oncey remembered his frustration and desire to ignite upheaval, some kind of conflict that would bestow to the town a taste of his indignation. His opportunity had arrived, he thought, a means to find the perfect outrage had been delivered to him right there in Finger Alley. He squatted into Otis’ eye level, and played tentatively with some of the debris on the pavement. Something in the back of his mind begged to walk away, but a red flicker danced from his chest into his throat and spoke for him, “What about me?”
Otis started a kind of chant in a sing-songy voice, “Son, you don’t hafta live so rough, I’m gonna fix you up a mojo, oh Lord, so you can strut yo’ stuff. Tell you ennything you wanna know, ennything that makes you go.”
“What I gotta do?”
“Fust you gots ta show me Mr. Lincoln. Fie-dollah bill gits you started.”
Poncey dug out his thin wallet and found a crumpled bill. He held it toward Otis, who pushed both palms out before him and said, “Nossuh! Don’ be foldin’ dat bill back to yo’self! Dat bill comin’ my way. Fold it out tow’ahd me. Da’s right. Da’s de way.” Distant, acrid smoke, harsh and choking, wafted into the alley from an unknown source suffering its final throes.
Confused, Poncey looked at the bill and held it back out with the ends pointed toward Otis. The old man’s face brightened as he took the money, muttering under his breath, “Well, looky here, jar.” He inspected it back and front, then folded it carefully toward himself and tucked it deep within his shoe.
“What’s you wanna know? How to win yo’ wife? Dream up some lott’ry numbas?”
“I want to do somethin’. There’s somethin’ inside me I’ve gotta do, or it’ll bust me wide open. I’ve just got to know what I’ve gotta do.”
“You at odds wid de worl’, boy.”
“That’s it. The world isn’t the place I want it to be.”
“You gotta bend de worl’ to yo’ will. You gotta use de conjure to bend de worl’, but you gotta go t’rough de pow’rs. Hoodoo will bend nature to yo’ will. It’ll bend de angels and God Hisself to work things yo’ way. You gotta get you a mojo.”
“I want it. I’ve gotta find out what I can do against the world.”
“Gotta give me sump’m purs’nal fust, son. I gotta have sump’m from you to charm up a mojo fer you.”
Poncey tried to think of something he had on him that he was willing to give up. None of his clothing could be considered expendable. His pants pockets came up empty. His hands explored deep within his jacket pockets and found an old matchbook, a wrinkled receipt and a Buddy Poppy – nothing particularly personal. Then he discovered a small, hard disk, and produced a button with some tortured thread dangling from its holes. He recognized it as coming from one of his jacket cuffs, never missed after long years out of service. “This do?”
“Dat’s fine, jus’ fine. Jus’ what we need ta c’nect you an’ de pow’rs. To bend de angels, we gotta go to de source,” and Otis pulled out a pocket New Testament. “Dis got de Psalms in ’er, jus’ what we needs to bend de angels yo’ way.” He opened the little book, and, using a stub of pencil tucked inside his shapeless fedora, wrote something that Poncey couldn’t make out on the page. The alley’s shadows had closed in on them, but Otis’ face seemed to emit an eerie glow. He began to sing again, “You sprinkled hot foot powda’, hmmm hmmm, all aroun’ my do’h … hmmm hmmm … dere’s a hellhoun’ on my trail, hellhoun’ on my trail …” Poncey felt a creeping sensation along his spine, and tried to blink his eyes clear. The odor of that morning came back to him, but somehow twisted and swirled into something more pungent, and sickening sweet.
Bender stood and turned to face the west, where the sun sank behind the trees and the rail yards lay beyond town, and read, “ ‘He shall give ’is angels charge concernin’ thee, an’ in dere han’s dey shall bear thee up, les’ at any time thou dash thy foot agains’ a stone.’ Ol’ hot foot powda, do thy biddin’! Dash thy foots! Do thy work, hot foot powda! Seek out Ransom Muldoon an’ do thy work! Dash ’is foots ’gains’ de worl’!”
Bender turned to Poncey and finally made eye contact. “Ha ha! You curse yo’ own pappy! Fine’ly I get my revenge, an’ curse dat ol’ man t’rough his own son!Haaa!”
Poncey stood there, stunned and silent, and he could feel his eyes gaping. “What are you talkin’ about?” he croaked.
“Ever since he got me fired, I been wantin’ my revenge. Years an’ years a waitin’, an’ fine’ly hoodoo has its way! Dat’s fer gettin’ me fired! Dat’s fer snoopin’ ’roun’ an’ findin’ me drunk! He got no ’count to repawt me to de boss! Evah-body drinkin’! ‘Why you doin’ me this-a way,’ I says, an’ he say ‘Git yo ass outa dese yahds,’ he says. I don’t fo’get! All dese years I don’t fo’get! Now I get you back, Rance Muldoon! Dat’s fer stickin’ yo’ nose where she don’ b’long! Hot foot powda burn, burn!
“Oh, you smah’t boy, you an’ yo’ starin’ at me! I sprinkle de hot foot powda all ovah yo’ po’ch dis mawnin’. How come you t’ink you ta come ’roun’ to dis alley? Hot foot powda do it! Now I cast its mojo on ol’ Ransom! Bad mojo gonna fall on ’im, bad mojo! De angels bend ’gains’ ’im, all de worl’ bend ’gains’ ’im now! ’Cause a you, boy, ’cause a you an’ yo’ desires! Hoodoo do it, hoodoo do it! Hee hee!” The old man danced a wobbly jig, gleeful even in its lunacy.
“You!” Poncey’s shock gave way to rage. A righteous outrage exploded within him, against himself, the incredible foolishness of being caught up in such a charade, and against Bender. “You old fool! You stupid old goat! You’re nothin’ but a lyin’ old idiot! You’re a thief and a crook and a liar!” he screamed at the silhouette that Bender had become. Poncey burst from the alley with no thought of retrieving his money, and Bender’s laughter cackled behind, “Oh, you kin run. But de conjure, she always come in threes.”
Poncey’s arms punched wildly at the air as he half-ran down Main Street. How could he be so stupid, so gullible? He growled and screamed as he shook his fist at himself, at God, at the world. The street lights gleamed half-heartedly in the early evening, and a killdeer’s lonesome cry tore at the dusk from her fleeting retreat. Now Poncey knew for sure he would burst at the seams, if he could not vent his frustrations somehow. A black intent led him by the roiling within his chest, drawn into an unknown deep. The heart in him beat like the marching of an oncoming army, bent upon pillage. Hatred for everything within his grasp, and for that unknown essence persistent in eluding him, set him like flint to exact mayhem upon this town and upon this night.
Then he got his idea, what he had waited for all through his troubled day. He would rest until dark had fully fallen, until the townsfolk had turned in and slipped away senseless to life itself. Then he’d draw them out again in awful amazement.
A sensation of calm and even goodwill came over Poncey with the settling of his mission. He sauntered along the city streets and felt a kinship with the stark branches of trees darkly cast against the sky, pointing heavenward with accusing fingers. Skullbone had taken on the silence of winter, with only glimmers of warmth peeking from windows, hidden deep within solitary homes, only the ghosts of the hearths within escaping through chimneys. Poncey zipped his jacket all the way to his chin, and his hunched back bore witness to the chill, but also to his resolve to finish the task he had set. With slow assurance his feet walked his route, until at length crossing a line of railroad tracks.
With no moon nor streetlights to compete, the stars shone against the night with brilliant precision. Poncey measured his steps upon the ties as he followed the track. He knew no trains ran this time of night, but still he entertained thoughts of facing down an onrushing locomotive. Humming quietly, he laid his plan out in his mind, working out details, anticipating complications. Soon he was coming up on the rail yards – there he would seek out the same sublime fulfillment that his father had enjoyed for decades.
Poncey stealthily moved from trees to outbuildings to signals, careful to hide from the small night crew. He worked his meandering way to the lot for discarded boxcars, and as he went acquired a collection of greasy rags and small scraps of wood. In the back of the lot he eased open the door of a tool shed and sneaked inside. He settled upon the frozen ground, and leaning against a wall, he waited, as the minutes stretched beyond their limits, bringing along the full depths of the night.
A sudden jump, and he awoke. How much time has passed? he thought. He’d set his heart on midnight, and now he didn’t know what time it was. No matter. Nothing could stop him now from delivering his wrath upon the world’s injustice. He carefully stuck his head out the door and saw only stillness in the yard.
Poncey crept underneath the first boxcar at the furthest reaches of the lot. He jammed the old rags and kindling into the gaps between the car’s steel carriage and wooden floor. One, two – finally the third vaguely damp match struck, and he set a little yellow flame to the rags, dangling as if from a giant Molotov cocktail. For a moment Poncey merely gazed, facing the growing reality of his will, then ran in a crouch from the car. He withdrew into remote shadows, able to watch the fire take hold and grow; but still he could not be seen within the darkness.
For some ten minutes the car sat without event, only wisps of intermittent smoke seeping through the doors. Then with a belch flames shot out of a vent in the roof. Within seconds the parched car erupted into a glaring blaze, leaping dozens of feet overhead, grand as leviathan breaking from the sea. Sparks flew upward like heavenly bodies scattered into a spiraling primordial creation, and Poncey looked upon his work.
The blaze had quickly arrested the attention of the night crew. Together they strained to move other boxcars out of harm’s way, and ordered each other about aimlessly with much yelling and gesturing. One phoned Constable Crapo, who in turn stirred up Skullbone’s volunteer fire brigade, but by the time firefighters arrived the car was fully aflame. Along with them came a crowd, those who could be roused from their cozy houses, and the billowing inferno grew into the biggest show to hit town all year. Poncey had finally acquired the food his soul hungered for, and he stood mesmerized.
A voice from the murky dark startled him. “Anybody look inside that thing?” Mack stood close behind Poncey.
“What? I don’t know. Why?”
“Well, sometimes Otis spends the night inside those things. To keep warm.”
Poncey’s eyes returned to blankly stare at the angry fire, roaring like a crazed animal, and his face burned hot. Flames whipped and writhed, dancing skyward in insane prayer to God, demanding answer. The oily smoke raged against the crisp air, only to disintegrate into the blackness of the night, and the flickering light revealed a new confusion and realization in Poncey’s expression. Fears and ambitions tangled together in his mind until he no longer knew what to desire, what there was in the world – good or ill, or that born of whatever twisted conspiracy is struck between the two – worth the price of his heart. The self-absorbed furies within him, and the willful satisfaction he’d finally achieved, sank into a slow panic of guilt and terror – his terrible designs came to something, and they came to nothing, the madness of sin. Abruptly he turned to Mack, “I gotta go.”
With that Poncey ran home, and looked in on his father, blissfully asleep.
* * * * *
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.