He received mail under a number of different names, only one of which was his. Some people wrote to Mr. Cell Freeman, route 1, box 39, Loring, Mississippi, whereas others wrote to Sale Freeman, and still others thought they’d heard his first name altogether differently and converted it to Zell. He liked that a good bit and might have chosen it, if he’d had any choice in the matter, though of course he did not. The only entity that ever got it just right was the United States government, which addressed both his social security check and his income tax forms to Andrew Sellers Freeman—thus, Sel. He was Mister Sel to everybody younger than him, and by this point that included virtually everyone he knew.
One Saturday morning in early autumn he was lounging on his porch, half-asleep in a cane-bottom rocker, a straw hat pulled down over his forehead. In the front yard, three of the Elmore kids, Tommy D., J. P., and Doreen, were loitering around—the little girl probably hoping for a story about the many haunted houses he’d visited in his youth. Her brothers, who were several years older and impervious to the charm of a well-told story, were most likely waiting to see if he’d hand out suckers or soft drinks or doze off long enough for them to steal a few Indian peaches from the basket resting near his rocker. They were both natural thieves. When they were younger, they’d been caught swiping comic books and candy in town at Piggly Wiggly. Lately, so his widow friend Elsie had told him, they’d graduated to license plates. According to her, they’d also learned to siphon gas. Right now, they were doing everything they could to make their sister cry. J. P. found a lizard and began to threaten her with it, and Tommy D. was priming the pitcher pump, getting ready to throw a bucket of water at her.
He raised the brim of his hat, for things in the yard were escalating beyond what he meant to allow. “Here now,” he said. “You put that poor lizard down, J. P. And you get away from the pump, Thomas.”
“My name ain’t Thomas,” the older boy replied. His freckled nose wrinkled as if he’d just smelled a particularly foul odor, but he did let go of the handle.
“Your name is Thomas Duncan Elmore,” the old man said. “You don’t have to like it, but you’ll answer to it when you’re in my yard.” He gestured at his apple orchard, which consisted of four trees that he’d retained the rights to when he rented the cotton field the trees stood in to the kids’ father. “Bet you and J.P.’d like a nice tart apple now, wouldn’t you?”
Neither boy denied it.
Doreen said, “I’d like me an apple too.”
“I got something better for you,” he told her. “You just come over here by Mister Sel and I’ll give it to you while the boys grab their apples off the lowest of them branches over yonder.” He gestured at the closest tree, and as her brothers bounded over there, she climbed the steps.
“Just you watch with me for a minute,” he whispered, so she stood beside him, waiting patiently, her dark bangs down in her eyes.
The lowest branch was actually quite high, and neither boy could reach it. “We can’t get to ’em,” Tommy D. said. “You got a ladder?”
“No, but you don’t need one. What you got to do is heft J.P. up a little bit and he’ll pull off one for each of y’all. You can do it. One, two, three.”
Grunting, Tommy D. grabbed his brother and lifted him high, and J.P. reached out and picked an apple, hollering, “I got me one.” Then he hollered again. “God in Heav’m, let me go!” He tossed the apple aside and furiously batted at the guinea wasps that had just attacked him. Within seconds, he plummeted to earth, as the wasps also went to work on his brother.
Both boys took off toward the main road, dust clouds billowing from their footprints. Dark-haired Doreen watched them go. “Was that my treat?” she asked.
He chuckled. “One of ‘em.”
“What’s the other one?”
“You wanted a nice apple, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir. But I’d hate for you to get stung.”
“Don’t you worry a bit about that. A wasp can smell fear on you, and I ain’t afraid.”
“Maybe you should be.”
“No,” he said. When he rose from the rocker, every joint in his body seemed to pop. “I got a secret weapon.”
She watched him walk over to the tree. Many of the wasps had returned to their nest, though three or four flew sentry duty. He stuck one hand inside his overalls, rubbing the opposite armpit with it. Then he performed the process in reverse. After that, he rubbed both hands together for ten or fifteen seconds. Finally, he reached up and pulled the nest loose from the limb, held it in the air where she could see it, then flung it into her daddy’s cotton field. He picked seven nice-looking apples, dropping each one into a baggy pocket. Finished, he walked back over to the porch and climbed the steps. “Let’s find an old grocery sack for you to carry these home in,” he said. “You got one for each day of the week. Don’t let them mean brothers of yours find ’em.”
“Oh, I won’t,” she said. “It’s between you and me, Mister Sel. It’ll be our own little secret.”
The harboring of secrets came easily to him. At one time, during the Great Depression, it had been a necessity, but out of necessity he had forged a bond with pleasure. He loved knowing that for many people hereabouts, he was a figure of mystery. They believed large sums of money lay hidden in his house or were buried in the ground outside. The source of this rumor was a certain misfortune that befell him in the spring of 1930, when he entered into an agreement to buy fifty acres of prime Delta buckshot for seventy-five dollars. Overnight, Farmers Bank and Trust shut its doors, to open them no more, and the next morning he learned he’d lost not only the fifty acres but also every last dime he’d saved. Everybody thought it wondrous how he went from being penniless in March of that year to owning a couple hundred acres two years later, and they all professed to know that he’d never again put a penny in a bank. Rumor had it he carried several hundred dollars on his person at all times in a small canvas sack that he hid somewhere underneath his clothes, and that the sack was cinched tightly with a piece of stiff twine, the other end of which was secured to his member. In fact, he had money in three different banks these days, though none was within one hundred miles of Loring, and he’d be damned if he’d ever tie a string around his pecker.
Folks said he walked everywhere because he didn’t know how to drive. One of his neighbors liked to tell a story about how he once encountered him and his late wife, Nora, coming down Valley Hill in Yazoo City. According to the neighbor, Mister Sel made Nora kill the engine at the top of the hill, intending to save gas by coasting to the bottom, not knowing that this would render the brakes inoperable. A deadly crash had supposedly been averted at the very last instant, when Nora had the presence of mind to steer into the Jitney Jungle parking lot, on the other side of which an enormous hedgerow arrested their motion, leaving each of them with only a few scratches. The truth was that Mister Sel hadn’t been in Yazoo City since boyhood and it was Nora who couldn’t drive, not him. He kept a car garaged in town, and he’d driven it as recently as the previous year, when he needed to attend a funeral back in east Mississippi.
He knew what people thought about him because he sometimes heard them say it, during those moments when he listened to their conversations on the party line. There were eleven different households on that line now, including two black families, a sign of progress that he welcomed. His curiosity about others was boundless, and he’d always wondered what black folks said to one another in private. Absent any evidence, he’d always assumed they talked mostly about white folks, but he’d been listening to them a good while now, and that subject had never come up. They discussed their preacher, fried catfish, dead relatives, sick dogs.
After sending Doreen off with her sack of apples, he shuffled back inside and looked at the clock and saw that it was almost eleven. So he opened the cupboard, pushed the mop bucket out of the way, and withdrew a fresh bottle of whiskey. Dose De Luca—who got his nickname about thirty-five years ago, when he’d stand outside his pool hall and ask everybody that walked by “Don’t you want you a little bitty dose?”—always sent him good stuff. Partners for a short while, they’d been friends now for many years.
He poured himself a Smucker’s preserve jar half-full of amber balm, shoved the bottle under his easy chair, then sat down, took a sip, and quietly lifted the phone. Nobody was on. So he replaced the receiver, took another sip of whiskey, and spent a little while perusing the Commercial, shaking his head at the latest news from Saigon. Another 267 boys dead since last week and three of them from right there in the Delta. Five or ten minutes passed before he laid the paper down and once more lifted the phone.
He was rewarded this time. The oldest Elmore boy, James Ed, was on, just as he’d been every Saturday morning since he came back from wherever it was he disappeared to last year. His younger brothers were plenty mean, but their meanness was amateurish and they derived pleasure from it. James Ed’s, on the other hand, was a practiced, professional meanness. “You better have your ass up here tomorrow,” he was saying.
“I’ll sure do my best.”
“I don’t give a fuck if you do your best or not. You can do your dead-level worst as long as you get up here with that shit.”
“Yeah, but you know my hair’s a little long, man. I stand out.”
“Then grab you some scissors and go to work on it.”
“Well, but anybody comes driving up from the coast in a car with an out-of-state plate, there’s always a chance he’ll get stopped. It’s all this Civil Rights crap. That’s how come I didn’t make it last week. They had a fucking road block on 49, just north of Hattiesburg. I barely saw it in time to pull off onto a dirt road.”
“If you ain’t here tomorrow, you liable to have dirt on top of you rather than underneath your wheels.” James Ed let that sink in for a few seconds, then said, “We’ll meet down there on the bayou behind old man Sel’s house.”
“You’re not scared he might see us? Ain’t he the one that’s got money hid all over the place?”
“That old bastard ain’t got no money beyond what my daddy pays in rent. He don’t even know what year it is. He just stays drunk and plays pranks on kids.” Without waiting for a reply, James Ed hung up.
For a moment there was silence on the line. Finally whoever he’d been talking to sighed. “I sure would love to stick an M16 up your ass and pull the trigger,” he said before hanging up.
Sel waited a few seconds. Then, using a single fluid motion, he depressed one of the two switch hook buttons with his index finger and held it down while counting to ten. When he released it, a raspy female voice asked, “What you reckon that boy’s up to, Sel?”
As always, hearing her occasioned a great rush of blood, some of which went to his cheeks and forehead. The rest of it travelled in the opposite direction. “Elsie,” he said, “I’ve begged you many a time not to do that.”
She laughed, low and throaty. He bet if you took every cigarette she’d smoked in her life and laid them end to end, they’d stretch from here to Memphis. “You coming by this evening?” she asked.
He’d told her he hated holding these discussions on the party line. If he listened in, somebody else might too. That accounted for his reluctance to answer his own phone. If somebody really needed to talk to him, they could come over and take a seat beside him on the porch and have a drink and say whatever needed saying. And once they’d said it, he could do whatever needed doing, assuming something did, though he deemed that unlikely. “It’s Saturday, ain’t it?” he replied.
“Yes. It’s Saturday.”
“You’re about as romantic as a John Deere.” She went to church twice on Sunday and once on Wednesday night, nursed traditional notions of right and wrong but flung her beliefs out the window when he walked through the door. It pained him to witness it, sometimes. The rest of the time he stood back from it, observing it, bemused that an old man who wouldn’t have running water in his home because its gravitational pull disturbed his sleep could exert such force on another. “Truth is,” Elsie went on, “you got a good bit in common with a tractor.”
She deserved to deliver the occasional punch line, so he went ahead and set it up for her, it being important to preserve the illusion of give-and-take. “How you figure that?”
“Both of y’all,” she said, “were made to be rode.” She cut loose laughing again, but it sounded perilously close to something else, so he laid the receiver in its cradle.
Late that afternoon, having availed himself of the chance to take a nap from which he rose refreshed and optimistic, he pulled out a crisp pair of khakis and the starched white shirt he saved for Saturday nights, some clean bloomers and socks, and put them on. Then he plugged in his burglar control, which was nothing more than a single Christmas tree bulb wired into a jar that formerly contained Jif peanut butter. The light flashed every few seconds, and he’d made sure word circulated that the entire house was electrified, and that anybody who dared to breach the threshold would get fried. He grabbed a pint of whiskey, made sure the front door was locked, then stepped out the back door and locked it too.
He set off on foot, the two-mile walk to Elsie’s the only exercise he got each week, save that which transpired in her bed. Along the way, he passed numerous field hands, sometimes entire families, headed in the opposite direction, all of them bound for town. They’d knocked off picking at two or three o’clock, gone home and gotten dressed and now they were on their way in to trade or see a movie or get drunk or drop into one of the brothels. The more energetic males among them might accomplish all four. He liked to think they would anyway. He would have if he’d been them. Everybody who passed him tipped a hat or nodded and said, “How do, Mister Sel?” He tipped his hat right back. He knew most of them by name, even the kids.
About halfway to Elsie’s, over close to where his property ended and the sixteenth section land owned by the county began, he saw a pickup coming toward him, the grey International that belonged to Whitfield Elmore. He removed his hat and waved it vigorously.
The International pulled up beside him. Whit was by himself. Nobody, according to Elsie, had seen his wife in weeks. Mister Sel had been listening for her, but if she’d been on the party line, he hadn’t heard her. And he didn’t miss much. “Heading into town, are you?” he asked.
Whit gazed straight ahead, as if the answer lay just beyond the windshield. “Not hardly. I’m going over yonder to the gin, see if they at least got my trailers up under the shed.” With his thumb he gestured over his shoulder, in the general direction of Arkansas. “Storm front’s supposed to be headed this away. Gin’s been backed up, and ever’ last trailer I got’s sitting there.”
Whit was the kind of man who had no business trying to farm. He wasn’t lazy—he wasn’t even stupid. But he didn’t have an acre to his name, just rented land from the county and Mister Sel, and he was going through an unlucky period that had begun the moment he was born and lasted for roughly forty years. Mister Sel said, “I didn’t see no mention of rain in the Commercial.”
“I been listening to the radio. They got three inches over close to Forrest City.”
Forrest City was at least a hundred miles north of here, but Mister Sel whistled anyway, as if a three-inch rain were a fearsome thing. “How’s that oldest boy of yours? Joe Ned.”
“James Ed. He’s doing all right, I reckon.”
“Found himself employment yet?”
Whit had a long, lank jaw that always seemed to need shaving. He reached up and rubbed his hand over the stubble, as though deep in thought. “Not as far as I know.”
“Where was it he went off to?”
“California.” Mister Sel shook his head. “He like it out there?”
“I reckon not. He come back.” Whit didn’t sound overly pleased with that outcome.
“Well, you tell him I said hey. I happened to pick the phone up this morning and heard him arranging to meet a business acquaintance down there on the bayou behind my place. Tell him to come see me if he’s got a minute when he gets through. I remember when he wasn’t no more than knee-high.” He put his hat on and started walking, and it was a minute or so before he heard Whit pull back into the road and drive on.
Elsie said, “You ought not’ve told Whit that.”
He was sitting naked in her big old claw-foot tub, and she was standing behind him, scrubbing his shoulders with a long-handled brush. She made him bathe each week before she let him touch her. He didn’t mind. He actually liked being clean from time to time.
He watched her in the full-length mirror on the back of the door. She wore a melon-colored thing that had the consistency of mosquito netting, so you could see right through it. It looked like her breasts had gotten bigger since last Saturday, though that hardly seemed possible.
“How you figure that?” he asked. “James Ed don’t have visitation rights to that patch of ground behind my house. I own it all the way down to the bayou. That ain’t part of the tract his daddy’s renting.”
“Lift your right arm up,” she ordered, and when he did she gasped, then began to brush his armpit with a vengeance. “If they could bottle whatever’s in your sweat,” she said, “Delta Chemical’d make a killing. That boy’s into something you don’t want no part of.”
“I ain’t said I want part of it, because I damn sure don’t. But I also don’t want him bringing scum onto my place and conducting his sneaky business there.”
“Like you and old De Luca never conducted sneaky business.”
About fifteen years ago, on a night when he’d drunk a little more than he should have, he’d told her what he and Dose had been forced to do to a man down on the banks of the Sunflower River, in the spring of ’33. He’d never told anybody else about it, and it had been years since either of them acknowledged that he’d told her. He and Dose bought their sugar from the fellow in hundred-pound sacks, and he’d tried to squeeze them, which led to his body being dumped in the river with one of those sacks tied to each leg. Before they threw him in, they poured the sugar into barrels and refilled the sacks with sand. You couldn’t afford to waste sugar and anyway, as Dose pointed out, it would dissolve in the water and eventually he’d float back up. Mister Sel did not like to think about this, and for the most part he didn’t, except sometimes late at night.
“I conducted business that wasn’t legal, strictly speaking,” he said. “But me and Dose have remained friends for thirty-five years. I never had to threaten him, nor him me. If you feel like you can’t trust somebody, you don’t need to be in business with him.”
She let go of his right arm, rubbed some more Lux into the bristles of her brush and told him to raise the other one. “You got your principles, have you?”
He knew that if he failed to take corrective measures, this conversation would end at a destination he didn’t relish. Saturday night was reserved for pleasure, Sunday morning for guilt and redemption—if you sought the solace of either one, which he didn’t. He said, “Whatever principles I might’ve had, I’d a throwed over at any time in my life if ditching ‘em landed me here.”
Normally, that line would have led to a hooked fish, but not this evening. Elsie’s frizzy hair was the same shade of red as an August sunset, and in the mirror he watched with dismay as her cheeks glowed even more brightly. “You never had to throw a damn thing to land here,” she said, digging the bristles into his ribcage, making him squawk. “All you ever had to do to land here was get out in the road and walk.”
At home, he had a five-blade box fan made by GE that offered three speeds. He’d owned that fan for four years, and during that time span the temperature had exceeded 100 degrees on nine different days. As a rule, he ran the fan on low, but each time the mercury topped 100, he advanced the knob to medium: he did that when it was exactly 100, and he did it on the sweltering afternoon when it hit 109, the hottest day in the Delta since 1925. He would not turn that knob to high until he looked out the window and saw Satan with a box of matches.
Just as he refused to waste electricity by running the fan on high, he was loathe to waste it while responding to Elsie. He wanted to conserve his power ’til later, when he could spend it on pleasant pursuits. “Hon,” he said, “if I didn’t know better, I’d think you felt a little misled.”
She lifted the brush and looked at it, then at him. He could tell she was asking herself whether or not she ought to hit him with it. She knew him well enough to understand that if she did, he’d never return. And he knew her well enough to know what he’d be missing.
Grasping the rim of the tub, he leveraged himself into a squatting position, then took a deep breath and struggled upright, suds flowing down his flanks.
The image that confronted him in the mirror was not one in which to take heart. His shoulders, once so square, sagged forward now, like they meant to meet underneath his chin. Everything drooped: his belly, his balls, his balls’ best friend. While Elsie stood beside him, seeing what he saw and watching him assess the damage, he said, “There’s better things to do than parse our history. Soon enough we won’t be nothing but history.”
Sighing, she held his hand while he stepped out of the tub. Then she toweled him off, sprayed Right Guard under his arms and led him to her bedroom.
Afterward, she unlocked the store, and they went inside and he bought his supplies for the week: several tins of Redbird potted meat, some Armour corned beef and a few Vienna sausages, which, like his father before him, he referred to as “Vi-enners.” He got himself three or four cartons of Saltines, a loaf of Sunbeam and, to round things off and balance his diet, an entire case of Del Monte string beans. Then he gestured at the candy rack and said, “Bag me up ten or twelve of them Holloway Slo Pokes and pitch in a few Milky Ways too.”
They went out back and loaded the sacks, then got in her car. When she started the engine, the radio came on, some fellow whose voice didn’t sound the least bit country, though he was singing Hank Williams—“I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry.” The instant he identified the song, he knew Elsie would run with the title. “Sel,” she asked, “you ever get lonesome enough to start squalling?”
She hadn’t put the car in gear, hadn’t even switched on the headlights yet. They were just sitting there in the dark burning gas.
He crossed his arms. “Well, I’ll tell you, Elsie. Every now and then I do get lonesome. But seems like when it happens, I no sooner start thinking about it than some kids’ll show up, Whit’s or somebody else’s, and before I know it the being lonesome’s stopped.”
He hadn’t given her the answer she hoped for, but he had told the truth, which he thought it occasionally politic to do. Kids loved to hang around his place, and not just because he rewarded them with an apple or a Holloway sucker or a bottle of root beer. He could transport them from the dusty Delta cotton fields to the wooded hills of east Mississippi and the town of Caledonia, where he told them he’d grown up. In Caledonia, he convinced them, magic things happened. Animals talked. You could punch a certain kind of tree and the next thing you knew, honey would flow right out of it. Sometimes, instead of honey, the tree produced Pepsi-Cola. Folks died but they didn’t go into the ground afterwards, they continued to walk around like everybody else, though their forms were ill-defined and you could see right through them.
The kids usually bought it. But he couldn’t sell it to Elsie. “I had my own children,” she said. “And a child can’t cure the kind of lonesome I mean.”
“What kind is that?”
She raised one hand and brushed something out of her eye. “The kind I wasn’t feeling tonight.”
He forced all the air from his lungs, expelling it in a whoosh! Sixty-nine years old now, he’d first laid a hand on Elsie when he was forty-five and she was forty-one, both of them, for all intents and purposes, happily married. He’d driven over to Indianola to buy a fuel pump for his old Farmall, and on the way back he’d found her on the side of the road, the left rear tire on her husband’s truck shredded. All he aimed to do was change her flat. The next thing he knew he was kissing her, and she was kissing back, and the following week, one afternoon as they lay entangled on a couple of empty cotton sacks down close to the bayou, she asked him did he love her. “You looked absolutely frozen,” she’d tell him later, and he was not surprised to hear it. What she didn’t know, because he never let on, was that he’d just seen a water moccasin curled around a low limb on a nearby cottonwood. He said yes to keep her from becoming agitated and upsetting the snake.
He knew he needed to say something now—and not just anything, but the right thing. She’d worked hard on his behalf back there in the bedroom, so it was only proper that he work hard on hers. But short of proposing wedlock, he didn’t know what he could do. “You want to go somewhere?” he asked.
If her mood had risen any higher, they would have had to remove the roof of her old Buick. “I wouldn’t mind,” she said. “Where?”
“I’d love to. I haven’t been there in years.”
Just that easy. She reached over and switched on the headlights, then put the car in gear and backed into the road, all the time talking about Memphis, the Peabody this and the Rivermont that. He figured he had at least four or five days to come up with an excuse to avoid such a trip. Flu might do—that or a bout with sciatica.
At a quarter past midnight she pulled up in front of his house. She cut the engine, and both of them climbed out, and as always she offered to help him carry his stuff in, and once again he declined. She’d never been inside his house and never would be. He claimed it was too big a mess for her to see, and she collaborated in the maintenance of his excuse, accepting it every Saturday night. The truth was he feared that if she stepped inside, he’d never manage to make her leave. Even if she went back home physically, in her imagination she would live at his place, and he would know she was there.
While he lifted out his groceries, she chattered on about Memphis, and he agreed that it’d be better to leave on Friday than Saturday and that instead of driving up 61, they’d go over to Winona and check out the new highway, I-55, and see if it was really as smooth and straight as everybody claimed. She’d handle the hotel reservations, she told him, and he said that was fine and that of course he’d pay for their trip. There was a great country music place in Southaven called Hernado’s Hideaway, she said, and he didn’t express the horror he felt when she broached the possibility that they might drop by there for a dance or two.
He kissed her goodnight, and she headed for the main road, after which he carried his groceries, two sacks at a time, around to the rear of the house and stood them on the top step. When he had all the stuff back there, he took out his keys and unlocked the door. Then he put the keys in his pocket, hefted a couple of sacks, and stepped inside.
He stood the sacks in front of the refrigerator, then reached for the wall switch. Somebody grabbed him around the neck and began to choke him. Bright white spots like electric cotton bolls swirled before him.
“You’re a nosy old motherfucker, ain’t you?” The voice and the arm around his neck seemed to belong to the same person. Whoever it was hurled him against the wall. He slid slowly downward, making comparatively gentle contact with the floor.
A set of hands the size of fielder’s mitts grabbed him under the arms, and he made out the face of James Ed, with its broad, blunt nose and deeply recessed eyes. “Son,” he heard himself say, “you got no cause to behave this way.”
James Ed spun him around and dragged him backwards into the front room. “You’ve had your regular date with Miss Elsie now since about the end of World War Two,” he said. “You didn’t need the phone to arrange that. Been more in keeping with your general outlook if you never had let ’em bring it in here. You ought not have electricity, neither. You’re a mighty inconsistent man.” James Ed threw him face-down on the floor and, before he could protest, a kneecap pressed into the small of his back. He hollered and immediately felt ashamed.
“Hand me that piece of rope, Tommy D.,” James Ed said.
Directly in front of Mister Sel’s face, a pair of tennis shoes appeared. The toe of one prodded his nose. It smelled as if it had recently stepped in dog shit. “Tie ’em so it hurts him, James Ed,” Tommy D. said. “I got welps all over from where them guinea wasps had at me.”
A rope was wrapped around his wrists and knotted tightly. “That’ll give him a little time to think,” James Ed said and stood up, removing the weight from his spine.
He considered his options, which, for the moment, were few and inadequate. He could start screaming, but nobody would hear him, except James Ed and Tommy D. He could beg, but begging wouldn’t do any good, and afterward he’d know he’d done it and that would lower the opinion he held of himself. The best thing to do right now, he decided, was to lie there and take whatever was coming, as long as it remained within reason.
He’d no sooner reached that conclusion than James Ed rolled him over, unlaced his shoes and pulled them off. Then he undid the button on his khakis. “Jesus Christ,” Mister Sel said, his alarm increasing ten-fold. “What in the name of God are you up to, James Ed? I know you been to California. But still.”
James Ed jerked the zipper all the way down, seized the cuffs and tugged his pants off. Then he chuckled and said, “I’ll be goddam’, Tommy D. He’s wearing silk underwear. I believe they got polka dots on ’em.”
Tommy D. was in no mood for comedy. Evidently, those stings still smarted. “I feel real bad for Miss Elsie,” he said.
James Ed pulled his underpants off and flung them and the khakis aside. Then he ripped most of his shirt off, though part of each sleeve remained. Mister Sel lay still and compliant, their plans now apparent. They’d stripped him naked, to humiliate him, and as long as they didn’t do anything worse, he’d count his own performance in this little drama a success.
A beam of light struck him in the face, forcing him to shut his eyes. “Put these rags together with the rest of his clothes,” James Ed told his younger brother. “Get his keys out—they’re in the right pocket.”
He heard Tommy D. moving around behind him, the sound of paper crinkling, something heavy hitting the floorboards.
“We got ever’ last shred of clothing in this house,” James Ed said. “Hell, we done even removed the curtains in your bedroom. Got the sheets, too. You in the state of nature now, Mister Sel. Tommy D., if you was to wake up and find yourself in the situation Mister Sel’s in, what’d you do?”
“I’d go over there and pick up the phone and call Miss Elsie,” Tommy D. said. “I’d ask her to bring me something to wear, so I could hide my ugly self from the world.”
“Me too,” James Ed said. “So look here, Mister Sel.”
He knew what he’d see when he opened his eyes, but he went ahead and did it anyway. It had come to him, over the last few minutes, that his assessment of James Ed Elmore had been incorrect in one respect: the young man did derive pleasure from meanness. To that extent he was still a boy. And Mister Sel should have known a boy when he saw one, since he’d never ceased to be one himself.
James Ed held the telephone aloft, the severed cord dangling from it. “Ain’t no way to call nobody,” he said. “Nothing for you but to lay here and wiggle around on the floor. Even if you work that knot loose, what you going to do? Get out there on the road naked? They’ll send you to the loon house sure as shit. All because you’re so fucking curious.”
The flashlight flicked off, leaving him in darkness. Footsteps crossed the floor, and the back door slammed shut. He heard someone lock it from outside.
After that, he spent a few minutes thinking about what James Ed had said, that he was a mighty inconsistent man. It was God’s own truth. Consistency, it had always seemed to him, was for people like Whit, who spent their lives trudging around in their own footprints.
He lay there another half hour or so, resting up for what was to come. When he began to get cold, he decided it was time to roll across the floor, toward the bottle of whiskey he’d shoved under his easy chair that morning. When he got close enough, he struggled onto his knees, then head-butted the chair once or twice, until he could see the bottle, which lay on its side. He had to lean way over, and he almost lost his balance, but eventually he managed to grip the neck of it with his teeth. Then he began to scoot across the floor in the opposite direction, moving inch by painful inch toward the fireplace. It took him a good while, and he lost his bite several times and, when he got where he needed to be, half the skin on his kneecaps was gone. The pain provided the impetus to drop the bottle onto the hearth hard enough to make it shatter.
Awash in squandered whiskey, he backed up to the fireplace and got his hand on a good-sized piece of glass and went to work on the rope. In the dark, he couldn’t quite see the floorboard that he’d driven the cut nails into more than thirty years ago, but he knew right where it was. Underneath that board, where the sills came together, was a cypress block he’d hollowed out with an adze. It contained a balled-up raincoat, which in turn concealed a Colt .44, a box of ammunition and a thousand dollars in bills dating back to 1935. He hadn’t thought to stash a set of clothes, but he’d worry about them later. He was roughly the same size as James Ed.