The White Road
They are coming.
They are coming in their trucks and their cars, plumes of blue smoke following them through the clear night air like stains upon the soul. They are coming with their wives and their children, with their lovers and their sweethearts, talking of crops and animals and journeys they will make; of church bells and Sunday schools; of wedding dresses and the names of children yet unborn; of who said this and who said that, things small and great, the lifeblood of a thousand small towns no different from their own.
They are coming with food and drink, and the smell of fried chicken and fresh-baked pies makes their mouths water. They are coming with dirt beneath their nails and beer on their breath. They are coming in pressed shirts and patterned dresses, hair combed and hair wild. They are coming with joy in their hearts and vengeance on their minds and excitement curling like a snake in the hollow of their bellies.
They are coming to see the burning man.
* * *
The two men stopped at Cebert Yaken's gas station, "The Friendliest Little Gas Station in the South", close by the banks of the Ogeechee River on the road to Caina. Cebert had painted the sign himself in 1968 in bright yellows and reds, and every year since then he had climbed onto the flat roof on the first day of April to freshen the colors, so that the sun would never take its toll upon the sign and cause the welcome to fade. Each day, the sign cast its shadow on the clean lot, on the flowers in their boxes, on the shining gas pumps, and on the buckets filled with water so that drivers could wipe the remains of bugs from their windshields. Beyond lay untilled fields, and in the early September heat the shimmer rising from the road made the sassafras dance in the still air. The butterflies mixed with the falling leaves, sleepy oranges and checkered whites and eastern tailed blues bouncing upward in the wake of passing vehicles like the sails of brightly colored ships tossing on a wild sea.
From his stool by the window, Cebert would look out on the arriving cars, checking for out-of-state tags so that he could prepare a good old Southern welcome, maybe sell some coffee and doughnuts or shift some of the tourist maps, the yellowing of their covers in the sunlight signaling the approaching end of their usefulness.
Cebert dressed the part: he wore blue overalls with his name sewn on the left breast, and a Co-Op Beef Feeds cap sat way back on his head like an afterthought. His hair was white and he had a long mustache that curled exotically over his upper lip, the two ends almost meeting on his chin. Behind his back folks said that it made Cebert look like a bird had just flown up his nose, but they didn't mean nothing by it. Cebert's family had lived in these parts for generations and Cebert was one of their own. He advertised bake sales and picnics in the windows of his gas station and donated to every good cause that came his way. If dressing and acting like Grandpa Walton helped him sell a little more gas and a couple of extra candy bars, then good luck to Cebert.
Above the wooden counter, behind which Cebert sat day in, day out, seven days each week, sharing the duties with his wife and his boy, was a bulletin board headed: "Look Who Dropped By!" Pinned to it were hundreds of business cards. There were more cards on the walls and the window frames, and on the door that led into Cebert's little back office. Thousands of Abe B. Normals or Bob R. Averages, passing through Georgia on their way to sell more photocopy ink or hair-care products, had handed old Cebert their cards so that they could leave a reminder of their visit to the Friendliest Little Gas Station in the South. Cebert never took them down, so that card had piled upon card in a process of accretion, layering like rock. True, some had fallen over the years, or slipped behind the coolers, but for the most part if the Abe B.'s or Bob R.'s passed through again in years to come, with a little Abe or Bob in tow, there was a pretty good chance that they would find their cards buried beneath a hundred others, like a relic of the lives that they had once enjoyed and of the men that they had once been.
But the two men who paid for a full tank and put water in the steaming engine of their piece-of-shit Taurus just before five that afternoon weren't the kind who left their business cards. Cebert saw that straight off, felt it as something gave in his belly when they glanced at him. They carried themselves in a way that suggested barely suppressed menace and a potential for lethality that was as definite as a cocked gun or an unsheathed blade. Cebert barely nodded at them when they entered and he sure as hell didn't ask them for a card. These men didn't want to be remembered, and if, like Cebert, you were smart, then you'd pretty much do your best to forget them as soon as they'd paid for their gas (in cash, of course) and the last dust from their car had settled back on the ground.
Because if at some later date you did decide to remember them, maybe when the cops came asking and flashing descriptions, then, well, they might hear about it and decide to remember you too. And the next time someone dropped by to see old Cebert they'd be carrying flowers and old Cebert wouldn't get to shoot the breeze or sell them a fading tourist map because old Cebert would be dead and long past worrying about yellowing stock and peeling paint.
So Cebert took their money and watched as the shorter one, the little white guy who had topped up the water when they pulled into the gas station, flicked through the cheap CDs and the small stock of paperbacks that Cebert kept on a rack by the door. The other man, the tall black one with the black shirt and the designer jeans, was looking casually at the corners of the ceiling and the shelves behind the counter loaded high with cigarettes. When he was satisfied that there was no camera, he removed his wallet and, using leather-gloved fingers, counted out two tens to pay for the gas and two sodas, then waited quietly while Cebert made change. Their car was the only one at the pumps. It had New York plates and both the plates and the car were kind of dirty, so Cebert couldn't see much except for the make and the color and Miss Liberty peering through the murk.
"You need a map?" asked Cebert, hopefully. "Tourist guide, maybe?"
"No, thank you," said the black man.
Cebert fumbled in the register. For some reason, his hands had started to shake. Nervous, he found himself making just the kind of inane conversation that he had vowed to avoid. He seemed to be standing outside himself, watching while an old fool with a drooping mustache talked himself into a early grave.
"You staying around here?"
"Guess we won't be seeing you again, then."
"Maybe you won't."
There was a tone in the man's voice that made Cebert look up from the register. Cebert's palms were sweating. He flicked a quarter up with his index finger and felt it slide around in a loop in the hollow of his right hand before rattling back into the register drawer. The black man was still standing relaxed on the other side of the counter but there was a tightness around Cebert's throat that he could not explain. It was as if the visitor were two people, one in black jeans and a black shirt with a soft Southern twang to his voice and the other an unseen presence that had found its way behind the counter and was now slowly constricting Cebert's airways.
"Or maybe we might pass through again, sometime," he continued. "You still be here?"
"I hope so," croaked Cebert.
"You think you'll remember us?"
The question was spoken lightly, with what might have been the hint of a smile, but there was no mistaking its meaning.
Cebert swallowed. "Mister," he said. "I've forgotten you already."
With that, the black man nodded and he and his companion left, and Cebert didn't release his breath until their car was gone from sight and the shadow of the sign cast itself, once again, on an empty lot.
And when the cops came asking about the men a day or two later, Cebert shook his head and told them that he didn't know nothing about them, couldn't recall if two guys like them had passed through that week. Hell, lot of people passed through here on the way to 301 or the interstate, kept the place going like a turnstile at Disney World. And anyway, all them black fellers look alike, you know how it is. He gave the cops free coffee and Twinkies and sent them on their way and had to remind himself, for the second time that week, to release his breath.
He looked around at the business cards arrayed on every previously blank stretch of wall, then leaned over and blew some dust from the nearest bunch. The name Edward Boatner was revealed. According to his card, Edward sold machine parts for a company out of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Well, if Edward came through here again, he could take a look at his card. It would still be there, because Edward wanted to be remembered.
But Cebert didn't remember nobody that didn't want to be remembered.
He might have been friendly, but he wasn't dumb.
* * *
A black oak stands on a slope at the northern edge of a green field, its branches like bones set against the moonlit sky. It is an old, old tree; its bark is thick and gray, deeply furrowed with regular vertical ridges, a fossilized relic stranded by a long-departed tide. In places, the orange inner bark has been exposed, exuding a bitter, unpleasant scent. The shiny green leaves are thick upon it: ugly leaves, deep and narrow, with bristle-tipped teeth at the ends of the lobes.
But this is not the true smell of the black oak that stands at the edge of Ada's Field. On warm nights when the world is quieted, hand-on-mouth, and the moonlight shines palely on the scorched earth beneath its crown, the black oak discharges a different odor, alien to its kind yet as much a part of this solitary tree as the leaves on its branches and the roots in its soil. It is the smell of gasoline and burning flesh, of human waste and singeing hair, of rubber melting and cotton igniting. It is the smell of painful death, of fear and despair, of final moments lived in the laughter and jeering of onlookers.
Step closer, and the lower parts of its branches are blackened and charred. Look, see there, on the trunk: a cloven groove deep in the wood, now faded but once bright ,where the bark was suddenly, violently breached. The man who made that mark, the final mark he left upon this world, was born Will Embree, and he had a wife and a child and a job in a grocery store that paid him a dollar an hour. His wife was Lila Embree, or Lila Richardson that was, and her husband's body—after the ending of the final, desperate struggle that caused his booted foot to strike so hard against the trunk of the tree that he tore the bark from it and left a pit deep in its flesh—was never returned to her. Instead his remains were burned and the crowd took souvenirs of the blackened bones from his fingers and toes, then sent her a photograph of her dead husband that Jack Morton of Nashville had printed up in batches of five hundred to be used as postcards, Will Embree's features twisted and swollen, the figure standing at his feet grinning as the flames from the torch leap toward the legs of the man Lila loved. His corpse was dumped in a swamp and the fish stripped the last of the charred flesh from his bones until they came apart and were scattered across the mud on the bottom. The bark never reclaimed the breach made by Will Embree and it remained exposed for ever after. The illiterate man had left his mark on the sole monument to his passing as surely as if it had been carved in stone.
There are places on this old tree where no leaves ever grow. Butterflies do not rest upon it, and birds do not nest in its branches. When its acorns fall to the ground, fringed with brown hairy scales, they are left to decay. Even the crows turn their black eyes from the rotting fruit.
Around the trunk, a vine weaves. Its leaves are broad, and from each node springs a cluster of small green flowers. The flowers smell as if they are decomposing, festering, and in daylight they are black with flies drawn by the stench. This is Smilax herbacea, the carrion flower. There is not another one like it for a hundred miles in any direction. Like the black oak itself, it is alone of its kind. Here, in Ada's Field, the two entities coexist, parasite and saprophyte: the one fueled by the lifeblood of the tree, the other drawing its existence from the lost and the dead.
And the song the wind sings in its branches is one of misery and regret, of pain and passing. It calls over untilled fields and one -room shacks, across acres of corn and mists of cotton. It calls to the living and the dead, and old ghosts linger in its shade.
Now there are lights on the horizon and cars on the road. It is July 17t, 1964 and they are coming.
They are coming to see the burning man.
* * *
Virgil Gossard stepped into the parking lot beside Little Tom's Tavern and belched loudly. A cloudless night sky stretched above him, dominated by a yellow killer moon. To the northwest, the tail of the constellation Draco was visible, Ursa Minor below it, Hercules above, but Virgil was not a man to take time to look at the stars, not when he might miss a nickel on the ground in the process, and so the shapes that the stars had taken were lost on him. From the trees and the bushes the last of the field crickets sounded, undisturbed by traffic or people, for this was a quiet stretch of road, with few houses and fewer folk, most having abandoned their homes for more promising surroundings many years before. The cicadas were already gone and soon the woods would prepare for the winter quiet. Virgil would be glad when it came. He didn't like bugs. Earlier that day, a piece of what looked like greenish lint had moved across his hand while he lay in bed and he had felt the brief sting as the masked hunter, scouring Virgil's filthy sheets for bedbugs, bit into him. The thing was dead a second later, but the bite was still itching. That was how Virgil was able to tell the cops what time it was when the men came. He had seen the green numerals on his watch glowing as he scratched at the bug bite: 9.15 P.M.
There were only four cars in the lot, four cars for four men. The others were still in the bar, watching a rerun of a classic hockey game on Little Tom's crappy TV, but Virgil Gossard had never been much for hockey. His eyesight wasn't so good and the puck moved too fast for him to follow it. But then everything moved too fast for Virgil Gossard to follow. That was just the way of things. Virgil wasn't too smart, though at least he knew it, which maybe made him smarter than he thought. There were plenty of other fellas thought they were Alfred Einstein or Bob Gates, but not Virgil. Virgil knew he was dumb, so he kept his mouth shut and his eyes open, best he could, and just tried to get by.
He felt an ache at his bladder and sighed. He knew he should have gone before he left the bar but Little Tom's bathroom smelled worse than Little Tom himself, and that was saying something, seeing as how little Tom smelled like he was dying from the inside out, and dying hard. Hell, everybody was dying, inside out, outside in, but most folks took a bath once in a while to keep the flies off. Not Little Tom Rudge, though: if Little Tom tried to take a bath, the water would leave the tub in protest.
Virgil tugged at his groin and shifted uncomfortably from his right foot to his left, then back again. He didn't want to go back inside, but if Little Tom caught him pissing on his lot, then Virgil would be going home with Little Tom's boot stuck up his ass, and Virgil had enough troubles down there without adding a damn leather enema to his burdens. He could take a leak by the side of the road farther on down the way; but the more he thought about it the more he wanted to go now. He could feel it burning inside of him: if he waited any longer . . .
Well, hell, he wasn't going to wait no longer. He pulled down his zipper, reached inside his pants, and waddled over to the side wall of Little Tom's Tavern just in time to sign his name, which was about as far as Virgil's education extended. He breathed out deeply as the pressure eased and his eyes fluttered closed in a brief ecstasy.
Something cold touched him behind his left ear and his eyes quickly opened wide again. He didn't move. His attention was focused on the feel of the metal on his skin, the sound of liquid on wood and stone, and the presence of a large figure behind his back. Then the voice spoke:
"I'm warnin' you, cracker: you get one drop of your sorry-ass piss on my shoes and they gonna be fittin' you up for a new skull before they put you in that box."
"I can't stop it."
"I ain't askin' you to stop. I'm ain't askin' you nothin'. I am tellin' you: do not get one drop of your rotgut urine on my shoes."
Virgil let out a little sob and tried to move the flow to the right. He'd only had three beers but it seemed like he was peeing out the Mississippi. Please stop, he thought. He glanced a little to his left and saw a black gun held in a black hand. The hand emerged from a black coat sleeve. At the end of the black coat sleeve was a black shoulder, a black lapel, a black shirt and the edge of a black face.
The gun nudged his skull hard, warning him to keep his eyes straight ahead, but Virgil still felt a sudden rush of indignation. It was a nigger with a gun, in the parking lot of Little Tom's Tavern. There weren't too many subjects upon which Virgil Gossard had strong, fully formed opinions, but one of them was niggers with guns. The whole trouble with this country wasn't that there were too many guns, it was that too many of those guns were in the hands of the wrong people, and absolutely and positively the wrong people to be carrying guns were niggers. The way Virgil figured it, white people needed guns to protect themselves from all the niggers with guns while all the niggers had guns to shoot other niggers with and, when the mood took them, white folks too. So the solution was to take away the guns from the niggers and then you'd have fewer white folks with guns because they wouldn't have so much to be scared about, plus there'd be fewer niggers shooting other niggers so there'd be less crime too. It was that simple: niggers were the wrong people to be handing out guns to. Now, near as Virgil could figure it, one of those self same wrong people was currently pointing one of those misplaced guns into Virgil's skull, and Virgil didn't like it one little bit. It just proved his point. Niggers shouldn't have guns and -
The gun in question tapped Virgil hard behind the ear and the voice said:
"Hey, you know you talkin' out loud, right?"
"Shit," said Virgil, and this time he heard himself.
Virgil was certain that he was about to die. His big mouth had just helped him into a heap of trouble, maybe the last trouble he'd ever have to endure. But the good Lord was smiling upon Virgil, even if He wasn't smiling so hard as to make the n—, beg pardon, the gunman, go away. Instead, he could feel his breath on his cheek and could smell his after shave as he spoke. It smelled expensive.
"You say that word again and you better enjoy that leak, 'cause it will be the last one you ever take."
"Sorry," said Virgil. He tried to force the offending word from his brain, but it came back each time with renewed force. He began to sweat.
"Sorry," he said again.
"Well, that's all right. You finished down there?"
"Then put it away. An owl might figure it for a worm and carry it off."
Virgil had a vague suspicion that he'd just been insulted, but he quickly tucked his manhood into his fly just in case and wiped his hands on his trousers.
"You carrying a gun?"
"Bet you wish you were."
"Yep," admitted Virgil, in a burst of sudden and possibly ill-advised honesty.
He felt hands on him, patting him down, but the gun stayed where it was, pressed hard against his skin. There was more than one of them, Virgil figured. Hell, there could be half of Harlem behind him. He felt a pressure on his wrists as his hands were cuffed tightly behind him.
"Now turn to your right."
Virgil did as he was told. He was facing out onto the open country behind the bar, all green as far as the river.
"You answer my questions, I let you walk away into those fields. Understand?"
Virgil nodded dumbly.
"Thomas Rudge, Willard Hoag, Clyde Benson. They in there?"
Virgil was the kind of guy who instinctively lied about everything, even if there didn't seem to be any percentage in not telling the truth. Better to lie and cover your ass later than tell the truth and find yourself in trouble from the start.
Virgil, true to character, shook his head.
Virgil nodded and opened his mouth to embelish the lie. Instead, the clicking of the spittle in his mouth coincided perfectly with the impact of his forehead against the wall as the gun pushed firmly into the base of his skull.
"See," whispered the voice, "we goin' in there anyhow. If we go in and they ain't there, then you got nothin' to worry about, least until we come lookin' for you to start askin' you again where they at. But we go in there and they sittin' up at the bar, suckin' on some cold ones, then there are dead folks got a better chance of bein' alive tomorrow than you do. You understand me?"
"They're in there," he confirmed.
"How many others?"
"Nobody, just them three."
The black man, as Virgil had at last begun to think of him, removed the gun from Virgil's head and patted him on the shoulder with his hand.
"Thank you . . ." he said. "I'm sorry, I didn't catch your name."
"Virgil," said Virgil.
"Well, thank you, Virgil," said the man, then brought the butt of the gun down hard on Virgil's skull. "You been great."
* * *
Beneath the black oak, an old Lincoln has been driven into place. The red truck pulls up beside it and three hooded men climb from the bed, pushing the black man onto the ground before them. He lands on his stomach, his face in the dirt. Strong hands yank him to his feet and he stares into the dark holes of the pillowcases, crudely burnt into the fabric with matches and cigarettes. He can smell cheap liquor.
Cheap liquor and gasoline.
His name is Errol Rich, although no stone or cross with that name upon it will ever mark his final resting place. From the moment he was taken from his momma's house, his sister and his momma screaming, Errol had ceased to exist. Now all traces of his physical presence are about to be erased from this earth, leaving only the memory of his life with those who have loved him, and the memory of his dying with those gathered here this night.
And why is he here? Errol Rich is about to burn for refusing to buckle, for refusing to bend his knee, for disrespecting his betters.
Errol Rich is about to die for breaking a window.
He was driving his truck, his old truck with its cracked windshield and its flaking paint, when he heard the shout.
Then the glass exploded in on top of him, cutting his face and hands, and something hit him hard between the eyes. He braked suddenly, and smelled it upon himself. In his lap, the cracked bottle dumped the remains of its contents on his seat and on his pants.
Urine. They had filled a bottle between them and thrown it through his windshield. He wiped the liquid from his face, his sleeve coming away wet and bloody, and looked at the three men standing by the roadside, a few steps away from the entrance to the bar.
"Who threw that?" he asked. Nobody answered, butt secretly, they were afraid. Errol Rich was a strong, powerful man. They had expected him to wipe his face and drive on, not to stop and confront them.
"You throw that, Little Tom?" Errol stood before Little Tom Rudge, the owner of the bar, but Little Tom wouldn't meet his eyes. "Cause if you did, you better tell me now, else I'm gonna burn your shit heap down to the ground."
But still there was no reply, so Errol Rich , who always did have a temper on him, signed his death warrant by taking a length of timber from the bed of his truck and turning to the men. They backed off, waiting for him to come at them, but instead he threw the timber, all three feet of it, through the front window of Little Tom Rudge's bar, then climbed back in his truck and drove away.
Now Errol Rich is about to die for a pane of cheap glass, and a whole town has come to watch it happen. He looks out on them, these God-fearing people, these sons and daughters of the land, and he feels the heat of their hatred upon him, a foretaste of the burning that is to come.
I fixed things, he thinks. I took what was broken and made it good again.
The thought seems to have come to him almost out of nowhere. He tries to shake it away, but, instead, it persists.
I had a gift. I could take an engine, a radio, even a television, and I could repair it. I never read a manual, never had no formal training. It was a gift, a gift that I had, and soon it will be gone.
He looks out at the crowd, at the expectant faces. He sees a boy, fourteen or fifteen, his eyes bright with excitement. He recognizes him, recognizes too the man with his hand on the boy's shoulder. He had brought his radio to Errol, hoping to have it fixed in time for the Santa Anita because he liked to listen to the horse races. And Errol had repaired it, replacing the busted speaker cone, and the man had thanked him and paid him a dollar extra for coming through for him.
The man sees Errol looking at him, and his eyes flick away. There will be no help for him, no mercy from any of these people. He is about to die for a broken window, and they will find someone else to repair their engines and their radios, although not as well, and not as cheaply.
His legs tied, Errol is forced to hop to the Lincoln. They drag him onto the roof, these masked men, and they put the rope around his neck while he kneels. He sees the tattoo on the arm of the largest man: the word '"Kathleen'" spelled out on a banner held by angels. The hand tightens the rope. The gasoline is poured over his head, and he shivers.
Then Errol looks up and says the last words anyone will ever hear from him on this earth.
"Don't burn me," he asks. He has accepted the fact of his death, the inevitability of his passing on this night, but he does not want to burn.
Please Lord, don't let them burn me.
The tattooed man splashes the last of the gasoline into Errol Rich's eyes, blinding him, then climbs down to the ground.
Errol Rich starts to pray.
* * *
The small white man entered the bar first. A smell of stale, spilled beer hung in the air. On the floor, dust and cigarette butts formed drifts around the counter where they had been swept but not cleaned up. There were blackened circles on the wood where soles had stamped out thousands of embers, and the orange paint on the walls had blistered and burst like infected skin. There were no pictures on the walls, just generic beer company signs that had been used to cover the worst of the damage.
The bar wasn't too big, certainly no more than thirty feet in length and fifteen across. The counter itself was on the left and shaped like the blade of an ice skate, the curved end nearest the door. At its other extreme there was a small office and storage area. The toilets were beyond the bar, beside the back door. Four booths stood against the wall to the right, a pair of round tables to the left.
There were two men sitting at the counter, and one other man behind the bar. All three were probably in their sixties. The two at the bar wore baseball caps, faded T-shirts beneath even more faded cotton shirts, and cheap jeans. One of them had a long knife on his belt. The other had a gun concealed beneath his shirt.
The man behind the bar looked like he might have been strong and fit once, a long time ago. There was bulk on his shoulders, chest, and arms that was now masked by a thick layer of fat, and his breasts were pendulous as those of an old woman. There were old yellow sweat stains beneath the arms of his white short-sleeved shirt, and his trousers hung low on his hips in a way that might have been fashionable on a sixteen year old but was ridiculous on a man fifty years older than that. His hair was yellow-white but still thick, and his face was partially obscured by a week's growth of scraggly beard.
All three men were watching the hockey game on the old TV above the bar, but their heads turned in unison as the new arrival entered. He was unshaven, wearing dirty sneakers, a loud Hawaiian shirt, and creased chinos. He didn't look like he belonged anywhere above Christopher Street, not that anybody in this bar knew where Christopher Street was, exactly. But they knew this man's type, yes they did. They could smell it on him. Didn't matter how unshaven he was, how shabbily he dressed; this boy had "fag" written all over him.
"Can I get a beer?" he asked, stepping up to the bar.
The bartender didn't make any move for at least a full minute, then took a Bud from the cooler and placed it on the bar.
The small man picked up the beer and looked at it as if seeing a bottle of Bud for the first time.
"You got anything else?"
"We got Bud Light."
"Wow, both kinds."
The bartender gave him unimpressed.
"Two-fifty." This wasn't the kind of place that ran a tab.
He counted out three bills from a thick roll, then added another fifty cents in change to bring the tip up to a dollar. The eyes of the three men remained fixed on his slim, delicate hands as he replaced the money in his pocket, then they returned their gazes to the hockey game. The small man took a booth behind the two drinkers, leaned into the corner, then put his feet up and directed his face toward the TV. All four men remained in those positions for about five minutes, until the door again opened softly and another man entered the bar, an unlit Cohiba in his mouth. He was so quiet that nobody even noticed him until he was four feet from the counter, at which point one of the men looked to his left, saw him, and said:
"Little Tom, there's a colored in your bar."
Little Tom and the second man dragged themselves away from the TV to examine the black man who had now taken a stool at the lower end of the L-shaped bar.
"Whiskey, please," he said.
Little Tom didn't move. First a fag, now a nigger. This was turning into quite a night. His eyes moved from the man's face to his expensive shirt, his neatly pressed black jeans, and his double-breasted overcoat.
"You from out of town, boy?"
"You could say that." He didn't even blink at the second insult in less than thirty seconds.
"There's a coon place couple of miles down the road," said Little Tom. "You'll get a drink there."
"I like it here."
"Well, I don't like you here. Get your ass out, boy, before I start takin' it personal."
"So I don't get a drink?" The man sounded unsurprised.
"No, you don't. Now you going to leave, or am I gonna have to make you leave?"
To his left, the two men shifted on their stools in preparation for the beating that they hoped to deliver. Instead, the object of their attention reached into his pocket, produced a bottle of whiskey in a brown paper bag, and twisted the cap. Little Tom reached under the counter with his right hand. It emerged holding a Louisville Slugger.
"You can't drink that in here, boy," he warned.
"Shame," said the black man. "And don't call me 'boy.' The name is Louis."
Then he tipped the bottle upside down and watched as its contents flowed along the bar. It made a neat turn at the elbow of the counter, the raised lip preventing the liquid from overflowing onto the floor, and seeped past the three men. They looked at Louis in surprise as he lit his cigar with a brass Zippo.
Louis stood and took a long puff on his Cohiba.
"Heads up, crackers," he said, and dropped the flaming lighter into the whiskey.
* * *
The man with the tattoo raps sharply on the roof of the Lincoln. The engine roars and the car bucks once or twice like a steer on a rope before shooting away in a cloud of dirt, dead leaves, and exhaust fumes. Errol Rich seems to hang frozen for a moment in midair before his body uncurls. His long legs descend toward the ground but do not reach it, his feet kicking impotently at the air. A spluttering noise comes from his lips, and his eyes bulge as the rope draws tighter and tighter around his neck. His face becomes congested with blood and he begins to convulse, red drops now speckling his chin and chest. A minute goes by and still Errol struggles.
Below him, the tattooed man takes a branch wrapped in linen doused with gasoline, lights it with a match, then steps forward. He holds the torch up so Errol can see it, then touches it to Errol's legs.
Errol ignites with a roar, and somehow, despite the constriction at his throat, he screams, a high, ululating thing filled with terrible agony. It is followed by a second, and then the flames enter his mouth and his vocal cords begin to burn. He kicks again and again as the smell of roasting meat fills the air, until at last the kicking stops.
The burning man is dead.
The bar flared, a small wall of flame shooting up to scorch beards, eyebrows, hair. The man with the gun at his belt leaped back, his left arm covering his eyes while his right reached for his weapon.
"Ah-ah," said a voice. A Glock 19 was inches from his face, held firm in the grip of the man in the bright shirt. The other's hand stopped instantly, the gun already uncovered. The small man, whose name was Angel, yanked it from its holster and held it up so that he now had two guns inches from the barfly's face. Near the door, Louis's hand now contained a SIG, trained on the man with the knife in his belt. Behind the bar, Little Tom was dousing the last of the flames with water. His face was red and he was breathing hard.
"The fuck you do that for?" He was looking at the black man, and at the SIG that had now moved to level itself at the center of his chest. A change of expression flickered in Little Tom's face, a brief candle flame of fear that was quickly snuffed out by his natural belligerence.
"Why, you got a problem with it?" asked Louis.
"I got a problem with it."
It was the man with the knife at his belt, brave now that the gun was no longer aimed at him. He had strange, sunken features: a weak chin that lost itself in his thin, stringy neck, blue eyes buried deep in their sockets, and cheekbones that looked like they had been broken and flattened by some old, almost forgotten impact. Those dim eyes regarded the black man impassively while his hands remained raised—away from his knife, but not too far away. It seemed like a good idea to make him get rid of it. A man who carries a knife like that knows how to use it, and use it fast. One of the two guns now held by Angel made an arc through the air and came to rest on him.
"Unclasp your belt," said Louis.
The knife man paused for a moment, then did as he was told.
"Now pull it out."
He grasped it and pulled. The belt caught once or twice before it freed the scabbard and the knife fell to the floor.
"That's good enough."
"I still got a problem."
"Sorry to hear that," Louis replied. "You Willard Hoag?"
The sunken eyes betrayed nothing. They remained fixed on the interloper's face, unblinking.
"I know you?"
"No, you don't know me."
Something danced in Willard's eyes. "You niggers all look the same to me anyways."
"Guessed you'd take that point of view, Willard. Man behind you is Clyde Benson. And you—" The SIG lifted slightly in front of the bartender. "You Little Tom Rudge."
The redness in Little Tom's face was due only partly to the heat of the burning liquor. There was fury building in him. It was there in the trembling of his lips, in the way his fingers were clasping and unclasping. The action made the tattoo on his arm move, as if the angels were slowly waving the banner with the name "Kathleen."
And all of that anger was directed at the black man now threatening him in his own bar.
"You want to tell me what's happening here?" asked Little Tom.
"Atonement, that's what's happening here."
* * *
It is ten after ten when the woman stands. They call her Grandma Lucy, although she is not yet fifty and still a beautiful woman with youth in her eyes and few lines on her dark skin. At her feet sits a boy, seven or eight years old, but already tall for his age. A radio plays Bessie Smith's "Weeping Willow Blues".
The woman called Grandma Lucy wears only a nightdress and shawl, and her feet are bare, yet she rises and walks through the doorway, descending the steps into the yard with careful, measured strides. Behind her walks the little boy, her grandson. He calls to her -"Grandma Lucy, what's the matter?"—but she does not reply. Later she will tell him about the worlds within worlds, about the places where the membrane separating the living from the dead is so thin that they can see one another, touch one another. She will tell him of the difference between daywalkers and nightwalkers, of the claims that the dead make upon those left behind.
And she will talk of the road that we all walk, and that we all share, the living and the dead alike.
But for now she just gathers her shawl closer to her and continues toward the edge of the forest, where she stops and waits in the moonless night. There is a light among the trees, as if a meteor has descended from the heavens and is now traveling close to the ground, flaming and yet not flaming, burning and yet not burning. There is no heat, but something is ablaze at the heart of that light.
And when the boy looks into her eyes, he sees the burning man.
* * *
"You recall Errol Rich?" said Louis.
Nobody responded, but a muscle spasmed in Clyde Benson's face.
"I said, do you recall Errol Rich?"
"We don't know what you're talking about, boy," said Hoag. "You got the wrong men."
The gun swiveled, then bucked in Louis's hand. Willard Hoag's chest spat blood through the hole in his left breast. He stumbled backward, taking a stool with him, then landed heavily on his back. His left hand scrambled at something unseen on the floor, and then he was still.
Clyde Benson started to cry, and then it all went down.
Little Tom dived to floor of the bar, his hands seeking the shotgun beneath the sink. Clyde Benson kicked a stool at Angel, then ran for the door. He got as far as the men's room before his shirt puffed twice at the shoulder. He stumbled through the back door and disappeared, bleeding, into the darkness. Angel, who had fired the shots, went after him.
The crickets had grown suddenly quiet and the silence in the night had a strange anticipatory quality, as though the natural world awaited the inevitable outcome of the events in the bar. Benson, unarmed and bleeding, had almost made it to the edge of the parking lot when the gunman caught up with him. His feet were swept from under him and he landed painfully in the dirt, blood flecking the ground before him. He began to crawl toward the long grass, as if by reaching its cover he might somehow be safe. A boot caught him under the chest, skewering him with white hot pain as he was forced onto his back, his eyes squeezing shut involuntarily. When they opened again, the man in the loud shirt was standing over him and his gun was pointed at Clyde Benson's head.
"Don't do this," said Benson. "Please."
The younger man's face was impassive.
"Please," said Benson. He was sobbing. "I repented of my sins. I found Jesus."
The finger tightened on the trigger, and the man named Angel said:
"Then you got nothing to worry about."
* * *
Little Tom rose up with the shotgun to find the room empty and a dead man on the floor. He swallowed once, then moved to his left, making for the end of the counter. He got three steps when the wood splintered at the level of his thigh and the bullets ripped through him, shattering his left femur and his right shin. He collapsed and screamed as his wounded legs impacted on the floor, but still managed to empty both barrels through the cheap wood of the bar. It exploded in a shower of shot and splinters and shattering glass. He could smell blood and powder and spilled whiskey. His ears rang as the noise faded, leaving only the sound of dripping liquid and falling timber.
He looked to his left to see Louis standing above him. The barrel of the SIG was pointing at Little Tom's chest. He found some spittle in his mouth and swallowed. Blood was fountaining from the ruptured artery in his thigh. He tried to stop it with his hand but it sprayed through his fingers.
"Who are you?" asked Little Tom. From outside came the sound of two shots as Clyde Benson died in the dirt.
"Last time: you recall a man named Errol Rich?"
Little Tom shook his head. "Shit, I don't know..."
"You burned him. You ought to know."
Louis aimed the SIG at the bridge of the bartender's nose. Little Tom raised his right arm and covered his face.
"I remember! I remember! Jesus. Yes, I was there. I saw what they did."
"What you did."
Little Tom shook his head furiously.
"No, you're wrong. I was there, but I didn't hurt him."
"You're lying. Don't lie to me, just tell me the truth. They say confession is good for the soul."
Louis lowered the gun and fired. The top of Little Tom's right foot disappeared in a blur of leather and blood. He shrieked then as the gun moved toward his left foot, the words erupting from his gut like old bile.
"Stop, please. Jesus, it hurts. You're right, we did it. I'm sorry for what we did to him. We were younger then, we didn't know no better. It was a terrible thing we did, I know it was." His eyes pleaded with Louis. His whole face was bathed in sweat, like that of a man melting. "You think a day don't go by when I don't think about him, about what we did to him? You think I don't live with that guilt every day?"
"No," said Louis. "I don't."
"Don't do this," said Little Tom. A hand reached out in supplication. "I'll find a way to make up for what I did. Please."
"I got a way that you can make up for it," said Louis.
And then Little Tom Rudge was dead.
In the car they disassembled the guns, wiping every piece down with clean rags. They scattered the remains of the weapons in fields and streams as they drove, but no words were exchanged until they were many miles from the bar.
"How you feel?" asked Louis.
"Numb," Angel replied. "Except in my back. My back hurts."
"How about Benson?"
"He was the wrong man, but I killed him anyway."
"They deserved what they got."
Angel waved his assurance away as a thing without substance or meaning.
"Don't get me wrong. I got no problem with what we just did back there, but killing him didn't make me feel any better, if that's what you're asking. It wasn't him I wanted to kill. When I pulled that trigger, I didn't even see Clyde Benson. I saw the preacher. I saw Faulkner."
There was silence for a time. Dark fields went by, the hollow shapes of brokeback houses visible against the horizon.
It was Angel who spoke again.
"Bird should have killed him when he had the chance."
"There's no maybe about it. He should have burned him."
"He's not like us. He feels too much, thinks too much."
Angel sighed deeply. "Feeling and thinking ain't the same thing. That old fuck isn't going away. As long as he's alive, he's a threat to all of us."
Beside him, Louis nodded silently in the darkness.
"And he cut me, and I swore that no one would ever cut me again. No one."
After a time, his companion spoke softly to him.
"We have to wait."
"For the right time, the right opportunity."
"And if it doesn't come?"
"It will come."
"Don't give me that," said Angel, before repeating his question. "What if it doesn't come?"
Louis reached out and touched his partner's face gently.
"Then we make it ourselves."
Shortly after, they drove across the state line into South Carolina just below Allendale, and nobody stopped them. They left behind the semiconscious form of Virgil Gossard and the bodies of Little Tom Rudge, Clyde Benson, and Willard Hoag, the three men who had taunted Errol Rich, who had taken him from his home, and who had hanged him from a tree to die.
And out on Ada's Field, at the northern edge where the ground sloped upward, a black oak burned, its leaves curling to brown, the sap hissing and spitting as it burst from the trunk, its branches like the bones of a flaming hand set against the star-sprinkled blackness of the night sky.
© John Connolly 2002
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