“The Powerful Bad Luck of DD Dupree”
by Frank Tuttle
Nights like this, I remember.
Nights when the heat is as thick and as heavy as the dark. Nights when the sun burned so hot at noon you can still feel the face of it at midnight. Nights when the cicadas and the crickets and the whippoorwills sing so loud they drown out the sounds of Memphis-bound eighteen wheelers roaring past on Mississippi Highway 78.
Nights like this, the scar on the back of my right hand—the one where the dead hand of Lucas Dupree lay, before a one-armed black man named Wade Lee smiled and took it and snatched it way—nights like this, that old four-fingered scar burns and throbs and itches like it was new.
Yes. Nights like this, I remember.
DD Dupree—his name was Daniel Dennis, but no one called him that—and I stood outside old man Abernathy’s Bag and Gas and used the rusty iron bottle opener nailed to the wall to open our sodas. I went first, as usual; my bottle hissed and fizzed, but nothing more.
DD put his soda in the opener and eased it gently down. DD’s face fell into an involuntary, habitual grimace as he did so; he knew what to expect, and so did I.
His bottle hissed, and the top third went white with foam, and before DD could move the cap flew off and a gush of frothing brown RC Cola came gurgling from the bottle. It covered DD’s forearm, sprayed the concrete parking slab as far back as the gas pumps, and soaked the bottom half of old man Abernathy’s fly-spotted screen door.
Inside the Bag and Gas, Abernathy started wailing and cussing, and DD shook the worst of the foam off his arm and lifted the dripping bottle to his lips long enough to take one long drink. Then he hurled the empty bottle into the trash can beside us, and we took to our heels before Abernathy and his flailing red-handled broom came stomping out the door.
That’s when it started, all those years ago, though I didn’t know it then. We ran hooting from the Bag and Gas (or “Bag O’ Gas,” as it more widely known), cut through the hot, shiny rows of lonely Fords (“Super Sale ’72!”, read a drooping banner draped over the tiny tin-roofed sales office) at Deep South Motors, skirted the high white fence that surrounded the Big Moon Drive-In, and finally fell, gasping and triumphant, in the cool grassy shade beneath the Lizard Creek bridge.
“Ole Bag O’ Gas sounded pissed,” I said, punching DD on the shoulder. “He’ll make you sweep the parking lot, the next time we go.”
DD shrugged. He’d do it, too—sweep the old man’s cracked lot, I mean. Because while he’d laughed and run, just like me, DD hadn’t meant to spew sticky brown RC all over the old man’s door. That was just DD’s luck. If DD opened a soda, it spewed. If he dropped a quarter, it rolled down a storm-drain.
A semi-truck thundered past above us, shaking the concrete bridge and raising a brief hot wind that smelled of burnt motor oil and cattle held too long in a hot, tight space. In its wake a horsefly buzzed past, sailed once about us, and lit full and sudden on the tip of DD’s nose.
It bit, and DD swatted, and wound up with a glob of smashed horsefly-juice burning his right eye.
That was more of DD’s famous bad luck. I watched in silence while he knelt down in the clay by the slow muddy water and splashed Lizard Creek liberally in his face. His nose was swollen and his right eye was red and puffy and it wasn’t even ten o’clock on a Saturday morning.
I sat back and watched for water moccasins. I knew better than to offer aid or comment; DD wouldn’t have the first, and didn’t want the other.
The snakes left him alone, and after a time he pulled his face back from the water. His hair ran wet, plastered down the front of his face in long brown shocks, and thick, slow drops of creek-water dripped from his nose and chin.
“Damn flies,” I said, reveling in the sound of the forbidden curse-word.
DD didn’t grin. Instead he pushed his hair back and walked once more into the shade of the bridge.
I watched him walk. People said DD was clumsy, that he wouldn’t be falling and tripping and barging into things if he’d watch where he walked. But anyone who really watched DD walk would know that wasn’t true. DD was careful. Graceful, even; he knew where he was planting his feet, he knew he had to avoid the rocks and the snags on the creek-bank, because he knew it would trip him or slip him, given half a chance. Look, step, look up, foot in the air, look down, foot down—that’s how DD walked, with his eyes in constant motion and his thin tanned hands held just barely out from his sides, always ready to break a fall.
He joined me in the shade, and we sat on our favorite pair of big rocks and let the damp creek wind blow over us.
Silence grew. I sensed that the usual topics—Missy Sue Chambers, Godzilla, our plans to fix up an old motorcycle we’d found in a ditch by Copperhead Road—they weren’t on DD’s mind, today.
“It’s gettin’ worse,” said DD after a time. His nose was still swelling, his right eye going puffy and red and narrow. “I reckon I’ve got a problem.”
He didn’t mean his eye or his nose, and I knew it. What I didn’t know was what to say.
DD fixed his eyes on Lizard Creek. A water moccasin slithered out into the sun on the far bank, crawled onto a rock, spread its fat black bulk to the sun.
“It’s just bad luck,” I said. “I get bit by horse-flies, too. Sometimes my soda spews.”
“Sometimes?” DD shook his head. “Sometimes, sure. But it’s every time for me. Every bottle I open spews or spoils or breaks. If there’s a loose step it’ll trip me. If I open the mail-box there’s a wasp trapped inside.” He reached up and rubbed his eye. “It ain’t just little things anymore, either. I can’t unplug a lamp without getting shocked. Can’t lift a car hood without it falling down on me. I don’t dare go outside in the thunder, John.” He glanced again toward the water moccasin, just to make sure it wasn’t sneaking up on us. “One day soon, even stayin’ inside won’t be enough.”
“You got to be extra careful,” I said. That’s what my mom had told me to do when I was around DD. Be extra careful. Like his bad luck could slide off him and wrap itself around me.
“I reckon it ain’t natural,” said DD. He sighed, an old man’s worn-out end-of-the-day on the porch kind of sigh. “I been thinkin’, John. What’ll happen when I start driving? It’s only two years. What’ll happen when it ain’t just tripping over loose rocks? What’ll happen the first time I come around a bend and old man Thicket’s cows are in the road?”
The sun wandered behind a cloud, plunging the damp trash-littered creek-bank into a wide and chilly shadow.
I didn’t say anything. The thought of DD behind the wheel of his mother’s wheezing old Malibu was disturbing, even then, even to me. I knew he’d be careful. Extra careful, even, and then some. But I’d seen the handlebars just pop off his bike halfway down Thrill Hill the week before, watched the driver of a passing car unintentionally toss a cigarette butt directly into DD’s mouth as DD yawned later that same day.
DD drew his arms across his chest. “I been havin’ dreams,” he said. “Dreams about wrecks. I’m drivin’ and I’m lookin’ and I’m careful, but the road turns and there’s headlights coming at me and I can’t slow down and I can’t turn and . . .”
A semi rumbled by above.
“. . . and I die,” finished DD. “Every time. I die.”
“It’s just a dream,” I said. “You know why you have it.”
DD’s father, a notorious drunkard whose death had been welcomed by all who knew him as a rare good stroke of luck, had died five years before in a spectacular car wreck which involved an estimated speed of one hundred and thirty miles per hour, six of Bald Bob Dowtry’s finest double-wide trailer houses, and, of course, half a dozen mayonnaise jars full of Yocona Bottom still-brewed whiskey. They’d hauled Lucas Dupree’s primer-colored Trans Am away in scattered handfuls, and Lucas Dupree himself away in two canvas bags—one for what was left of his body, and one for his head, which was found sitting upright atop the refrigerator in the wreck of a double-wide. They said Lucas Dupree’s eyes were open, staring out of the bisected trailer at his wake of devastation, mouth set in a toothless grin as if he were proud of the ruin he’d wrought.
“No,” said DD. “It ain’t that. There’s something else. More than bad luck. All this—” he touched his nose, rubbed his eye, “—all the time. It can’t be natural.”
DD took in a big breath, and his next words spilled out in a jumble. “It can’t be natural. And it’s gettin’ worse, and I’ve been thinking, and I reckon there’s only one man who can tell me what to do,” he said. “I’m going to see Wade Lee. You want to come?”
“Wade Lee,” I whispered. DD’s brown eyes met mine, and he nodded, somber.
Wade Lee. The mojo man. Old Lot Road.
Be extra careful, I heard. Mind where you boys go.
“Hell yeah,” I said. “Count me in.”
Across the creek, the moccasin turned its blunt head toward us and slid into creek. We heaved head-sized chunks of white stone at it until the V its head drew in the water was half a dozen paces from our tennis shoes, and then we turned and fled up the weed-choked bank, shouting down rude words as we went.
“Wade Lee,” said DD, much later, at his trailer-house door. “Saturday. Bring your bike, okay?”
“Okay,” I said, in a whisper. DD’s mom paced and slammed doors somewhere in the back of their battered mobile home.
DD shut the door. I jumped off the cinder-block steps and turned for home and I was halfway there before I realized the water moccasin hadn’t moved until I’d whispered Wade Lee’s name.
We laid our plans for the rest of the week. DD laughed and joked and never once did we mention who we sought, or why.
You’ve got to remember, this was Mississippi in 1972. We were white kids, and Wade Lee—Wade Lee was the color of anthracite coal.
Wade Lee lived in a shack way out at the end of Old Lot Road. There was nothing else down that way, except Old Lot cemetery, and there hadn’t been a burial there in sixty years. But even the kids knew stories about Old Lot Road, about Wade Lee’s leaning three-room tin-roofed shack. Wade Lee the mojo man, the stories always began. Wade Lee, the man to see, when doctors and lawyers can’t help.
White men—white men who might well have donned white robes, not so many years ago—white men were seen driving out of Old Lot, hurrying away, odd parcels and bags on the seat beside them. Black folks, too, sought him out, though they drove slower and stayed longer and were more likely to speak aloud his name.
Wade Lee had one arm, his right. His legs and his left arm were stumps, chewed up and bitten off by one of Mister Ramsey’s corn-pickers ten years before I was born. They say Wade Lee had been alone when he reached inside the jaws of the machine to tear out a jam, and that he’d struggled alone with the machine for an hour after that, as it slowly drew in his hand, then his arm, then his legs, one by one, as he fought to free himself from the rotating drums of spikes that picked limbs as easily as they did corn.
They also say that his screams were heard, finally, two miles away, and that when the rest of Ramsey’s farm-hands pulled him free he’d been screaming so loud half of them refused to go near him. “Screamin’ like thunder,” my grand-daddy said. “Never heard nothing like it. Never heard them words, neither.”
Ramsey had given Wade Lee the shack at the end of Old Lot Road, and bought him a wheel-chair, and as the stories of Ramsey’s pillar of the church generosity died down new stories began.
And now DD and I were going to see him.
Saturday came, hot and bright. We rode our Western Flyer bikes out to the Lizard Creek bridge, ditched the BB guns strapped to our bike frames. “Going to shoot at snakes,” we’d both said. I’d never lied to my mother before, and the words felt foul in my mouth, but she’d just nodded and DD had caught his shin on a chair-leg and out we’d gone.
We changed shirts, under the bridge—it wouldn’t do to have our mothers hear that two white boys wearing what they’d dressed us in were seen pedaling furiously for Old Lot Road—and set out for Wade Lee’s.
An hour later, sweating and puffing, we arrived at the gravel head of Old Lot Road. We hid the bikes, discovered that DD’s Boy Scout canteen had leaked and was empty, and finally we set out down Old Lot Road, gravel making cacophonous scrunch-scrunch noises beneath our feet.
Old Lot Road was untravelled, and the hot air was quiet and still. Tall old loblolly pines lined the gravel; there was no shoulder on either side, and if two fast cars were to meet in any of the curves somebody was going to die and I wondered how many had done just that.
We disturbed two young deer and a fat old possum and that was all we saw. DD was silent, mopping sweat, batting away at mosquitoes that hung thick in a cloud about him while scarcely troubling me.
Crunch-crunch, crunch-crunch. We set a cadence, and I had the eerie feeling that the sound of our footfalls masked those of something else, something pacing us just behind the pines. The sun blazed down, its face high and white in a cloudless blue sky, but it felt more like midnight in the sharp-edged shadows.
We rounded a bend, and DD looked away from the gravel and caught my shoulder. “We’re there,” he said, his eyes wide, his face pocked with a dozen angry red mosquito-bites. “Wade Lee’s.”
Wade Lee’s. I stopped, wiped sweat, took it in.
Old Lot Road just ended, giving way to a rutted red-clay turn-around and then to the feet of the crowded pines. Old Lot cemetery itself crouched on a hill, two dozen blank and weathered headstones leaning and huddled in the shade of the pines, a fallen-down wood fence running down one side, a crooked line of rain-smoothed sandstones down the other.
And there at the foot of it all, a stone’s throw away, was Wade Lee’s.
I’d seen better corn-houses. The tin roof was red and pitted with rust, patched here and there with cast-off bits of shingles, greying globs of sub-baked roofing tar, and tin scavenged from other ancient roofs. Wade Lee’s walls were bare rough-sawn pine planks, grey and curled from sun and rain. The shack sat knee-high off the ground, propped up by rocks on the right side and concrete cinder-blocks on the left.
One crooked yellow door, one cracked window, a length of weathered duct-tape running down the middle. A tiny porch that covered both. No sign of a power line or a telephone pole; I guessed that the pair of barrels set under the porch-eaves caught water.
“Old Man Ramsey really spared no expense,” said DD.
I nodded, distracted by a low moaning sound, like a Methodist choir learning a Halloween song. Beside the shack stood a bottle tree, its bare branches each supporting one of a hundred or so glass whiskey bottles; the moaning sound came from them, from wind blown across the bottle-mouths, though it was a wind I could not feel.
Someone had painted each bottle. Reds and yellows predominated, though there were greens and golds and whites as well. DD saw me looking, and nodded at Wade Lee’s door with his chin.
“You can stay here, if you want,” he said.
I shook my head no, and we walked toward Wade Lee’s porch, our footfalls loud and slow in the gravel.
We’d taken three steps when Wade Lee’s door opened, and half a silver-spoked wheel poked out.
“Who you boys come to see?” said a loud strong voice, from within. Loud and strong and thick with the promise of mayhem.
“Wade Lee, sir,” said DD. His voice shook and cracked. “We’ve come to see Wade Lee.”
“Why you come to see Wade Lee?” asked the man inside the shack. “Why you come here? Why you want to bother a crippled old black man?”
I head a click, loud and metallic, just like the click grand-daddy’s twelve-gauge made after he loaded both barrels and closed the breech.
DD took another step. I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear his tone, and he wasn’t scared any more, just hot and tired and mad.
“I came to see Wade Lee because I’m going to die if I don’t,” he said. He jerked his thumb back toward me. “He came because he’s my friend and I asked him to.”
Silence. Then a crow cawed, and the man inside laughed. The door opened, and a black man—a one-armed black man with stumps for legs and a bald head shiny with sweat—wheeled himself through the narrow door with his thick right arm.
He’d been a big man once, Wade Lee. Tall. Even without legs, he was taller than me, taller than DD. His good right arm was at least as big around as my waist. He kept his lips over his teeth when he talked, like a man expecting a punch. And he kept his eyes—brown eyes, clear and quick—staring right back at yours.
“I reckon them are good reasons,” said Wade Lee, to DD. “Lord, yo’ friend looks like he’s seen a ghost. You tell him Wade Lee ain’t goin’ to shoot him today. Then both of you come on up here on this porch and we’ll have us a talk.”
DD didn’t look back. He balled his fists and set his jaw and we marched past the moaning bottle-tree and up onto Wade Lee’s plank-floored porch.
DD and Wade Lee went inside; I’d gotten a glimpse beyond his door—walls lined with jars, a low bed in one corner, light streaming in from a crooked window at the back—but then DD had closed it, and I was alone.
I listened, but the only sound I could hear was the occasional drone of a plane, and the continual moaning of the bottle tree. Crows came and went, cawing and flapping among the pines, coming down to light on the head-stones of Old Lot and regard me with tilted heads and one-sided stares. As time passed, the crows grew bolder; by the time DD and Wade Lee emerged from the shack, Wade Lee’s tiny yard was full of hopping, staring crows.
The door opened, though, and the crows took to the air. DD squinted at the sun and looked tired, and Wade Lee rolled out behind him and regarded me with eyes gone sad and serious.
“Yo’ friend here is in a bad way,” he said. “You believe that?”
DD’s hair was plastered down with sweat. “Tell him the truth,” said DD to me, and he was hoarse, like he’d been yelling or crying, though I hadn’t heard a thing.
“I guess so,” I replied. “He’s right. Nobody’s luck is as bad as his. Not all the time.”
Wade Lee shook his head. “That’s right, child,” he said. “Bad luck comes, and bad luck goes. But what has your friend here ain’t just bad old luck. No, it’s something else. Something bad. Hidin’ in the dark. Reachin’ out and grabbin’, taking hold when it can. Gettin’ stronger. Gettin’ bolder.”
“We got to call it out,” said Wade Lee, to me. “Got to make it show its face. Got to make it step out of the dark and tell us its name,” said Wade Lee, and he wasn’t so much talking as preaching, every word half song, half hammer blow. “What your friend here needs to know is will you stand with him, when we call his bad luck out? Will you, John Laylock, stand beside DD Dupree in his dark?”
I stood up. I knew the crows were still watching from the cemetery; I felt their black eyes upon me as they gathered in the pines.
“I’ll be there,” I said. “Sure. I’ll go.”
“You’ll be there,” said Wade Lee, his baritone mocking my tenor. “You don’t even know where there is, boy. What if it’s out in them woods? What if it’s with them headstones at midnight? What if there’s a price to pay, Mister John? A price you got pay, just for bein’ there? What then?”
Wade Lee stared up at me. He had those eyes, just like my father’s mother—eyes that didn’t look at you or past you, but right damned through you. You couldn’t lie to that woman, and I knew right then I couldn’t lie to Wade Lee, either.
Headstones at midnight. Something in the words sent shivers down my spine. Would I be there?
I thought back to the time I’d met DD, out behind the Oxford Middle School, as Melvin Chambers held me by the throat against a cedar tree and punched me, over and over, in the gut. He’d struck me seven times when one of the blurry forms gathered in a jeering ring about us screamed and leaped—full on the wide, tall back of Melvin Chambers.
And Melvin had fallen. Fallen and let go of me—and as I lay there gasping and puking, I realized the slight form savaging the gargantuan, merciless Melvin was the quiet trailer-park kid no one ever spoke to.
DD had snapped. I wouldn’t understand until much later that he’d seen his mother beaten in exactly the same manner, that something deep within him had broken, that he’d attacked Chambers because he dared not lift his hand to his father. All I knew was that DD Dupree knocked out three of Melvin Chambers’ teeth and bit his left ear nearly in half and left him two black eyes that persisted for a month, all on my behalf.
“I’ll go with DD,” I said. “I mean it.”
DD looked up and grinned at me and Wade Lee slapped his calloused right hand down hard and fast on his porch-rail. “That’s good,” he said, smiling. Crows scattered like rags in a whirlwind. “That’s real good. Three is the best number for a job like this. Three is just right. Wade Lee and DD and John. Just right.” He turned back to DD. “Can you remember what I told you?”
“Yes, sir,” said DD.
“That’s real good,” said Wade Lee. Then he wheeled his chair around to face us both. “DD here knows what to do,” he said. “Don’t talk about it, till it’s time.” Then he looked past us, out at the pines. Crows flew again, scattering like they fled from Wade Lee’s gaze, and he laughed.
“Time you boys was gettin’ home,” he said. “This ain’t no place for white boys, after dark. No place at all.”
He shook DD’s hand, and then he shook mine. His grip was firm, and his hand was strong.
“You boys be careful, goin’ back,” he said. Then he winked at me and grinned. “You be extra careful.”
And then he gripped his right wheel and heaved and the door behind him opened and with a bang Wade Lee was gone.
We backed off the porch. DD saw I had questions, but he shook his head and motioned toward the road. “Talk later,” he said. “Got to get moving.” He squinted at the sky. “We don’t want to be out here after dark.”
I didn’t like it, but I agreed. The sun was low in the sky, way down behind the pines. I tried to recall how long I’d sat on Wade Lee’s porch; it hadn’t seemed long, but here it was, nearly sunset.
We hoofed it toward our bikes, slogging through the loose gravel which drug at our shoes like sand, listening to the crows that darted above and around us every long step of the way.
DD’s chain broke, halfway home. Both of us caught hell for staying out after dark that night. “School is only three weeks away,” my mother proclaimed, as if that had any bearing on the matter at hand. “And here you are running all hours with that Dupree boy, getting into God knows what while I sit by the phone and worry. What am I going to do with you?” she asked.
In the end, she’d done nothing. DD and I laid low, knowing that the next Saturday would involve worse things than staying out past dark.
DD had refused to speak much about Saturday, saying that Wade Lee had made him promise he’d say only certain things, and only say them once. DD and I were to be in the back of the Piggly Wiggly on Main Street at eleven o’clock P.M. Saturday night. I was to bring a flashlight. We would be back home before morning, never mind how.
And if we weren’t there behind the Piggly Wiggly, said DD, we were never ever to walk down Old Lot Road again.
We barely made the Piggly Wiggly by eleven. We’d had to hide twice; once when Mrs. Samson’s dogs heard us and started baying and two of the feared Samson boys came out to look around, and once when Water Hill’s single police car came darting out of a side-street toward us. Both times, we’d hidden in shadows and shrubs. Both times, we emerged unseen.
We trotted furtively down Main, and suddenly the Piggly Wiggly loomed up before us. The store lights went out as we neared, and a gaggle of bag-boys and checkers straggled out of the doors and scattered into the parking lot.
DD and I waited until the last car was gone, and darted around back. There, chugging out a thick black cloud of smoke by the open back loading-dock door, was the grease truck.
Everyone knew the grease truck. We’d all seen it, bald tires wobbling, bed filled with barrels of spent frying grease discarded by grocery stores and restaurants. Driven by a tall thin black man who wore a narrow-brimmed white hat, who was careful with stop lights and speed-limits and who tipped his hat to the ladies as he passed.
“Get in,” said a voice from behind us, and we both whirled. The driver stood not two feet away, white hat cocked forward, an empty two-wheeled hand cart standing before him. “Get in the back. Unless you want to walk down Old Lot Road by yo-selves. Do you?”
“N-no sir,” said DD.
We moved. DD leaped in first and I was right on his heels. The driver motioned us toward the cab, picked up a greasy burlap tarp from somewhere in the truck-bed and threw it at our feet.
“Cover yo-selves up with this,” he said. “And mind the barrels. Some of ’em still hot.”
He threw the hand-cart in with us and marched to the front of the truck. DD and I tried to find seats and hand-holds in the dark; I heard a sizzle and a gasp from DD and I knew he’d found the hottest part of the hottest barrel.
A door shut, and the truck’s headlights flared to life, and an instant later worn gears ground and it began to move. DD and I caught up opposite edges of the tarp and pulled it up and over us, holding it against the growing wind with one hand while we held on with the other.
He opened it up when we got out of town. We lost the tarp just before we turned onto Old Lot Road; when the driver slowed to turn, I could hear that he was singing. “Amazing Grace,” he sang, the first verse only, over and over the whole time we were under the pines.
DD gripped his sack and nursed his burnt left hand and stared off into the dark.
We stopped in a cloud of dust in the turn-around by Wade Lee’s house. “Get out,” said the driver. “Fetch Mister Lee.”
DD and I leaped down. DD sucked at burned fingers, looked toward the cab of the truck.
The driver turned to face him. “Mister Lee told me to fetch you. Told me to wait here for him. But he didn’t say nothin’ about me getting out of this truck. You boys go fetch him. I’m stayin’ put.”
I heard laughter in the dark, and a match flared in Wade Lee’s shack, then brightened as he lit an old-fashioned kerosene lamp. “You just stay in your truck, Evan Fonslee,” said Wade Lee, his shadow outlined against a broken window. “That’s all you got to do.”
The driver turned away from us, clutched the wheel with both hands, and began to mumble prayers. Wade Lee laughed, and his shadow vanished as he moved toward his door. In a moment, the door opened, and Wade Lee wheeled himself through it.
He looked past me to where DD was standing in the yard. “You bring what I told you?”
“Got it all here,” said DD. He shifted the sack from his right shoulder to his left. “Are we going up there? Up to the cemetery?”
Wade Lee laughed. He threw back his head and slapped the seat, where his knee should have been.
“Graveyard? Why you want to go to a grave-yard? Dead folks can’t help you.” He shook his head and looked up at me like we were sharing a private joke. “Lord, these white folks and their scary movies. Think everything have to happen in a grave-yard.”
“Where, then?” asked DD. “You said we’d have to—”
“I know what I said,” spoke Wade Lee, and his voice was hard. “I said there was a place we’d go. I said there was a thing we’d do. And we will, oh yes we will—but it ain’t here. Them folks got nothing to do with us, tonight.”
The grease truck driver raced his sputtering engine. Wade Lee lifted his hand. “You be still, Mr. Fonslee,” he said. “Have you forgot what I done for you? Forgot what I done when yo’ child had trouble with the law?”
“No sir,” came the quiet reply.
“Good,” said Wade Lee. “All you got to do is drive. Me and these boys gonna do all the work.”
Wade Lee rolled down the plank ramp and onto his yard. I saw that he carried a burlap sack in his lap.
“Now then,” he said, rolling up the edge of the gravel and stopping. “You boys got to put me in the truck. Then we goin’ to a place. A bad place. There ain’t no turnin’ back, after this. You know that?”
I nodded. DD mumbled a yessir.
Wade Lee shook his head. “That’s good. DD Dupree, you ain’t to speak again, until your time comes. You ain’t to speak, ain’t to cry out. Not to me, not John Laylock here. Do you hear me?”
DD looked up, nodded.
“Good,” said Wade Lee. “Now help John Laylock get me and my chair in the back of that truck.” He chuckled then. “We better hurry, too, before Mister Fonslee here wets his britches.”
The motor raced again, but the truck was still until DD and I had Wade Lee aboard and his chair stowed beside him.
“Let’s go,” said Wade Lee. He banged his fist twice on the back of the cab. “Drive like the devil, Mr. Fonslee! Drive like the devil!”
The truck shook as Mr. Fonslee threw it into gear, and then the wheels spun and we slung gravel across the headstones as we sped back down Old Lot Road and into the night.
And faint, all the way, Mr. Fonslee the grease-truck man prayed and shouted and sang, and Wade Lee just laughed and urged him on.
I watched road-signs, tried to make out landmarks in the dark. I’d figured we were near the Browny Woods well before the grease truck turned down a side road and we left the pavement for gravel once more.
The Browny Woods. Local dumping ground, patch of hardwood forest, bigger patch of scrubby, sick-looking pines that grew smaller each year as the pulpwooders and lumber-trucks nibbled away at its borders. Famous as the spot where, years ago, three bodies had been found in the woods, hanging from the same tree—three young black men who’d never been identified.
I looked at Wade Lee, and he looked back, put a finger to his lips, shook his head. DD saw, too, and just pulled himself into a ball, his arms tight around his knees, his face buried beneath his arms and his hair.
We slowed, the truck bumping and thumping over ruts and potholes, grease sloshing and drumming about us. I could hear Mr. Fonslee the grease-truck man clearly; he prayed and he sang, his voice hoarse and wavering and filled with sheer blind terror.
Wade Lee chuckled, looked at me. “He drive these roads all his life, in the daylight, but now he’s scared near to death. What you reckon Mister Fonslee brung with him, out here in the dark?”
I had no answer. Wade Lee shook his head.
“This ain’t no ordinary dark,” he said, looking away at the night rushing past. “We all gots things in it. Things we don’t want to see. Things we don’t to meet. But where we’re goin’, we’ll likely do both. But you know that already, don’t you, Mister John? You can feel it. I know you can.”
“It’s just the dark,” I said, so soft the rush of air in the open pickup bed took the lie and swallowed it as it was born.
“That’s the thing about this place,” said Wade Lee. The wind left his words alone, soft though they were. “This place we’re goin’. It holds a special kind of dark. And sometimes that dark takes a part of you, and sometimes you takes a part of it. Not always. But sometimes. That’s the price I told you about, Mister John. Can’t say you’ll pay it. Can’t say you won’t. But hear this, Mister John—be mindful. Be mindful of what you do, what you say, what you look at, out here in this dark. You understand?”
I nodded, and Wade Lee looked back at me and away from the night.
“That’s good,” he said. “You got the Sight, ain’t you, boy?”
“I don’t know what you mean?” I said. I didn’t. Not then.
Wade Lee laughed. “Oh, John Laylock,” he said. “You will. You surely surely will.”
The night raced past. I put my chin on my knees and watched the grease-truck’s tail-lights send shadows spinning and held on for dear life.
Mr. Fonslee and his grease truck roared away, grease-barrels rumbling and leaping and bumping as Mr. Fonslee shouted the chorus to “Amazing Grace” and tried his best to outrun the night.
“Think he’ll really come back?” I asked. Wade Lee had instructed Mr. Fonslee to go to the truck-stop down at Wiley, buy himself three big Styrofoam-cup coffees, and drink every one of them as slow as he could before heading back to pick us up.
“Oh, he’ll be back,” said Wade Lee. He stroked the burlap sack he carried, muttered something I couldn’t catch. “He’ll be back. But now we got a place to go,” he said.
I rummaged for my flash-light, but Wade Lee stayed my hand. “No, Mister John,” he said. “That’s for later. For when we a comin’ back. We’ll need the light then. But now, we got to walk in this here dark.”
I frowned, shrugged to hide the shiver that raced down my back. For dark it was; no moon, just a few stars, a faint patch of yellow glow that came from the softball field way over past Turley High. I could barely see Wade Lee, two feet away; the Browny Woods rose up behind him like a wall made of crow’s wings and undertaker’s suit-coats.
“I can’t see a thing,” I said. Something in the back of my mind whispered yet.
“That’s for the best,” said Wade Lee. “I’ll do the seein’. You just do the walking and the pushin’. You go where I tells you when I tells you and we’ll get there just fine.”
We went, and we walked. The light from Turley High didn’t follow half a dozen steps.
I do not ponder that walk, or the Browny Woods. I have never spoken of it, not to DD, not to anyone. My eyes were shut, most of the time, for though I had not believed Wade Lee’s warning in the truck, there in the dark I dared not chance a look.
But I will say this—Wade Lee was right. That was no ordinary dark, no mere moonless night. I heard things, I felt things, I saw things through my tightly-shut eyes. They visit me even now, haunting my dreams, stealing my sleep, waiting, as then, for me to stumble, to start, to open my eyes.
I did not. And I do not.
And that is but part of my price.
There was a scratching noise, and a flicker of flame, and then all at once a wad of news-paper flared alight in Wade Lee’s gnarled right hand.
He threw it down, upon a pile of sticks and twigs and scraps of cardboard. The flames spread out, covering the pile with a soft whump and a puff, and the light, though small, was so bright I had to shield my eyes and turn them away.
Wade Lee chuckled. “Now we ready,” he said, and it seemed to me he spoke another word then, one too soft and too strange for my ears to follow.
The flames shrank, but did not die. When I could look, they were steady and tame and tinged with blue.
I blinked and looked about. DD sat beside me, his head down, his long hair falling to cover his eyes and most of his face. He crouched like me at the edge of the light, his hands balled into fists jammed tight against the frayed knees of his jeans.
Wade Lee, in his chair, was on the other side of DD, and his eyes glinted in the light. He smiled then, motioned with his hand out toward the dark.
“You wondered where we was comin’,” he said. “Look now, and see.”
I looked. Our fire cast its meager light only a short way, revealing hard bare red clay tufted here and there by stunted weeds and crumpled beer cans and broken bits of glass.
My eyes adjusted. I began to make out low mounds in the dark, ringing us on every side—low heaps that sparkled and shone now and then in the fire-light. Not eyes, I decided—just bits of this, and bits of that. The smell—rotting things, food gone bad, a wet sour stink—confirmed it.
“It’s a dump,” I said. “A garbage dump.” Out in the middle of nowhere, dead center of the Browny Woods.
Wade Lee nodded. “No, boy, it’s more than that,” he said. “You’ve read your Bible. This place is de-filed. Un-clean. People been bringing their trash here since before there was roads. Walked all that way, in the dark. They didn’t know why, even—but some places just draw bad things, ruined things, things you gots to hide, gots to bury. This is one of them places, John Laylock.”
Wade Lee’s eyes met mine, bored into them. “What you bring to bury, boy?”
At that moment, the whippoorwills and the bugs fell silent, like somebody shoved them all in a big tight room and slammed the door in their faces.
Wade Lee grinned. “Don’t pay no mind,” he said, softly. “Now you go first. Speak yo’ name into the fire.” Wade Lee paused. “You ain’t goin’ to argue with me, are you?”
I shook my head no, did as he asked, though every hair on the back of my neck stood on end as I spoke.
“What price you willin’ to pay, boy?” said a voice. Wade Lee’s lips hadn’t moved. “What you gonna pay so this boy can be free?”
Wings—crow-wings, black and invisible in the night—fluttered high above us.
DD looked up, and his eyes shone wet and scared as they darted quick about.
“Don’t you speak,” said Wade Lee. “Not yet. It ain’t your time.” He reached into his lap, brought forth his bag, took out a small bundle of black rags tied with rusted barbed wire.
“We here!” he said, shouting up into the dark. DD and I both jumped, and Wade Lee winked and stilled us with his hand. “Wade Lee and John Laylock and DD Dupree. We come to call up one of your own. We come to call out what ails this boy DD.”
DD was breathing heavy, puffing air in and out in big rasping heaves.
“You hear me, bad spirit! I know yo’ name, and I call you to it! Come out! Show yo’ face! Face this boy, that you torment from the dark!”
And then Wade Lee screamed. Not a word, not a name, not a curse nor a prayer—just a long wordless scream that rose and swelled and rose more still.
Legs and an arm, chewed to pulp and pulled off, one at a time, I thought. That’s the scream my grand-daddy heard, all those years ago.
Wade Lee got louder still—so loud the flames bent back away from him, so loud his cries rang in my ears and echoed, louder than the tornado horn mounted on top of the courthouse, louder than thunder on thunder.
And it seemed, that just for an instant, that I saw a shape in Wade Lee’s scream. A shape, like a twist in the dark itself. Then it shook and unravelled like a sheet in the wind, and became a name.
Wade Lee lifted his wire-wrapped bundle.
“I call you out!” he shouted, in a voice that split the sky. He hurled his bundle into the fire, and the flames roared up and consumed it, as though it were soaked in kerosene. “I call you by yo’ name! Come out!”
DD rose suddenly, jerked upright on as if by strings. His eyes went wide and his mouth fell open and his right hand lifted sudden across his face as though to shield a blow.
The flames shot up then, blue and roaring and higher than I was tall. And when they fell, as they quickly did, dead gone Lucas Dupree stood two steps away, just on the other side of the knee-high bank of blue-edged fire.
Lucas Dupree stank. A wind rose up and the stench of him, of rotting flesh soaked in cheap whiskey, curled about us. He exhaled, wet and gurgling, and I gagged and nearly puked.
“I reckon it ain’t natural, and I reckon it’s gettin’ worse,” said the dead man, with a crooked, bloody grin. He tossed an empty Black Crow whiskey bottle into the fire, and the flames leaped up and took it. “You was right about that, boy,” he said, to DD. “I ain’t done with you yet.”
Wade Lee began to whisper. The flames before me danced and sputtered; sparks rose up, stirred by movement near the ground. But I just stared, transfixed, terrified that if I moved or spoke or breathed Lucas Dupree would turn those awful dead eyes upon me. And dead eyes they were, for all that they shone in the flames—dead and putrid and yet still full of hate.
It wasn’t always Lucas Dupree, crawled moist and rotting out of the grave like a zombie in the monster movies, though it did at times appear so. With each flicker of the fire-light, though, the thing before me changed. Always cruel, always furious, but now and then looking like twisted up tree-roots or the knot of a diseased oak trunk or a wind-wrapped plastic bag, caught on a barbed-wire fence. The sort of thing you’d look at and point at and remark about its resemblance to a despised school-teacher or a hated bully. It always had a face, and always a face twisted by a powerful urge to hurt anyone who paused and caught its baleful eye.
Wade Lee spoke aloud. “You remember what I told you, DD,” he said. “Now is your time.”
DD coughed, made a growling sound deep in his throat.
Lucas Dupree laughed. “Now is your time, boy,” he mocked. “I’ll show you what time it is. Just like I showed your bitch momma—”
DD fumbled in his sack, removed a short bundle wrapped in bright Sunday comics, and threw it into the flames.
“You hit momma,” said DD, his voice hoarse and broken and shaking so bad I could barely make out the words.
“Damn right I did,” said the dead man. “Damn right.”
DD shook. Tears streamed down his face, which was still downcast. He stared into the flames and watched them consume whatever he’d dropped.
“You knocked her down,” said DD. “And you hit her and you kicked her when she cried.”
Lucas Dupree laughed. He threw back his bloody head and opened that black-lipped mouth wide and he laughed, his teeth broken and dry in the firelight. “You just watched, boy,” he said, when he was done. “Stood there and watched and never lifted a finger.” He lowered his face, grinning a terrible wide jack-o-lantern grin. “Too scared to even bawl.” He spat a thick black gob of rot into the fire. “Gutless little shit.”
DD’s head snapped up. “I was a child!” DD shouted his words, loud and fast and strong. “I was five years old you bastard!”
He threw his second bundle into the fire, and the flames went blue and puffed like they were sucking propane.
Luca Dupree snarled, and reached out, and caught DD’s wrist. Caught it, and pulled, and I rose and grabbed DD’s shoulder and then Lucas Dupree looked full upon me and laid his bloated hand on mine.
It burned. He grinned and tightened his grasp and would have pulled me though the fire, pulled his dead face close to mine, had not Wade Lee rolled himself behind me and snatched the dead man’s cold hand easily away.
Wade Lee pulled me down and back. “He’s not yours,” said Wade Lee, to the flames. “Ain’t nobody here yours. Not yet.”
Lucas Dupree snarled, but turned away, back to DD, who he still held, bent at the waist with his chest over the flames.
“You got one more,” said Wade Lee, to DD. DD nodded, shaking, struggling against his dead father, who was pulling him closer and closer to the fire.
DD swallowed, made himself look square into those eyes. I saw him tense up, watched the muscles in his neck draw tight, saw the way he set his narrow jaw—I’d seen that before, just once, before Melvin Chambers had suffered the beating of a lifetime.
“I hate you, Daddy,” said DD. He swallowed hard, and his lips moved silently for a moment the same way they did in Sunday School, right before he delivered his memorized verse for the week. “I hate you,” he said aloud. “I hate you. I hated you then and I hate you now.”
DD dropped his sack, bundle and all, down into the fire.
Lucas Dupree looked almost surprised. “You can’t hate me, boy,” he said, smiling that jagged pumpkin smile again, a soft red light welling up behind his dead yellow eyes. “I’m your daddy.”
DD went limp and still, and I threw off Wade Lee’s grasp and stood. But as I moved, DD opened his mouth and yelled—not a word, just a yell—and he reached out and he grasped Lucas Dupree’s shirt-collar and he yanked, and even now I can look back and see that look of shock on Lucas Dupree’s dead face as he was snatched up full off his feet and then shoved down, folding like so much paper, into the sudden rising fire.
DD kept yelling, kept holding down the struggling, flapping, burning thing in his hand, and the flames roared and rose up, rising like an Old Testament pillar of fire right up past DD and into the black and starless sky and enveloping Wade Lee and me and the scattered mounds about us in a bright yellow wash of flame that roared and howled but neither burned nor felt of heat.
And then it was gone. All of it—the flames, the light, the haunted chanting of the unseen whippoorwills. There was just me and Wade Lee and DD Dupree, on his knees, crying and sobbing and gasping, his hands still thrust down into the dead and lightless fire.
A train whistle blew, and it was just plain night again, and those were just trees, and that was just the dark.
Wade Lee’s hand fell upon my shoulder. “You done good, boy,” he said. “I reckon you both done real good.”
I wiped my face; I hadn’t realized I, too, was crying, until then. “Damn,” said Wade Lee. “You white folks do carry on so.”
DD barked a hoarse laugh at that, and I did too, and when we were all done Wade Lee poked me in the side. “Yo’ light,” he said, and I gave it to him.
He clicked the switch, aimed the light at the remains of his fire.
There were a few blackened sticks there, and ashes, and three empty whiskey bottles. There might have been other things, too, but Wade Lee pulled the light away.
“Take the light,” he said, thrusting it toward me. “There’s a shovel over there, behind them weeds. Your friend has some burying to do shortly.”
I took the light, and Wade Lee and I watched as DD made a hole, filled it, and covered it back over again.
DD never once stumbled, all the long way back in the night.
That was a long time ago. Long enough for DD and I to grow up, grow apart, lose touch. Last I heard, he’d moved to Los Angeles, married an actress, built a big house facing the Pacific, eighteen hundred miles from Old Lot Road and Bald Bob’s Miracle Mile of Mobile Homes. Long enough ago for the Browny Woods to be swallowed up by an interstate on one side, and a two hundred acre landfill on the other. I guess Wade Lee was right. Some places just ache to be filled, with that which must be buried.
Long enough for Wade Lee himself to vanish. Died, they say, though the old black folks never say such a thing. White folks, of course, pretend they don’t remember much beyond the man’s name.
I went back to Wade Lee’s, about ten years ago. His shack had fallen in, and the wind had scattered the tin, and the bottle tree was gone, sawed off at the root by who knows who. The Old Lot Cemetery was still there, weed-choked and forgotten. There’d been a single new grave-stone atop the hill, gleaming white and standing upright, surrounded but untouched by a hungry groping shade.
I didn’t walk up the hill, to see the name. Didn’t have to. Ever since that night in the Browny Woods, I’ve been able to see things—things I often don’t want to see, things I can see but not help or forestall.
But there’s always someone wanting me to look. Look for their sons, look for their wives, look for their futures or their pasts or their dreams or their woes. They pay, and pay well, though sometimes not in the way they expect.
I see all that, just from looking too hard at the dark.
Wade Lee had seen his dark too, alone in old man Ramsey’s corn-field, watching a combine chew off his arm and his legs. He’d screamed and taken in a bit of that dark. Learned to call it back, to draw it down. I can see that too, now. That, and sometimes more.
Oh yes. Nights like this, when the whippoorwills chant and the back of my right hand burns where a dead man once grinned and took hold of me—nights like this, I see easily back across the years. I see the Browny Woods, and a dead man’s raging eyes, and what Wade Lee said about that peculiar darkness. “Sometimes you takes a part of it, and sometimes it takes a part of you,” he’d said.
I wonder. Did I take from the dark, or did I give? Does a part of me still dance, held like a memory in the heart of the Browny Woods, in a dark place no bulldozer or pulpwood truck will ever reach or raze or make clean?
Or does a part of the Woods live on in me? De-filed, Wade Lee had said. Defiled. Unclean. Is that my price?
DD had forgotten it all, by the time he left Mississippi. I used to wonder about that, wonder why DD forgot Wade Lee and the Browny Woods and I why remembered, until the dark finally showed me why Wade Lee had me whisper my name into the fire.
That, too, was my part of my pact with the dark. My remembrance for DD’s forgetting. A balance, a transfer, a debt repaid. DD was free, that night, as soon as we left the shadows.
I ponder my old friend’s freedom, and I rub my scarred hand, and I close my eyes and remember.
Frank Tuttle lives and works in Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Frank’s eight dogs provide him with literary criticism in the form of growls, howls, and the occasional shredded manuscript. Frank’s other works have appeared in Weird Tales, Adventures of Sword and Sorcery, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, as well as various spots around the Web. email address: firstname.lastname@example.org website: http://www.franktuttle.com
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish