trees on foggy mornings when the squirrels moved and shook the dew from the branches or paused in profile to hull a hickory nut with their rasping teeth, little showers of shredded matter pattering softly down through the leaves to scatter on the forest floor. Or mornings when nothing came and the cold was a vivid pain that held him shivering in its grip and the gun was an ache in his naked hands where he sat huddled with misery in some gloomy copse of hardwood timber.
He cocked the hammer now and swung the barrel up to his father’s head and held the black and yawning muzzle of it an inch away. He tightened his fingers on the checkered pistol grip. The old man slept on, father and son. Some sense of foreboding told him to pull back and undo all of this before it was done. Yet he put his finger on the trigger, just touched it. He already knew what it would look like.
Virgil moved in his sleep, made a small sound almost like a cough. The puppy whined outside. The house was quiet but for that.
He raised the barrel and caught the hammer with his thumb and eased back on the trigger, letting it down. He went out the door, lighting a cigarette, hurrying.
Sometime during the night somebody had pinned the monkey to the bar with an ice pick through the thorax and it lay there atrophied with its palms upward like Christ in His final agony. Several people had put out cigarettes on it. Somebody had bought it a drink. Somebody had cut off its tail.
Barlow had two whores and an old fisherman left. The whores were trying to get the fisherman to put them up in the hotel in Pine Springs but the fisherman had to go fishing at six in the morning and Barlow was getting tired of hearing about it. He’d sent Rufus out to the road with the garbage and now Rufus came back through the door and walked straight to the bar.
“Somebody out by the road,” he said.
“It look like Glen Davis. Can you pay me?”
“Pay you?” Barlow stirred himself erect and glared at him. “Goddamn. Pay you?”
Rufus nodded. “It’s been since last Friday.”
Barlow reached over for a fifth of Wild Turkey and poured some in his glass. He reached into a tub of ice at his knee and dumped some in the whiskey. He pointed.
“You see my damn monkey?”
Rufus looked at the thing with distaste. “I see him. He ain’t gone bite nobody else.”
“He bit you one time, didn’t he?”
“That’s right, he did.”
“I bet you ain’t even sorry the son of a bitch is dead. Are you, Rufus?”
“Naw. I ain’t sorry.”
“You probly glad the son of a bitch is dead. Ain’t you, Rufus?”
“That’s right, I am.”
“Well I ain’t,” Barlow said, and threw back about half the drink.
“You sure it’s him?”
“I know it’s him.”
Rufus watched the people in the bar and leaned his elbows next to the whiskey. He leaned a little closer and lowered his voice. “I’ll go eat me some supper. I’ll come back later but I need to get paid fore I go home.”
The whores and the fisherman were still arguing. Barlow looked at the monkey for a while and then opened the register. He went into the tens and pulled out five of them and folded the money and passed it to Rufus, who stuck it in his pocket and then slipped out the side door with one high backward wave of his hand.
“Well, well,” Barlow said in a quiet voice. There was a little shelf right beneath the register that had been specially built. He eased out the gun and opened the cylinder and checked that all six chambers were loaded. He did these things unseen, below the level of the bar. It had been a slow day anyway. The Corps of Engineers had opened the gates of the dam at Sardis and people were yanking the catfish out around the clock. He spun the cylinder and closed it, then cocked the weapon and held it on the fat whore, who looked at it and saw it like a snake coiled at her elbow.
“Get the hell out of here,” he said. “Git.”
They cleared out fast. Their cars cranked outside and gravel crunched under the tires. He heard them leave and then there was nothing but silence. He lifted his drink and held the pistol. He listened hard. A few minutes passed. He thought he saw movement on the porch and he raised the pistol and pointed it. There was only silence. The lights were on all around him. He jumped up to knock them out with the barrel of the pistol and the window exploded in upon him.
Glen waited in the weeds for the longest time. He saw Rufus come down the drive with the garbage in the truck and he stepped back out of the headlights’ glare but maybe not far enough. Rufus got out of the truck, dumped the garbage, came back. Glen thought about shooting him then, even drew down on him for a moment, then realized he couldn’t do it and pulled the shotgun down. He watched Rufus drive back, saw him walk in, saw him talking, saw him leave. Straight across the cotton patch walking. Then the other cars left. He lay flat while they drove past.
The dogs said nothing as he came up, just moved out of the way, tails down. He stepped soundlessly up on the porch and moved toward the window as Barlow raised the pistol. He stepped back and Barlow reached up with the barrel as if to shoot out the lights a few feet above him. He stepped back in front of the window and cocked the hammer and let off the first shot, which pulverized the window and blew Barlow back against the ranked bottles behind the bar and shattered the mirror. Barlow hung there for a second, then his gun hand came down and a bullet blew by Glen’s ear. Glen pumped his and fired and pumped it and fired and Barlow fired a shot into the floor and sagged down out of sight. A shard of glass swung, tinkled, fell.
Rufus had a small shack across the bottom and up the hill and he had a regular trail that he used to go back and forth from his house to the beer joint. The trail wound beside a big cotton patch and through part of a pasture and there was a footlog he used to cross a shallow creek where bullfrogs sat and sang and he was jogging like a dog now in a slow lope, his feet raising dust in the black air. There was a ridge off to the southwest that was covered with pines and as he ran he could see the porch light from his house shining between the trees. He slowed to cross the footlog and hushed the singing frogs and turned up the hill, his tennis shoes dropping softly in the needles and on the little stones that littered the path. He ran easily, breathing steadily, the sweat coiling down his back and his arms slowly pumping. His dog yapped once and growled and he yelled for it to be quiet as he drew nearer. At the crest of the hill he slowed to a walk and put his hands on his hips. He could see Lucinda on the porch still shelling peas. She’d been there all day and there was some ungodly number of peas in a washtub beside her.
He walked up to the porch and stood there for a second. She didn’t look up.
“You still shellin them peas?”
She sat with her dark legs spread and a big dishpan nestled in the hollow sling her dress made between her massive thighs. She was throwing the hulls into some grocery sacks scattered around her.
“Ain’t had nobody to help me,” she said.
“What about them younguns?”
“Them younguns in the bed.”
Her lower lip was pooched out and she gave an enormous sigh but her fingers never stopped their steady motions. He knew she’d heard the shots.
“What’s all that mess down there?” she said.
He turned his head and looked into the black woods for a moment.
“White folks’ business,” he said, and stepped up on the porch and went inside. The dog came up out of the yard and climbed the porch and sniffed at the peas and sniffed at the hulls and then it sniffed at Lucinda’s bare toes and licked one of her feet.
“Git on outta here you old soup bone,” she said, and the dog sat. Rufus came back out with a glass of iced tea and sat down on the top step with his pipe and a small tin of Prince Albert. Lucinda sat there shelling their peas.
“I wish you’d git some other place to work,” she said. “All them drunks down there. He don’t do nothin but lay drunk hisself. Don’t pay you nothin.”
Rufus was loading his pipe. “I know it,” he said. He got it loaded and pulled a kitchen match from his pocket and struck it on a board beside him and lit the pipe, drawing deep on it, holding the flame over it, until he shook the match out and dropped it in the yard. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the money and kept ten and handed the rest to her. She took it and looked at it. He puffed on his pipe and scratched the back of his head.
“Is that it?”
“Huh. You think we gonna feed them younguns on that? You bed not go back down yonder tonight neither. You hear me?”
Rufus didn’t answer. He had heard the separate and distinct concussions of the pistol and the shotgun as they spoke to each other. It was plain to him that the shotgun had spoken last and he knew he had to go back.
The door was open and the lights were on when Rufus mounted the porch. He looked past the dead monkey whose fur was speckled with glass dust, tiny points of light shining, saw the blood on the wall and the holes in the wall and the shattered bottles and mirror. He looked at the front of the bar and saw the splintered wood. There was no sound and he began to wish he had listened to his woman.
He went forward into the room on quiet feet, but he was very conscious of the noise he made as the floorboards creaked. The register was opened and robbed, the chrome clamps that held the bills pressed down all standing straight up. He was afraid to lean over and see what was behind the bar because he knew already what he would find. Knowing didn’t help because he still had to look at him, so he looked. Barlow was on the floor behind the bar. He couldn’t see all of him. He could see the bloodied sleeve on one arm, and part of his bloody head, and one twisted leg.
A board creaked behind him, a chair kicked over.
Rufus froze and said, “I don’t mess in no white folks’ business.”
A strange moan came from behind the bar. He heard with full clarity the cocking of a hammer, the thin tiny click that was loud in that hushed place, like the tick of the clock in your room just before sleep.
Barlow’s eyes were full of blood and he couldn’t find his gun. Things were still dripping on him and he could feel the blood cooling on his clothes. Blood sucked in and out of one nostril with a little congested sound. Some splinters on one of the boards were digging into his cheek, but he didn’t move. He heard the door open, the steps come closer. He lay still, his eyes open. He held his breath.
Something hard prodded his shoulder, his head. He felt two feet straddle him. Then the bell on the register rang and he heard the drawer roll open, the flicking of the little metal arms, the feet removing themselves from over him. The lid on one of the coolers opened and somebody lifted a beer out and didn’t close it. He heard the bottle being opened, a long sucking bubbling. Must have really hit the spot. Then the steps moved away and around in front of the bar and off to the left of the door where one table sat back almost hidden in a corner. He let his breath out. His fingers explored the sticky wood but still they felt no weapon and he was weak and laboring by now to breathe so he concentrated on lying still and listening. For a while there was nothing to hear, but then a chair creaked, a body settled. The light was bright over him and it was a puzzle to him how he knew that.
His last thoughts were memories, a time in 1956 when he got two flats on his car and had to walk four miles. He stopped at a house for a drink of water and a blind old man was there on the front porch in a rocker. The blind man wouldn’t talk to him. He asked for water and the old man simply lifted his hand and pointed to a log shed beside the house. There was a pump with a long handle in there and a sluice and some canned goods arrayed on shelves. It was cool and dark in there and on a stone slab stood a quart fruit jar of water with which to prime the pump. It primed easily: he could remember the water welling up out of the earth into the pipe and rising up from the spout into the sluice and cascading down the trough, clean, clear, cold. He bent his sweating face to the water and drank long from it, wetted his head and his neck and hands and arms. In the deep shade of the trees in the yard he looked around. There were birds and a breeze. Sanctuary. He thanked the old man before resuming his walk in the sun but the old man only sat there with his opaque eyes and his impassive face like somebody made out of wood.
He wished now for another drink of that good water. He heard somebody come in and he moaned, couldn’t help it, heard Rufus say he didn’t mess in white folks’ business and then he died.
Larry Brown was born in Oxford, Mississippi. He is the author of Facing the Music, Dirty Work, Big Bad Love, Joe, and On Fire. Brown is the recipient of the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Literature and the 1992 Southern Book Critics’ Circle Award for fiction. His most recent novel, Father and Son, is out this fall from Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.