We lived at the end of a narrow dirt road that circled an old cemetery. The first thing a visitor saw after a bumpy ride through a mile of dense hardwood and pine was a plot of weathered tombstones, chipped and furry with moss, jutting up through a thick tangle of weeds. Everybody said the place was spooky. It must have been, because neighbors, kinfolks, and even determined bill collectors limited their visits to the daylight. The only cars I’d ever seen traveling that road after sundown belonged to the law. So that night, when Daddy’s hounds kicked up a fuss from their rickety pen out back, he sprang to his feet and stood by the front window, peeking through the curtains long before the car’s headlights swept across the abandoned graves.
The little blue Crosley on the mantle had mostly picked up static since Daddy bought it for Mama. Over the crackling, I could barely make out Hank Williams wailing that he’d never get out of this world alive. Mama got up and clicked the radio off. She was standing behind Daddy when tires crunched the gravel of our driveway and came to a stop in front of the house. “That the sheriff again, Billy?” she sighed.
“I told you all them warrants been took care of,” Daddy said as he leaned forward to get a better look. “‘Sides, I believe that’s a Dodge or a Plymouth out there. County drives new Fords these days.”
Daddy knew all about police transportation. Twice I’d seen deputies take him from our house in handcuffs and load him in the backseat of a county cruiser of one make or the other. Standing by the window with his nose pressed hard to the glass, rising up and down on his toes, he looked as if he might grab his rifle and make a dash for the woods at any minute.
His chambray shirt, cut off at the sleeves, revealed a pair of sun-bronzed arms corded with muscle. And over his slender hips and long legs, he wore clean khakis splattered with faded blue and green dye from his job over the mountain at a Georgia carpet mill. His face, with its strong chin and high cheekbones, would have looked a lot like the handsome face in the wedding picture that hung in their bedroom were it not for the scarring over his eyes, his missing front tooth, and the nose that had been broken so many times he could only breathe through his mouth.
Mama’s slender frame looked lost in her blue house dress. With her hands crammed deep in its pockets, she stood a few feet behind Daddy as if she were afraid to witness the approaching vehicle for herself. Those days she kept her black hair long and wrapped in a tight bun. I had never seen it fixed in the short, wavy hairdo she wore in the wedding picture. She only reminded me of the girl in that picture the few times her face brightened into a smile.
When he heard car doors open, Daddy flipped on the porch light. I ran to the other window in time to see a tall, stringy man in a dark suit unspool himself from the front seat. He waited for a woman to walk around from the other side. Once she joined him, they made their way to our house, the woman clutching the man’s arm with both hands as if she were afraid she’d get lost in the shadows.
When they stepped up on our porch, Daddy said, “Why, the goddamn.”
“Who is it Billy?” Mama whispered.
He looked at Mama while shaking his head. “You ain’t gonna believe it,” he said. He swung the door open and shouted, “Felton Roberts, you better get in this house.”
Mama shrieked and charged past him squealing, “Ruth!” She and the woman latched on to each other and swung around the porch as if they were dancing.
Felton had his black hair all slicked back, and he wore a black suit that made me wonder if he’d been to a funeral that day. I was curious about the red, white, and blue tie with pictures of old-time boxers squaring off against each other. But Daddy acted as if he could see nothing but the bottle of whisky Felton clutched in his fist like a club.
“See you brought the Old Crow,” Daddy said.
“Yeah,” Felton said. “Hard as I tried, I couldn’t get her to stay home.”
As Ruth punched Felton playfully on the shoulder, Mama’s trilling laughter startled me. I’d heard her snicker and chuckle before, but I didn’t recognize this joyous, musical sound at all. Daddy rewarded the comment with what he passed off to the world as a laugh—a tight-lipped smile that looked more like a wince, accompanied by a grunt.
Still giggling, Mama said, “Felton, you’re terrible.”
“Hell, I’ve always been terrible, ain’t I, Sarah?”
From the back yard, the yapping hounds drowned out the electric chorus of crickets and peepers calling from the surrounding woods.
“Y’all come on in,” Daddy said
When Felton stepped inside, he looked down at me and said, “And who is this good-looking gentleman?”
“That’s Joey,” Mama said. “Honey, this is Felton and Ruth Roberts. I worked with Ruth at the shell plant in Gadsden back in World War Two.”
“Why, he’s almost grown,” Felton said. I sure hoped that wasn’t true because the top of my head only came to Daddy’s chest.
Felton bent over where he could look me in the eye and held out his hand. When I offered mine, he gave it a firm shake. “How old’re you, Joe?” he said, all serious, his eyes steady as if he were talking to an adult.
“Eight,” I said.
“Eight?” he said. “Boy, I would’ve thought you was twelve. Ten at least. You know where we’re going next week, Joe?”
I shook my head.
“Chattanooga,” Felton said. “After I take care of a little company business, we’re going to Lake Winnie and take a ride down that water chute. That night we might even watch the Lookouts play a game.
“You ever been to Chattanooga?” he said, and I shook my head. “It’s just a hour up the highway. They got a lot of stuff to do, and there’s more people than you can shake a stick at. Maybe you can get your daddy to take you sometime. I’ll bet you’d get a kick out of it.”
I looked around them at the open door, hoping they’d left somebody behind. “Y’all got any kids?” I said.
“Na, Joe,” Felton said. “I’m the only kid we got.”
“God,” Ruth said. “We took the wrong road a while back and was lost forever. When Felton turned on this one, I said, ‘This can’t be it.’”
“Let’s set at the table,” Daddy said
Ruth was a red-haired little woman in a pale green uniform that buttoned in front. She had a patch of freckles sprinkled across her nose and a crooked front tooth that she covered with her hand every time she smiled. I was smiling back at her till I got a whiff of a pungent scent. She saw my nose crinkle and explained that she had worked all day in a Fort Payne beauty shop. “It’s that old perming lotion,” she said. “I’ve worked with it so long, it’s got to where I don’t smell it no more. I was in such a hurry to see your mama, I didn’t take time to change.”
The room across the front of our house served as living room, dining room, and kitchen. I leaned against the wall next to the kitchen stove and thought how Mama and Ruth sounded like schoolgirls as they set out cheese and crackers and carved off slices of a cake Mama had made a couple of days before.
Daddy fussed with the radio, settling on the jaunty sound of twin fiddles. Felton eased into a chair at the head of the table and lit a Camel with a fancy-looking lighter. “That Bob Wills?” he said. “Man, I love me some Bob Wills.”
“Felton, you still chiropracting?” Daddy said as he walked across the room to the kitchen cabinet.
“Na, Billy, ” Felton said. “I ain’t done that in a good while now.”
Daddy clinked four tall jelly glasses on the table. “Hell, you was good at it as I remember.”
“I know. I know. But the state got this idea you had to have some kind of license to pop folk’s bones. Bastards got kinda serious about it, too. Threatened to put me in the penitentiary if I didn’t quit. So I just closed my office and went back to selling. Vacuum cleaners, Fuller Brushes. Hell, a Bible or two every now and then. But I’m mostly into burial insurance these days.”
“Burial insurance?” Daddy said. “Didn’t know they was such a damn thing.”
“I’ll tell you, Billy, I can unload them policies out on Sand Mountain fast as the company can print ‘em. You ought to think about getting some coverage for you and your family.”
“Coverage?” Daddy said. “What the hell I want with coverage?”
“Well, Billy, you can’t ever tell what might happen. You know, all the people out there in that old cemetery were just like us at one time. They didn’t know when…”
“Felton!” Ruth said. “We’re just visiting, honey. Remember, you’re not at work now.”
“Sorry, Billy,” Felton said. “I push that stuff hard all day. Have a little trouble turning it off sometimes. Hell, let’s get into this Crow. Remember how we used to do?” He twisted the top off the whisky bottle, winked at Daddy, and tossed it over his shoulder into the sink. As Felton poured, Daddy sat hypnotized by the brown liquid splashing in the tall glasses.
“Joey,” Mama said. “Why don’t you go back to your room so we can talk.”
“Y’all can talk with me here,” I said. “I’m being quiet.”
“Don’t you get smart with your mama,” Daddy said. “You do like she says, and get on back there with your funny books.”
He said “funny books” as if he were spitting out a bad taste. He was talking about the comics stacked in my closet. Mama bought me one sometimes when we’d walk out to US 11 and catch the Greyhound into Fort Payne. I had some cowboy comics—a Johnny Mack Brown, a Lone Ranger, two or three Hopalong Cassidys. But most of them were Batman and Superman, Not a one of them was funny.
There were no other kids around for miles, so in the summer, I was on my own. I memorized every panel of my comics and reenacted the stories in the back yard and the woods. After I tired of playing the same stories over and over, I made up my own. At night, I drew new stories in rows of panels on brown paper sacks from the grocery store. When I ran out of characters, I used the names of some of the people buried in the old cemetery. Once I cast them in my stories, I felt as if I knew them.
Daddy caught me in the cemetery one day with a towel tied around my neck like Batman’s cape, trying to make out the faded inscription on a tombstone. “I’ll swear, you keep reading them funny books, you going to wind up funny yourself,” he said. “I told you to stay out of this graveyard.”
“Mama said these people won’t hurt me,” I said.
“No, they won’t hurt you. But they’s snakes in these weeds they ain’t even got names for. You get bit, you’d be deader than these dried up corpses before me or your mama could even get to you. Now, take that towel off and get out of here ‘fore I blister your ass and burn ever’ one of them funny books.”
He never hit me, but he had other ways of punishing me. Back in the winter, he wouldn’t speak to me for days after I refused to shoot a rabbit with the little .410 he bought me for Christmas. And he fired off his whole battery of cusswords every time he took me fishing and found me wandering down the creek, collecting smooth stones and poking at crawfish instead of watching my bobber.
“He hates me,” I told Mama.
“He don’t hate you, honey,” she said. “Y’all are just different, and he don’t know how to handle it.”
I hated him when he drank too much whisky and became what Mama called “a red-faced stranger.” The stranger never hurt us, but he often threatened us and gave us both a good cussing before he wrecked some furniture and stormed out of the house. We didn’t have a telephone, so it might be a couple of days before he shed himself of the stranger and wandered home all skinned up, or Mama learned which jail he was in. “He didn’t used to be like that,” she often said. I could never tell if she was telling me or reminding herself.
The villain in my homemade comics was always a monster called the Red-Faced Stranger. He came out of nowhere to attack whatever hero I had cast in a story. My heroes hid from the Stranger, ran from the Stranger, and, when there was no alternative, they fought the Stranger. The stories always ended in a life and death struggle with the heroes finally knocking the Stranger from a fast-moving train or kicking him off a tall building.
I could hear Felton in the front room laughing so loud he sounded as if he wanted everything that lived out in those woods to know he was having a good time. I tried to eavesdrop, but with my door shut I couldn’t really tell what he was laughing at, so I stretched out on the floor with a pencil, a box of crayons and a grocery bag and drew a story of me going to Chattanooga with him and Ruth. Since Felton wore a black suit and drove his own car, I cast him as a Batman-like hero called Insurance Man. I had us laughing so loud that all those people in Chattanooga wondered how we could be having such a good time. But the Red-Faced Stranger couldn’t stand us having fun and chased us through the town. We made our getaway to Lake Winnie in Felton’s car. Just as we thought we’d escaped, the Stranger caught up with us on the water chute. After a furious fight, Felton drowned the Stranger in Lake Winnie.
For a little while, I felt good about Insurance Man disposing of the Stranger. But I was afraid that the real Stranger was on his way. As hours rolled by, every burst of laughter from the front room made my stomach feel as tight as knot in a wet rope. When the reunion simmered to a low murmur, I poked my head out the door. On the table in front of Felton, a mound of cigarette butts smoldered on a plate, and a wisp of white smoke curled toward the ceiling. The room smelled of tobacco and whisky tinged with Ruth’s perming lotion.
Everybody but Felton looked as if they were fading. The glass in front of Mama held a swallow of whisky. She sat with her head bowed mumbling something that sounded like a prayer. Ruth’s empty glass had a lipstick smudge on the rim that she kept smearing with her finger. Daddy had tears in his eyes. “They’ll bury your ass no matter what kind of insurance you got.” he said.
“I keep telling you, that ain’t the damn point, Billy,” Felton scolded. He shook his head and raised the bottle up to the light. After sloshing the remaining whisky around, he poured it into his glass. Before he could raise the whisky to his lips, he spotted me, put his glass down, and shouted, “Hey, Joe,” as if he were calling me from across a cornfield instead of just a few feet away in that little cracker box of a house. “Come on over here, and I’ll tell you about the time I stayed at Old Man Wilson’s boarding house.”
“Oh, hell,” Daddy groaned. “You ain’t gonna tell one of them old Hump stories are you?
“Joe’s never heard ‘em,” Felton said. “And he strikes me as a man who likes a good story.”
Felton kind of scared me with his carnival barker voice and the way he sat there with slick strands of hair tumbled down on his face and his eyes dancing madly from the whiskey. But he was right. I did like a good story. So I moved in cautiously beside him.
“Joe,” Felton said. “If you ever saw Old Man Wilson, right off you’d think of a hungry whup snake trying to shed his skin. He was bald as an onion and got so skinny from spending all his time counting his money instead of eating when he should. And he always wore this ratty old gray sweater with sleeves that looked like they was ‘bout to rot off his arms. He wore it morning, noon, and night. Summer and winter. He might’ve even slept in the dang thing, far as I know. ”
As he described Old Man Wilson, Felton scrunched his face up and squeezed his eyes into a couple of snake-like slits. “And if you met him, he’d stand there like this, taking you in through those tight, narrow eyes of his like he was trying to figure out how much change you had in your pocket. Now, he was mean to his wife, but he was worse to the feller that worked for him. The poor feller was all bent over. And he kinda crow-hopped along like one of his legs was shorter than the other. He had this big old hump right up between his shoulder blades. Never knew his real name. Ever’body just called him Hump. Wilson kept him in a little shack behind his boarding house there in East Gadsden and fed him biscuits and gravy on his back porch like a animal.
“I was staying there in his boarding house the day Old Man Wilson bought a dog. It was one of them big ol’ snarling white bull dogs. Had docked ears and a bobbed-off tail. On the morning after he bought the dog, we was all eating breakfast in the dining room and heard a knock at the back door. Wilson opened it to see Hump standing on the porch, head bowed, hat in hand.
‘“What the hell you want?”’ Felton growled in the voice of Old Man Wilson, his face screwed into an evil squint. ‘“You got thirty more minutes before you have to go to work.”’
Then Felton’s face dissolved into a sad, wounded grimace, his voice becoming a pitiful whine. ‘“I didn’t get no biscuits and gravy this morning, Mr. Wilson,’ ol’ Hump said.
‘“Now whose damn fault is that?’ Wilson said. ‘My wife slops you first thing every morning.’
‘“It’s that dog, Mr. Wilson. He ate my biscuits before I could get to em.’
‘“That’s gratitude for you. I bought that dog to help you out, Hump, and you don’t even appreciate it.’
‘“Help me out? Mr. Wilson, he growls at me all the time. And he ate my biscuits. He didn’t even leave me a lick of Mrs. Wilson’s good gravy.’
“Wilson’s face was red as a beet, and he shouted out, ‘You arguing with me, you damn freak?’
‘“No, sir,’ Hump whined. And he kind of bowed up like he was getting hit in the face by a hot blast of Wilson’s anger and said, ‘I guess I’m just not smart enough to figure how that dog’s helping me out.’
‘“It’s simple, you old fool. I got to thinking that what’s wrong with this country is lack of initiative. So I decided… But why am I wasting my breath? You don’t even know what initiative means, do you?’
‘“No, sir,’ poor ol’ Hump whimpered.’
‘“You’ll know when that dog finishes teaching you.’
‘“What am I supposed to learn, Mr. Wilson?’
‘“You supposed to learn, by God, if you want you a biscuit, you’ll have to get your lazy butt up on this porch in the morning before that dog gets it. Now, you understand?’
‘“Yes, sir,’ Hump said.’
“I overheard the whole thing from the dining room and I got all over Wilson,” Felton said. “I told him, ‘How can you treat a man like that, Wilson? Ol’ Hump might not be too bright, and he might be ugly as hell with that hump poking out his back and all. But he’s got feelings too. And, my God, the man’s got to eat.’
“And old Wilson growled at me, ‘You want to take him home and feed him?’
‘“Well,’ I said. ‘No. I can’t do that.’
“Wilson snapped back at me, ‘Then mind your own damned bidness. I know what’s best for Hump.’
“Now, that year, November and December had been so warm everybody joked that winter must have forgot all about Etowah County. But I want to tell you, Joe, winter remembered us that night and came in on a howling wind that stripped all the dry, brown leaves from the trees and froze every creek, pond and puddle as hard as stones.
“Ol Hump was curled up on the rough plank floor of his shack, shivering under his thin, moth-eaten blanket when the door squeaked open, and he heard a furious scuttling across the floor. He couldn’t tell if he was shaking more with fear or trembling from the freezing cold when a wide, flat tongue swiped across his face, leaving a slick stream of slobber running down his neck.
“He first thought the dog was going to eat him, but he finally understood what was going on when the dog whined and knelt down to snuggle against him. Hump gathered the dog under the cover, and they kept each other warm through the cold night under that shabby cocoon of a blanket.
“The next morning, Wilson opened the back door to find Hump and the dog sharing the biscuits and gravy. Of course, this went against his plot to torture poor ol’ Hump, and he cussed up a blue streak when Hump fed the fierce dog the last bite with his fingers. I was standing at the door when Wilson tried to kick the dog, and the dog grabbed his ankle in his sharp teeth and clamped down with his powerful jaws.
“I’ll tell you, Joe,” Felton said. “I was laughing my butt off till I heard Wilson scream like a woman and saw blood everywhere. That dog was about to tear the old man’s foot off. I finally shooed the mutt away and took Wilson to the hospital.”
Felton’s smile stretched across his yellowed teeth and crinkled the corners of his eyes. I knew he wasn’t just smiling at me because he looked as if he’d just built something and was really satisfied with the way it turned out. I felt about the story as I did about reading my favorite Batman comic for the first time—delighted but kind of sad it was over.
“Old Man Wilson deserved it,” I said.
“Damn right he deserved it,” Felton said. “And you better believe I told him so, Joe.”
Felton took a big slug from his drink and glanced over at Daddy, who sat there red-faced, looking down at his empty glass as if he were mad enough to chomp into it. “You okay, there, Billy?” Felton said.
“We need to go,” Ruth said, and she stirred in her chair as if she were going to stand.
Mama raised her head. “Y’all not leaving already, are you?” she said in a drowsy voice. “Shoot, y’all just got here.”
“Soon as I finish my drink,” Felton said.
Ruth settled back down as Felton raised his glass and tossed its remaining contents down his throat. I felt as if I had just joined the party, and I didn’t want them to leave. Besides, something was gnawing at me. I thought there had to be a better ending to that story. “What happened to Hump?” I said.
“Hump?” Felton said, fumbling with a crumpled pack of Camels on the table. “Uh…I don’t know, Joe. Last time I saw him, he was still in Old Man Wilson’s back yard.”
“Why don’t he run away?” I said
Felton fished a bent Camel from his pack, lit it, and drew the smoke deep in his lungs. He blew the smoke out in a thin stream, flicked a piece of tobacco from his tongue, and nodded. “You asked a purty good question there, Joe. You know, I’ve studied on that some myself. You ever seen a bird in a cage?”
“In pictures at school,” I said.
“Well, you can keep a bird in there so long, when you open the cage and shoo him out, he’ll just fly right back in. His owner can starve him, keep him in the dark, poke him with a stick. I guess he knows what to expect in that cage, and ever’ thing outside scares him. It don’t matter how bad and nasty it is in there.”
“Felton, let’s go home, baby,” Ruth said.
“Yeah. Yeah,” Felton said, nodding at her. He turned back to me and said, “Joe, why don’t you just go with us? Man, we’d have us a time up in Chattanooga. And I’ve got a bunch more Old Man Wilson and Hump stories you need to hear. Them two was quite a pair.”
I could already see me riding with Felton and Ruth in their fancy car, watching the mountains and trees whipping by while listening to more stories of Old Man Wilson and Hump. I’d never heard of Lake Winnie and I didn’t really know what a water chute was. I shivered with excitement, thinking about leaving behind that gloomy cemetery and the captivity of all that rural loneliness.
The last thing I wanted to do was wake Daddy whose face now rested on the table using his crossed arms as a pillow like we used to do in the first grade. Mama looked half-awake, her head dipping closer to her glass. She was the best one to ask anyway. “Mama, can I go?” I asked, touching her arm.
“You go on,” Mama slurred, waving her hand in the air, swatting my hand away. “Leave Mama ‘lone.”
I felt as if I had dreamed some wonderful dream, and was watching it coming true in front of my eyes. After charging into my room, I realized I didn’t know what to do. I had never been on a trip before, but I’d heard you had to take stuff along. There was no luggage in the house, but I had one paper bag that I hadn’t flattened out to draw my comics on. I crammed some underwear and a shirt into the bag. There was still some room, so I filled it with Batman and Superman comics.
When I got back to the front room, I was so excited, I shouted, “I’m ready to go,” a little too loud and woke the Red-faced Stranger.
The Stranger looked at me through those cruel eyes and growled, “Where the hell you think you’re going?”
“Well, you know, Chat…Chattanooga with Felton and Ruth.”
“You son-of-a-bitch,” the Stranger said, looking at Felton. “You trying to take my boy away from me?”
“What?” Felton said. “Billy, I was just kidding. You know how you say shit like, ‘why don’t you go with us?’ You don’t really mean it. I was just being polite. I mean, what the hell would Ruth and me do with a kid?”
“So you got this boy all excited with your bullshit and you’re going to leave him behind. And I gotta put up with him bawling like an orphan calf. Damned if you ain’t changed a bit. You always thought you was better than me, with your suits and your cars,” the Stranger snarled. “I guess you trying to rub it in on me by showing me how easy it is to take my boy away. Wouldn’t take that boy long to find out you ain’t nothing but hot air. Telling ever’body you was a chiropractor. Now you’re going around selling bullshit burial insurance. You’re as phony as them old Hump stories. Hell, none of that shit ever happened, and you know it.”
“I was staying right there at Wilson’s boarding house,” Felton said, turning his eyes at me. “Saw ever’thing. Heard ever’ word.”
“You never heard shit,” the Stranger said. “How could you know what Hump and that dog did that night?”
Ruth pushed up from the table and stood, holding on to the back of the chair. “We need to go, Felton,” she said.
“No, hell, I…I think Billy’s calling me a liar,” Felton said.
“It don’t matter, honey. Let’s go.”
“I ain’t calling you a liar,” the Stranger said, uncoiling from the chair and wobbling to his feet. “I’m calling you a goddamn liar.”
“Billy. Billy,” Mama pleaded.
“Nobody talks to me like that,” Felton said. He shook the table and tipped over the mound of cigarette butts as he pushed himself up. After fumbling around in his coat pocket, he came out with a pistol.
The gun, pointing at the Stranger’s head, silenced the room as if it were a intruder. Then Ruth pleaded, “Felton, no! Felton, please!”
Mama cried, “Oh, God. Oh, my God.”
“See you still carrying that little sissy .32,” the Stranger said. “Always flashing that thing around, telling people you carry large amounts of cash. You never had a pot to piss in.”
“Let’s go home, baby,” Ruth said.
“No, he…he’s gotta take that shit back,” Felton said.
“I ain’t taking nothing back, you chickenshit son-of-a-bitch,” the Stranger said, pounding his forehead with his finger. “If you got the guts, put it right there.”
“Honey, no!” Ruth cried. “Let’s just go home.”
“He ain’t got the guts,” the Stranger slurred. “He ain’t got the goddamn guts.”
With the click, click of the hammer cocking, the Stranger sucked in a lung-full of air and closed his eyes. The gun quivered in Felton’s hand. The overhead light glinted from its nickel finish.
I knew something about guns. I’d seen Daddy bring down a deer with his 30.30 and use his twenty-gauge to turn scores of hopping rabbits into to lifeless blobs of fur. And according to my comic books, guns could do the same to bad guys like the Stranger.
“You got two choices,” The Stranger said. “You can put that gun down and fight me like a man or shoot. Hell, you ain’t got the guts to do neither one.”
“Felton!” Ruth said. “I’m leaving. I’m taking the car, so you’ll have to walk around that graveyard all by yourself.”
“Gonna let a damn woman tell you what to do?” the Stranger said.
I was standing next to Felton when a ringing blast exploded from the gun’s barrel, and the center pane of the kitchen window shattered. My bag fell from my arms. Comics and underwear scattered across the floor. The Stranger reeled and toppled backwards over his chair, slamming his head against the refrigerator. I could see lips moving, but for a moment, the only thing I could hear was a shrill ringing in my head. Then the cries of the women bled through the ringing. Felton stared at the gun as if it were a strange object that appeared in his hand out of nowhere, saying, “I didn’t mean….It just…”
Ruth kept screaming, “You killed Billy. My god, Felton! You killed Billy.”
Mama dashed to Daddy’s side, weeping and gasping as if something inside her had cracked along with the kitchen window. “Oh, Billy,” she wailed. “Oh, Billy.”
After all the times I had killed the Stranger in my comics, I hadn’t thought for a second that Daddy had to die. I hadn’t thought how it would break Mama’s heart and mine too. I felt as if it were all my fault, choosing Felton over him, wanting to hear more stories and ride that stupid water chute.
“It was a accident, Sarah” Felton said. “I tried to pull the gun up when it went off.”
Then Mama’s crying dissolved into whimpers as she moved her hands across Daddy’s head and face. “Praise God. He…he’s breathing,” she said. “I don’t think the bullet even hit him.”
Felton walked around the table and looked down at Daddy. He shook his head. “Thank God,” he said.
“Y’all better go,” Mama said. “I don’t know when he’ll come to, but you best you not be around when he does.”
“She’s right,” Ruth said, and she wrapped her arm around Felton’s waist and tugged him through the doorway. He didn’t look like much of a hero in his crumpled black suit, using Ruth as a crutch as he stumbled out on the porch, down the steps, and into the yard.
After a while, Daddy stirred and moaned as Mama caressed his head. There were no stations competing with the static, and the radio sounded like fatback sizzling in a skillet. Outside, car doors slammed, the engine growled to a start, and tires kicked up a volley of gravel. When he sat up slowly, I could tell the Stranger was still with us from the wild anger in his eyes. “He missed,” he said, rubbing the back of his head. “Sumbitch missed.”
“You bumped your head pretty bad, Billy,” Mama said. “You need to go to bed.”
“No!” he snarled, pushing her away. “You stay the hell out of my way, woman.” He pointed at me and said, “You stay out of my way too, funny book boy. ”
He wobbled to his feet, holding onto the table for support. After lurching across the room, almost falling a couple of times, he staggered into the bedroom. Mama collapsed in a chair at the table and shook her head while he thrashed around in the back of the house. Finally he came out with his 30.30 and a beat-up chrome flashlight with a lens the size of a saucer that he used for possum hunting.
“It’s too late to go hunting, Billy,” Mama said.
“Not too late to hunt for a bastard just tried to steal my boy,” he said. He flung the screen door open and stomped out on the porch.
I walked over where Mama sat. “It’s my fault, Mama” I said between sniffles. “I shouldn’t’ve wanted to go and leave you and Daddy.”
“It’s not your fault, Honey,” she said, running her fingers through my hair. “You just wanted to take you a long ride. I know that don’t mean you don’t love us. Shoot, sometimes I want to take a long ride, myself.”
“Felton might shoot him,” I said. “He might hit him this time.”
“Honey,” she said. “They ain’t no way on God’s earth your daddy can catch Felton and Ruth on foot. And he’s so drunk it ain’t dawned on him that he don’t even know where they live. The good Lord’s always took care of him. So the only thing we can do is ask him to keep on taking care of him. I just pray he goes to sleep in a ditch somewhere, or gets picked up by the law and they keep him safe in jail till he can come back to us.”
While Mama prayed at the table I walked out on the porch, thinking of all the stories I had drawn where my characters had killed the Stranger. I swore that the next day I would cram all those drawings into the burn barrel. In my mind I plotted my next comic where wings would sprout from Hump’s hump, and he would fly out of Old Man Wilson’s back yard all the way to Chattanooga.
Moths fluttered through the open door and thumped against a lamp shade inside. The hounds probably thought Daddy was going hunting without them because they howled louder than ever. Down the road the white beam of his flashlight wiggled across the tombstones like a ghost. When he reached the far side of the cemetery he cast a spray of light against the dark curtain of trees. Then the night swallowed his glow as if someone had snuffed out a candle.