Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. III, Issue 14

This week featured some great fiction from Craig Davis and some lovable monstrosities from Gaetan Vanparijs.

 

Monday – Art

Friday – Fiction

 

Snake-Oilers old and new will entertain us more next week!

Sea and Scorpion

Hector Stone wore slick wingtips upon his feet, climbing the worn wooden steps of his old home. He would never have returned of his own will. Scanning the weathered porch, he thought the paint was peeling even more than when he’d left the place for college. His mother had pressured him to scrape it down and put on a new coat back then, but he’d been too busy planning his grand future. She still hasn’t gotten it done, he shook his head knowingly – no surprise there.

She’d had plenty of time to see to the job, too. Since his departure Hector had finished off his under-graduate work, clerked a few years in a law office and put a great dent in law school. He hadn’t quite finished, but already he’d learned enough legal trickery to know he needed to get his mother’s affairs in order. Her health had slipped badly in recent months, and now as the dutiful son, he would move back into the house to take care of things. He didn’t particularly want to, nor did he feel obliged by any warmth; in fact, it was a bit of an imposition. But he thought it the sensible thing to do.

His exit from the house those years ago had felt like an escape from prison. For as long as he could remember, his intellect and prospects had strained at the tiny house nestled in Salem’s oldest neighborhood. Drawing the walls even tighter was his mother: In her eyes he could do no wrong, as long as he did what she expected. Anything else would bring only creeping disaster. After she’d lost her husband, she apparently had determined to keep Hector locked in time at age twelve. His one attempt at courting a bride gave rise to an embarrassing monologue about his inexperience, as the girl uncomfortably shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Saving to buy his own car drove her to clip ads for scooters and other vehicles she considered cute. His interest in law inspired a discussion in her ladies’ club that he should do something about folks who let their yards go to the dandelions, as he was compelled to stand and listen. While he could already feel the back of his neck tingle as he crossed the porch, still he hoped his long absence had divorced him from her maternal anachronism.

He tapped lightly on the screen door in mock politeness before sticking his head inside. “Mother, I’ve arrived!”

“Well, come in! Come on in, Hector!” She sounded like he’d only left that morning, like he had never lived anywhere else in his life.

The voice came from a corner, and Hector found the front room even darker than he remembered. A musty odor filled his head, and he was struck by the amount of fabric decorating the room. Finally he spotted his mother, in a dingy Queen Anne chair, her walker cast off to the side. She could not get around easily anymore, added to her general loss of memory, and the walker served only for trips to the kitchen or bathroom. In her letter inviting Hector to return, in between emphasizing how much he would enjoy again seeing the cradle of his enchanted past, she pointedly mentioned she would have to ask the neighbor child to mail it.

The towering chair made her look yet more frail than she really was, but in spite of that, to Hector she loomed like the smothering overlord of his childhood. In her shrunken state, she had become even less able to fathom his sagacity. But she still aimed to preside from her throne, he thought, to twist everything he said into a royal decree of her own making. He resolved not to give her the ammunition or satisfaction, he thought to himself; whatever she said, he would destroy her with sly nuance.

“How was your trip?” she asked.

“Everything you might dream a cross-country jaunt with a busload of circus freaks could be,” he replied.

“I’m so glad. You loved the circus so – you were so cute in your little clown suit.”

Hector felt his button being pushed, and wondered how he’d fallen so easily into a pit. He could see the time drawing short not only to get his mother’s affairs in order, but also to set her straight. His huge suitcase, packed with more books than clothes for his stay, fell heavily to the floor, and he sat upon it like a barrister’s bench, leaning upon his elbows and petitioning with gestures.

“I didn’t come all this way to discuss Halloween costumes, Mother. How are you feeling?”

“I feel just fine, now. Just wonderful!”

“Then why am I here? You haven’t even gotten out of your chair – how can you say you feel wonderful?”

“It’s wonderful to see you. And besides, where there’s life, there’s hope,” she smiled as though the notion had just come to her. “That’s wonderful.”

“Yeah, well, that’s a fine sentiment, but it won’t get you far at your age,” he sneered. “We have to face facts and start getting your estate planned.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of time for that,” she assured him. “I’ve got lots of time.”

He let out his exasperation in a great sigh. “We need to face facts,” he repeated. “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, you know.”

“I don’t know what you mean, but I’m sure it’s very clever.”

Hector had to pace; he felt like a prosecutor presenting final arguments to the jury. “I mean, there’s no use clinging to false hope. It’s best to realize you’re dying and just live with it. Clinging to a dreary existence isn’t living at all, anyway. Best to just admit your problems and move on.”

“Well, I know I have some problems. I haven’t slept through the night in years. But I won’t wallow in it – at least I’m not suffering like my little neighbor.”

Her neighbor was the four-year-old who lived next door, Abbie Fish. Her real name was Absalom – the youngest of seven daughters, her parents sincerely believed she’d be born a boy among the various Sarahs, Rebeccas and Rachels and so on. But God brought her out a girl just to show He might not do what is expected. Her folks decided to stick to the solid biblical name they’d chosen anyway, and for her sake called her Abbie.

Abbie had suffered most of her life with mysterious symptoms and behaviors. She’d been a bright baby, nothing out of the ordinary, but shortly after reaching toddler age a number of odd manners had arisen in her. She did not prosper physically, a lack of appetite leading to lack of growth. The pediatrician there in town blamed it on her chronic constipation, and prescribed an endless series of suppositories. But Abbie never did eat with relish, and learned which hours of the day to hide from her treatments. She was sometimes lethargic, sometimes too energetic, and other times irritable. Her parents learned to take her day-by-day, never knowing which Abbie would get out of bed that morning. But one thing they could count on: She loved her visits with Dr. Croswell.

Dr. Croswell was new to town, just in the last twelve months or so, but he was old to the world. Having spent a career practicing in the big city, he’d semi-retired to Salem to putter away his final years. He’d seen it all, from the old diseases like measles, to the new ones like attention deficit disorder. Nothing fazed him, and he poured out learned attention upon each new patient, regardless of prognosis.

Though a general practitioner, he particularly liked seeing the children. He had a natural gift to draw out their love, either with silly antics or the gentle comfort of his touch. Abbie was no exception, and strangely, though he often pierced her arm with a needle, she excitedly anticipated her monthly appointments and luxuriated in his consolations afterwards. With a head round and fleshy, he might blow out his cheeks like a blowfish, or perhaps make a pucker out of his entire face. His round glasses emphasized his eyes, blue and bright, and his cavalier attitude toward haircuts created a blurred white nimbus around his countenance.

“Now you be sure to come see me again next month!” he’d grin at her.

“Yes! Yes!” Her words were few and simple.

“You sure you can keep on charging us nothing, Doc?” Mr. Fish said. “You sure you want to keep seeing Abbie?”

“You just keep bringing her around as long as it makes her happy.” He played peep-eye with her through the mirror strapped to his head. “You going to visit me again? I expect to keep seeing you for a long time.”

“Yes! Yes!” she jumped in place.

“She reminds me of Shirley Temple!” Hector’s mother said. “You used to love her movies on television – you’d try to dance along with her! You were just so darling. But she’s terribly sick, far sicker than me. It’s just wonderful how Dr. Croswell treats her. He encourages her, and makes her so happy.”

“Well, maybe there’s hope for her. She’s young enough to get her strength back, not like you,” Hector hid his pleasure at finding another educated man had come to town. Maybe he could find some time for intelligent conversation as he suffered through the insipid business of his mother. So his heart sank at her next utterance.

“Oh, no, no hope at all. Dr. Croswell says there’s no hope.”

“What? Well, why the hell doesn’t he just tell her that! It’s cruel to lead her on.”

“Hector! I wish you would watch your language! This is still my house, and I’ll not have you dirtying the air with curses! Why, I remember when your uncle came to visit, though you were only six, you scolded him and scolded him, and all he said was ‘dang.’ So now don’t you bring any filthy language in here.”

“Mother, I’m a grown man. I’ll talk any way I want.”

“I won’t spend my last days listening to that trash.”

At least she’s grasping the futility of her condition, Hector thought. He’d just have to look for an opportunity to straighten out Dr. Croswell himself. “I’m going upstairs,” he cut the subject short.

“Remember that short part of the ceiling over the staircase. Don’t bump your head.”

With a painful grunt, he headed to the winding stairs and made his way up the narrow passage. The suitcase barely squeezed through. His eyes followed the wallpaper’s pattern the same way they always did, and at the top he automatically made the hairpin turn into his room. Not a thing had changed since the last night he’d spent there years ago, except somewhere along the line she’d made the bed. As he looked over the walls, smaller still than he remembered, the things he had left hanging there through high school surprised him – pennants, pin-ups, even childish drawings.

He drew nearer to scrutinize one in particular: A school art project of watercolors on cheap paper, which he’d thought enough of at one time to frame. It portrayed two figures, one large and one small, bent toward each other, working at abutting desks. Hector’s father had been Salem’s lone legal practitioner, going back to youthful days when he’d plunked down a black bag at the bus station and decided this one-horse town suffered a void. Since his earliest days, Hector had heard his father’s promises that he’d join in one day, Stone & Son Attorneys at Law, continuing the tradition into eternity. The old man would stand in the living room, tall and strong, wrap his arm around Mother and promise. Hector believed it with his whole heart, right up to the day his father ran off with the secretary. Looking back now, the deed made sense to Hector, but at the time it was a shock. He wouldn’t have minded so much if he’d expected it.

He took the picture from the wall and set it upon the floor, propped against the wall, back facing outward.

The bed creaked as he sat upon its edge and mulled his fate. He couldn’t figure why he was appointed to such a distasteful bit of business, but he knew his best bet was to get through it as fast as possible. First he would need to get some idea of his mother’s assets, then follow where they took him. He doubted her holdings could amount to much, probably only a bank account or two, plus the house. As he sat projecting the future, he suddenly became aware of his mother’s voice, calling out in an urgent tone.

Hector swung through his door and around the corner; his head banged into the low part of the ceiling. He cocked his voice to curse, then stifled it to a growl under his breath. Rubbing his hand through the well-cropped shock of jet black hair, he stumbled down the steps and strode expectantly before her chair. “What’s the matter?”

“Oh! Hector! When did you get here?”

“I’ve been here for some time now. Did you call me?”

“No, but since you’re here, I wish you would dig up my beds for me. The bulbs will be coming up soon.”

“What? Mother, I moved back here to do important work for you! I don’t have time to be your gardener.”

“The bulbs are important. Don’t you want the hyacinths to be nice? You used to pick them for me every spring – it was so sweet. You used to say they were bottle brushes. ‘Bottle brushes for you, Mama.’ ”

This prattle thoroughly turned Hector’s stomach. “That’s all very good, Mother, but I came back to work on your financial affairs. That’s important work, and it will demand all my time.”

“Well, just go out and look at the flower bed. You always knew how to take care of it so well.”

“I never knew anything of the sort. I can’t stand gardening and never learned anything about it on purpose.”

“Well, I wish you’d go look.”

Hector went out on the porch anyway, just to get away from the conversation. He pointedly ignored the flowers, and instead surveyed the neighborhood as he leaned against the rail. The street hadn’t changed after all these years. The superficial pleasantry of the clapboard houses reflected perfectly the banality of the people within, and he shuddered to think he might need their help with his mother. The dogwood blooms had peeked open, and Hector breathed in the crispness; the early warmth gladdened him, for summer was on its way. The thought of longer daylight hours turned grimly toward the neighbors, and he imagined them puttering aimlessly in their lawns and gardens, not once thinking of what service they might be to him.

Without warning he realized he was watching a little girl in front of the next house down. Her quiet behavior had lulled him – it didn’t seem like she was doing anything. He didn’t have any experience to base this judgment upon, but he didn’t think she looked as old as four. Still, he thought, this must be Abbie. Her hair was done up in a ragged ponytail, and she wore the smallest pair of cat-eye glasses Hector had ever seen. On closer inspection, he could see she had a bottle of soap bubbles: Time and again, she inserted the wand, then waved it much too vigorously to make a bubble.

She looked small, but not particularly sick. Perhaps she has some rare cancer, a disease too mysterious for the bumpkins here to recognize, he thought. He imagined an exotic tumor deep within her, undetectable by x-ray but still filling her body with poisonous tendrils. She really is an object of pity, not only so ill but completely ignorant of her condition. If she knew, at least she could prepare herself; perhaps she could even demand better medical care, he thought. She could force her parents to take her away, take her to doctors who actually knew something about treating the sick. Maybe I can help this child, Hector thought, knowing the truth would help her. Nobody else in town would be honest with her, maybe I can do her a favor. He’d try being friendly with her, then bring up the subject of her illness.

“You’re waving your wand too hard,” he called out helpfully. “Wave your wand gently to make a bubble.”

She looked in the direction of the voice, her owlish eyes magnified in her glasses. She held up the bottle and turned it upside down. “No soap,” she said.

Hector drooped his head and shook it wearily. She’s no different from everyone else here, he thought – at least she has her age as an excuse. “Oh,” was all he could reply. “Are you Abbie?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a cute little girl,” he crooned. “I’ll bet you’re smart, too.”

Abbie didn’t answer, but she shook the bottle to make sure there was no soap.

“Do you go to school?”

“No.”

“How old are you?”

She sorted out four fingers and held them up.

“Will you come closer, so I don’t have to yell at you?”

“No.”

“Why not? I can’t talk to you if I have to yell.”

“No! Mama says, can’t go over there no more!”

“Please? I won’t hurt you. I’m Mrs. Stone’s son.”

“No! No!” Abbie grew irritable.

“But why not?”

“Dr. Cros’l says no! No! No! No! No!” Her voice grew into a piercing scream, like a whistle with a pea in it.

Hector stood stunned.

“Leave me alone! Not going to you!” Abbie clinched her fists as she berated him.

The door to the house opened, and Mrs. Fish leaned out. “Abbie! Keep your voice down!” She cast a stern look at Hector and added, “You’d better come on in.” Abbie marched up her porch steps, leaving Hector alone and confounded, as though he’d forgotten to study for a test.

The encounter only made him more determined to help the girl. Obviously, she’d been thoroughly conditioned, and he’d have to do some work to break through to her. Perhaps he should talk to this Dr. Croswell first, and see if he knew anything. He decided to patiently watch for the right opportunity with the girl, and, in the meantime, he turned his concentration to his mother’s papers. In the spare bedroom he found towering stacks, a collection of old forms and documents, mixed with unopened mail. Hector’s thoughts roiled as he realized the mountain of difficulties he had to climb. The days dragged into weeks as he sorted through each sheet of paper, and he could feel his interest and energy for the project draining out of him.

Despondent, one stormy day he simply planted himself on the porch to watch the downpour. Sitting in front of a screened window, he carried on an exchange with his mother, next to the window in her chair.

“That gutter has a leak,” said the voice through the window. A stream of rainwater was pouring over the edge of the porch roof.

“That’s the kink in the gutter,” said Hector. “The downspout’s clogged, so the water rushes over that bent part.”

“I wish you could look at that.”

“I am looking at it.”

“You haven’t done any work here since you were in high school.”

“Mother, I’ve been working on your estate ever since I got back. That’s all I’ve been doing, and it’s killing me. How could you let so much paperwork accumulate? I don’t think I should have to fix the house, too.”

“You haven’t done a thing I asked you to, ever since you were in high school.”

“It’s been some time since I was in high school.”

“I remember. I remember the little shoeshine kit you made in woodshop. You’re so cute when you use it out there on the porch. Is that what you’re doing?”

“Mother, that box fell apart a year after I made it, and I haven’t been in high school for a long time now. You need to accept that I’m an adult. Life goes on.”

“I have some shoes that need shining. I wish you would take care of them.”

The rain came down as the day grew old. In the horizon the canopy of dark clouds broke, and the setting sun burned the sky red. Next door, Abbie Fish came out to play in the warm showers. She stood with her head pitched backwards, feeling the drops patter upon her face. Hector hadn’t seen her since their first meeting, such had been his devotion to organizing papers, and he tersely observed her play. She was wearing a baggy pink one-piece swimsuit, with cartoon kittens all over it. Apparently her parents didn’t care much about her, letting her get drenched in a storm, he thought. He moved his chair to the edge of the porch.

“Aren’t you afraid getting wet will make you more sick?” He dispensed with niceties and addressed her illness directly.

“You make me sick,” she said back casually.

Hector already didn’t like the way the conversation was going. He tried a different tact.

“Why don’t you like me?”

“Ma says stay ’way. Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way.”

“You like Dr. Croswell, don’t you?”

“Yup.”

“But he’s never helped you. He can’t make you better.”

“He loves me.”

“But he can’t make you better. Doesn’t that upset you?”

“No.”

“It doesn’t make you mad?”

“You make me mad. Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way.”

Hector grew impatient. “Well, you don’t have to listen to him. He’s not telling you the truth – he doesn’t want you to know. But you’re not going to get well.”

“You leave Dr. Cros’l ’lone! He’s nice to me!”

“Well, he hasn’t done you a bit of good. It’s better for you to know.”

“Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way!” Abbie’s screaming became intense again. “Stay ’way!” She ran back into her house, and Hector stood from his chair. As she disappeared he called out, “You won’t get any better!”

“What did you say to that child?” his mother asked when he entered the house.

“You’re not getting better, either,” he said flatly.

The piles of papers turned into endless calls to local bankers and insurance agents. The small-town idiots didn’t seem to have any answers for him, nor any idea how to find any. Hector felt trapped, in a staring match with the same deeds and contracts day after day, trying to discern some hint of how to cut through the legal tangles. Finding delinquency letters from Internal Revenue did not help his mood, and tax forms haunted his dreams, blowing in the tumbling wind just out of his reach. His resentment toward the weight of responsibility grew, and he longed to pursue only his own interests again. Filial service, once a mere annoyance, now seemed futile and a complete mockery.

He could feel his future fleeting away – he, himself, Hector Stone, the only man of Salem who might make something of himself, was slipping into the clutches of this shabby little world, like an insect looking for morsels in the loose dirt of a doodlebug’s lair. His grand dreams of high-rise offices and power lunches sank into illusion, the exaltation over his fellows becoming a ruinous downfall. Gazing in the mirror, he thought creases had begun to draw down his chiseled face, and gray had sprouted within his hair. I have to get out of here, he thought, I have to break out. But something prevented him from escape – something greater than his mother’s petty files and papers. He first must confront the hollow peace that folded over this town, crush its vacuous resistance to plain-spoken reality. “I’ll not leave until I’ve made a public show of this Dr. Croswell.” And still the work ground on and on.

As spring fully put on summer, often Hector would have to recess to the porch, pausing to relax his mind in its cool shade. He never saw Abbie in her yard during these times, a fact he attributed to the heat, if he happened to think of it at all. He’d done all he could for her anyway. But one day he spied a small collection of cars in front of her house. Hector studied the goings-on from a distance, neither welcome nor willing to stand aside. People filtered in and out of the house, until at length an elderly man in a frumpy suit sauntered out and into the yard. He sucked idly on a pipe, and when the two men’s eyes met, he meandered closer to Hector’s mother’s house.

“Are you Mr. Stone?”

“And you are the great Dr. Croswell!” he replied, smiling thinly.

“Abbie mentioned you to me.”

“I’ll bet. How is she? Still buying into false hope?”

“No – she’s died.” He peered at the pipe as though it was plugged.

“Oh.” Hector was not really surprised, but to hear it said so frankly, without sentimentality, but with benign peace, that caught him off guard. “I don’t suppose you ever did know what she had.”

“Oh, I knew from the first day. Lead poisoning – by the time I saw her, she never had a chance. All the classic symptoms: Anemia, lethargy, what we call ‘failure to flourish,’ some outbursts of bad behavior – you might have noticed that.”

Hector silently nodded.

“Yes, you don’t see it much anymore, but that was it, no doubt about it. Kidney failure finally was too much for her. Probably got into peeling paint – funny thing about little children, how they will eat paint chips, totally innocent to the danger, of course. Old paint was full of lead.” Dr. Croswell looked up at Hector as he relit his pipe. “If only she could’ve stayed away from that peeling paint.”

“So I was right, she didn’t have any hope.”

“No, not for her body getting well. But we kept her spirits up. Abbie enjoyed her life, right up to the last day, dwelling on the love she found. She was a bright and wonderful child, in spite of her suffering. She never surrendered to it. You couldn’t kill her spirit, like her body. You couldn’t’ve done it, no matter what you said.”

Dr. Croswell walked away with no parting word, and considered Abbie’s house carefully as he passed by, then disappeared down the sidewalk. Hector stared blankly at his departure.

He retreated into the darkness of his house. Something about the conversation had left him troubled – why could he reply nothing? Why could he throw out no sharp comeback, no reproof that Croswell could never hope to answer? Something about the doctor had struck him mute. He remembered Abbie’s childish rebukes, and how no reply from him had any effect on her simple adherence to Croswell’s words. A bitter frustration grew in him, a humiliation he’d never experienced, even at the hands of brutal law professors. This vile, simple people had left him with nothing. All that he had left to take hold of was the damnation of his mother’s vain paperwork. If a child could smile her way to death, what good is knowledge? What good is the law – its accusations can’t inspire fear if hope undermines penalty. He saw himself straining at a gnat, wasting his life sorting out the details of his own paltry inheritance. The musky drapes of the front room hung like condemnation all around him. An angry despair enveloped him, as his lone sanctuary of legalistic argument rose within. The law is the law, what’s right is right – throw hope out of the mix. He offers knowledge – no more is needed. He – they – everyone must face their dire lives, and expect nothing more. They must pay the price he has decided. The thought that a child might cling to grace made his throat clinch.

“What’s happened?” his mother asked.

“Why can’t you get done with it and die?” he replied.

* * * * *

Craig Davis was born and bred in Memphis, the land of Elvis and pork barbecue, though neither ever did him any good. After earning journalism degrees at the University of Missouri, he worked in newsrooms for 20 years, then turned his attention to writing fiction in 2004. Davis has written five books available for Kindle, including “A Time for Poncey – And other Stories out of Skullbone.” He has two grown daughters and a dog who refuses to grow up. You can find him online here.

His contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest, Vol. II, Issues 39 & 40

Over the past couple of weeks, Dr. H has been gearing up for the holiday season, so we’ve featured new work at a slightly less brisk pace. Nonetheless, it is all wonderful stuff, so check out what you missed n the last two weeks below!


Monday – Fiction

Wednesday – Photography

Friday – Poetry

Monday – Poetry

Friday – Photography

We’ll be keeping you entertained for the next week or so, then taking a small holiday break, but stay tuned for full details.

 

Jericho Jones

https://i2.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8479/8238283371_5d64748dcd.jpgThe only name he still knew was Jericho Jones. As if his very existence had vaporized into the ether, his identity bent to just what his listeners willed. He no longer mattered in anything but what they heard, and what he could hear – that gathered by his ears and that hidden within his head. He wove a tapestry of sound, trailing through melodies and rhythms nobody else dreamed of, but they bled out of his veins without a thought. Sometimes accompanied by pounding feet, and other times just uncomprehending stares, his music flowed through the stratosphere and into worlds unknown. He could not keep a job, he could not afford a roof over his head, he could not read nor write nor count his change. But, man, could he play that trumpet, could he wail. The way he could blow, they said, he could bring down the walls of Jericho.

Every street corner served as his stage, every lamp overhead his spotlight. He leaned back upon the mojo, his breath steaming from the trumpet’s bell, moisture dripping from the spit valve. A fellow drumming on the bottom of a bucket might join in, or another with a pair of spoons. Bouncing off his brick backdrop, his songs reached into every corner before rising to every star. The gullet of his battered porkpie might beg for spare coins, but the music existed for its own sake, and Jericho Jones existed for the music.

Thin as a pencil, he meandered through a maze of streets, pulsing with the rhythm of the city, his horn hung over his shoulder by a rope. His mouthpiece, lovingly wrapped in a white handkerchief – the only truly clean piece of cloth on him – nestled carefully in his left pants pocket. Sidewalks and gutters, gravel roads and grassy shoulders, he walked them all, casting the seeds of his art upon whatever soil he found. Did he eat? Perhaps he might pick an apple from a tree, or find a sandwich tossed into the upturned hat, but the question seldom even arose. The thrills of his instrument fed his heart, and sometimes he had to smile so big he could not play for a moment.

He was the Pied Piper of joy, leading it around by enchantment. The gift was offered to all within earshot, listening the only price asked. He was master of his talent, passing along his work at no cost, thereby loosing the bonds of owners, sellers and critics. For those with no money, there was no fee; for those with no interest, there was no refund. The music took on life, like the air it rode upon, free to alight upon the sensibilities of any who rose to it. Like a caress upon a sleeping child, its touch might never be acknowledged, but was known of itself.

There came a day when a couple men of obvious means hung at the edge of the crowd, sort of hiding around the corner of a building, as Jericho Jones tore it up. Head to toe in sharp, three-piece suits, spats and hats, pins and baubles, the two nodded and laughed to the trumpet’s siren song. A new inspiration filled his lungs, and his tones pealed through the urban landscape. Under a midday sun, the gleaming instrument could shine no brighter than its own notes, hanging like stars in the sky. They danced a respectably slight jig to the jitter-bugging jazz, whooped in appreciative praise, with “yes!” and “uh-huh!” and “play it!” The meager audience dissipated, a couple of small silver discs fell into the porkpie, and the two lingered.

“Son, you’ve got no business playing on this street corner,” one said. A gold watch chain drooped across his ample stomach.

“I’ve got no place else,” he replied. “One corner’s as good as another for me to stand on.”

“Let us help you. We can set you up in clubs, in theaters,” said the other. “You’ve got no business playing that music for free.”

“Can anything make the music better?” asked Jericho Jones.

“Maybe, maybe not. Won’t be able to tell until we put a price on it.”

The gigs began small, in church basements and restaurant patios. Soon those venues became cramped, as his audience – the wide world – tried to fit within brick walls. Then he graduated to music halls and nightspots, and the fans poured in. With prosperity came a change of clothes, and a velvet bag to carry his trumpet. Its golden voice continued to cry out his muse, the inner workings of his heart and soul, as he poured a libation of emotion and empathy upon his willing proselytes. The gospel of music flowed over the land, even three hundred tables alert to its call, worshipping at its altar, prepared to rise in answer as it beckoned the people to its screaming refrains.

Rafters shook off dust, glittering a shower of magic upon eager audiences. Walls seemed to tremble with every stomping beat as the tempo had its way. Metallic echoes of gleeful celebration rang within the halls – joined by lights spinning and flashing quick glimpses of glad faces – a carnival of unhindered bliss. He bent to the notes, his body dancing interpretation to the pain and rapture of each new strain. Fingertips coaxed colors through the valves never before heard, the slide finessing an arc of passion, and within his closed eyes he could see the tones and phrases painting a canvas of melody. A covering of grace flowed from the instrument and over every spirit within the tabernacle.

The moon, round and silver, sent jealous beams from the early morning darkness as the three men walked away along the deserted street. They fairly glowed from the evening’s bash, stepping to the beat as it rang within their memories.

“Man, were you hot tonight!” said one.

“You sure can play that trumpet. Enough to bring down the walls of Jericho.”

They did not notice the half-dozen or so men appear from an alley’s deep shadows. Burly and ragged, they carried bats and ropes, hitching their jeans as they hurried to catch up.

“You fellas been doing pretty well, haven’t you? You’re looking mighty fancy,” one ruffian said behind them.

They turned, three men in all their finery, and the dim lamplight revealed the teeming menace.

“You fellas seem to have forgotten your place.”

“What are you talking about?” said the man with the watch chain.

“You fellas think you’re coming up in the world,” he patted his bat against an open hand. “Thought you might need a reminder of where you belong.”

“We’re on our way home now,” the man said.

“Not yet you’re not,” he said, and the bat sent a fine fedora flying through the air with a sickening crack. Down went the man, his blood seeping onto the pavement, but nobody could see in the blackness. Scuffling blows and kicking resistance made mockery of beautiful suits and shoes, and hatred overcame hope. An incoherent mix of muffled groans followed, and hefty cords gracefully arched over the high arm of the streetlight. Ugly nooses hung limply until fitted over swollen and bloodied heads, and two ropes drew taut under the weight of helpless bodies.

A bat fell sharply upon his shoulder, knocking the trumpet bag loose. As he stumbled upon his knees, he felt his fist tighten around the mouthpiece in his pocket. No, he thought, nothing from you but beauty.

“You really think you can live white, nigger-boy?” a man leaned into him to jeer.

He raised his face to the light, prepared to witness death.

“Hey! Hey, man, wait,” one attacker lifted a hand and checked his mates. “You – you’re Jericho Jones, aren’t you?”

“Jericho Jones!” arose a murmur.

“Yeah,” he spat out a little blood.

“Oh, man, you’re great! I saw you years ago, playing on a street corner! And that’s your axe, right there!”

“Jericho Jones!” a whisper floated over the scene.

He fell to the sidewalk, propped upon one arm, reconciled to fate.

“This here is the greatest musical genius of our time! Man, you should hear him jam!”

A fine feather in someone’s cap, he thought, and hung his head.

“Man – we met Jericho Jones! I’ll never forget this day! He’s the best of all time!”

The band of men had turned suddenly jovial – an inexplicable mix of magnificence and atrocity – and walked off into the darkness. “What a night! Jericho Jones! Man, can he play!”

He sat in stunned silence upon the curb, his legs straight out, his friends dangling above him in awful silhouette.

The voice turned somber. The beat slowed, and tones sank and mellowed into thoughtfulness. A mournful wail lifted itself from the trumpet’s bell and called out to the heavens. No more clubs, no more halls. Back on the streets, back on the road, only open skies and solitude would suffice. He hunkered down in dark corners, destitute parts of town left to wilderness, and played out his anguish. Pushing the frustrated notes from his heart and out through the instrument, he sifted his mourning with charity and resolve.

His voice would not allow hatred. Determination, yes, and perseverance, even anger, but the bitter wickedness of hatred had no home there. The phrases drooped under their new burden, lines repeated two and three times, because there was nothing more to say. Smooth and velvety, a darker timbre flavored his accusation. A slow vibrato shook his cry, and his knees supported the horn as sobbing tones fell muted by the sidewalks. Still he played, refusing the silence that might also mean safety.

Over bridges and through woods he trudged, seeking something that he didn’t know, but what he thought might bring peace. The travels returned his clothing to the rags he remembered so well, and wore his shoes down to paper-thin shreds. These things mattered little, as he searched the sun and sky for new reasons to hope, dappled light cutting through the waving shade of leaves overhead. Invisible song fell like rain, birds well-hidden within the branches, not caring what had passed and what might come. They left no trace of existence except their song, and he could hear it and know them to be birds, though he could not see they were birds. “I am a man,” he said, “though they don’t see me.” He raised his trumpet again, from the back end of a caboose tearing around a curve, and a brilliant blast of defiant joy echoed off purple mountains.

His art could not be stilled, nor either his humanity. Stirred again within, the grace of his muse returned, the supernatural inspiration that makes more of one than what he is returned, as he weighed the vain valuations of the world. Brassy melodies again flowed from him like a rushing stream, bumping smoothly over unexpected nuances, forever bubbling along with glad anticipation. The music spoke with new authority, with new purpose toward not just accommodation but enlightenment as well, a new light to shine upon a forlorn land. And on one day he found his audience again, the audience that would truly listen, and he lifted his voice before an immense crowd gathered around still waters, gathered to hear Jericho Jones preach.

Stones, cold stones laid one upon another make a wall, as do hearts of stone. And he played before the giant stone image of a white man, on an early April Sunday morning, he played before the temple, and his song rang out over the people.

* * * * *

Craig Davis was born and bred in Memphis, the land of Elvis and pork barbecue, though neither ever did him any good. After earning journalism degrees at the University of Missouri, he worked in newsrooms for 20 years, then turned his attention to writing fiction in 2004. Davis has written five books available for Kindle, including “A Time for Poncey – And other Stories out of Skullbone.” He has two grown daughters and a dog who refuses to grow up. His contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Madness in their Hearts ◊ Part III

Catch up on part 1 and part 2 of “Madness in their Hearts”

.

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.


Madness in their Hearts ◊ Part II

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.

“Damn straight.”

“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?”

“No.”

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.

Madness in their Hearts ◊ Part I

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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.

* * * * *

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.