STEPPIN' OUT, SUMMER '68
For Gary Raisor
Buddy drank another swig of beer and when he brought the bottle down he said to Jake and Wilson, "I could sure use some pussy."
"We could all use some," Wilson said, "problem is we don't never get any."
"That's the way I see it too," Jake said.
"You don't get any," Buddy said. "I get plenty, you can count on that."
"Uh huh," Wilson said. "You talk pussy plenty good, but I don't ever see you with a date. I ain't never even seen you walking a dog, let alone a girl. You don't even have a car, so how you gonna get with a girl?"
"That's the way I see it too," Jake said.
"You see what you want," Buddy said. "I'm gonna be getting me a Chevy soon. I got my eye on one."
"Yeah?" Wilson said. "What one?"
"Drew Carrington's old crate."
"Shit," Wilson said, "that motherfucker caught on fire at a streetlight and he run it off in the creek."
"They got it out," Buddy said.
"They say them flames jumped twenty feet out from under the hood before he run it off in there," Jake said.
"Water put the fire out," Buddy said.
"Uh huh," Wilson said, "after the motor blowed up through the hood. They found that motherfucker in a tree out back of Old Maud Page's place. One of the pistons fell out of it and hit her on the head while she was picking up apples. She was in the hospital three days."
"Yeah," Jake said. "And I hear Carrington's in Dallas now, never got better from the accident. Near drowned and some of the engine blew back into the car and hit him in the nuts, castrated him, fucked up his legs. He can't walk. He's on a wheeled board or something, got some retard that pulls him around."
"Them's just stories," Buddy said. "Motor's still in the car. Carrington got him a job in Dallas as a mechanic. He didn't get hurt at all. Old Woman Page didn't get hit by no piston either. It missed her by a foot. Scared her so bad she had a little stroke. That's why she was in the hospital."
"You seen the motor?" Wilson asked. "Tell me you've seen it."
"No," Buddy said, "but I've heard about it from good sources, and they say it can be fixed."
"Jack it up and drive another car under it," Wilson said, "it'll be all right."
"That's the way I see it too," Jake said.
"Listen to you two," Buddy said. "You know it all. You're real operators. I'll tell you morons one thing, I line up a little of the hole that winks and stinks, like I'm doing tonight, you won't get none of it."
Wilson and Jake shuffled and eyed each other. An unspoken but clear message passed between them. They had never known Buddy to actually get any, or anyone else to know of him getting any, but he had a couple of years on them, and he might have gotten some, way he talked about it, and they damn sure knew they weren't getting any, and if there was a chance of it, things had to be patched up.
"Car like that," Wilson said, "if you worked hard enough, you might get it to run. Some new pistons or something . . . What you got lined up for tonight?"
Buddy's face put on some importance. "I know a gal likes to do the circle, you know what I mean?"
Wilson hated to admit it, but he didn't. "The circle?"
"Pull the train," Buddy said. "Do the team. You know, fuck a bunch of guys, one after the other."
"Oh," Wilson said.
"I knew that," Jake said.
"Yeah," Wilson said. "Yeah sure you did." Then to Buddy: "When you gonna see this gal?"
Buddy, still important, took a swig of beer and pursed his lips and studied the afternoon sky. "Figured I'd walk on over there little after dark. It's a mile or so."
"Say she likes to do more than one guy?" Wilson asked.
"Way I hear it," Buddy said, "she'll do 'em till they ain't able to do. My cousin, Butch, he told me about her."
Butch. The magic word. Wilson and Jake eyed each other again. There could be something in this after all. Butch was twenty, had a fast car, could play a little bit on the harmonica, bought his own beer, cussed in front of adults, and most importantly, he had been seen with women.
Buddy continued. "Her name's Sally. Butch said she cost five dollars. He's done her a few times. Got her name off a bathroom wall."
"She costs?" Wilson asked.
"Think some gal's going to do us all without some money for it?" Buddy said.
Again, an unspoken signal passed between Wilson and Jake. There could be truth in that.
"Butch gave me her address, said her pimp sits on the front porch and you go right up and negotiate with him. Says you talk right, he might take four."
"I don't know," Wilson said. "I ain't never paid for it."
"Me neither," said Jake.
"Ain't neither one of you ever had any at all, let alone paid for it," Buddy said.
Once more, Wilson and Jake were struck with the hard and painful facts.
Buddy looked at their faces and smiled. He took another sip of beer. "Well, you bring your five dollars, and I reckon you can tag along with me. Come by the house about dark and we'll walk over together."
"Yeah, well, all right," Wilson said. "I wish we had a car."
"Keep wishing," Buddy said. "You boys hang with me, we'll all be riding in Carrington's old Chevy before long. I've got some prospects."
It was just about dark when Wilson and Jake got over to Buddy's neighborhood, which was a long street with four houses on it widely spaced. Buddy's house was the ugliest of the four. It looked ready to nod off its concrete blocks at any moment and go crashing into the unkempt yard and die in a heap of rotting lumber and squeaking nails. Great strips of graying Sherwin Williams flat-white paint hung from it in patches, giving it the appearance of having a skin disease. The roof was tin and loved the sun and pulled it in and held it so that the interior basked in a sort of slow simmer until well after sundown. Even now, late in the day, a rush of heat came off the roof and rippled down the street like the last results of a nuclear wind.
Wilson and Jake came up on the house from the side, not wanting to go to the door. Buddy's mother was a grumpy old bitch in a brown bathrobe and bunny rabbit slippers with an ear missing on the left foot. No one had ever seen her wearing anything else, except now and then she added a shower cap to her uniform, and no one had ever seen her, with or without the shower cap, except through the screenwire door. She wasn't thought to leave the house. She played radio contests and had to be near the radio at strategic times throughout the day so she could phone if she knew the answer to something. She claimed to be listening for household tips, but no one had ever seen her apply any. She also watched her daughter's soap operas, though she never owned up to it. She always pretended to be reading, kept a Reader's Digest cracked so she could look over it and see the TV.
She wasn't friendly either. Times Wilson and Jake had come over before, she'd met them at the screen door and wouldn't let them in. She wouldn't even talk to them. She'd call back to Buddy inside, "Hey, those hoodlum friends of yours are here."
Neither Wilson or Jake could see any sort of relationship developing between them and Buddy's mother and they had stopped trying. They hung around outside the house under the open windows until Buddy came out. There were always interesting things to hear while they waited. Wilson told Jake it was educational.
This time, as before, they sidled up close to the house where they could hear. The television was on. A laugh track drifted out to them. That meant Buddy's sister LuWanda was in there watching. If it wasn't on, it meant she was asleep. Like her mother, she was drawing a check. Back problems plagued the family. Except for Buddy's pa. His back was good. He was in prison for sticking up a liquor store. What little check he was getting for making license plates probably didn't amount to much.
Now they could hear Buddy's mother. Her voice had a quality that made you think of someone trying to talk while fatally injured; like she was lying under an overturned refrigerator, or had been thrown free of a car and had hit a tree.
"LuWanda, turn that thing down. You know I got bad feet."
"You don't listen none with your feet, Mama," LuWanda said. Her voice was kind of slow and lazy, faintly squeaky, as if hoisted from her throat by a hand-over pulley.
"No," Buddy's mother said. "But I got to get up on my old tired feet and come in here and tell you to turn it down."
"I can hear you yelling from the bedroom good enough when your radio ain't too high."
"But you still don't turn it down."
"I turn it down anymore, I won't be able to hear it."
"Your tired old mother, she ought to get some respect."
"You get about half my check," LuWanda said, "ain't that enough. I'm gonna get out of here when I have the baby."
"Yeah, and I bet that's some baby, way you lay up with anything's got pants."
"I hardly never leave the house to get the chance," LuWanda said. "It was Pa done it before he tried to knock over that liquor store."
"Watch your mouth, young lady. I know you let them in through the windows. I'll be glad to see you go, way you lie around here an watch that old TV. You ought to do something educational. Read the Reader's Digest like I do. There's tips for living in those, and you could sure profit some."
"Could be something to that all right," LuWanda said. "Pa read the Reader's Digest and he's over in Huntsville. I bet he likes there better than here. I bet he has a better time come night."
"Don't you start that again, young lady."
"Way he told me," LuWanda said, "I was always better with him than you was."
"I'm putting my hands right over my ears at those lies. I won't hear them."
"He sure had him a thrust, didn't he Mama?"
"Ooooh, you ... you little shit, if I should say such a thing. You'll get yours in hell, sister."
"I been getting plenty of hell here."
Wilson leaned against the house under the window and whispered to Jake. "Where the hell's Buddy?"
This was answered by Buddy's mother's shrill voice. "Buddy, you are not going out of this house wearing them nigger shoes."
"Oh, Mama," Buddy said, "these ain't nigger shoes. I bought these over at K-Woolens."
"That's right where the niggers buy their things," she said.
"Ah Mama," Buddy said.
"Don't you Mama me. You march right back in there and take off them shoes and put on something else. And get you a pair of pants that don't fit so tight people can tell which side it's on."
A moment later a window down from Wilson and Jake went up slowly. A hand holding a pair of shoes stuck out. The hand dropped the shoes and disappeared.
Then the screen door slammed and Wilson and Jake edged around to the corner of the house for a peek. It was Buddy coming out, and his mother's voice came after him, "Don't you come back to this house with a disease, you hear?"
"Ah, Mama," Buddy said.
Buddy was dressed in a long-sleeved paisley shirt with the sleeves rolled up so tight over his biceps they bulged as if actually full of muscle. He had on a pair of striped bell-bottoms and tennis shoes. His hair was combed high and hard and it lifted up on one side; it looked as if an oily squirrel were clinging precariously to the side of his head.
When Buddy saw Wilson and Jake peeking around the corner of the house, his chest got full and he walked off the porch with a cool step. His mother yelled from inside the house, "And don't walk like you got a corncob up you."
That cramped Buddy's style a little, but he sneered and went around the corner of the house trying to look like a man who knew things.
"Guess you boys are ready to stretch a little meat," Buddy said. He paused to locate an almost flat half-pack of Camels in his back pocket. He pulled a cigarette out and got a match from his shirt pocket and grinned and held his hand by his cheek and popped the match with his thumb. It sparked and he lit the cigarette and puffed. "Those things with filters, they're for sissies."
"Give us one of those," Wilson said.
"Yeah, well, all right, but this is it," Buddy said. "Only pack I got till I collect some money owed me."
Wilson and Jake stuck smokes in their faces and Buddy snapped another match and lit them up. Wilson and Jake coughed some smoke clouds.
"Sshhh," Buddy said. "The old lady'll hear you."
They went around to the back window where Buddy had dropped the shoes and Buddy picked them up and took off the ones he had on and slipped on the others. They were smooth and dark and made of alligator hide. Their toes were pointed. Buddy wet his thumb and removed a speck of dirt from one of them. He put his tennis shoes under the house, brought a flat little bottle of clear liquid out from there.
"Hooch," Buddy said, and winked "Bought it off Old Man Hoyt."
"Hoyt?" Wilson said. "He sells hooch?"
"Makes it himself," Buddy said. "Get you a quart for five dollars. Got five dollars and he'll sell to bottle babies."
Buddy saw Wilson eyeing his shoes appreciatively.
"Mama don't like me wearing these," he said. "I have to sneak them out."
"They're cool," Jake said. "I wish I had me a pair like 'em."
"You got to know where to shop," Buddy said.
As they walked the night became rich and cool and the moon went up and it was bright with a fuzzy ring around it. Crickets chirped. The streets they came to were little more than clay, but there were more houses than in Buddy's neighborhood, and they were in better shape.
Some of the yards were mowed. The lights were on in the houses along the street, and the three of them could hear televisions talking from inside houses as they walked.
They finished off the street and turned onto another that was bordered by deep woods. They crossed a narrow wooden bridge that went over Mud Creek. They stopped and leaned on the bridge railing and watched the dark water in the moonlight. Wilson remembered when he was ten and out shooting birds with a BB gun, he had seen a dead squirrel in the water, floating out from under the bridge, face down, as if it were snorkeling. He had watched it sail on down the creek and out of sight. He had popped at it and all around it with his BB gun for as long as the gun had the distance. The memory made him nostalgic for his youth and he tried to remember what he had done with this old Daisy air rifle. Then it came to him that his dad had probably pawned it. He did that sort of thing now and then, when he fell off the wagon. Suddenly a lot of missing items over the years began to come together. He'd have to get him some kind of trunk with a lock on it and nail it to the floor or something. It wasn't nailed down, it and everything in it might end up at the pawn shop for strangers to paw over.
They walked on and finally came to a long street with houses at the end of it and the lights there seemed less bright and the windows the lights came out of much smaller.
"That last house before the street crosses," Buddy said, "that's the one we want."
Wilson and Jake looked where Buddy was pointing. The house was dark except for a smudgy porch light and a sick yellow glow that shone from behind a thick curtain. Someone was sitting on the front porch doing something with their hands. They couldn't tell anything about the person or about what the person was doing. From that distance the figure could have been whittling or masturbating.
"Ain't that niggertown on the other side of the street?" Jake said. "This gal we're after, she a nigger? I don't know I'm ready to fuck a nigger. I heard my old man say to a friend of his that Mammy Clewson will give a hand job for a dollar and a half. I might go that from a nigger, but I don't know about putting it in one."
"House we want is on this side of the street, before niggertown," Buddy said. "That's a full four-foot difference. She ain't a nigger. She's white trash."
"Well... all right," Jake said. "That's different."
"Everybody take a drink," Buddy said, and he unscrewed the lid on the fruit jar and took a jolt. "Wheee. Straight from the horse."
Buddy passed the jar to Wilson and Wilson drank and nearly threw it up. "Goddamn," he said. "Goddamn. He must run that stuff through a radiator hose or something."
Jake took a turn, shivered as if in the early throes of an epileptic fit. He gave the jar back to Buddy. Buddy screwed the lid on and they walked on down the street, stopped opposite the house they wanted and looked at the man on the front porch, for they could clearly see now it was a man. He was old and toothless and he was shelling peas from a big paper sack into a little white wash pan.
"That's the pimp," Buddy whispered. He opened up the jar and took a sip and closed it and gave it to Wilson to hold. "Give me your money."
They gave him their five dollars.
"I'll go across and make the arrangements," Buddy said. "When I signal, come on over. The pimp might prefer we go in the house one at a time. Maybe you can sit on the porch. I don't know yet."
The three smiled at each other. The passion was building.
Buddy straightened his shoulders, pulled his pants up, and went across the street. He called a howdy to the man on the porch.
"Who the hell are you?" the old man said. It sounded as if his tongue got in the way of his words.
Buddy went boldly up to the house and stood at the porch steps. Wilson and Jake could hear him from where they stood, shuffling their feet and sipping from the jar. He said, "We come to buy a little pussy. I hear you're the man to supply it."
"What's that?" the old man said, and he stood up. When he did, it was obvious he had a problem with this balls. The right side of his pants looked to have a baby's head in it.
"I was him," Jake whispered to Wilson, "I'd save up my share of that pussy money and get me a truss."
"What is that now?" the old man was going on. "What is that you're saying, you little shit?"
"Well now," Buddy said cocking a foot on the bottom step of the porch like someone who meant business, "I'm not asking for free. I've got fifteen dollars here. It's five a piece, ain't it? We're not asking for anything fancy. We just want to lay a little pipe."
A pale light went on inside the house and a plump, blond girl appeared at the screen door. She didn't open it. She stood there looking out.
"Boy, what in hell are you talking about?" the old man said. "You got the wrong house."
"No one here named Sally?" Buddy asked.
The old man turned his head toward the screen and looked at the plump girl.
"I don't know him, Papa," she said. "Honest."
"You sonofabitch," the old man said to Buddy, and he waddled down the step and swung an upward blow that hit Buddy under the chin and flicked his squirrel-looking hairdo out of shape, sent him hurtling into the front yard. The old man got a palm under his oversized balls and went after Buddy, walking like he had something heavy tied to one leg. Buddy twisted around to run and the old man kicked out and caught him one in the seat of the pants, knocked him stumbling into the street.
"You little bastard," the old man yelled, "don't you come sniffing around here after my daughter again, or I'll cut your nuts off."
Then the old man saw Wilson and Jake across the street. Jake, unable to stop himself, nervously lifted a hand and waved.
"Git on out of here, or I'll let Blackie out," the old man said. "He'll tear your asses up."
Buddy came on across the street trying to step casually, but moving briskly just the same. "I'm gonna get that fucking Butch," he said.
The old man found a rock in the yard and threw it at them. It whizzed by Buddy's ear and he and Jake and Wilson stepped away lively.
Behind them they heard a screen door slam and the plump girl whined something and there was a whapping sound, like a fan belt come loose on a big truck, then they heard the plump girl yelling for mercy and the old man cried "Slut" once, and they were out of there, across the street, into the black side of town.
They walked along a while, then Jake said, "I guess we could find Mammy Clewson."
"Oh, shut up," Buddy said. "Here's your five dollars back. Here's both your five dollars back. The both of you can get her to do it for you till your money runs out."
"I was just kidding," Jake said.
"Well don't," Buddy said. "That Butch, I catch him, right in the kisser, man. I don't care how big and mean he is. Right in the kisser."
They walked along the street and turned left up another. "Let's get out of boogie town," Buddy said. "All these niggers around here, it makes me nervous."
When they were well up the street and there were no houses, they turned down a short direct street with a bridge in the middle of it that went over the Sabine River. It wasn't a big bridge because the river was narrow there. Off to the right was a wide pasture. To the left a church. They crossed into the back church yard. There were a couple of wooden pews setting out there under an oak. Buddy went over to one and sat down.
"I thought you wanted to get away from the boogies?" Wilson said.
"Naw," Buddy said. "This is all right. This is fine. I'd like for a nigger to start something. I would. That old man back there hadn't been so old and had his balls fucked up like that, I'd have kicked his ass."
"We wondered what was holding you back," Wilson said.
Buddy looked at Wilson, didn't see any signs of sarcasm.
"Yeah, well, that was it. Give me the jar. There's some other women I know about. We might try something later on, we feel like it."
But a cloud of unspoken resignation, as far as pussy was concerned, had passed over them and they labored beneath its darkness with their fruit jar of hooch. The sat and passed the jar around and the night got better and brighter. Behind them, off in the woods, they could hear the Sabine River running along. Now and then a car would go down or up the street, cross over the bridge with a rumble, and pass out of sight beyond the church, or if heading in the other direction, out of sight behind trees.
Buddy began to see the night's fiasco as funny. He mellowed. "That Butch, he's something, ain't he? Some joke, huh?"
"It was pretty funny," Jake said, "seeing that old man and his balls coming down the porch after you. That thing was any more ruptured, he'd need a wheelbarrow to get from room to room. Shit, I bet he couldn't have turned no dog on us. He'd had one in there, it'd have barked."
"Maybe he called Sally Blackie," Wilson said. "Man, we're better off she didn't take money. You see that face. She could scare crows."
"Shit," Buddy said sniffing at the jar of hooch. "I think Hoyt puts hair oil in this. Don't that smell like Vitalis to you?"
He held it under Wilson's nose, then Jake's.
"It does," Wilson said. "Right now, I wouldn't care if it smelled like sewer. Give me another swig."
"No," Buddy said standing up, wobbling, holding the partially filled jar in front of him. "Could be we've discovered a hair tonic we could sell. Buy it from Hoyt for five, sell it to guys to put on their heads for ten. We could go into business with Old Man Hoyt. Make a fortune."
Buddy poured some hooch into his palm and rubbed it into his hair, fanning his struggling squirrel-do into greater disarray. He gave the jar to Jake, got out his comb and sculptured his hair with it. Hooch ran down from his hairline and along his nose and cheeks. "See that," he said, holding out his arms as if he were styling. "Shit holds like glue."
Buddy seemed an incredible wit suddenly. They all laughed. Buddy got his cigarettes and shook one out for each of them. They lipped them. They smiled at one another. They were great friends. This was a magnificent and important moment in their lives. This night would live in memory forever.
Buddy produced a match, held it close to his cheek like always, smiled and flicked it with his thumb. The flaming head of the match jumped into his hair and lit the alcohol Buddy had combed into it. His hair flared up, and a circle of fire, like a halo for the devil, wound its way around his scalp and licked at his face and caught the hooch there on fire. Buddy screamed and bolted berserkly into a pew, tumbled over it and came up running. He looked like the Human Torch on a mission.
Wilson and Jake were stunned. They watched him run a goodly distance, circle, run back, hit the turned over pew again and go down.
Wilson yelled, "Put his head out."
Jake reflexively tossed the contents of the fruit jar at Buddy's head, realizing his mistake a moment too late. But it was like when he waved at Sally's pa. He couldn't help himself.
Buddy did a short tumble, came up still burning; in fact, he appeared to be more on fire than before. He ran straight at Wilson and Jake, his tongue out and flapping flames.
Wilson and Jake stepped aside and Buddy went between them, sprinted across the church yard toward the street.
"Throw dirt on his head!" Wilson said. Jake threw down the jar and they went after him, watching for dirt they could toss.
Buddy was fast for someone on fire. He reached the street well ahead of Wilson and Jake and any discovery of available dirt. But he didn't cross the street fast enough to beat the dump truck. Its headlights hit him first, then the left side of the bumper chopped him on the leg and he did a high complete flip, his blazing head resembling some sort of wheeled fireworks display. He landed on the bridge railing on the far side of the street with a crack of bone and a barking noise. With a burst of flames around his head, he fell off the bridge and into the water below.
The dump truck locked up its brakes and skidded.
Wilson and Jake stopped running. They stood looking at the spot where Buddy had gone over, paralyzed with disbelief.
The dump truck driver, a slim white man in overalls and a cap, got out of the truck and stopped at the rear of it, looked at where Buddy had gone over, looked up and down the street. He didn't seem to notice Wilson and Jake. He walked briskly back to the truck, got in, gunned the motor. The truck went away fast, took a right on the next street hard enough the tires protested like a cat with its tail in a crack. It backfired once, then there was only the distant sound of the motor and gears being rapidly shifted.
"Sonofabitch!" Wilson yelled.
He and Jake ran to the street, paused, looked both ways in case of more dump trucks, and crossed. They glanced over the railing.
Buddy lay with his lower body on the bank. His left leg was twisted so that his shoe pointed in the wrong direction. His dark, crisp head was in the water. He was straining his neck to lift his blackened, eyeless face out of the water; white wisps of smoke swirled up from it and carried with it the smell of barbecued meat. His body shifted. He let out a groan.
"Goddamn," Wilson said. "He's alive. Let's get him."
But at that moment there was splashing in the water. A log came sailing down the river, directly at Buddy's head. The log opened its mouth and grabbed Buddy by the head and jerked him off the shore. A noise like walnuts being cracked and a muffled scream drifted up to Wilson and Jake.
"An alligator," Jake said, and noted vaguely how closely its skin and Buddy's shoes matched.
Wilson darted around the railing, slid down the incline to the water's edge. Jake followed. They ran alongside the bank.
The water turned extremely shallow, and they could see the shadowy shape of the gator as it waddled forward, following the path of the river, still holding Buddy by the head. Buddy stuck out of the side of its mouth like a curmudgeon's cigar. His arms were flapping and so was his good leg.
Wilson and Jake paused running and tried to get their breath. After some deep inhalations, Wilson said, "Gets in the deep water, it's all over." He grabbed up an old fence post that had washed onto the bank and began running again, yelling at the gator as he went. Jake looked about, but didn't see anything to hit with. He ran after Wilson.
The gator, panicked by the noisy pursuit, crawled out of the shallows and went into the high grass of a connecting pasture, ducking under the bottom strand of a barbed wire fence. The wire caught one of Buddy's flailing arms and ripped a flap of flesh from it six inches long. Once on the other side of the wire his good leg kicked up and the fine shine on his alligator shoes flashed once in the moonlight and fell down.
Wilson went through the barbed wire and after the gator with his fence posts. The gator was making good time, pushing Buddy before it, leaving a trail of mashed grass behind it. Wilson could see its tail weaving in the moonlight. Its stink trailed behind it like fumes from a busted muffler.
Wilson put the fence post on his shoulder and ran as hard as he could, managed to close in. Behind him came Jake, huffing and puffing.
Wilson got alongside the gator and hit him in the tail with the fence post. The gator's tail whipped out and caught Wilson's ankles and knocked his feet from under him. He came down hard on his butt and lost the fence post.
Jake grabbed up the post and broke right as the gator turned in that direction. He caught the beast sideways and brought the post down on its head, and when it hit, Buddy's blood jumped out of the gator's mouth and landed in the grass and on Jake's shoes. In the moonlight it was the color of cough syrup.
Jake went wild. He began to hit the gator brutally, running alongside it, following its every twist and turn. He swung the fence post mechanically, slamming the gator in the head. Behind him Wilson was saying, "You're hurting Buddy, you're hurting Buddy," but Jake couldn't stop, the frenzy was on him. Gator blood was flying, bursting out of the top of the reptile's head. Still, it held to Buddy, not giving up an inch of head. Buddy wasn't thrashing or kicking anymore. His legs slithered along in the grass as the gator ran; he looked like one of those dummies they throw off cliffs in old cowboy movies.
Wilson caught up, started kicking the gator in the side. The gator started rolling and thrashing and Jake and Wilson hopped like rabbits and yelled. Finally the gator quit rolling. It quit crawling. Its sides heaved.
Jake continued to pound it with the post and Wilson continued to kick it. Eventually its sides quit swelling. Jake kept hitting it with the post until he staggered back and fell down in the grass exhausted. He sat there looking at the gator and Buddy. The gator trembled suddenly and spewed gator shit into the grass. It didn't move again.
After a few minutes Wilson said, "I don't think Buddy's alive."
Just then, Buddy's body twitched.
"Hey, hey, you see that?" Jake said.
Wilson was touched with wisdom. "He's alive, the gator might be too."
Wilson got on his knees about six feet from the gator's mouth and bent over to see if he could see Buddy in there. All he could see were the gator's rubbery lips and the sides of its teeth and a little of Buddy's head shredded between them, like gray cheese on a grater. He could smell both the sour smell of the gator and the stink of burnt meat.
"I don't know if he's alive or not," Wilson said. "Maybe if we could get him out of its mouth, we could tell more."
Jake tried to wedge the fence post into the gator's mouth, but that didn't work. It was as if the great jaw was locked with a key.
They watched carefully, but Buddy didn't show any more signs of life.
"I know," Wilson said. "We'll carry him and the gator up to the road, find a house and get some help."
The gator was long and heavy. The best they could do was get hold of its tail and pull it and Buddy along. Jake managed this with the fence post under his arm. He didn't trust the gator and wouldn't give it up.
They went across an acre of grass and came to a barbed wire fence that bordered the street where Buddy had been hit by the dump truck. The bridge was in sight.
They let go of the gator and climbed through the wire. Jake used the fence post to lift up the bottom strand, and Wilson got hold of the gator's tail and tugged the beast under, along with Buddy.
Pulling the gator and Buddy alongside the road, they watched for house lights. They went past the church on the opposite side of the road and turned left where the dump truck had turned right and backfired. They went alongside the street there, occasionally allowing the alligator and Buddy to weave over into the street itself. It was hard work steering a gator and its lunch.
They finally came to a row of houses. The first one had an old Ford pickup parked out beside it and lots of junk piled in the yard. Lawn mowers, oily rope, overturned freezers, wheels, fishing reels and line, bicycle parts, and a busted commode. A tarp had been pulled half-heartedly over a tall stack of old shop creepers. There was a light on behind one window. The rest of the houses were dark.
Jake and Wilson let go of the gator in the front yard, and Wilson went up on the porch, knocked on the door, stepped off the porch and waited.
Briefly thereafter, the door opened a crack and a man called out, "Who's out there? Don't you know it's bed time?"
"We seen your light on," Wilson said.
"I was in the shitter. You trying to sell me a brush or a book or something this time of night, I won't be in no good temper about it. I'm not through shitting either."
"We got a man hurt here," Wilson said. "A gator bit him."
There was a long moment of quiet. "What you want me to do? I don't know nothin' about no gator bites. I don't even know who you are. You might be with the Ku Kluxers."
"He's ... he's kind of hung up with the gator," Wilson said.
"Just a minute," said the voice.
Moments later a short, fat black man came out. He was shirtless and barefooted, wearing overalls with the straps off his shoulders, dangling at his waist. He had a ball bat in his hand. He came down the steps and looked at Wilson and Jake carefully, as if expecting them to spring. "You stand away from me with the fence post, hear?" he said. Jake took a step back and this seemed to satisfy the man. He took a look at the gator and Buddy.
He went back up the porch and reached inside the door and turned on the porch light. A child's face stuck through the crack in the door, said, "What's out there, papa?"
"You get your ass in that house, or I'll kick it," the black man said. The face disappeared.
The black man came off the porch again, looked at the gator and Buddy again, walked around them a couple times, poked the gator with the ball bat, poked Buddy too.
He looked at Jake and Wilson. "Shit," he said. "You peckerwoods is crazy. That motherfucker's dead. He's dead enough for two men. He's deader than I ever seen anybody."
"He caught on fire," Jake offered suddenly, "and we tried to put his head out, and he got hit by a truck, knocked in the river, and the gator got him ... We seen him twitch a little a while back... The fella, Buddy, not the gator, I mean."
"Them's nerves," the black man said. "You better dig a hole for this man-jack, skin that ole gator out and sell his hide. They bring a right smart price sometimes. You could probably get something for them shoes too, if'n they clean up good."
"We need you to help us load him up into your pickup and take him home," Jake said.
"You ain't putting that motherfucker in my pickup," the black man said. "I don't want no doings with you honkey motherfuckers. They'll be claiming I sicked that gator on him."
"That's silly," Wilson said. "You're acting like a fool."
"Uh-huh," said the black man, "and I'm gonna go on acting like one here in my house."
He went briskly up the porch steps, closed the door and turned out the light. A latch was thrown.
Wilson began to yell. He used the word nigger indiscriniinately. He ran up on the porch and pounded on the door. He cussed a lot.
Doors of houses down the way opened up and people moved onto their front porches like shadows, looked at where the noise was coming from.
Jake, standing there in the yard with his fence post, looked like a man with a gun. The gator and Buddy could have been the body of their neighbor. The shadows watched Jake and listened to Wilson yell a moment, then went back inside.
"Goddamn you," Wilson yelled. "Come on out of there so I can whip your ass, you hear me? I'll whip your black ass."
"You come on in here, cocksucker," came the black man's voice from the other side of the door. "Come on in, you think you can. You do, you'll be trying to shit you some twelve gauge shot, that's what you'll be trying to do."
At the mention of the twelve gauge, Wilson felt a certain calm descend on him. He began to acquire perspective. "We're leaving," he said to the door. "Right now." He backed off the porch. He spoke softly so only Jake could hear: "Boogie motherfucker."
"What we gonna do now?" Jake said. He sounded tired. All the juice had gone out of him.
"I reckon," Wilson said, "we got to get Buddy and the gator on over to his house."
"I don't think we can carry him that far," Jake said. "My back is hurting already."
Wilson looked at the junk beside the house. "Wait a minute." He went over to the junk pile and got three shop creepers out from under the tarp and found some hanks of rope. He used the rope to tie the creepers together, end to end. When he looked up, Jake was standing beside him, still holding the fence post. "You go on and stay by Buddy," Wilson said. "Turn your back too long, them niggers will be all over them shoes."
Jake went back to his former position.
Wilson collected several short pieces of rope and a twist of wire and tied them together and hooked the results to one of the creepers and used it as a handle. He pulled his contraption around front by Buddy and the gator. "Help me put 'em on there," he said.
They lifted the gator onto the creeper. He fit with only his tail overlapping. Buddy hung to the side, off the creepers, causing them to tilt.
"That won't work," Jake said.
"Well, here now," Wilson said, and he got Buddy by the legs and turned him. The head and neck were real flexible, like they were made of chewing gum. He was able to lay Buddy straight out in front of the gator. "Now we can pull the gator down a bit, drag all of its tail. That way we got 'em both on there."
When they got the gator and Buddy arranged, Wilson doubled the rope and began pulling. At first it was slow going, but after a moment they got out in the road and the creepers gained momentum and squeaked right along. Jake used his fence post to punch at the edges of the creepers when they swung out of line.
An ancient, one-eyed cocker spaniel with a foot missing, came out and sat at the edge of the road and watched them pass. He barked once when the alligator's tail dragged by in the dirt behind the creepers, then he went and got under a porch.
They squeaked on until they passed the house where Sally lived. They stopped across from it for a breather and to listen. They didn't hear anyone screaming and they didn't hear any beating going on.
They started up again, kept at it until they came to Buddy's street. It was deadly quiet, and the moon had been lost behind a cloud and everything was dark.
At Buddy's house, the silver light of the TV strobed behind the living room curtains. Wilson and Jake stopped on the far side of the street and squatted beside the creepers and considered their situation.
Wilson got in Buddy's back pocket and pulled the smokes out and found that though the package was damp from the water, a couple of cigarettes were dry enough to smoke. He gave one to Jake and took the other for himself. He got a match from Buddy's shirt pocket and struck it on a creeper, but it was too damp to light.
"Here," Jake said, and produced a lighter. "I stole this from my old man in case I ever got any cigarettes. It works most of the time." Jake clicked it repeatedly and finally it sparked well enough to light. They lit up.
"We knock on the door, his mom is gonna be mad," Jake said. "Us bringing home Buddy and an alligator, and Buddy wearing them shoes."
"Yeah," Wilson said. "You know, she don't know he went off with us. We could put him in the yard. Maybe she'll think the gator attacked him there."
"What for," Jake said, "them shoes? He recognized his aunt or something?" He began laughing at his own joke, but if Wilson got it he didn't give a sign. He seemed to be thinking. Jake quit laughing, scratched his head and looked off down the street. He tried to smoke his cigarette in a manful manner.
"Gators come up in yards and eat dogs now and then," Wilson said after a long silence. "We could leave him, and if his Mama don't believe a gator jumped him, that'll be all right. The figuring of it will be a town mystery. Nobody would ever know what happened. Those niggers won't be talking. And if they do, they don't know us from anybody else anyway. We all look alike to them."
"I was Buddy," Jake said, "that's the way I'd want it if I had a couple friends involved."
"Yeah, well," Wilson said, "I don't know I really liked him so much."
Jake thought about that. "He was all right. I bet he wasn't going to get that Chevy though."
"If he did," Wilson said, "there wouldn't have been a motor in it, I can promise you that. And I bet he never got any pussy neither."
They pulled the creepers across the road and tipped gator and Buddy onto the ground in front of the porch steps.
"That'll have to do," Wilson whispered.
Wilson crept up on the porch and over to the window, looked through a crack in the curtain and into the living room. Buddy's sister lay on the couch asleep, her mouth open, her huge belly bobbing up and down as she breathed. A half-destroyed bag of Cheetos lay beside the couch. The TV light flickered over her like saintly fire.
Jake came up on the porch and took a look.
"Maybe if she lost some pounds and fixed her hair different," he said.
"Maybe if she was somebody else," Wilson said.
They sat on the porch steps in the dark and finished smoking their cigarettes, watching the faint glow of the television through the curtain, listening to the tinny sound of a late night talk show.
When Jake finished his smoke, he pulled the alligator shoes off Buddy and checked them against the soles of his own shoes. "I think these dudes will fit me. We can't leave 'em on him. His Mama sees them, she might not consent to bury him."
He and Wilson left out of there then, pulling the creepers after them.
Not far down the road, they pushed the creepers off in a ditch and continued, Jake carrying the shoes under his arm. "These are all right," he said. "I might can get some pussy wearing these kind of shoes. My Mama don't care if I wear things like this."
"Hell, she don't care if you cut your head off," Wilson said.
"That's the way I see it," Jake said.
"Steppin' Out, Summer '68" was originally published in 1990 in Night Visions 8, published by Dark Harvest Press. It later appeared in Electric Gumbo, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published by Quality Paperback Book Club; in Writer of the Purple Rage, published by Carroll & Graf; and in High Cotton: Selected Short Stories of Joe R. Lansdale, published in 2000 by Golden Gryphon Press "Steppin' Out, Summer '68" © 1990 Joe R. Lansdale.
Come on back next week, kids, for more non-stop hilarity from Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale! A new story will be posted on Thursday, October 15!