he long night stretched out its dark fingers, a voracious spectre taking hold of the struggling daylight. A distant train whistled its triune call through the blackness. The days had dwindled to their shortest span, and glistening frost in the mornings did little to gladden the gray. The crisp fragrance of chill air sharpened all the townsfolk’s senses. Poncey sighed, and he could see his breath in his apartment.
Poncey glared at the ceiling. He had little reason to crawl out from under his covers. No job called him, and no prospects encouraged him to care. So he vented his silent rage upon the ceiling. He recalled a time as a small boy when he lay on his back in his bed, admiring a toy ring upon his finger, a trinket he’d won at the state fair. Then the ceiling had interrupted his bliss by dropping a piece of grit into his eye, as if giving notice that he should never expect to be happy. Poncey looked away.
The new day stared at him like a blank piece of paper. At that moment Poncey knew where he was; once he stepped out of bed, he wouldn’t know. A broad day promising only distracted ambitions mocked him already. He lurched to his side and yanked the covers up over his shoulder. He hated lying there awake, but he hated more the idea of getting up with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Nobody cared if he slept or awoke; nobody required or even desired his time and presence. He listened to the clock in the living room mark the quarter hour with its cheap electronic chime. This day offered no more direction for him than a map of the ocean floor.
Mavis knew where she’d be that day, Poncey thought, toiling away at the Diner as usual. Ol’ man Ryan and Snodgrass, and Jip the barber, busied themselves in their stores as well, as did an army of people with jobs at all the little businesses lining Main Street. Poncey knew too where his father was, at the rail yards, as he had been every day since he was sixteen. Each morning at five he arrived there for a full days’ work, sometimes even when he was supposed to be off. Almost half his day was done already. But he’d probably stay late – listening to the musical clank of the couplings, watching the rails bend under the weight of the behemoth locomotives then rising again as if nothing had happened – hanging out with both workers and loiterers in the yard for discarded box cars. His love for the railroad would keep him happily engaged till the day’s cold dusk crept into his bones. Poncey even knew where Mack would be, tucked somewhere inside a sanctuary, a refuge never even noticed by most everyone else. Poncey longed for work, or inspiration, or something that would end his wandering, and he lay in a bed of bitter frustration at the injustice of his forced leisure.
At length he could no longer deny the day, and angrily swung his feet over the edge of the grimy mattress. Both landed squarely on Judas’ tail, faithfully lounging on the floor, and the dog’s piercing squeal shocked Poncey’s attention into surprising clarity. Judas whipped around and snapped at his ankles, and in a panic wet the floor – it seemed like the thing to do – even as Poncey rolled clumsily back and to the side, then finally off the bed altogether. Judas skittered away from his tumbling hulk, and Poncey lay like a beached whale next to the puddle. Judas whined, scratching at the front door with a pensive look. Poncey thought if he didn’t do something quick to lance this futile infection, he would bust.
He thrust open the door of his apartment building, and Judas dragged him out by the leash. Poncey stumbled down the steps and nearly tripped over a pair of legs splayed across the walk, toes pointed skyward. The ragged trousers barely clung to the man’s waistline, a rotund belly rising proudly between his belt and stained shirt. A threadbare jacket gathered under his arms, and a wrinkled tie finished off the ensemble, leading Poncey’s eyes to the bedraggled face of Otis Bender, the town’s most consistent drinker, lying halfway beneath the hedge. His nose bore a tinge of frost. Somewhat cradled in one arm was his jar, just a swallow of clear liquid still rolling slightly in its gentle curve, rocked by each torpid breath. Otis was never seen without his jar, usually more empty than not. A yeasty alcohol smell had Judas dancing away, whimpering at his restraint, and Poncey’s brain felt like it had been hit by a rum muffin. He gazed upon the rumpled man, nestled comfortably on the scrabbly grass, serene upon the brick he used as a pillow.
Even Otis has a place to go, Poncey thought. He’s got an early start at his job, too, he thought, and wondered if Otis had lain down in the shrubbery at the same time his father had gone to the rail yards, as though they were changing shifts. Poncey wondered where Otis got the money for his ’shine, and where he got the ’shine in the first place. Supply always meets demand, even in a dry county, he thought; there needs to be some demand for me. Poncey’s disgust arose in his throat – I need something so bad it’s killing me, I’ve got to have something – and he thought about giving Bender a swift kick just for spite. A siren wailed urgently from the direction of the highway.
I hate this town, Poncey thought, and he was sure nobody had ever hated his own town more than he hated Skullbone. He dragged Judas past every tree and hydrant as he bulled his way down Main Street. A fierce focus burned from his eyes, as if hoping to find something in front of him despite looking at nothing. An image of one of his father’s beloved steam locomotives, glowing red with heat, entered his head and worked its way down into his legs and tenacious stride. He almost didn’t hear the voice from the heavens.
“What’s buggin’ you?”
Poncey stopped like he’d walked into a wall and blankly stared ahead. His mouth hung open for a moment as he wondered how foolish he might look if he asked the voice something.
“Just what’s buggin’ you down there, Poncey?”
“Who’s that?” he ventured. The familiar tones sounded too country-fried for evil, but the TV evangelists always talked about Satan’s deceitful ways, and that made Poncey nervous. That’s all he needed today, a demonic trick. It crossed his mind that he might be going crazy. But seeing Judas gratefully sniff around the weeds at the foot of a stop sign comforted him with its reality. Perhaps he was about to receive an intervention. Poncey shaded his eyes against the sun and scanned the sky for the voice’s source. He could not deny his disappointment when he spotted a faded pair of red sneakers peaking over the edge of the nearest building, an abandoned general store.
Nando Jones was a Jewish merchant who had built a little retail empire over the decades with the cheapest junk he could find. Originally Chaim Liebovitz, in the days of Jim Crow he catered to the black community in Memphis because nobody else would, and chose a professional name his customers could pronounce and remember. Nando’s business plan bore no real fondness for his patrons, but allowed that their cash was the same color as anyone’s. He learned that community’s unique desires and needs, and made a small fortune providing for them. Nando Jones Sundries grew so successful that the old man built stores in select small towns all around West Tennessee. Though his inventory was the worst money could buy, he wanted his stores to project class, so they all featured a garish Victorian-style sign propped upon the roof, adorned with pronounced cornices and gracefully curving flourishes. Unfortunately, in Skullbone the store had floundered, and by now the building had stood vacant for decades, too large for any other business to fill. The sign still proudly declared the original owner, and within one of the decorations – lilting like a huge wood shaving – the stringy body of Mack MacLenoly lay wedged, like a supine gargoyle. He had claimed squatter’s rights to the building as one of his bizarre hideaways.
“What’re you doin’ up there?”
“Watchin’ you. You’re draggin’ Judas aroun’ like he’s one a’ them stuffed dogs.”
“I wish he was stuffed.”
“Well, better to pull aroun’ a dead dog than gettin’ chased by a lion, I guess. What’s eatin’ at you?”
“Come go to the Diner with me.”
Mack slid down a gutter spout. Together they sauntered the last few blocks to the Diner as Poncey vented his frustration. After twisting Judas’ leash around an expired parking meter, Poncey struggled with the Diner’s door for a moment before getting it open, and scowled at the merry jingling as the bell announced them.
“Sorry, sweetie. Been meanin’ to get that latch fixed,” Mavis Davis said from behind the counter.
“Only in Skullbone would you find a doorknob like that,” Poncey snarled, mounting his stool.
Part 2 of 3 of “Madness in their Hearts” is coming up later this week.
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Craig Davis has written three novels and a new collection of short stories, “A Time for Poncey.” Born and bred in Memphis – the land of Elvis and pork bbq, although neither ever did him any good – he worked for 20 years in newspapers as a columnist, designer, artist and cartoonist. He is father to two grown daughters and owns a dog that refuses to grow up.
His submissions to Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.