A young boy from California arrives in South Georgia in 1958 to visit.
"Devil's Dance" Part 1
Autumn is a season of redemption in South Georgia when finally the wind blows and days become cooler, more livable. It's a time when tempers ease away from the stifling, hot air of summer and folks rediscover their capacity for friendship. The seasons change with a cool breeze dipping in from the north, and that is when most people endeavor to make amends with their god--and their neighbor. Churches fill to the brim once more, and after services, the congregations tend to linger in the yard to share the hope that dwells within their hearts.
Those same "winds of autumn" met my family as we drove into Greerson, Georgia. It was early Sunday morning, and the backseat of my parent's falcon station wagon all but buckled under the release of excitement, which came from my sister and me.
My grandfather's house was only a few miles outside of town. The countryside swallowed the asphalt as soon as we left the city limits and the white lines in the middle of the road disappeared. The road got bumpy and dusty. Gravel began to pelt the underside of the car, and low hanging limbs scraped across the windows, whenever we met oncoming traffic. I stood on the hump in the floorboard, over the drive shaft and watched the landscape as it rushed past the window into a cloud of dust behind us.
Soon, we pulled into the driveway of my grandfather's house, and I felt my heart as it thumped against my backbone from anticipation. As soon as my mother popped the hinge on the door to the backseat, I exploded across the neat, concentric circles of the freshly swept yard, jumped up the steps and slammed my knees into the lap of the only old man there. It was him.
By the time my mother and father reached the porch, I had a new pocket watch of my very own. It was gold, and as I examined it, the air around me filled with "hellos," "hugs" and "kisses" and all the sounds of a family reunited. They were inside before I noticed, and I was alone on the porch with my thoughts and my new prize.
I leaned against one of the posts that supported the tin roof and twirled the watch in a wide circle on its chain. The sun's light glinted from the watch, ricocheted across the planks of the floor, shot up the side of the wall, and then sparkled back at me from the glass of the front window. My gaze meandered toward the screened door, and I saw my grandfather's grin. The spring screamed as he stepped through. The door clapped shut against the sounds of a long-awaited homecoming. I heard my grandmother's shrieks of delight as she drew her voice into a lengthy squeeze and a hug when she greeted each person. My grandfather took a seat beside me and dangled his legs over the edge of the porch, then rested his back on the other side of the same post I leaned against. "Ya' know, boy, that watch has a history. Would you like to hear 'bout it?"
"You bet I would--uh--sir." His nature was so familiar and comfortable; I almost forgot we had just met for the first time. From that first moment, we seemed to know each other like lifelong buddies. He acted more like a friend than a grandfather, but I still thought it best that I showed him proper respect.
He jerked his head toward the door and snatched a peek from the living room, where the other grownups sat talking. Then he turned back to me and whispered, "You ain't gotta call me 'sir' when we're alone like this. However, I do appreciate 'Grandpa,' if ya don't mind," he grinned and ripped the stalk off a tall-growing weed, stuck it in his mouth and continued. "When I was 'bout your age, my granddaddy gived me this watch, and I prized it more'n anythin'. That's not the history I spoke of, but it is the beginning of that history."
"I carried that watch with me ever'where. I hung it on my bedpost at night and 'round my neck all the rest o' the day. One day, a friend and me was walkin' to school, when that bully, Jimmy Martin, come up behind us. He was twice our size; the both of us put together and loved rubbin' my nose into the mud. And he was about to do just that when he saw my watch. He reached to grab it, but I was quicker and yanked it off my neck first. I held it outside his reach, as long as I could, but like I said, Jimmy was big as a mule, just as dumb and twice as strong. It woulda been his and I woulda been breathin' dirt, if not for my friend." He stopped and peered into the room filled with relatives. Then he started again. "While Jimmy knocked me down and straddled my belly, my friend stood behind him emptyin' out my lunch bucket."
"Lunch bucket?" I asked.
"Yeah. Back then, your great grandma would fill me a plate with peas and cornbread, lima beans and maybe some ham. She'd wrap it in a cloth and lay it inside an old wooden water bucket for me to carry to school for lunch. That was what my friend dumped into the ditch. Too bad too, I had ham that day and momma packed in some pound cake leftover from Church Social the day before."
"Why'd he dump your lunch?"
"Well--he took that empty bucket and slung it over Jimmy Martin's head. Jimmy stood up with my friend holdin' onto the handle, dangling in a spot where Jimmy couldn't get his hands on him. It wasn't pretty, but it got him off me."
"Did you get up and run?"
"I started to, but I couldn't leave my friend there to die, so I commenced to punchin' Jimmy's belly. I didn't notice, but my friend let go the handle and ran off. Thinkin' I was long gone like I shoulda been."
"Oh, no," I said.
"You said it. Jimmy pulled that bucket off his head and swung it up-side mine. When I woke up, Jimmy was rolled up in a knot clutchin' his head while he laid there in the ditch, and my friend was standin' over him laughin'."
"What happened," I asked?
"Later, my friend told me that I spun on my heels after Jimmy hit me, and that watch flew taut on the end of the chain, smacking Jimmy's head as I twirled 'round. I knocked him cold. That's when my friend rolled him in the ditch. See that ding on the side of the watch?" He said as he pointed in the direction of the watch.
I examined the area of the watch and saw a slight dent on the edge of the case, "I see it!"
My Grandfather continued, "Course the watch ain't worked since that day, but I figured you'd like it. You know, for the history."
"You bet, Grandpa." The pride I felt holding that watch, stayed fixed in my eyes all that day.
About the time my grandfather finished his story, a stream of relatives walked down the driveway toward his house. They all passed into the living room of my grandfather's four-room house. The children ran and screamed through the front yard, and climbed the sides of the porch to where they stared over my shoulder at the watch I held in my lap. However, when I showed them no mind, they chased each other back into the yard and around the house in circles, until they were called in for cake because the men wanted to grab a smoke out on the porch.
Everyone spilled into the kitchen nibbled on some cake, then ran back onto the porch as the sun fell from the sky. Later, my grandfather's strong, steady voice lulled me to sleep with his reminiscent stories about family and friends and my dreams filled with lunch buckets and watches and heroes for friends.
The next morning I awakened to whispers floating through still air. I breathed in the smell of damp earth peppered with new-fallen leaves, then rolled over and saw my sister asleep beside me. As soon as I remembered where I was, I jumped from the bed and ran through the house searching for the whispers' source.
My grandmother and grandfather were in the kitchen; she already had her apron on and waved it through great puffs of heat billowing from the oven door as she checked on her biscuits inside. Grandfather sat at the table and blew steam away as it wafted from his coffee cup. His eyes curled and sparked when he noticed me standing in the early-morning shadows, and his arms spread wide over his lap. I launched myself toward them.
"Boy, you're a hefty one aren't you? I'd say you were big enough to ride with me to the store." He smiled wide, then asked, " You ever seen a pot-bellied stove?"
"No sir," I said from deep inside a hug.
"Well, sir. After we break our nightly fast, I'll show you one," he said.
My grandmother protested, saying something about rough language and "hooligans" and a place unfit for "young 'uns" like me. However, she smiled and explained how I needed to see what, "country-life," was all about, so that, "I remembered to tell my children the proper truth, someday." That must have soothed her anger because she reluctantly agreed to let me go, "If his Mama says he can."
After breakfast, we approached my mother as she squeezed the door shut to the bedroom, where my father slept. She seemed more concerned with the condition of her robe and misplaced hairs, then where the two of us wanted to go.
"You just be sure to be on your best behavior, son."
We were out the door and raised a cloud of dust before my mother smoothed her lapels.
I stood on my knees in the front seat of my grandfather's shiny, black Plymouth and peered over the dashboard. The hood beaded with dew, and the droplets seemed to come to life when the wind hit them. The drops of water streamed towards me, gathered into puddles that rolled and then splashed against the windshield in front of me. My grandfather started the wipers, which smeared pollen and dust into huge semicircles across the glass
"Damn Goldenrod! You know, boy, God's only made a few mistakes. However, in my mind, Goldenrod is surely one of 'em. Don't let your grandma know I said that though. She'd quote me every verse mentioning that nasty dust and swear it's the scurf off God's head and as such, a blessing on the world." Just then a smile broke across his face, and he pointed out the windshield. "There's the store up ahead. What ya think."
The "store" was a collection of warped and twisted boards, bleached gray by the sun as they loosely hung from a rusted, tin roof. It was great. Out front stood two contraptions so strange I thought they might have been on loan from the set of a science fiction movie like War of the Worlds or Forbidden Planet. They were red, rectangular, and made out of metal, with something that resembled a glass jar upside-down on top. A hose with a nozzle hung from a silver holster on the side, and a red crank handle occupied the opposite side. We stopped in front of them.
"I need some gas, boy. You hold the nozzle. I'll pump."
As I opened the door, I was greeted by the early-morning chill of fall. It must have been there when I got into the car, but my excitement kept me from noticing. My grandfather pulled the nozzle from its saddle and slammed it down the gas tank's gullet. I tried to take it from his hand, but it sat so high on the fender of the car that my short legs couldn't reach it. My grandfather dragged a wooden soda-crate to the side of the car, and I climbed it, then grabbed hold. I watched intently as he cranked the red handle and the glass jar filled with an amber liquid.
"That's enough," he said as the liquid leveled off at the five-gallon mark. "Just pull that lever on the side of the nozzle and let it out."
I did and immediately felt a jerk. The gasoline gushed through the nozzle into the tank and splashed my arm with tiny droplets that chilled my skin as they faded into the air. After a few seconds, a stinging, sweet aroma surrounded me, and I sniffed deep gulps of it to satisfy some strange craving. I looked and saw the amber liquid gurgle as its volume fell in the glass jar. A few minutes later, the liquid vanished under the red rim.
As my grandfather hung the nozzle back in the saddle, he spoke. "Good job, son. Now, let's go inside and pay ol' man Martin. Ya know he's got a dozen flavors of Nehi in there. What kind do you like?"
"You've never had a Nehi soda? Boy, are you in for a treat."
As I stepped from the morning's chill into a rush of warm air, a voice jumped out of the darkness and froze my advance.
"What ya got there, Bull?"
I stopped with the light of day still warming my back, but my grandfather's hand reached out of the shadows and pulled me in. "This is my grandson, Tommy. Y'all take care how you carry on 'round him; ya hear. Katie almost didn't let me come 'cause of your flagrant ways, so watch your manners."
My eyes adjusted to the dim lighting after several seconds, and I was able to look past the glowing embers of the woodstove into the room around me. A polished, wood counter spanned the wall at the very back of the store with five rows of shelves above it. The shelves were full of sacks, boxes, cans, and dark bottles that contained the skull and crossbones on their labels. To the side of the counter, there was a metal chest. Red paint covered the emblem of the soft drink company that sponsored it. I stood at the arm of my grandfather's chair, while he teetered on its hind legs warming his feet against the "pot-bellied" stove.
"Grandpa? Did you say they had sodas here?"
"No son, they don't got sodas; they got Nehis. Go over to that red box and get you one." He pointed to the chest by the counter. "Mr. Martin, my grandson's gonna get him a Nehi. Them folks in California ain't never had nothin' like a Nehi. Put whatever he gets on my account."
"Sure thing, Bull. Tell him to try the chocolate ones. That's a new flavor, and I hear it's a good one."
Everyone called my grandfather "Bull," and that puzzled me. He was by far the smallest man in the group and had a milder, more congenial manner than most. As far as I could tell there was no logic behind the nickname, but I left the question in the back of my mind and chose my chocolate Nehi.
Every time I finished my drink, my grandfather sent me after another. While he and the others told stories and laughed, I drank more than a half-dozen chocolate-flavored Nehis. My belly bulged like a little pink balloon, overfilled and strained against the knot that held it together.
After several hours of whispers and chuckles, choked profanities and blank spots in the conversation, my grandfather decided to leave. He opened the car door for me, and I clambered into the front seat. My stomach sloshed as I settled on my rear. As we started down the road, I sat there surrounded by the hollow of the front seat and daydreamed about my hero. Occasionally, I looked up and out the window at the sky and treetops as they rushed passed.
Not far down the road, my grandfather's foot raised and found the brake. We slowed to a stop, and he yelled out the window, "what y'all got goin' on, Lem?"
A distant voice answered: "We got us a rattler, Bull." Then a large man stepped up to the window. He towered over the roof of the car. He stooped and rested his elbow beside the mirror while his hand dangled inside. "It's a big one too. I reckon it's six-foot and fat with a jackrabbit or a pond-rat. Ya ought to come look."
My grandfather's door swung open. "He didn't get anyone, did he?"
"Naw, we all steered clear of him. Everyone but ol' Blue that is. He stepped right in the middle of that rattler as he lay in the high grass by the road. You shoulda heard him whimper when that rattler struck him."
"Yeah. He belongs to Mr. Williams--lives just down the road there on the right. Wandered up here when he saw our commotion. That's Williams over there with him."
I crawled to my knees and looked out the window of the car. I saw four or five men as they stood at the side of the road, in a spot where the tall grass was trampled flat. Another man with black skin sat on the grass and rocked back and forth like he had a baby cradled on his lap.
My grandfather and the large man strolled across the road towards the other men. They passed the snake as it twisted and writhed in the middle of the road. My grandfather glanced down. "Same thing happened to a damn good huntin' dog I had once. Did I ever tell you 'bout that?"
"No, Bull. I don't believe you ever did."
"Had a moccasin follow the heavy rain into my back yard last spring. That dog o' mine stumbled across that snake stretched-out after the sun broke through and stuck his nose right in the middle of its mouth. It yelped louder than a wildcat when that snake bit down. Died that night without a whimper. I guess dumb animals are just that way, can't keep their nose outta anythin' that carries the smell of death." My grandfather answered.
My eyes fell to the snake as his long, muscular body undulated in the dirt. It twisted, and arched, then coiled around dead air. Its rhythmic motion resembled a dance, a devil's dance, and I felt Lucifer's fingers as they tickled the knuckles of my spine, and I watched as that snake squirmed in the sun. Its head almost hacked off, still clung to the body by a thin strip of sinew. The body convulsed as its jaw opened and shut, then it clenched dead air.
Just then, a flatbed truck drove up, and a large woman with black skin jumped out. She ran to the man on the ground and fell to her knees beside him. Her hands clapped together, and her head fell back on her shoulders with her face to the sky. "Lordy, Lordy! God hep me, please!"
The man's face beaded with liquid pearls that crowded into ribbons of sweat, then trickled down his black forehead. Silver curls matted the top of his balding head, which wrinkled and twitched around wide and wild eyes. His breath was jerky and incomplete as he sat mute in the trampled grass. His fist clenched around the right leg of his pants, its fabric cut and torn hurriedly to expose a swollen wound. The bite marks were cut away into a crosshatch of deep gashes wiped clean of the dirt, which mixed with his blood and caked the rest of his leg. The injury reminded me of a strawberry half-deep in a bowl of chocolate syrup; his ebony skin ripped open, and the lush, red meat underneath popped out.
My grandfather patted the large lady with black skin on her shoulder as he walked by and his eyes fell to the man on the ground. For a brief moment, when their eyes met, their expressions shared a warm embrace. For a moment I thought they might have spoken, but then the moment ended, and my grandfather turned and faced a large man beside him. He spent a minute or two caught inside a blank stare then asked the man, "Is that Mrs. Blue?"
The man beside him answered, "yep."
"Has anyone gone for Doc Walters," my grandfather asked?
"Hell no, Bull! He's a people doctor. 'Sides he's got his hands full with Amy Turner," the large man said.
My grandfather turned his head back to the man with a questioning look, "is she finally givin' birth to that baby she's been carryin'?"
"Yep. Started birthin' 'bout three this mornin'."
"I'll have to tell Katie when I get home. I reckon she'll wanna drop by tomorrow."
My grandfather joined the circle of men on the side of the road, and the clamor raised another decibel or two. I watched as he seized their attention with the telling of a story, and they laughed even louder.
Underneath their curtain of laughter, the man sitting on the ground shivered then slumped into the arms of the large woman with black skin. She screamed: "Oh, my lord," then wrapped her massive body around him and rocked while she cried and hummed a slow, rhythmic tune. A fly landed on the red meat of his wound, but there was no movement, and over the next few hours, his rich chocolate-brown skin slowly took on a chalky appearance--dry, powdery, and cold.