Tuscaloosa Knights

And that’s how it began. Three distant notes, high blasts on a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note. It sounded like an English foxhunt. We heard them coming a long time before we saw them.

“It’s the Ku Kluxers,” said Pinion, fanning himself with a ragged edition of the Atlanta Constitution. “They’re having a parade tonight. Going to burn a cross out at River Road.” He leaned back in his wicker plantation chair, holding his highball glass next to his ear at an angle, as if the whiskey were whispering to him.

It was September, and it seemed to me that I had spent the better part of the long hot summer here, drunk on Pinion’s porch, waiting for my husband John to come back from Switzerland. John was the newest physician at Bryce, Tuscaloosa’s antebellum insane asylum, and Pinion had helped John tap into a hidden stash of state money to finish writing his book on suicide. It was five years since the stock market crash when scores of respectable bankers and businessmen had jumped from Wallstreet windows to their death, and there was a renewed interest in the treatment of self-destructive impulses.  When John received his under-the-table funds, he decided he needed to visit a famous sanitarium in Zurich to do the last chapters properly. Of course, I wanted to go, having studied German at school, but he said the stipend was too small. I was pretty upset that my husband planned to abandon me here in this dinky town with nothing to do while he pranced across Europe.

So John asked Pinion to entertain me in his absence. John and Pinion were golfing partners at the Riverside Country Club, where the small town Brahmin gathered to socialize. I used to go too and swim in the pool, but after a while the gossip about who was running around on who got to be too much for me, so now I spent most of my days bored, reading magazines, smoking cigarettes in bed, and occasionally scribbling notes for a tawdry novel I was writing to amuse myself, something that would out-scarlet Gone with the Wind.  Somehow I felt lonelier with all those vapid, chattering women at the club than when I was really alone. Scribbling away in my bedroom, I looked forward to sunset when I knew I could visit Pinion on his porch and have a taste of something strong. Most weekends he was kind enough to break up the monotony and escort me to one of the University of Alabama football games, only there wasn’t a home game tonight, so I guessed the Klan was providing the town’s Saturday night entertainment.

“Can anybody go?” I asked, leaning over the rail, trying to spot them. “Even a Yankee carpetbagger like me?” I took a long sip of my sugared bourbon and then pressed the cool glass to my throat. The evening sun had dipped under the horizon, and the clouds were verging from a deep mercurochrome pink to black. The old gaslights, now filled with filament bulbs, came alive and lit up the street.

“Sure, Marla. Question is, why would anybody want to? Trust me, it’s no Rose Bowl.” A drop of sweat trickled out of Pinion’s thick black hair and down his cheek. He set down his glass beside the serving tray the housekeeper, Odetta, had brought out to us. Then Pinion wiped his face with the back of his hand and dried his fingers on the leg of his tailored trousers.

I hadn’t liked Pinion much when John first introduced us. Pinion Knox was loud and blunt to the point of being vulgar. As the state legislator representing North Alabama, Pinion was in charge of institutional funding for Bryce and the university, and considering his manners I always secretly thought John only befriended him in order to advance his career. When I started my book, I even came to think of Pinion as the villain, a dark-haired, blue-eyed lawyer with a thirst for booze and women. But eventually I grew to like Pinion’s loud laugh and I figured that his bluntness was really a sign of affection, maybe because his job obliged him to tell so many polite lies.  Most days since John left I’d try to work on a chapter for a few hours after lunch. I’d write another seven or eight pages that would end with the fictional Pinion cheating at cards or deflowering a virgin. When I was done, I’d take a walk down Queen City Avenue and find the real Pinion drinking on his front porch. 

“I’m surprised you’re not out there marching with them. What, did your washer woman forget to starch your sheets for you?” I turned and shook my empty highball glass, letting the ice chips jingle. Pinion reached for the crystal decanter standing between the twelve-inch block of ice and the bone china sugar bowl. “I thought you told me your grandfather was a big muckety-muck, a grand titan or poobah or something. I thought you said he was with General Forrest in Tennessee when he started the whole thing up.”

Pinion filled my glass. “I did. My granddaddy was boss of the real Klan in North Alabama when there was a reason for it. This club you got here now hasn’t got any more to do with the real Klan than the Boy Scouts.”

“I guess we’d better watch out,” I said, pinching his knee. “Didn’t I hear that last year they beat up some poor college boy for being alone with a girl in the backseat of a car?” As the guardians of white purity, the Klan not only hanged uppity Negroes, they terrorized anybody they deemed licentious—drunks, wife beaters, excited college boys fumbling under the petticoats of coeds. I’d even heard a story about a pair of careless adulterers who had been dragged out of bed naked and horsewhipped.

 Pinion raised his fists in mock combat. “I’d kill a few of them sum’bitches before they even touched me with one of their ropes, by God. The sight of all that white trash under the sheets gets me hot enough to shit fire.”

Seeing Pinion get all worked up tickled me. I covered my mouth with my hand. That was one of the things that was attractive about Pinion, he didn’t sugar anything for me except my drinks. Pinion came from a long line of handsome politicians, all of them with a reputation for getting into scrapes. Like his congressman father, Pinion was a legendary brawler. Club gossip had it that when he was twenty, he suffered a year-long suspension from the university for being the first student in two decades to break the rule against dueling. It was said that he put a rival SGA member in the hospital when he shot him in the knee with an antique pistol. Others said that when he was in Montgomery, Pinion frequently challenged other state senators to “step outside” if they voted against him, as if the rotunda were just another roadhouse tavern where men gathered to drink and smoke.

“Look at those bastards.” Pinion stood up and pointed out over the holly hedge. Underneath the towering elms, three horsemen robed in white rode down the middle of Queen City Avenue. As they passed under a magnolia tree, lamplight glistened off its waxy leaves, surrounding the riders in a misty halo. One of the horsemen raised his hood and blasted the same four mighty notes on the bugle. Behind the troika stretched a long watery line of white figures marching side by side like an army of ghosts, their shapeless garments shimmering in the night. 

Pinion stood up and took my hand. “Come along to the street,” he said. “I want to show you something.” Pinion had never touched me in a familiar way before, and I felt my face grow flush as he led me down the steps of the porch and onto the cobblestone walk. “Look.” Pinion pointed at the Klansmen. “You see their shoes? Invisible empire, my ass. I know everyone of them sum’bitches. Every one.”

Moving at the hem of the white robes were pant legs and shoes, dozens and dozens of shoes. One pair of button-ups with terrycloth tops, another heavy-laced pair splashed with mud, brown work boots, canvas sneakers, congress gaiters—even a green pair with knobby toes swung past. Pinion chortled. Only the thick holly hedge separated us from the street and the long line of marching shoes.

“What’s so funny?”

“Only Bobby Pate would have bad taste enough to wear green shoes.”

I laughed because he was laughing. “Who’s Bobby Pate?”

“Just some fool that clerks down at the county courthouse. And there goes his boss”—Pinion raised his voice—“the honorable Judge Harris.”

A hooded figure with shiny black loafers turned to stare at Pinion and me still holding hands. It made my spine tingle, but fear only fueled the giggles.

“That one over there will be teaching Sunday school in the morning.”

That did it. I doubled over. I laughed so hard my bladder hurt. It was like laughing in class. You knew you weren’t supposed to, and once you got started there was no hope of stopping. 

A few more of the hooded figures turned our way, glaring at us through the hollow eyeholes of their masks. At the very edge of the long narrow row of shoes, there was a worn pair of saddle oxfords. Above them the sheets were twisted and out of whack. The left shoe stepped forward gingerly; the uncertain right shoe dragged behind in a dead limp. All of a sudden Pinion quit laughing. “I don’t think I know that one. I wonder— ”

“Wonder what?” I was still laughing, knees together, both hands on my sides. My bare toes curled in the lush zoysia.

Pinion shook his head and turned back up the walk toward the porch. “Nothing. Come on, let’s go finish our drinks. And then if you still have a mind, we’ll have a look at their damn cross.”

 


In Pinion’s bathroom, I tried to fix myself up a little in the mirror over the sink. I pulled a brush out of my purse and frowned as I raked it through my freshly bobbed hair. I’d had it cut last week because of the heat. On a lark, I asked the lady at the beauty parlor to dye it ink black, the way I used to keep it in my old Vassar days. The lady at the parlor didn’t want to do it. You have such a purty color brown as it is, she said. I told her it was my birthday and that I was twenty-seven and needed a change. Finally I coaxed her into doing what I wanted but left angry because when I looked in the mirror I didn’t find my old schoolgirl self, just an old-fashioned flapper. For a while I told myself I was irritated at the beautician and the way she had made me work so hard to get what I was paying for. In New Haven or Poughkeepsie, if you had money to pay people did what you asked—no hassles, quick, efficient. In Tuscaloosa everything was an ordeal. You couldn’t go into the drugstore for a pack of cigarettes without getting into a twenty- minute conversation about the football team or the weather, or worse, a lecture—once, right before John left for his trip, an elderly lady minding the register simply refused to sell me a pack of Viceroys because she said it wasn’t righteous for women to smoke. I was so angry, I went home and threw myself on the bed and had a conniption fit in front of John. He was sorting through his closet and he didn’t even look at me as I screamed and cried, he just kept picking through his long thin suits, trying to decide which one would make the best impression on his colleagues in Zurich.

“You’re being a baby about all this, Marla,” John had said, pinching lint off the sleeve of a pinstripe jacket. “Be grateful I have work here. The people are not so bad. Besides, we could still be living with your father.” My father had been one of John’s professors at Yale. Even when we were courting, it had occurred to me that John’s interest in me wasn’t purely romantic, but in those days John had been gay and full of fun. We went to parties and danced around champagne fountains and shared bootleg gin with good-natured strangers. I stared at my own strange reflection in the bathroom mirror. When I’d given my hair thirty strokes, I put the brush back in my purse and gave myself a hard look. What do you think you’re doing, Marla? I asked. Just what in the hell do you think you are doing?

When I returned to the porch, I found Pinion in his wicker chair reading the week-old-newspaper he’d been using as a fan. “Look at this,” he said. On the front page there was an x-ray, a black and white photograph of a fibula with a hairline fracture. The previous Saturday, our team, the Crimson Tide, had played Tennessee. During the game, word spread through the stadium that one of the Tide’s injured players, a tight end from Arkansas, had asked to be cut out of his cast so he could take the field. The tight end scored two touched downs and we bested Tennessee twenty-five to nothing. No one really believed the story about the kid having a broken leg at the time, but then on Sunday the Constitution did an entire article him. The headline read: “Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant—First Place in Courage.” Bryant was the “other end” opposite Don Hutson, Bama’s star receiver. Hutson and the quarterback Dixie Howell, “the human howitzer from Hartsford” made a powerful combination, and since I’d moved to Tuscaloosa, the duo had become the princes of the South. But right now, for a brief moment, all of Tuscaloosa’s attention was focused on the superhuman Bryant. Pinion had spent the last five days unfolding the newspaper like a map and telling anyone who would listen, If this Bryant kid heals, we’re SEC champs for sure.

Pinion reached into the pocket of his trousers and produced a coin. “I’ll bet you this silver dollar that our lame Klansmen there is this Bryant fellow. It’s just the kind of stunt those muck-rakers would pull, pandering to the fans. They’re trying to run me out of office, you know.”

I looked at the headline again: “Paul ‘Bear’Bryant: First Place in Courage.” “No way,” I said. “I don’t think he’d do it.”

“You’d be surprised what a poor college student will do if you wave a little money or tail in his face.” Pinion spoke as if he had had plenty of experience in such matters.

I reached over Pinion’s lap and pilfered a cigarette from his pack of Picayunes lying next to the serving tray. “Well, only way to settle the bet is to go to the rally.”

“I aim to.” Pinion fished out his lighter. I bent down to the flame in his cupped hands. “All we have to do his wait for Puddin to get back with the car.”

Puddin was Pinion’s driver and had been his father’s driver before him.

“Where is Puddin, anyway? You don’t think he’s in any kind of trouble, do you?”

“No. He’s picking up groceries for Odetta. I sent him out over an hour ago. He can’t be much longer. Maybe he’ll come back with some mint for the bourbon.”

Pinion prepared another glass for me. He swirled a teaspoon full of sugar into the ice chips as I smoked. Picayunes are for people looking for a real smoke. Every drag felt like shards of glass settling into my lungs. By the time I had stubbed out the butt I was into a nice hazy buzz. Pinion handed me my glass and then I decided I’d better have a seat on the porch swing a few feet from the wicker chairs.

I felt rather loopy by the time Puddin pulled up to the house in Pinion’s black convertible. Puddin was breathing hard and shaking when he pulled up into the drive, and it took some doing to coax him out of the car.

“Did you see them, boss?” Puddin took his cap off and blotted sweat off his bald head with a blue bandana.

“Yeah, Pud. We saw them.”

As Puddin told it, he had just finished loading up the car with groceries when the nightriders passed. Puddin was the last customer before the clerk at Abernathy’s locked up. The door had just shut behind him when he heard the bugle sound. Puddin had quickly raised the top on the car and hid under the steering wheel, praying that nobody would spy him through the windshield. He was so frightened that he stayed there, cramped and numb, long after the parade had past.

“Poor fellow.” I said, patting Puddin on the back. “That’s terrible.”

“I am too old for this aggravation,” said Puddin, putting his cap back on. He stooped to rub his knees. Pinion took the two full sacks of food from the backseat and put them in Puddin’s arms. “Go take the goodies into the kitchen for Odetta, Pud. Have her fix you a cup of coffee. You might ought to spend the night with us. I don’t know if you want to go home in all this.”

Puddin nodded and headed for the kitchen door at the side of the house. He turned around when Pinion began to put the top down. “Now where are y’all going?”

“Miss Marla here wants to see them burn that cross, Pud. You want to come too?”

Pinion winked at me and my bourbon giggles picked up again.

“No, thank you, sir,” replied Puddin, biting down hard on the word sir. “Why do you want to take Miss Marla into such a spectacle as that? You know something sorry is bound to happen.”

“Don’t worry about me Puddin, I’m a big girl,” I said, waving goodbye to him.

Puddin shook his head. “Ain’t nobody big enough to be out with those crazy fools.” He turned his back on us and disappeared around the side of the house.

Pinion just smiled. When he was finished with the hood, he opened the passenger’s side door for me. After he got behind the wheel, he reached across me to open the glove box. His shoulder brushed against my chest and I closed my eyes as he fiddled with the latch, trying not to blush again. When I opened them, Pinion was holding an ugly black revolver. He opened the chamber and quickly snapped it shut. Then he gave me a lewd grin. “Loaded,” he said. “Just in case we smell some trouble on the road.” 

Within a few minutes, Pinion had turned off Queen City and we were speeding down University Boulevard. The stars appeared to be far away, maybe because on the horizon there was a dim orange light growing in the northern sky. We rode past the edge of the university’s campus and turned left at Bryce toward the river. As we past the beautiful old asylum with its Doric columns and cupola, I noticed a dozen or so inmates standing on the expansive lawn. Was something wrong? I looked up at John’s office window, which was, of course, dark. I imagined him up there smoking a cigar, writing in one of his green medical ledgers with the gold fountain pen I’d given him for Christmas. Below most of the inmates were milling around barefoot in their bed clothes; a few of them stood stone still, looking up in the night sky as if expecting a lunar eclipse or a fireworks display. Two stringy-haired women clasped their hands around the tall iron gates that surrounded the yard. None of them waved at Pinion’s car as they might have in the daytime. They didn’t seem to notice our passing at all. It was unnerving, and for the millionth time I wondered why John had exiled us to this tiny country town inhabited solely by football fans and failed suicides. Before I knew it, my fingers had found their way again into Pinion’s free hand.

He looked at me in a sort of pleasant mocking way and said, “Hey, reach down on the floorboard and hand me the flask.” The flask was wrapped in the crumpled folds of the Constitution. The paper had also printed Bryant’s yearbook picture. Standing in his uniform, tall and handsome, he could easily pass for a matinee cowboy. We passed the flask back and forth, taking little sips as Pinion navigated through the heavily wooded road.

Then out of nowhere, Pinion said, “You know the Yankees burned down the university during the civil war, even the library?”

I shook my head. “No. I didn’t know that.”

“Yep, got all four of our books.” He winked, and I grinned back. “A Polish mercenary named Croxton torched it. He thought Bryce was the president’s mansion and ordered his men to burn it down too. Luckily the soldiers discovered that it was an asylum before they carried out the order. Can you imagine what that would have been like, a hundred or so madmen on fire and screaming?”

I took a slug from the flask and handed it to him. “I think by the time you catch fire, you’re mad. At that point, it doesn’t matter where you’ve been living.”

Pinion nodded. “True enough.”

We continued down the road until we came to a large man-made clearing that gave a view of the Black Warrior River. On the shoal, scores of cars were parked bumper to grill in a semicircle. Women and children sat on the hoods of these cars, some of them eating sandwiches. Men stood atop the running boards drinking soda-pop. A few frat boys had brought dates. The boys had unfolded colored blankets down on the grassy sand and now held hands with their sweethearts through the handles of their picnic baskets.

A ring of a hundred or so spectators, all men, crowded around the Klansmen, who were standing in formation. Down by the banks, there was a huge weeping willow, its body arched across the water. A mound of red Alabama clay had been packed in front of the tree and a tall lumber cross, more than twenty feet high, filled the night with orange flame. It shined over the murmuring crowd. The Klansmen nearest the cross must have suffered terribly from the heat; occasionally held up their hands to shield their faces.

It was similar to the grand bonfires the university built on the quadrangle for its homecoming pep rallies. I remembered the way Dixie Howell had addressed the crowd the previous fall and how the fans had cheered at just the sight of him, waving their crimson and white shakers in the air. I glanced down at the newspaper again and the handsome young Bryant looked back up at me.       

Pinion let the car idle in the back of the makeshift parking lot for awhile. When he finally killed the engine, he said, “Stay sharp, I want to be able to leave quick if we need to.” I started to ask why, but then he took his gun out of the glove box and put it in the front pocket of his trousers. That alarmed me, but I kept my mouth shut. Pinion walked toward the crowd and I followed. A few yards from the weeping willow, there was a platform with a microphone. At the foot of the platform, four Klansmen held a banner that read “Klavern 117 Tuscaloosa Knights of the KKK.” The crowd began to applaud.

“They’re getting ready for the speaker,” said Pinion. “Here we go.”

Sure enough, the lame Klansman limped up to the platform and stood before the microphone. I cursed. Pinion gave me a quick smirk.

But then came the booming voice, rich and powerful, spilling in waves over the crowd. I have to admit, for a moment I was spellbound: the hooded army, the ghostly speaker, the murmuring crowd, the burning cross silhouetted by the soft green branches of the bent willow and the black sheen of the river reflecting firelight.

“Why?” shouted the speaker, “Why do you suffer? Because of the Papist dictatorship in Rome. Because the Pope has his minions right here in these United States, and is, at this very minute, planning to overthrow our democratic government. Do you want to wake up one morning and find a dago priest in the White House? Do you know what he plans to do right here in Alabama? He’s got it all worked out. He is going to hand Alabama over to a nigger cardinal!”

When he said that something inside me broke, and then all I could think of was poor Puddin cramped and afraid under the steering wheel of Pinion’s car. Suddenly I noticed that some of them had baseball bats and ax handles.

“Are the people of Alabama—in whom flows the purest Anglo-Saxon blood—going to stand for this humiliation? How will we face the challenge of the beast in Rome?”

Now I was beginning to suspect that I had actually won the bet, despite the orator's’ limp. The voice sounded older, like that of a middle aged man, and surely that wasn't the vocabulary of a twenty-year-old footballer.

“By banding together in noble communion. We will fight to the last drop, together, for freedom from oppression. We must band together to fight the devilish plot of foreign potentates—” 

I felt sick now. All that liquor and sugar had not settled well. “I don’t believe this,” I said, holding my stomach.

“What, about the Pope? Of course not. This is all just muckraking nonsense.” Pinion scowled up at the speaker.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it. Come on and get me away from these hayseeds.”

“What did you expect, a Mardi Gras?” Pinion turned on me as if I had insulted him. “You’re the one who wanted to come here and get educated. Wait a second.” Pinion cupped his hand behind his ear. “He’s gone to preaching on evolution. I bet this guy is hell on Darwin.” Just as Pinion mentioned Darwin, the orator removed his mask and spread his arms as if trying to embrace the crowd. It wasn’t Bryant, but a stout man with a shock of dark hair. Pinion forgot about me and glowered at the platform. “God almighty damn.”

“You know him?”

“The bastard.”

“What makes you say that?”

“No, I mean a real bastard. One of my uncles’s little indiscretions. The country’s thick with them. Dunwoody’s the worst. He goes around claiming we’re kin.” Pinion squinted into the distance. “I thought I’d run him off years ago, but that’s him. Wood’s a real bad penny, I’m telling you. He’s here to screw with me just like he did in school.”

“In school?” I could see Pinion drifting away into a private world of vengeance. The expression on his face made him look as I imagined him in my novel, ruthless and cruel, and for a moment all that vicious country club gossip seemed justified. Pinion put his hand in the pocket that held the gun. “That’s him, isn’t it? That’s the boy you shot in school. You shot one of your own cousin’s and that’s why he’s a cripple.”

Pinion grabbed my arm. “Who in the hell told you that?”

“I don’t know. People talk.” I jerked my arm free and thought about slapping him.

“He’s no cousin of mine.” Pinion lit up a Picayune and blew smoke at me. Suddenly, I was more sad than angry, more afraid than sad. For the first time all night, I felt the old loneliness creeping in.

“Stamp it out!” roared Dunwoody. “Stamp out the worship of graven images just as we have stamped out the immorality and licentiousness in parked automobiles along our country roads and shameless nude sunbathing in this lovely spot right here.”

“What kind of fool would want to do away with nude sunbathing?” Pinion asked, trying to start up with the mockery again.

“I want to go home now,” I said.

“So go.”

Slowly I stepped forward and put my arm around his waist, just to see what it would feel like. “Please, honey, take me home.”

Pinion look at me from the corner of his eyes, annoyed.

“Please,” I said again. That was all I could think to say.

“You know, Marla. You think you’re pretty goddamn smart, but--”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Your right. I’m sorry. Please, take me home.”




 

On the way home, wheeling down River Road, Pinion hit a man in a white gown. Like a startled deer, the gaunt little fellow flung himself out of the woods and tried to cross the road in a mad dash.       

“Look out!” I grabbed Pinion’s arm, but it was too late. The man’s body flipped up on the hood, and the next thing I knew, my head had bounced off the dashboard. Everything went black for a second, and when I opened my eyes I had a lap full of glass. The man on the hood of the car was bareheaded, and his glassy green eyes glared at me. His gown began to flood with jagged streaks of blood.

“Oh, my God, he’s dead!” I shouted.

“Shit.” Pinion opened the door and stepped out.

As he did this, the man came to and sat upright, jerking forward like a marionette.

“Are you all right?” Pinion moved to touch him. The man screamed as if Pinion were the one who had just come back from the dead. He jumped to his feet and screamed again and then ran toward Pinion as if to attack. Startled, Pinion balled up his fists but  slipped before he could swing and fell onto the road. By the time I made it around the car, the screaming man had run past Pinion and fled into the woods, heading toward the river.

“Jesus, are you okay?” I helped him up.

“Yeah. How did he run away like that? How could he stand to move?”

“Shock,” I said. “He could have broken every bone in his body and wouldn’t know it if he were in shock.” I didn’t feel sick anymore. I was high on fear.

Pinion put his arm around my shoulders. “You’re shaking,” he said. “And you have a cut on your head.” He reached for his handkerchief and pressed it against my head. I let my body relax as he held me.

“Is it bleeding?”

“Not much. Here, keep pressure on it.” He took my right hand and gently moved it up to the cloth. Then Pinion walked around to the injured side of the car. “Goddamn it.” Not only was the windshield shattered, so was one of headlights. Worst of all, the right front tire was blown. “I hate to say this, but it looks like we’re going to have to hoof it back to town. You think you can?”

I nodded, removed the handkerchief. The blood on the cloth reminded me of the blood soaking through the little man’s robe. “Who do you think we hit?”

“I didn’t know him to look at him. And he was barefoot. What kind of sorry-ass Klansman can’t scare up a pair of shoes? Probably nothing but ringworm under that sheet.”

It took me a second to put it all together. “No shoes. Pinion, that man wasn’t in the Klan. That was a patient at Bryce. He must have slipped over the gate and gotten loose.”

“You’re kidding.”

“My God. What’s going to happen when he hits the river?” I wondered out loud.

“Anybody’s guess. If he keeps going that way, he’s going to run into Dunwoody’s group. They could get rough on him. Those boys are pretty keyed up. On a night like this, they’re just looking for a reason to bust heads.”

I imagined the little man, bloodied and bruised by pipes and baseball bats, the uncomprehending look of terror on his face as the Klansmen strung him into one of the tall oaks that lined the river. I closed my eyes and thought of the safest place I could imagine, my father’s study, with his volumes of Thucydides and Herodotus lined side by side on the shelves.

“Marla,” Pinion put his arm around me and led me back to the car. He cleaned the glass off the seat and then sat me down, “Wait here, maybe I can fix the tire in the dark. We shouldn’t walk home in all this.”

“Would you sit with me a second?” I asked, drying my eyes. “I’m scared.”

He looked hesitant but then walked around to the driver’s side. I buried my face his shoulder as soon as he sat down and cried hard. We stayed like that for a long time, Pinion’s arms around me, patting my back and shushing me like a kid. But soon his other hand wandered down to my thigh. Pinion lifted my chin up in order to kiss me quiet. I started to open my mouth to kiss back but closed it again. Hadn’t I planned this? Wasn’t this what I wanted? But not here. “Wait,” I said. “Not like this.” But Pinion didn’t wait, and what could I do— go limp, fight, scream? Do people ever get what they really want, anyway? The hand on my thigh rose up to my breast. I started to ask him, are you crazy, are you out of your goddamn mind? But he kept my mouth filled with his sour sweet tongue, rank with booze.

My hands started moving too, from his knee to his belt. With my fingers, I found the revolver in his pants. He stopped kissing me long enough to draw the gun and place it under the seat. As he did so, the unclaimed silver dollar I’d won fell out of his pocket and rolled under the clutch. I thought about the handsome young Bryant, all his talent and courage and how I didn’t seem to have much of either. Pinion’s hand was under my dress now and I knew what he was about to do to me wouldn’t take long, not as long as it would take to fix the tire in the dark afterward. I knew that tomorrow I would regret this whole night. I knew that I would be more alone when I woke in the morning than in all the time since John had left. Maybe after I nursed the hangover, I would work on my novel. Maybe the Polish mercenary would return from the dead to finish his arson and burn down the whole damned town.

As Pinion climbed on top of me, a stray shard of glass cut into my hip, but I didn’t care. There was a cold fire in my belly, and it made me wonder what it would be like to burn all over, to be doused with lamp oil and set aflame and burn mad-crazy forever. Soon my thoughts were eroded by the powerful sounds of crickets, tree frogs, and whippoorwills. It was just something I couldn’t get used to, how the forest around Tuscaloosa at night was so alive. I listened to the enigmatic music of the woods and watched the tiny stars glimmer through the open top of the convertible. The eerie orange light continued to pulse behind us in the distance. Pinion was on top of me now, pinning me to the seat, but I felt light, numb, and etherized. I couldn’t help sense that someone was spying on us from above, as if the stars I watched were watching back. Maybe the landscape itself had eyes, the stagnant marshes to the south, the mountains leering over us from the north, brooding over the town, bending all of us to strange purposes.        

No sooner had I thought this than I saw another flash of white, a figure spying on us from the edge of the road. Had the man we hit returned? Surely not. I yelled for Pinion to stop, but he paid me no mind. I beat my fists into his back as he groaned.

“Someone’s here,” I screamed. I was sure that this time it was a Klansman with a horsewhip come to punish us. “They’re here. They’re here.” I said. I slapped Pinion in the face, hysterical. He grabbed my wrists and pinned them above my head. 

All about the car I heard footsteps. Not the orderly march of the parade, but a sound like wild animal hooves. Pinion moaned, grunted and rolled off of me. Just then another figure in white ran past, a woman. She had wild hair, her breasts bounding up and down inside the white linen of her bedclothes. Two men followed, both of them screaming with glee like boys released early from school.

“Hell.” Pinion had one knee in the floorboard, desperately trying to pull up his pants and buckle his belt. 

I pulled my dress down over my waist and rose up on the seat. By then I could see them, maybe forty inmates running wildly, surrounding us from all sides, their eyes glowing in the lone headlight. Running together, their bodies appeared to be fused into a single white monster, a pale hydra of madness. Some of the inmates moaned in otherworldly agony; some squealed and chattered like jungle birds. Pinion’s hand lurched under the seat, looking for his gun but the time he found it they had all passed, the tails of their nightshirts disappearing into the dark. They were running toward the river, toward the orange light on the horizon, toward the burning cross, leaving us alone in the terrible silence.

 


© Brad Vice, reprinted by permission of the author
This story first appeared in Five Points

And that’s how it began. Three distant notes, high blasts on a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note. It sounded like an English foxhunt. We heard them coming a long time before we saw them.

“It’s the Ku Kluxers,” said Pinion, fanning himself with a ragged edition of the Atlanta Constitution. “They’re having a parade tonight. Going to burn a cross out at River Road.” He leaned back in his wicker plantation chair, holding his highball glass next to his ear at an angle, as if the whiskey were whispering to him.

It was September, and it seemed to me that I had spent the better part of the long hot summer here, drunk on Pinion’s porch, waiting for my husband John to come back from Switzerland. John was the newest physician at Bryce, Tuscaloosa’s antebellum insane asylum, and Pinion had helped John tap into a hidden stash of state money to finish writing his book on suicide. It was five years since the stock market crash when scores of respectable bankers and businessmen had jumped from Wallstreet windows to their death, and there was a renewed interest in the treatment of self-destructive impulses.  When John received his under-the-table funds, he decided he needed to visit a famous sanitarium in Zurich to do the last chapters properly. Of course, I wanted to go, having studied German at school, but he said the stipend was too small. I was pretty upset that my husband planned to abandon me here in this dinky town with nothing to do while he pranced across Europe.

So John asked Pinion to entertain me in his absence. John and Pinion were golfing partners at the Riverside Country Club, where the small town Brahmin gathered to socialize. I used to go too and swim in the pool, but after a while the gossip about who was running around on who got to be too much for me, so now I spent most of my days bored, reading magazines, smoking cigarettes in bed, and occasionally scribbling notes for a tawdry novel I was writing to amuse myself, something that would out-scarlet Gone with the Wind.  Somehow I felt lonelier with all those vapid, chattering women at the club than when I was really alone. Scribbling away in my bedroom, I looked forward to sunset when I knew I could visit Pinion on his porch and have a taste of something strong. Most weekends he was kind enough to break up the monotony and escort me to one of the University of Alabama football games, only there wasn’t a home game tonight, so I guessed the Klan was providing the town’s Saturday night entertainment.

“Can anybody go?” I asked, leaning over the rail, trying to spot them. “Even a Yankee carpetbagger like me?” I took a long sip of my sugared bourbon and then pressed the cool glass to my throat. The evening sun had dipped under the horizon, and the clouds were verging from a deep mercurochrome pink to black. The old gaslights, now filled with filament bulbs, came alive and lit up the street.

“Sure, Marla. Question is, why would anybody want to? Trust me, it’s no Rose Bowl.” A drop of sweat trickled out of Pinion’s thick black hair and down his cheek. He set down his glass beside the serving tray the housekeeper, Odetta, had brought out to us. Then Pinion wiped his face with the back of his hand and dried his fingers on the leg of his tailored trousers.

I hadn’t liked Pinion much when John first introduced us. Pinion Knox was loud and blunt to the point of being vulgar. As the state legislator representing North Alabama, Pinion was in charge of institutional funding for Bryce and the university, and considering his manners I always secretly thought John only befriended him in order to advance his career. When I started my book, I even came to think of Pinion as the villain, a dark-haired, blue-eyed lawyer with a thirst for booze and women. But eventually I grew to like Pinion’s loud laugh and I figured that his bluntness was really a sign of affection, maybe because his job obliged him to tell so many polite lies.  Most days since John left I’d try to work on a chapter for a few hours after lunch. I’d write another seven or eight pages that would end with the fictional Pinion cheating at cards or deflowering a virgin. When I was done, I’d take a walk down Queen City Avenue and find the real Pinion drinking on his front porch. 

“I’m surprised you’re not out there marching with them. What, did your washer woman forget to starch your sheets for you?” I turned and shook my empty highball glass, letting the ice chips jingle. Pinion reached for the crystal decanter standing between the twelve-inch block of ice and the bone china sugar bowl. “I thought you told me your grandfather was a big muckety-muck, a grand titan or poobah or something. I thought you said he was with General Forrest in Tennessee when he started the whole thing up.”

Pinion filled my glass. “I did. My granddaddy was boss of the real Klan in North Alabama when there was a reason for it. This club you got here now hasn’t got any more to do with the real Klan than the Boy Scouts.”

“I guess we’d better watch out,” I said, pinching his knee. “Didn’t I hear that last year they beat up some poor college boy for being alone with a girl in the backseat of a car?” As the guardians of white purity, the Klan not only hanged uppity Negroes, they terrorized anybody they deemed licentious—drunks, wife beaters, excited college boys fumbling under the petticoats of coeds. I’d even heard a story about a pair of careless adulterers who had been dragged out of bed naked and horsewhipped.

 Pinion raised his fists in mock combat. “I’d kill a few of them sum’bitches before they even touched me with one of their ropes, by God. The sight of all that white trash under the sheets gets me hot enough to shit fire.”

Seeing Pinion get all worked up tickled me. I covered my mouth with my hand. That was one of the things that was attractive about Pinion, he didn’t sugar anything for me except my drinks. Pinion came from a long line of handsome politicians, all of them with a reputation for getting into scrapes. Like his congressman father, Pinion was a legendary brawler. Club gossip had it that when he was twenty, he suffered a year-long suspension from the university for being the first student in two decades to break the rule against dueling. It was said that he put a rival SGA member in the hospital when he shot him in the knee with an antique pistol. Others said that when he was in Montgomery, Pinion frequently challenged other state senators to “step outside” if they voted against him, as if the rotunda were just another roadhouse tavern where men gathered to drink and smoke.

“Look at those bastards.” Pinion stood up and pointed out over the holly hedge. Underneath the towering elms, three horsemen robed in white rode down the middle of Queen City Avenue. As they passed under a magnolia tree, lamplight glistened off its waxy leaves, surrounding the riders in a misty halo. One of the horsemen raised his hood and blasted the same four mighty notes on the bugle. Behind the troika stretched a long watery line of white figures marching side by side like an army of ghosts, their shapeless garments shimmering in the night. 

Pinion stood up and took my hand. “Come along to the street,” he said. “I want to show you something.” Pinion had never touched me in a familiar way before, and I felt my face grow flush as he led me down the steps of the porch and onto the cobblestone walk. “Look.” Pinion pointed at the Klansmen. “You see their shoes? Invisible empire, my ass. I know everyone of them sum’bitches. Every one.”

Moving at the hem of the white robes were pant legs and shoes, dozens and dozens of shoes. One pair of button-ups with terrycloth tops, another heavy-laced pair splashed with mud, brown work boots, canvas sneakers, congress gaiters—even a green pair with knobby toes swung past. Pinion chortled. Only the thick holly hedge separated us from the street and the long line of marching shoes.

“What’s so funny?”

“Only Bobby Pate would have bad taste enough to wear green shoes.”

I laughed because he was laughing. “Who’s Bobby Pate?”

“Just some fool that clerks down at the county courthouse. And there goes his boss”—Pinion raised his voice—“the honorable Judge Harris.”

A hooded figure with shiny black loafers turned to stare at Pinion and me still holding hands. It made my spine tingle, but fear only fueled the giggles.

“That one over there will be teaching Sunday school in the morning.”

That did it. I doubled over. I laughed so hard my bladder hurt. It was like laughing in class. You knew you weren’t supposed to, and once you got started there was no hope of stopping. 

A few more of the hooded figures turned our way, glaring at us through the hollow eyeholes of their masks. At the very edge of the long narrow row of shoes, there was a worn pair of saddle oxfords. Above them the sheets were twisted and out of whack. The left shoe stepped forward gingerly; the uncertain right shoe dragged behind in a dead limp. All of a sudden Pinion quit laughing. “I don’t think I know that one. I wonder— ”

“Wonder what?” I was still laughing, knees together, both hands on my sides. My bare toes curled in the lush zoysia.

Pinion shook his head and turned back up the walk toward the porch. “Nothing. Come on, let’s go finish our drinks. And then if you still have a mind, we’ll have a look at their damn cross.”

 


In Pinion’s bathroom, I tried to fix myself up a little in the mirror over the sink. I pulled a brush out of my purse and frowned as I raked it through my freshly bobbed hair. I’d had it cut last week because of the heat. On a lark, I asked the lady at the beauty parlor to dye it ink black, the way I used to keep it in my old Vassar days. The lady at the parlor didn’t want to do it. You have such a purty color brown as it is, she said. I told her it was my birthday and that I was twenty-seven and needed a change. Finally I coaxed her into doing what I wanted but left angry because when I looked in the mirror I didn’t find my old schoolgirl self, just an old-fashioned flapper. For a while I told myself I was irritated at the beautician and the way she had made me work so hard to get what I was paying for. In New Haven or Poughkeepsie, if you had money to pay people did what you asked—no hassles, quick, efficient. In Tuscaloosa everything was an ordeal. You couldn’t go into the drugstore for a pack of cigarettes without getting into a twenty- minute conversation about the football team or the weather, or worse, a lecture—once, right before John left for his trip, an elderly lady minding the register simply refused to sell me a pack of Viceroys because she said it wasn’t righteous for women to smoke. I was so angry, I went home and threw myself on the bed and had a conniption fit in front of John. He was sorting through his closet and he didn’t even look at me as I screamed and cried, he just kept picking through his long thin suits, trying to decide which one would make the best impression on his colleagues in Zurich.

“You’re being a baby about all this, Marla,” John had said, pinching lint off the sleeve of a pinstripe jacket. “Be grateful I have work here. The people are not so bad. Besides, we could still be living with your father.” My father had been one of John’s professors at Yale. Even when we were courting, it had occurred to me that John’s interest in me wasn’t purely romantic, but in those days John had been gay and full of fun. We went to parties and danced around champagne fountains and shared bootleg gin with good-natured strangers. I stared at my own strange reflection in the bathroom mirror. When I’d given my hair thirty strokes, I put the brush back in my purse and gave myself a hard look. What do you think you’re doing, Marla? I asked. Just what in the hell do you think you are doing?

When I returned to the porch, I found Pinion in his wicker chair reading the week-old-newspaper he’d been using as a fan. “Look at this,” he said. On the front page there was an x-ray, a black and white photograph of a fibula with a hairline fracture. The previous Saturday, our team, the Crimson Tide, had played Tennessee. During the game, word spread through the stadium that one of the Tide’s injured players, a tight end from Arkansas, had asked to be cut out of his cast so he could take the field. The tight end scored two touched downs and we bested Tennessee twenty-five to nothing. No one really believed the story about the kid having a broken leg at the time, but then on Sunday the Constitution did an entire article him. The headline read: “Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant—First Place in Courage.” Bryant was the “other end” opposite Don Hutson, Bama’s star receiver. Hutson and the quarterback Dixie Howell, “the human howitzer from Hartsford” made a powerful combination, and since I’d moved to Tuscaloosa, the duo had become the princes of the South. But right now, for a brief moment, all of Tuscaloosa’s attention was focused on the superhuman Bryant. Pinion had spent the last five days unfolding the newspaper like a map and telling anyone who would listen, If this Bryant kid heals, we’re SEC champs for sure.

Pinion reached into the pocket of his trousers and produced a coin. “I’ll bet you this silver dollar that our lame Klansmen there is this Bryant fellow. It’s just the kind of stunt those muck-rakers would pull, pandering to the fans. They’re trying to run me out of office, you know.”

I looked at the headline again: “Paul ‘Bear’Bryant: First Place in Courage.” “No way,” I said. “I don’t think he’d do it.”

“You’d be surprised what a poor college student will do if you wave a little money or tail in his face.” Pinion spoke as if he had had plenty of experience in such matters.

I reached over Pinion’s lap and pilfered a cigarette from his pack of Picayunes lying next to the serving tray. “Well, only way to settle the bet is to go to the rally.”

“I aim to.” Pinion fished out his lighter. I bent down to the flame in his cupped hands. “All we have to do his wait for Puddin to get back with the car.”

Puddin was Pinion’s driver and had been his father’s driver before him.

“Where is Puddin, anyway? You don’t think he’s in any kind of trouble, do you?”

“No. He’s picking up groceries for Odetta. I sent him out over an hour ago. He can’t be much longer. Maybe he’ll come back with some mint for the bourbon.”

Pinion prepared another glass for me. He swirled a teaspoon full of sugar into the ice chips as I smoked. Picayunes are for people looking for a real smoke. Every drag felt like shards of glass settling into my lungs. By the time I had stubbed out the butt I was into a nice hazy buzz. Pinion handed me my glass and then I decided I’d better have a seat on the porch swing a few feet from the wicker chairs.

I felt rather loopy by the time Puddin pulled up to the house in Pinion’s black convertible. Puddin was breathing hard and shaking when he pulled up into the drive, and it took some doing to coax him out of the car.

“Did you see them, boss?” Puddin took his cap off and blotted sweat off his bald head with a blue bandana.

“Yeah, Pud. We saw them.”

As Puddin told it, he had just finished loading up the car with groceries when the nightriders passed. Puddin was the last customer before the clerk at Abernathy’s locked up. The door had just shut behind him when he heard the bugle sound. Puddin had quickly raised the top on the car and hid under the steering wheel, praying that nobody would spy him through the windshield. He was so frightened that he stayed there, cramped and numb, long after the parade had past.

“Poor fellow.” I said, patting Puddin on the back. “That’s terrible.”

“I am too old for this aggravation,” said Puddin, putting his cap back on. He stooped to rub his knees. Pinion took the two full sacks of food from the backseat and put them in Puddin’s arms. “Go take the goodies into the kitchen for Odetta, Pud. Have her fix you a cup of coffee. You might ought to spend the night with us. I don’t know if you want to go home in all this.”

Puddin nodded and headed for the kitchen door at the side of the house. He turned around when Pinion began to put the top down. “Now where are y’all going?”

“Miss Marla here wants to see them burn that cross, Pud. You want to come too?”

Pinion winked at me and my bourbon giggles picked up again.

“No, thank you, sir,” replied Puddin, biting down hard on the word sir. “Why do you want to take Miss Marla into such a spectacle as that? You know something sorry is bound to happen.”

“Don’t worry about me Puddin, I’m a big girl,” I said, waving goodbye to him.

Puddin shook his head. “Ain’t nobody big enough to be out with those crazy fools.” He turned his back on us and disappeared around the side of the house.

Pinion just smiled. When he was finished with the hood, he opened the passenger’s side door for me. After he got behind the wheel, he reached across me to open the glove box. His shoulder brushed against my chest and I closed my eyes as he fiddled with the latch, trying not to blush again. When I opened them, Pinion was holding an ugly black revolver. He opened the chamber and quickly snapped it shut. Then he gave me a lewd grin. “Loaded,” he said. “Just in case we smell some trouble on the road.” 

Within a few minutes, Pinion had turned off Queen City and we were speeding down University Boulevard. The stars appeared to be far away, maybe because on the horizon there was a dim orange light growing in the northern sky. We rode past the edge of the university’s campus and turned left at Bryce toward the river. As we past the beautiful old asylum with its Doric columns and cupola, I noticed a dozen or so inmates standing on the expansive lawn. Was something wrong? I looked up at John’s office window, which was, of course, dark. I imagined him up there smoking a cigar, writing in one of his green medical ledgers with the gold fountain pen I’d given him for Christmas. Below most of the inmates were milling around barefoot in their bed clothes; a few of them stood stone still, looking up in the night sky as if expecting a lunar eclipse or a fireworks display. Two stringy-haired women clasped their hands around the tall iron gates that surrounded the yard. None of them waved at Pinion’s car as they might have in the daytime. They didn’t seem to notice our passing at all. It was unnerving, and for the millionth time I wondered why John had exiled us to this tiny country town inhabited solely by football fans and failed suicides. Before I knew it, my fingers had found their way again into Pinion’s free hand.

He looked at me in a sort of pleasant mocking way and said, “Hey, reach down on the floorboard and hand me the flask.” The flask was wrapped in the crumpled folds of the Constitution. The paper had also printed Bryant’s yearbook picture. Standing in his uniform, tall and handsome, he could easily pass for a matinee cowboy. We passed the flask back and forth, taking little sips as Pinion navigated through the heavily wooded road.

Then out of nowhere, Pinion said, “You know the Yankees burned down the university during the civil war, even the library?”

I shook my head. “No. I didn’t know that.”

“Yep, got all four of our books.” He winked, and I grinned back. “A Polish mercenary named Croxton torched it. He thought Bryce was the president’s mansion and ordered his men to burn it down too. Luckily the soldiers discovered that it was an asylum before they carried out the order. Can you imagine what that would have been like, a hundred or so madmen on fire and screaming?”

I took a slug from the flask and handed it to him. “I think by the time you catch fire, you’re mad. At that point, it doesn’t matter where you’ve been living.”

Pinion nodded. “True enough.”

We continued down the road until we came to a large man-made clearing that gave a view of the Black Warrior River. On the shoal, scores of cars were parked bumper to grill in a semicircle. Women and children sat on the hoods of these cars, some of them eating sandwiches. Men stood atop the running boards drinking soda-pop. A few frat boys had brought dates. The boys had unfolded colored blankets down on the grassy sand and now held hands with their sweethearts through the handles of their picnic baskets.

A ring of a hundred or so spectators, all men, crowded around the Klansmen, who were standing in formation. Down by the banks, there was a huge weeping willow, its body arched across the water. A mound of red Alabama clay had been packed in front of the tree and a tall lumber cross, more than twenty feet high, filled the night with orange flame. It shined over the murmuring crowd. The Klansmen nearest the cross must have suffered terribly from the heat; occasionally held up their hands to shield their faces.

It was similar to the grand bonfires the university built on the quadrangle for its homecoming pep rallies. I remembered the way Dixie Howell had addressed the crowd the previous fall and how the fans had cheered at just the sight of him, waving their crimson and white shakers in the air. I glanced down at the newspaper again and the handsome young Bryant looked back up at me.       

Pinion let the car idle in the back of the makeshift parking lot for awhile. When he finally killed the engine, he said, “Stay sharp, I want to be able to leave quick if we need to.” I started to ask why, but then he took his gun out of the glove box and put it in the front pocket of his trousers. That alarmed me, but I kept my mouth shut. Pinion walked toward the crowd and I followed. A few yards from the weeping willow, there was a platform with a microphone. At the foot of the platform, four Klansmen held a banner that read “Klavern 117 Tuscaloosa Knights of the KKK.” The crowd began to applaud.

“They’re getting ready for the speaker,” said Pinion. “Here we go.”

Sure enough, the lame Klansman limped up to the platform and stood before the microphone. I cursed. Pinion gave me a quick smirk.

But then came the booming voice, rich and powerful, spilling in waves over the crowd. I have to admit, for a moment I was spellbound: the hooded army, the ghostly speaker, the murmuring crowd, the burning cross silhouetted by the soft green branches of the bent willow and the black sheen of the river reflecting firelight.

“Why?” shouted the speaker, “Why do you suffer? Because of the Papist dictatorship in Rome. Because the Pope has his minions right here in these United States, and is, at this very minute, planning to overthrow our democratic government. Do you want to wake up one morning and find a dago priest in the White House? Do you know what he plans to do right here in Alabama? He’s got it all worked out. He is going to hand Alabama over to a nigger cardinal!”

When he said that something inside me broke, and then all I could think of was poor Puddin cramped and afraid under the steering wheel of Pinion’s car. Suddenly I noticed that some of them had baseball bats and ax handles.

“Are the people of Alabama—in whom flows the purest Anglo-Saxon blood—going to stand for this humiliation? How will we face the challenge of the beast in Rome?”

Now I was beginning to suspect that I had actually won the bet, despite the orator's’ limp. The voice sounded older, like that of a middle aged man, and surely that wasn't the vocabulary of a twenty-year-old footballer.

“By banding together in noble communion. We will fight to the last drop, together, for freedom from oppression. We must band together to fight the devilish plot of foreign potentates—” 

I felt sick now. All that liquor and sugar had not settled well. “I don’t believe this,” I said, holding my stomach.

“What, about the Pope? Of course not. This is all just muckraking nonsense.” Pinion scowled up at the speaker.

“That’s not what I meant and you know it. Come on and get me away from these hayseeds.”

“What did you expect, a Mardi Gras?” Pinion turned on me as if I had insulted him. “You’re the one who wanted to come here and get educated. Wait a second.” Pinion cupped his hand behind his ear. “He’s gone to preaching on evolution. I bet this guy is hell on Darwin.” Just as Pinion mentioned Darwin, the orator removed his mask and spread his arms as if trying to embrace the crowd. It wasn’t Bryant, but a stout man with a shock of dark hair. Pinion forgot about me and glowered at the platform. “God almighty damn.”

“You know him?”

“The bastard.”

“What makes you say that?”

“No, I mean a real bastard. One of my uncles’s little indiscretions. The country’s thick with them. Dunwoody’s the worst. He goes around claiming we’re kin.” Pinion squinted into the distance. “I thought I’d run him off years ago, but that’s him. Wood’s a real bad penny, I’m telling you. He’s here to screw with me just like he did in school.”

“In school?” I could see Pinion drifting away into a private world of vengeance. The expression on his face made him look as I imagined him in my novel, ruthless and cruel, and for a moment all that vicious country club gossip seemed justified. Pinion put his hand in the pocket that held the gun. “That’s him, isn’t it? That’s the boy you shot in school. You shot one of your own cousin’s and that’s why he’s a cripple.”

Pinion grabbed my arm. “Who in the hell told you that?”

“I don’t know. People talk.” I jerked my arm free and thought about slapping him.

“He’s no cousin of mine.” Pinion lit up a Picayune and blew smoke at me. Suddenly, I was more sad than angry, more afraid than sad. For the first time all night, I felt the old loneliness creeping in.

“Stamp it out!” roared Dunwoody. “Stamp out the worship of graven images just as we have stamped out the immorality and licentiousness in parked automobiles along our country roads and shameless nude sunbathing in this lovely spot right here.”

“What kind of fool would want to do away with nude sunbathing?” Pinion asked, trying to start up with the mockery again.

“I want to go home now,” I said.

“So go.”

Slowly I stepped forward and put my arm around his waist, just to see what it would feel like. “Please, honey, take me home.”

Pinion look at me from the corner of his eyes, annoyed.

“Please,” I said again. That was all I could think to say.

“You know, Marla. You think you’re pretty goddamn smart, but--”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Your right. I’m sorry. Please, take me home.”




 

On the way home, wheeling down River Road, Pinion hit a man in a white gown. Like a startled deer, the gaunt little fellow flung himself out of the woods and tried to cross the road in a mad dash.       

“Look out!” I grabbed Pinion’s arm, but it was too late. The man’s body flipped up on the hood, and the next thing I knew, my head had bounced off the dashboard. Everything went black for a second, and when I opened my eyes I had a lap full of glass. The man on the hood of the car was bareheaded, and his glassy green eyes glared at me. His gown began to flood with jagged streaks of blood.

“Oh, my God, he’s dead!” I shouted.

“Shit.” Pinion opened the door and stepped out.

As he did this, the man came to and sat upright, jerking forward like a marionette.

“Are you all right?” Pinion moved to touch him. The man screamed as if Pinion were the one who had just come back from the dead. He jumped to his feet and screamed again and then ran toward Pinion as if to attack. Startled, Pinion balled up his fists but  slipped before he could swing and fell onto the road. By the time I made it around the car, the screaming man had run past Pinion and fled into the woods, heading toward the river.

“Jesus, are you okay?” I helped him up.

“Yeah. How did he run away like that? How could he stand to move?”

“Shock,” I said. “He could have broken every bone in his body and wouldn’t know it if he were in shock.” I didn’t feel sick anymore. I was high on fear.

Pinion put his arm around my shoulders. “You’re shaking,” he said. “And you have a cut on your head.” He reached for his handkerchief and pressed it against my head. I let my body relax as he held me.

“Is it bleeding?”

“Not much. Here, keep pressure on it.” He took my right hand and gently moved it up to the cloth. Then Pinion walked around to the injured side of the car. “Goddamn it.” Not only was the windshield shattered, so was one of headlights. Worst of all, the right front tire was blown. “I hate to say this, but it looks like we’re going to have to hoof it back to town. You think you can?”

I nodded, removed the handkerchief. The blood on the cloth reminded me of the blood soaking through the little man’s robe. “Who do you think we hit?”

“I didn’t know him to look at him. And he was barefoot. What kind of sorry-ass Klansman can’t scare up a pair of shoes? Probably nothing but ringworm under that sheet.”

It took me a second to put it all together. “No shoes. Pinion, that man wasn’t in the Klan. That was a patient at Bryce. He must have slipped over the gate and gotten loose.”

“You’re kidding.”

“My God. What’s going to happen when he hits the river?” I wondered out loud.

“Anybody’s guess. If he keeps going that way, he’s going to run into Dunwoody’s group. They could get rough on him. Those boys are pretty keyed up. On a night like this, they’re just looking for a reason to bust heads.”

I imagined the little man, bloodied and bruised by pipes and baseball bats, the uncomprehending look of terror on his face as the Klansmen strung him into one of the tall oaks that lined the river. I closed my eyes and thought of the safest place I could imagine, my father’s study, with his volumes of Thucydides and Herodotus lined side by side on the shelves.

“Marla,” Pinion put his arm around me and led me back to the car. He cleaned the glass off the seat and then sat me down, “Wait here, maybe I can fix the tire in the dark. We shouldn’t walk home in all this.”

“Would you sit with me a second?” I asked, drying my eyes. “I’m scared.”

He looked hesitant but then walked around to the driver’s side. I buried my face his shoulder as soon as he sat down and cried hard. We stayed like that for a long time, Pinion’s arms around me, patting my back and shushing me like a kid. But soon his other hand wandered down to my thigh. Pinion lifted my chin up in order to kiss me quiet. I started to open my mouth to kiss back but closed it again. Hadn’t I planned this? Wasn’t this what I wanted? But not here. “Wait,” I said. “Not like this.” But Pinion didn’t wait, and what could I do— go limp, fight, scream? Do people ever get what they really want, anyway? The hand on my thigh rose up to my breast. I started to ask him, are you crazy, are you out of your goddamn mind? But he kept my mouth filled with his sour sweet tongue, rank with booze.

My hands started moving too, from his knee to his belt. With my fingers, I found the revolver in his pants. He stopped kissing me long enough to draw the gun and place it under the seat. As he did so, the unclaimed silver dollar I’d won fell out of his pocket and rolled under the clutch. I thought about the handsome young Bryant, all his talent and courage and how I didn’t seem to have much of either. Pinion’s hand was under my dress now and I knew what he was about to do to me wouldn’t take long, not as long as it would take to fix the tire in the dark afterward. I knew that tomorrow I would regret this whole night. I knew that I would be more alone when I woke in the morning than in all the time since John had left. Maybe after I nursed the hangover, I would work on my novel. Maybe the Polish mercenary would return from the dead to finish his arson and burn down the whole damned town.

As Pinion climbed on top of me, a stray shard of glass cut into my hip, but I didn’t care. There was a cold fire in my belly, and it made me wonder what it would be like to burn all over, to be doused with lamp oil and set aflame and burn mad-crazy forever. Soon my thoughts were eroded by the powerful sounds of crickets, tree frogs, and whippoorwills. It was just something I couldn’t get used to, how the forest around Tuscaloosa at night was so alive. I listened to the enigmatic music of the woods and watched the tiny stars glimmer through the open top of the convertible. The eerie orange light continued to pulse behind us in the distance. Pinion was on top of me now, pinning me to the seat, but I felt light, numb, and etherized. I couldn’t help sense that someone was spying on us from above, as if the stars I watched were watching back. Maybe the landscape itself had eyes, the stagnant marshes to the south, the mountains leering over us from the north, brooding over the town, bending all of us to strange purposes.        

No sooner had I thought this than I saw another flash of white, a figure spying on us from the edge of the road. Had the man we hit returned? Surely not. I yelled for Pinion to stop, but he paid me no mind. I beat my fists into his back as he groaned.

“Someone’s here,” I screamed. I was sure that this time it was a Klansman with a horsewhip come to punish us. “They’re here. They’re here.” I said. I slapped Pinion in the face, hysterical. He grabbed my wrists and pinned them above my head. 

All about the car I heard footsteps. Not the orderly march of the parade, but a sound like wild animal hooves. Pinion moaned, grunted and rolled off of me. Just then another figure in white ran past, a woman. She had wild hair, her breasts bounding up and down inside the white linen of her bedclothes. Two men followed, both of them screaming with glee like boys released early from school.

“Hell.” Pinion had one knee in the floorboard, desperately trying to pull up his pants and buckle his belt. 

I pulled my dress down over my waist and rose up on the seat. By then I could see them, maybe forty inmates running wildly, surrounding us from all sides, their eyes glowing in the lone headlight. Running together, their bodies appeared to be fused into a single white monster, a pale hydra of madness. Some of the inmates moaned in otherworldly agony; some squealed and chattered like jungle birds. Pinion’s hand lurched under the seat, looking for his gun but the time he found it they had all passed, the tails of their nightshirts disappearing into the dark. They were running toward the river, toward the orange light on the horizon, toward the burning cross, leaving us alone in the terrible silence.

 


© Brad Vice, reprinted by permission of the author
This story first appeared in Five Points

Brad Vice teaches as Mississippi State University. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, The Greensboro Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and The Carolina Quarterly. Vice was recently named a winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Fiction. His collection The Bear Bryant Funeral Train will be published by the University of Georgia Press in 2005.


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