Last week was chapter two. Here’s chapter three. Do I have to repost the disclaimer every time? Look back for the disclaimer.
AND OTHER AFFLICTIONS
A novel by Chris Sherrill
Copyright 2012 by Chris Sherrill
BRUCE AND CRAZY JANE
“My mama gave me what-for for going near Crazy Jane’s the other day,” I said.
The twins laughed.
“She whip you?” Horace asked.
“Nah. Just gave me a tongue lashing.”
Homer chimed in. “After we got back from your house I asked my daddy if he’d ever heard anything about her. He said he’d better not never hear nothing about his boys hanging nowhere near that crazy woman, said he heard she killed her daddy and her mama and got slap clean away with it. Said if he ever heard we’d gone by her house, he’d whip the tar outta us.”
“Lizzie Borden took an axe, and give her mama forty whacks…” Horace recited.
“She didn’t kill nobody,” I said.
“…and when she saw what she had done, she give her daddy forty-one.”
“She didn’t kill nobody,” I said more loudly.
“How do you know?” Homer challenged.
“My daddy said her daddy was a scoundrel and took off when she was a baby, and I know for a fact she didn’t kill her mama.”
“How you know for a fact she didn’t?” Homer asked.
“Because she was in the mental hospital in Columbia when her mama died.”
“She could’ve escaped and come up here, killed her mama and went back,” he said.
Horace looked at his brother with furrowed brows then busted out laughing at such a preposterous scenario. I did, too. Homer didn’t like it at first, then he was laughing, too.
“Well, maybe she didn’t kill nobody,” Homer said, “but she is crazy, and she’s a witch. I heard a boy down at Demby’s say she goes around naked inside her house at night, dancing and casting spells, naked. Said he seen it himself.”
“Naked?” I asked.
“Aw,” challenged Horace, “that’s ain’t so.”
“How you know?” Homer asked.
“People don’t go ‘round naked,” Horace replied.
“What about witches, or crazy people?” Homer asked. “Huh? How you know they don’t go ‘round naked? Huh?”
Neither Horace nor I had a reply. My interest level rose. The subject of naked females was of considerable interest to my nearly fourteen year-old mind.
“You think she really goes ‘round naked?” I asked.
Homer shrugged. “That’s what they say.”
Horace waved a hand dismissively. “Y’all crazy.”
There was a quiet moment. I broke it.
“Let’s sneak over to her house one night and see if she goes around naked.”
Homer grinned with interest.
“Y’all crazy,” Horace repeated. “If she’d kill us dead with that butcher knife of hers. Cut us up in little pieces.”
“If she didn’t kill us, our parents would, if they found out,” Homer added.
“There’s a simple solution,” I said brightly.
Both sets of eyes focused on me.
“We don’t get caught, by nobody.”
We all talked at the same time. It probably would have been humorous for an outsider to see those hay straws jiggling in our mouths as we talked. Horace was dead set against it. Homer was keen but not as keen as I, and Homer usually got his way then they disagreed. We discussed how the three of us could get away in the middle of the night and how we would get up to her house without her seeing us. In the end, nothing was decided.
But why should we? Why shouldn’t we just leave that crazy colored lady alone? I knew I should, but something about it was becoming a challenge. It was a challenge to do something my folks had utterly forbidden. It was a challenge to get up to the house of the local outcast and peep into her window without getting caught. It was a challenge to defy a witch and peep in on her. Maybe I’d see her casting a spell or mixing a potion. Maybe I’d see her naked.
I turned the situation over in my mind for the next several days. I went fishing every afternoon and, making sure nobody from my house could see, eased closer and closer each day to her house. Once I saw her out in her garden and she seemed to be dancing. The next time she was chopping kindling for her cook stove. The time after she was at the lake fishing; sitting in her usual spot with her three long bamboo poles. I tried to get a good look at her without her noticing. I found a fishing spot across the lake from her and studied her but seemed to be looking at the water.
Over the next week, I laid out my plan. When everyone was asleep, I would sneak out my window. If the moon was full, it wouldn’t take ten minutes to get to her house. I would come out of the woods on the lake side of her house and cross the twenty yards of lawn. There were two windows on that side where I could peek in on her. I began to feel the excitement grow as my plan matured. But I kept putting it off. I was afraid.
I don’t like being afraid. When you’re afraid you have to either run or fight. I was reminded of that at Demby’s one afternoon. Bob Smith and his two cronies were there. He came up behind me while I was at the counter.
“Where’s your retard brother, Billy McCaskill? I remembered your name.”
“That’s why I told it, though I’m surprised you did remember.”
“What’s that mean? You being a smart-ass?”
Mr. Demby gave Bob a hard stare. “You start something in here, Bob Smith, and I’ll ban you and your daddy from my store. Your daddy won’t like that very much.”
“My daddy spends plenty of money in this place, and don’t you forget it.”
Mr. Demby’s face reddened. “That’s why he won’t like it, so leave this boy alone.”
Mr. Demby held Bob’s eyes for a long moment then turned to ring up my purchase. Bob elbowed me in the back. When I didn’t respond, he did it again. One of the other boys sniggered.
“He’s a chicken,” he whispered.
“Are you a chicken, Billy McCaskill?” Bob whispered in my ear.
I was trembling but I turned to face him. His chest was up against mine. Bob was a tall, lanky boy, a good six inches taller than me. His head was like a yield sign, narrow at the chin and wide at the forehead. He was ugly with beady black eyes and a pock-marked face. In those beady black eyes I read that he was certain that he could whip my ass.
Mr. Demby came rushing around the counter with his broomstick.
“Get outta my store. All three of you. Out! Put that stuff in your hands down; I don’t want your money. Out!”
They grudgingly dragged themselves out. Mr. Demby blew a snort through his nose.
“Them boys ain’t nothing but trouble,” he said. “They outta be in the reformatory. I’ll call your daddy and he can come get you. I’d take you home, but I got nobody to watch the store right now.”
“That’s alright, Mr. Demby. They ain’t going to do nothing. I’ll be fine.”
He persisted but I refused and left with the little bag of groceries. Bob Smith was waiting around the corner of the building. He knocked the bag out of my arm and grabbed the front of my shirt. I squirmed to get away but he held me tightly. The other two boys crowded in on either side. They all saw the fear in my eyes. I know because of the look in Bob’s eyes.
“Who’s gonna save your chicken-shit ass now, Billy McCaskill?” he said in a soft hiss.
“Let me go,” I whined.
The other two laughed and mocked me. Bob just grinned his ugly grin.
“He’s about to piss his pants,” one said.
They laughed at me. I don’t like to be ridiculed. I don’t like to be afraid. I drew on a calm I didn’t know I had from a place I didn’t know existed and stopped struggling. Sometimes you just have to fight.
“I can’t decide whether to just whup your ass and get it over with,” Bob mused softly, “or let you go so we can see how fast a chicken can run.”
“You gonna need both of these boys to help you whip my ass, Bob?” I asked.
His brows furrowed then he showed his teeth in what was supposed to be a grin.
“Don’t need no help,” he said. “Y’all stay out of it. He’s mine.”
The two stepped back and Bob shoved me away then crouched slightly in a boxer’s stance. I was a grappler. I was strong and solid, and all I knew was to get in close and wrestle my opponent to the ground. If he didn’t give up, then the fists came into play. I didn’t know the first thing about boxing. I got a lesson.
I rushed Bob and got a quick combination for my efforts. He danced away to the left. Bob’s gallery laughed. Bob grinned. I tried twice again with the same result.
“Thought you might show me a little something,” Bob said.
He always danced away to the left. I rushed him again, not letting the fists to my face deter me. When he tried to dance away I pressed forward and wrapped my arms around his torso. I tried to lift him. He pounded on my shoulders. I jumped up and wrapped my legs around his. He went down hard. Before he could wiggle away, I straddled him and started pummeling. His fists were still pumping at me. A lot of blows glanced off arms but some got through. One of mine stunned him just briefly, long enough for me to land several more solid punches.
Then arms were dragging me backward.
“We got him, Bob. We got him.”
The other two had pinned my arms, pulled me back and were holding me down by my shoulders. Bob got up and, shoulders hunched, stood looking down at me.
“I told y’all to stay out of it!” he shouted. “Let him up!”
He wiped his bloody nose on his sleeve, looked at it then at me. I could feel something wet run across my cheek and drip into my ear.
“Let him up!”
“We was just trying to help,” one said.
“I don’t need that kinda help.”
I had my feet under me but hadn’t stood. If he came at me, I’d go for the legs. When he was close, he stopped.
“Git up, Billy McCaskill,” he said. “You made your point.”
My mom pitched a fit when I got home.
“Billy McCaskill, I swear I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. You’ve got to stop getting into fights; you’ve just got to stop it! Do you hear me? Just wait ‘til you daddy gets a look at you. Jake, go find your daddy.”
All the time she was washing my face, and not gently, with a damp cloth. I tried not to flinch. The split lip was the most painful. Bruce picked up the tense atmosphere and stood in everybody’s way asking over and over, ‘Biwee hurt? Biwee hurt?’ Jake had stood in a corner, looking angry and lost, clenching and unclenching his fists until mom sent him after dad. Gwen was washing my scuffed knuckles. Charlotte looked in, seemed to get pale, and hurried away. Dad rushed in behind Jake, turned my head roughly and looked at me.
“Who did this to you, son?”
“I had a tussle with Bob Smith.”
“Bob Smith? Big Bob Smith’s boy? That boy’s Jake’s age.”
Daddy turned away. I’d never seen him so agitated.
“It wasn’t nothing, daddy.”
“Wasn’t nothing? Your nose might be busted, your lip is big as a cheroot, your eye’s going to be black tomorrow. That ain’t nothing, son. That ain’t nothing. Get him cleaned up, mama. He and I are going to take a little ride.”
“Jacob McCaskill, don’t you do something foolish.”
“And what, mama? You think I’m going to sit by and let some hooligan beat up my son?”
“We have to think of the Christian response. Charlotte, call the preacher. Charlotte? Charlotte?”
“She’s upstairs, mama,” Gwen said.
“Call the preacher, Gwen. We have to do the Christian thing.”
“Get in the truck, boys,” dad said.
“We have to turn the other cheek, daddy. I’m sure that’s the Christian thing.”
“I’ll turn my other cheek, mama,” dad said with slow heat, “but not my son’s.”
His hand was on my back ushering me to the truck. Fifteen minutes later, we were driving too fast down a rutted lane. Dad slid to a stop in front of Big Bob Smith’s house.
The sun was beginning to set but it couldn’t yet hide the sad state of Bob’s house. One corner of the porch roof sagged dangerously down. Here and there other parts of the roof drooped in and seemed about to give up the fight. The first step to the porch was missing and the porch itself was as wavy as a big washboard. Cardboard filled the places of the many broken window panes. A short fat man in coveralls with a bored expression and a heavy wooden walking stick sat in a rocker on the porch. We got out of the pickup and followed dad who strode purposefully toward the house. The man in the rocker stopped rocking.
“Bob Smith, I got a bone to pick with you,” dad stated.
“That a fact?”
“It is a fact. Look what your boy did to my son.”
Hand in my back, he urged me forward. The man studied my face for a long moment. His expression never changed as he fingered the walking stick.
“Junior!” he shouted. “Junior, git your sorry ass out here right now.”
The man stood and pulled his son out to the edge of the porch.
“Looky here what your boy did to my boy,” Big Bob said.
Bob wouldn’t lift his face but I could see bruises and little cuts on his cheeks and nose. I also saw a bruise across the side of his head. I hadn’t done that to him.
A car pulled up beside our pickup. A big man, tall and robust, self-possessed, got out. He adjusted his hat and gun belt and came unhurriedly forward.
“Evening, folks,” he said. “How’s everybody this evening?”
His tone was amiable but you could tell he wasn’t one to trifle with.
“Evenin’, Sheriff,” Smith replied guardedly. “What brings you out here this time?”
“Well, I heard there was a scuffle down at Demby’s this afternoon involving your boy Bob, here. Thought I’d come see what was what.”
He looked at me.
“This one of the…contestants? What’s your name, son?”
The man’s voice and tone captured my interest. When he asked my name I knew I was required to give it.
“Let me take a look at you. Hmm. I’ve seen a worse, a lot worse.”
He turned his attention to Bob.
“And you’ll be the other contestant? Come on down her and let me have a look at you.”
He gave Bob a once over.
“That’s a nasty mark there,” he said, touching the mark on the side of Bob’s head.
Bob flinched away.
“Looks to me like each one gave as good as he got. All in all, don’t look like nothing criminal, wouldn’t you agree?”
He looked from Big Bob to my dad. Neither replied.
“Nope, nothing criminal. Just a couple of boys working out the pecking order, I’d say.”
He rested his hands on his hips.
“Anything more either of you two gentlemen want to say to each other?”
Both heads shook.
“Well, then, I guess we should all be going on about our business.”
Dad turned Jake and me to the pickup. The Sheriff gave Big Bob and Bob a look and got into his cruiser. We followed him out to the highway where he stopped, got out of his car, came back to the pickup and extended his hand in the window.
“Sheriff Hazel Hooper,” he said.
Dad took the hand. “Jacob McCaskill.”
“It’s a pleasure, Mr. McCaskill. I just wanted to make your acquaintance. Course, I just met your boy, Billy, there, and this would be your son, too.”
“Yes. That’s Jacob, Junior. Jake.”
“I won’t beat around the bush,” he said. “Your missus gave us a call, told us you’d come to pay Big Bob a visit.”
“Yes, well, I thought his boy had beaten up my boy.”
The Sheriff laughed. “Looks like your boy took care of himself well enough.”
“Well, I didn’t know…at the time.”
“Course, that one bruise across the head, your boy didn’t do that. That came from Big Bob’s walking stick.”
He looked back up the road then at dad again.
“Don’t want to talk out of school, but Big Bob’s right handy with that stick of his. Doc Horton in town has seen both young Bob and Mrs. Smith in the past. Called me in a time or two. When I asked, they said they fell. Now, I know you came out here out of duty to your son. What I want you to know, Mr. McCaskill, is that I have a duty to your son, too, and I take that duty seriously. That’s my job, and I don’t do it half bad, if I do say so myself.”
“Thank you, Sheriff. I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You folks have a good evening.”