Read part 1 of “Madness in their Hearts” here.
hat’s buggin’ you, sugarpie?”
“He’s ticked,” Mack offered.
“I didn’t even tell you about Otis yet,” Poncey groused. “I nearly broke a leg tripping over him this morning. Took his beauty rest in my front yard last night.”
“Asleep with his jar?”
“That’s right. Cuddlin’ with it like a wife.”
“It’s like he’s married to drinkin’,” said Mack. “It’s like that’s his job.”
“That’s just what I said,” Poncey grunted. “It’s the thing that keeps him goin’, an’ it’ll keep him goin’, right up until it lays him in his grave. Otis knows exactly what he’s about every day and every night.”
“But not ’zactly where he’ll be sleepin’.”
“A bed’s a bed, even if it’s a flower bed,” winked Mavis through a haze of cigarette smoke, and poured coffee.
Poncey gruffly returned to the subject at hand: “How come Otis wastes his life an’ comes out so fat an’ happy? Why does he get to be happy? He pours out his whole life into that jar of his, an’ he’s not sorry about it one bit. He’s happy with just havin’ nothin’, an’ I can’t catch a break no matter how hard I try.”
“How hard you been tryin’?”
“Shut up. You got no room to talk, squirreled away on rooftops all day long! I got important stuff to do, an’ if I don’t get to soon, I’m gonna snap!”
“I got great things to do, too, honeypot. I serve up the best pie in the territory!” Mavis chimed in with an enticing smile.
“Yeah, right!” Poncey made a point of not asking for any. “An’ what do you get paid for it? A couple bucks? I’m serious – I got great things in me, an’ I’m gonna be paid for it, an’ paid well. If nobody else gets it, if they’re too stupid to see, then it’s their tough luck. If they’re not payin’, they’re getting’ nothin’ good from me!”
“So it ain’t worth doin’ if you ain’t paid a lot?” Mavis planted a fist on her hip.
“Otis don’t get paid. He just does his thing for the love of it,” Mack noted.
“That’s right. It’s offensive, to me an’ to everyone. An’ if I can’t do what I want an’ get appreciated, then I feel like I’m gonna hafta offend everyone!”
“Might hafta do that for free, like Otis,” Mack said.
“If you wanna get paid so bad, whyn’t you get a job at the rail yard, sweet pea?” Mavis turned back to her own work. “Bet your dad could fix you up.”
“Oh, no!” Poncey laughed in ridicule. “That may be good enough for him, but not me! Pap may be happy stuck in that daily grind, but it’s not for me! I need more than pushing around a giant toy train to attain my potential.”
“Well, you seem to have it all figured out ’cept for what’s buggin’ you an’ how to fix it an’ what to do after that,” Mavis blew a hard stream of smoke.
“I figure it out, don’t you worry.”
“You be sure to tell me, baby cakes.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Ain’t you gonna buy anything?”
“I’ll have eggs an’ toast,” Mack said.
“Comin’ right up, honeychile. I sure ’preciate you buyin’ my toast. I’ll hafta charge you extra, ’cause it’s the best toast in the land.”
Mack snickered at that, and Poncey turned his back to the prattling. Mavis continued.
“Yessir, folks come from miles aroun’ to get my toast. An’ it’s no wonder, what with all the skill that goes into makin’ it. Best toast anywhere. Funny thing ’bout folks, sugar, is some of ’em like their toast light, an’ others like it dark, an’ some even likes it medium. It takes a worl’ a’ skill to get toast jus’ right. An’ then butter – whooee! No tellin’ what kinda butter an’ stuff folks like on their toast. Jelly an’ jam an marmalade – we ain’t got marmalade! Some of ’em even take it plain! Plain an’ dry as dust. Why is that, Mack? What is it ’bout folks make ’em all like their toast differ’nt?”
“I don’t know nothin’ ’bout that. If you wanna know, you just wait for Poncey, he’ll tell you ’ventually.”
“What do you mean by that?” Poncey wheeled around to face Mack.
“You’re always goin’ off gettin’ learned up ’bout stuff nobody with a sane thought would ever care ’bout.”
“Oh, you’re funny. You callin’ me insane?”
“Folks’re bound to do what they’ll do, sane or not. Maybe ever’body got a li’l’ madness in their hearts, all of ’em. You, me, Otis. You been talkin’ ’bout blowin’ up ever since this mornin’.”
“Wow, you’re a real poet, a philosopher. You don’t know anything ’bout it – an’ your yappin’s ’bout to set me off.”
“Don’t you blow up in here,” Mavis said. “Place is mess enough as it is.”
“Oh, you’re a riot too. A couple comedians.”
Other customers toyed lazily with their cold breakfasts and stared at Poncey, and Mavis’ mood changed. “Ain’t you gonna order anything?”
“I’ll have water,” Poncey sneered. “And a napkin.”
“Water don’t cut it, hon, long as you’re takin’ up space on my stool. Or is that your vengeance on the world? ’Cause if it is, I’m not sure the world noticed.”
Poncey knew for sure now that Mavis was mocking him. He thought so before, but now he was sure. “You think I’m all talk, don’t you? You think the best I can do is cheat you out of a glass of water? Well, I’ll show you!” He spun out of his seat and strode to the door. Mack called after him, “C’mon, don’t go ’way mad!” “You just watch, I’ll show you,” Poncey barked, and wrestled again with the knob. The spastic bell provided a soundtrack to his struggles. The Diner burst into laughter, and he considered kicking the glass out of the door. Finally the latch gave way, and he spilled outside, Mack’s plaintive voice echoing after him, “C’mon Poncey!”
Judas had gotten his rope so tangled, he looked like he’d tried to hang himself upon the bent parking meter. Poncey cursed as he tried to untie the whimpering dog, who in turn pulled nervously at the leash to make the job harder. Mavis and Mack, all of them, Poncey thought, they all took him for a fool. Well, he’d show them. He’d have the last laugh, and whatever he decided to do would shock them, and disgust them all, and they’d never stop talking about it. He just had to think of what it would be. Just had to think, to think, and get this damn dog untied. Poncey broke into yanking on the leash uncontrollably until it snapped in two, and Judas headed for the hills. Poncey stood there watching dumbfounded until the dog disappeared around a corner, dragging half a rope, then gave chase. A motorcycle engine blared somewhere well beyond the buildings of downtown Skullbone but still echoing off their façades.
Poncey rounded the building and stood scanning the gravel streets laid before him. The sun had taken the frozen crunch out of the dormant grass breaking up the pavement. Poncey hung his hands upon his waist and strained his senses for any clue to Judas’ trail. A bark might have come from the area of Finger Alley, he thought, and he made a beeline toward the mostly forgotten passage splitting the line of old brick structures. “Judas!” he screamed as he ran into the dark, narrow lane, splashing through potholes that never dried out, until he felt his feet not keeping up with his body. The cobble stones caught him harshly, giving no quarter to his chest and elbows as he crashed. Moaning, he rolled over and looked back where he’d come from; he saw a ragged pair of trouser legs leading to shoes resting upon their heels, toes pointing skyward.
“I know who you ah. You dat Poncey Muldoon – ol’ Ransom Muldoon’s boy.” It was Otis Bender, lying half-in and half-out of a hidden doorway. With him was his jar.
“You! This is the second time I’ve run into you today!” Poncey growled, rubbing his wounded knees.
“Dere’ll be a third time, too, boy. Always come in threes.”
“You need to watch out, stop leavin’ your legs lyin’ around everywhere. My dog come through here?”
Poncey waited for more, but after an awkward moment, clearly there was no more to say. He gingerly rose to his feet to go after Judas again.
“I known yo’ pappy for long time.”
“Well, that’s good. Don’t think he ever mentioned you.” He craned his neck, wondering which direction might be best.
“Yep, known him well. He put me here.”
Poncey looked back at Otis. “In the alley?”
“Dis jar my home. All I got in de worl’. Only frien’ fo years an’ years now.” He’d clearly been communing with his friend all day.
Poncey decided that finding Judas was a lost cause, but he was still only too happy to use the mutt as an excuse to break away from this conversation.
“You sure you didn’t see my dog?”
“Din’t say I din’t see ’im. See ever’thing. Dat fat woman inside de smoke, seen her. Seen dat boy settin’ like a bird in de sky.”
All this sounded to Poncey like no more than a crazy man babbling. He thought Otis could say anything in his condition and sound like he believed it. “If you saw my dog, tell me which way he went.”
“You don’t care ’bout no dog. Runnin’ away all de time – dog ain’t no good frien’ like dis here jar. Dog home by now, anyhow. I know yo’ home.”
“Yeah, I know, I saw you there this mornin’.”
“Know how to get there. I can get to yo’ door ennytime I want. Under yo winda.”
Otis began to make Poncey’s skin crawl, and he wondered how many nights the drunk had spent lolling outside his apartment building. He shuddered a bit and edged away.
“Look, I’ve gotta go. I’ve got somethin’ to do.”
“Yo’ sho’ do, boy. Got sump’m impo’tant on yo’ mind.”
“How do you know?” Poncey felt a weird cloak drawing over him, binding his arms, but he couldn’t seem to tear away.
“Hoodoo man, boy,” Otis never looked at him. “Don’t you know? Yo mama come from N’Ahlins – she know all ’bout conjure. Hoodoo man from way back.”
“What’re you talkin’ about?”
“Hoodoo strong, boy. Hoodoo tell you what you wanna know. Hoodoo p’tect yo’ health, make you rich. Healthy, wealthy an’ wise. All you needs is de words, an’ sump’m special.” He threw Poncey a glazed-over wink, never really looking, only addressing him in a sideways manner.
“It got you where you are today?” Poncey was skeptical.
“Yessir! Hoodoo done p’tected ol’ Otis all his life. Hoodoo an’ Rance Muldoon – ol’ skinny-ass Rance Muldoon. Knowed him down at de yahds. One day he tryin’ to close a boxcar latch, an’ it stuck. He doin’ chin-ups on dat latch, tryin’ to get it down. Hoo-hee! Evah-body laughin’ at dat! Too skinny to even move dat latch. He still at de yahds, an’ here I sit.” Poncey tried to read Otis’ face, but could not pull back the mask of shadows and drink. “Ol’ hoodoo take care a’ me! You lucky you made it all dis time widout de hoodoo. It go all de way back – ol’ witch of Endor, she know hoodoo. Ol’ Balaam, he know – he know de rootwork. God hisself de greatest hoodoo man of all! Ever’thing His hoodoo, an’ ever’thing dat happen fit inside His hoodoo. He give it to Moses, an’ Moses write it down. You know Moses’ five Bible books, but I bet you don’ know books six an’ seb’m! Hoodoo books, straight from Moses hisself! Even ol’ Nando Jones know ’bout dem! Use ta carry ’em in his sto’, right here in Skullbone. Even Skullbone a hoodoo name – pow’ful hoodoo name.”
The throaty bay of a coonhound rang from over the horizon. Otis’ eyes were cloudy, the whites not much lighter than the deep brown irises. Poncey still massaged his injured elbows, and thought maybe he should have read his Bible more closely. He didn’t know anything about what Otis spoke of, and he didn’t have time now to study up. “How’s it work?” he asked.
“All kindsa ways hoodoo work,” Otis rubbed his gnarled fingers together. “You kin make you up some charms, or a doll, an’ set it under a plant – rootwork. Den you start dreamin’ lucky, or dreamin’ de truth. Ennything you wanna know, you kin fine it out wit yo’ rootwork. ’Cept ’nless someone move it. Work best wit numba’s, lucky numba’s for you. Or you kin draw what’choo want – if kin you draw – draw out what’choo want an’ hide it away somewheres by moonlight. You gotta say de charm, dough, say de charm over de right herbs, or it ain’t gonna come to nuttin’.”
Poncey fell into rapt listening, even as his educated mind fought to argue.
“Bes’ way is ta git sump’m special, sump’m purs’nal from a individule. Could be a piece a’ clothin’, or some hair, but best of all is sump’m liquid. Sump’m from the body itself – like maybe blood. You want sump’m, ol’ Otis can git it, but you gotta give up sump’m.”
Poncey kind of grunted at this, and Otis continued.
“You got sump’m to make water in? That’s the bes’ an’ most easiest way to go. I ain’t got nuttin’ here but my jar, an’ can’t have you pissin’ in her. Jar’s my bes’ frien’. But if’n you got sump’m to hold water, dat’s a good way. You make yo’self a honey jar spell. You got sump’m?”
Poncey searched himself in a useless way to indicate he didn’t.
“Well, dat’s okay, we don’ hafta have it. But dat would be bes’. We kin fine sump’m on you dat’ll work jus’ fine. One time I use a single hair from a feller, girl brought it in from his comb, an’ afore you know it they’s married. ’Nudder time, nuttin’ but a paper towel a man dries ’is hands wid’. Brotha wan’ed de juju put on ’im, take away ’is job, an’ picks de paper towel outen de garbage. Sho’ ’nuff, he gone from dat job in a week. Hoodoo, you don’ mess ’round wid it.”
The concluding part of “Madness in their Hearts” is coming up later this week
* * * * *
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.