There was always the strong scent of Pine Sol that masked the stench of neglect, but this home surpassed all the intolerable places we’d visited before being sold. Its other selling point was the open air breeze that furiously chased bad air and negativity down the long corridors and on its way. The breeze worked as it was intended, in the heat and humidity of summer and in the freezing cold of winter, whether the air conditioning blasted or whether the PG&E toasted, the slumped and dozing daydreamers were left to rest without the fear of anything lingering. So, it was under these conditions that we sat for a while with little to say. The TV stared at us from the wall where it was permanently fixed to an articulated arm that strained in our direction.
We stared back.
“So, Mr. Cain, what is your reaction to that?”
“My reaction is, there are some werds that do not basically inspire negativity like that particular werd. And I know that you’re refraining from saying that werd, so I’m going to say what the werd that was on the rock. The name of the place was called Niggerhead. That is very insensitive, and since Governor Perry has been going there for years, to hunt, I think that shows a lack of sensitivity for a long time of not takin’ that werd off of that rock and renaming the place. It’s just a basic case of insensitivity.”
“Lord, Mom, do we have to listen to this pizza fool?”
“No, wait. That rock in Texas—I betcha they talking ‘bout the place where Dane here stayed at. If that’s the case, then they best leave it be.”
I did a double-take, “Mister Bouvier owned that place?”
“Well Son, uh…it’s complicated.”
The land was situated down from the Brazos River where there grew a healthy outcropping of trees, tall and mature, that shaded half of the seedlings from the searing afternoon sun. All of this was on a large sloped rectangular patch, fertile enough to cultivate just about anything with seasonal watering trenches and little more effort. There they were, Dane Bouvier and Chester Walker, on a fine day, in the midday heat, digging.
“Eh, Ches, we damn near got this patch before sundown. I see the end in sight. That’ll free us up to check in on Smith’s widow come morning.”
“Yup.” Chester straightened and cracked his back like he’d sometimes crack his knuckles.
“Ches, I jus’ want you to know I appreciate all you done for me right from the git-go.
“I reckon things ain’t perfect, but together we’ve come damn near.”
Then Dane reached out to place his hand firmly on Chester’s shoulder. Sun and sweat had it glistening, deep aubergine, like the smooth end of an eggplant. At the point of contact Dan’s hand made a muddy paw print that dismissed any serious sentiment he had, and Chester seized the opportunity to clown a little as if he was mortally wounded. This made them both laugh out loud where they would usually be guarded. Throwing all caution to the wind, they got a little raucous, and at that moment were totally themselves.
“Let’s take a break, Ches.” Dane shoved his spade deep in the ground. It stood there erect like a sentry. It was an icon of their fleeting security.
Dane reached for a tin lunch box wedged beside a clump of red earth. Being placed there had kept the contents cool all morning. Chester rubbed his hands clean the best he could in the muddy water that filled the trench. Dane did the same and then shook them out, wiping the silt on his shirt tail. Chester, still clowning, reached for Dane’s shirt tail too, but then remembered himself. They each grabbed a dry patch and a neatly wrapped sandwich from the box. They sat quietly and surveyed their work.
Mom was wearing a sleeveless blouse with a light weight sweater slung loosely over her shoulders. Standing on the other side of the bed, she positioned herself away from the draft that cleansed the room, and then she just started talking.
“There were sixty or more acres; most of it farmed by sharecroppers, some a them was kin to early Black folk that settled there—the buffalo soldiers. Some a them soldiers were cowboys—real cowboys, not whatcha read ‘bout in fiction. They held Chester Walker in high regard, so did Dane.”
“You mean…Doctor Walker, the one that passed away recently?”
“Yeah, ‘Doc’ Walker. He was the one boy of Richard ‘Bubba’ Walker to choose a rake over wrangling—he was gentler than his brothers. Quiet things suited him, so he took to the land and caring for things—and people. He helped everybody that nobody helped—the only one in the county that could help your mama, tu mamá, and your mare birth with equal confidence.”
“Morning, Missus Smith, it’s me.”
She saw the plum colored flesh of Chester’s large palm wave at her through the door before entering.
“I got Dane wit me.”
Missus Smith pushed her untamed hair back into its braid. Then she tossed a wet rag in an empty bucket. She was a handsome woman of indeterminate origin, like so many others in Texas that just fell under the nebulous description of non-white. No one on the land ever questioned her ways or where from. This was just home and she belonged there.
“Oh, thank God you’re here. My water broke. Must be your third eye that saw this coming.”
“No mam, I just know a little about nature and figured I best check-in on you.”
Then abruptly Missus Smith buckled over with her first contraction. These were distinctly different from what she’d experienced during the birth of her middle child, these were violent and made her as fearful as the night she found she would be raising her children alone. But Chester was skillful and Dane sensitive about helping out in any way he could. So, by nightfall she’d added one more to her brood, making three.
Her children were spaced far enough apart in age to where the eldest could fetch water and sling his brother on one hip.
Dane placed his hand on the boy’s head and rubbed his tightly knotted hair.
“Don’t worry about nothin’ Missus Smith. Your boys will be well fed and I’ll help your eldest here start planting; your croppin’ won’t fall short.”
“Lord, thank you Jesus. Bless you. Bless you both.”
Chester handed her the baby.
“Take it easy for a spell. You and…?”
She smiled and whispered, “Esparanza.”
Then she instructed her boy to give Dane a small pouch that she called a gris-gris. She had him fill it with a fist full of sage from a bronze bowl that was resting beside her bed.
“Burn a little o’this every now and again.”
In time Missus Smith healed and her baby grew strong.
The TV droned on at which point I reached over to turn it off. That’s when the usually unresponsive Mr. Bouvier muttered something unintelligible. Mom and I both leaned in closer.
“What’s that you say, Dane?”
“Chester?” my mom asked. “Yeah, I was just talking ‘bout Chester helpin’ everybody, Dane.”
She raised both eyebrows.
“I think he’s following our conversation.”
Dane nodded. He furled what looked like one long, bushy, brow and then squeezed both of his grey eyes tight as if to keep them from watering.
I looked at Mom, half realizing he was communicating with us, but I was quizzical nonetheless and said,
“Must not be good, huh?”
Mom straightened up and crossed her arms, “Well that depends. “Chester and Dane helped birth your Granny Esparanza.” “Births didn’t guarantee a happy ending, but they were the more pleasant doctorin’ that Chester did. Truth be told, he was the only doctor around with a steel gut and the ferocity to face the unimaginable.”
A scream erupted from the distance, quite possibly across the river where the thick outcropping of trees hid everything from sight. So shrill was the sound in the midst of silence that Chester jumped, along with his heart. He grabbed the rifle and his bag from the wall and ran outdoors. Dane was at his heals. Another scream set the hair on his back straight. He was now close enough to hear babies’ cries turn into wails and uncontrollable hiccups. Missus Smith was on hands and knees at the far side of the bridge, screaming hysterically at a transistor radio.
“They killed my Abram!”
Dane ran past her and grabbed up the baby, bundling it tight to his chest while the toddler grabbed hold of Dane’s leg and held fast. He shuffled backward with them a few feet as best he could without stumbling. This gave Chester ample room to tend to their mother who was now convulsing this way and that. Chester pulled a small bottle of liquid from his bag, doused some on the cuff of his sleeve and held it to her nose. She took in a deep breath and melted in his arms like butter.
“She’ll sleep the night, but I’m not sure what shape she’ll be in come morning.”
The muffled sound of a baby’s soft cry and a repeated radio news report served as a chilling backdrop to what had just transpired.
“For our listeners that have just tuned in, breaking news: alarmed inhabitants of the neighboring town, some wielding sledgehammers, stormed the Texas jail where it is alleged inmates were causing a disturbance. Two suspects were siezed from the population and beaten. It is unsure whether the suspects were inmates. They were hanged while picnickers looked on. One, identified as Abram Smith, tried to free himself from the noose as his body was hauled up, he was then lowered where men then hammered his wrists to prevent any other efforts of escape. Police officers cooperated with the warden in executing the lynching. The second suspect, known only as Tom, was…”
Chester reached over and turned the dial until it clicked. Then there was silence. Daybreak brought two of the neighboring sharecropper’s wives with it, and a welcome close to what seemed like an endless night.
The women would stay by widow Smith’s side.
Mister Bouvier slumped forward and began humming a sad, but vaguely familiar tune. The white wisps that sparsely populated the top of his head stood-up stock straight. He seemed to be lifting the weight of the world as he struggled to bring both of his pale, withered palms up to his face.
“Get‘m a tissue, boy!”
I jumped, snatched several tissues from the box at his bedside, and had them draped over his fingertips before they met with his nose. He made a feeble attempt at blowing that my mom reached over to assist.
I grimaced, but she was not deterred, and picked up humming where he left off. Obviously, his long-term memory was intact, because Mom said the tune was from the 1930s.
“It’s like I said son, Chester helped everybody that nobody helped. He tended to families in Texas and neighboring states—victims of terrorism. And now, that’s all folks talk about, terrorism, terrorist this, terrorist that. Chickens come home to roost.”
At that, Mister Bouvier began to cough something up. I anticipated Mom this time, and handed her a clean wad of tissues.
“Heard that, did ya Dane? Roost.” And she helped him expectorate whatever demon had gotten caught in his throat.
“Mista Bouvier has seen tooooo muchhhh, on account of tending to the living also meant tending to the dead. Ol’ Dane here would go fetch the bodies with Chester. Every now and again Chester and him took a few brave souls along for the heavy lifting. Folks would say they’d gone fruit pickin’ on account o’ Billie Holiday.”
I pursed my lips and frowned trying to imagine this shriveled, old man lifting anything more than the tissues I’d handed him. But knowing this about him suddenly changed his stature, a stature that continued to grow with my understanding.
Chester and Dane had just returned from going picking—horrific—a bloated body retrieved from the Tallahatchie River. This one made the news and galvanized weary participants in the fight for civil rights. When it comes to what’s right though the weary are never left to rest.
That night, they sat on the porch trying to wipe it from their minds with some very, very, old bourbon that was gifted them. The property horizon, once an infinite vista, was now clearly marked with monstrosities that seemed to be feeding off the earth. Up, down, up, down, they rocked endlessly. The smell of sweet grass had been all but taken over by oil consumption and its rotten-egg smell. They’d survived, even thrived here up ‘til now, 1955, when Chester felt the vultures circling.
“You know Dane, they messing with the croppers along the property line again. They figuring out how they gonna take this land. We seen how they do it.”
Dane reached opposite for Chester’s empty hand. Their palms clasped and thumbs locked. Chester slightly raised his other hand holding the glass of bourbon.
“Can we do this?” A little doubt made Chester’s voice crack.
So, Dane tightened his grip and said, “Yes we can!” Then he raised his glass.
Dane’s eyes pierced through all Chester’s doubts and his devotion was undeniable. It had been demonstrated through the years and never more so than in that moment.
On the table beside Mister Bouvier, there was a small burner with sage oil. Mom pulled a match from her purse and lit it before starting up again…something about Dane being Chester’s front man…a breeze carried the smell of sage right past me like history’s wandering spectre. I caught a momentary chill.
My mom continued, “It’s hard to tell now, but Dane Bouvier was built like a tank; he cut a nice figure, kind of like a pulp fiction version of the American cowboy.”
He had dozed off.
“Front man?” I said looking at him lying there. “I don’t get it.”
“After the great depression Dane came to the land looking for work. There was jus’ Chester, save for a few families sharecropping on the far edges of the property. The Smiths, your great grandparents, were one of those families, and they was hush-hush about the land’s and ‘bout everythin’. At that time they was stringin’-up black folk like party lights and grabbing up the land like candy from a busted piñata. It just made sense to let folks think Dane owned the property.”
Mom cocked her head to the side and let me digest that.
Dane started out as a hired hand. Over time he became Chester’s right-hand man and then grew to be his closest friend. They both figured their arrangement worked to protect two things, the land and them. But, when all hell broke loose there was nothing one white man’s presence could do to protect everybody from the devil.
Chester had two glasses and was feelin’ no pain. They were both relishing this last bastion of open space and the nighttime vista with its familiar silhouettes. Something unfamiliar caught Dane’s eye and he retraced his line of sight to focus on three figures behind the ridge and inside the property. That was enough to raise the hair on his back and forearms before a shot flew past Chester’s right side. Both men hit the porch planks with a thud.
“Go out back and get help, Ches.”
“Nah, I ain’t leaving you.”
“Then we don’t stand a chance.”
Chester saw the sense in that and crawled toward the front door. Once inside, he lowered the rifle off the wall and scooted it along the floor and out the door toward Dane. Dane fired off one shot into the dark. The strange silhouettes disappeared just as Chester left out the back door. During the pre-dawn hours, he returned with three men at his side. One of the men was a sharecropper on the property’s northeast border, and the other man was his house guest, a WWII vet. The third was Missus Smith’s eldest. All four were armed when they approached the house. Chester’s heart got caught in his throat when they’d gotten close enough to see a white washed cross painted on the back door he’d passed through just hours ago. It took everything he had not to call out to Dane. The vet opened the back door while Chester covered him. The other two went around taking both sides of the house. Inside it was pitch black with the exception of a spotlight carved out by the moon. The sound of creaking floorboards startled Dane so that he bumped his head under the table where he’d fallen asleep. He looked out from under the table to see four, big, burly men rest their guns and finally exhale.
“Awww Ches, you damn near had me pee’n my pants!” and then Dane exhaled too.
Mom pushed the glasses up on her nose before continuing.
“As Dane once put it, the devil came…
The devil came out in the form of the sheriff claiming with a voice too sure of itself, that he was out to investigate on account of a report that shots was fired. Ironic, seeing they was in rural Texas.”
“Then Dane once said the devil just up and jumped right out of the road one night when the truck hit something at the end of the bridge crossing. A quick glance in the rear view mirror proved it was no more than an inordinately large and out of place rock. Under any other circumstances, how it got there would have come into question, but it was pretty evident, and it was large enough to cause Dane the cost and inconvenience of having to replace the rear axle.”
“Later that week, the devil came in the form of the county supervisor who levied an exorbitant, arguably illegal assessment against the land. ‘Said the landowner had to be subpoenaed. Dane played the part of landowner and got the judgement deferred. For a while, we all considered this Chester’s win, but you know the devil don’t rest ‘til he dead.”
It was summer, but evidently things weren’t hot enough, because someone had set the field grass ablaze. It was late at night, but every able bodied man on the property came to put it out. The flames licked at the grass like a hungry animal, its roaring and popping came to a crescendo, drowning out everything but the sound of blood racing past your ears. When the wind kicked up, the fire threatened to jump to the tree line. Efforts turned from putting the fire out, to keeping it contained. A young girl handed out bandanas from a water bucket. She motioned to the bandana protecting her own face so that others could follow her example.
By the grace of God, they began winning the battle, but just barely.
Chester was bent over, painfully so, snuffing out embers with the back of a spade. He straightened up in time to spot a pick-up moving without its headlights. It was travelling slowly along the ridge toward Missus Smith’s place.
Dane caught it in his peripheral vision. He shouted.
“No, Ches, it’s a trap!”
Chester snatched the bandana from his face anyway, and headed toward the house to get his rifle. Dane followed three feet behind, panting.
“You know they’re countin’ on this, Ches. Their strategy is divide and conquer.”
Chester turned on his heels, eyes red and watery, from smoke—maybe—from anger, definitely.
“What you expect me to do, Dane?”
Their eyes locked on each other.
So, Chester and Dane found themselves parked in front of widow Smith’s place with their headlights facing her front porch. The truck they’d spotted earlier was nowhere in sight. The house was eerily dark and quiet. Dane opened the glove compartment where he’d always kept a loaded hand gun. The gris-gris pouch was wrapped around its barrel. He slipped it off and shoved it in his pocket. He and Chester seemed to simultaneously take in a deep breath. Slowly, Dane lifted the door handle and slid out of the truck. He poised himself behind the passenger side door. Chester got out on the driver’s side and cocked his rifle.
“Missus Smith? You alright in there?”
Missus Smith came out the front door quite literally like a doe caught in the headlights. A hooded clansman had her long woolen braid gripped tightly in one hand while he held a knife under her chin with the other.
Dane raised his hands up, pistol and all.
“Ah, come-on now, let’s talk about this.”
He motioned to show his fingers splayed and nowhere near the trigger.
“Listen fella, you must want somethin’ otherwise she’d be dead and we’d be dead, so what is it?”
Chester heard a click behind his left ear and the twang of a voice too sure of itself.
“The way I see it, you got-ta give up yo’ property, or you gonna give up yo’ nigga’s head?”
So, this was it, Dane thought his cover was about to be blown. He’d thought he’d be outed and offed. So, he turned slowly toward the voice addressing him—a voice he and Chester knew all too well—the sheriff’s. That meant the other bastard was the one that had busted their axle. Dane still had his hands raised, fingers splayed, but wiggled two of them for Chester to see. That was the sign Chester needed to know that the devil came in the form of just two clansmen—just two.
With his rifle trained on Missus Smith’s assailant, Chester had one chance at a clean shot past her and straight into the white hood. He took it without a second thought and pressed backward with a fluidic move that gave way to the rifle’s recoil, thrusting the weight of his entire body back against the other man.
A shot escaped.
Dane had dropped to the ground beneath that new axle, ready to shoot before both bodies landed.
Missus Smith fainted.
And Dane fired when he saw the white hood kiss the dirt.
In a split second—everything happened—everyone falling—in unison, as if it were choreographed. Dane lay there hoping for a miracle.
My mom shivered a little as if trying to dispel goosebumps.
“He shot that devil through his hood, into one ear and out t’other. Blood spurted from the side like a garden hose on full blast. ‘Least that’s the way the story was told.”
I reached over to smooth some wayward hairs on Mister Bouvier’s head. He was peaceful.
“Humph, we buried Doctor Chester Walker last year on the land that was his all along?”
“So, Mom…what about that rock the pizza guy mentioned?”
Mom peered at me over the top of her glasses.
“I’ve forgotten a few details, but for the most part folks say it marks the spot where they buried the devil along with his legacy of strange and rotted fruit. No one with any sense dares move it for fear it’ll uncover haints best laid to rest.”
I never questioned the reason for our subsequent visits with Mister Dane Bouvier, nor did I ever miss one. It was a time for me to connect with my mom through the telling of history—his story—the strong convictions, the superstitions, the triumphs, the tribulations, the love, the heroics, the joy and the sorrow, the living and the dead—all the while lamenting the many other stories that would pass away with the lives that inhabited this home, all for the lack of a visit.