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Dancing to Ray Charles: Ch 09, Darrell's Disaster

After Darrell Ray bungles, Mark get some man-to-man advice

Delmar Bullock wasn’t impressed, not one little bit. The three young farts standing just inside the door to his storage shed didn’t seem good for much, most of all a Klan job.

At first, they tried to act cocky like this was no big deal. But none of  ‘em said a word after seeing the cross he put together that afternoon. He wondered why Jack Boudreaux, who always worried about security leaks, picked these three boys to do a job one real man could finish in a minute or two.

The ‘young farts’ consisted of Darrell Ray Sims, his cousin Dickie Lee James, and Dickie Lee’s shadow, Floyd Haskins. In fact, Boudreaux hadn’t spoken to anyone but Darrell Ray about the job. But he hadn’t thought to say anything about security leaks or that it was supposed to be a one-man operation.

So Darrell Ray had brought Dickie Lee and Floyd because he didn’t want to do the job alone. In fact, he didn’t want to do it, period.

It wasn’t that he was afraid, of course. And he sure as hell didn’t like jigs. At least not the uppity ones or those mixed-breed agitators Mr. Jack was always going on about. It was just that he didn’t have anything personal against Frank Williams.

A few years after his father ran off, Darrell Ray’s big brother, “Wheeler,” fell through one of those raggedy-assed scaffolds at Imperial Paper. He died the next day. Williams was the one lawyer in the parish willing to handle their case against the company. And according to his mother, when they won, Williams just took his expenses from the settlement instead of the amount they’d agreed on. The odd thing was he made her promise not to tell anyone.

So Darrell Ray always felt he and his family were beholding to Williams. In fact, he kinda liked the guy, even though that candy-assed Mark Cahill was his nephew.

But to have Bebe turn him down to go out with Cahill--now he had to do this for, well, for Mr. Jack. Still, if he was going to be hauling around some cross, he didn’t want it to be in his truck. The new, bright yellow paint job made it easy to recognize. And it was just natural not to want any cross or post-hole digger or whatever messing up that expensive finish.

In addition to saving his paint job, Darrell Ray figured it’d be quicker and safer if he had a little assistance. Dickie Lee was about half-ass loco anyway, so it didn’t take much to get both his help and the use of his old GMC truck. Of course, having him for a partner meant having Floyd Haskins along for the ride. But that couldn’t be helped.

Bullock had acted putout kinda when they all showed up to get the cross and the other stuff. Now his mood seemed even worse as he re-explained how things worked. “You’ve got everything here you need. I built this here cross small enough to hide in the bed of a pick-up. There won’t be any trouble keeping it out of sight.

“Once you get to where you’re going, lay the cross flat on the ground and pour on all the diesel I’ve given you.” He held up a five-gallon can. “That way the wrapping can get good and soaked while you’re digging the hole. Now, unless the soil’s real loose or sandy, the hole don’t have to be much more’n a foot or so deep. This thing’s not supposed to be around very long.” Something resembling a grin creased Bullock’s face.

“After you stick the cross in the hole, be sure to pack enough dirt in around the base, so it don’t lean. You want it to stay upright. Looks better that way and makes it last longer, too. Then douse on this gasoline. I put you some in here,” he lifted a long neck beer bottle that was almost hidden by his massive hand. “After that, all you gotta do is light ‘er up. Then git. Be sure to take along everything you brought. Don’t leave no evidence. Most of all, don’t hang around to watch your handiwork either. Understand?”

They all nodded. Darrell Ray thanked him for going to all the trouble. Then he helped Floyd and Dickie Lee haul everything out to the truck. Ahead of them lay their first experience with cross burning.

The plan had been to pick up the material around eight and to finish the job by ten. According to Mr. Jack, Frank Williams and his wife never got back from their Saturday night running around before eleven. That meant there should be plenty of time to spare. However, no one figured on the condition of Dickie Lee’s old pick-up, or that, it being his truck, he’d insist on driving, or on his lousy sense of direction.

None of them had ever been out to Bullock’s place before. Turned out, his old, frame house sat tucked away at the end of a long gravel road in the middle of nowhere. They’d arrived in the dim light of late evening. By the time they left, it was pitch dark.

Within minutes, they’d taken the first of many wrong turns. This was followed by an extended period spent driving in various directions while arguing about which way to turn next and who was at fault. They made it back to the main highway just in time for a back tire to go flat. That’s why it was way after ten before they reached their target.

Thanks to Dickie Lee’s constant reminders about their being in his truck, the others agreed he could act as lookout and getaway driver. That meant Darrell Ray was stuck with Floyd as a helper.

They parked in the shadow of some pecan trees across the street from the Williams’ one story, brick house. Dickie Lee stayed behind the wheel with the motor idling. At this point, his primary contribution was to urge Darrell Ray and Floyd to “get a move on.” The moment they’d collected the gear, he drove off to wait up the hill at the intersection where he could spot any approaching cars.

The house was located on the edge of the town’s old, upscale neighborhood. Like all the residential areas in Pinefield, it was quiet. Darrell Ray was relieved there were no lights on inside. He figured it was about time something went right. A shallow ditch, a line of low hedge, and a fair-sized front yard separated the house from the asphalt road.

They stumbled across the ditch, tripped over the hedge and soon found what looked like a good spot. As instructed, they lay the cross flat on the ground and then poured on the diesel. Floyd had just started on the hole when he had to stop. The blade of the post-hole digger had hit a large pipe buried just below the topsoil.

That meant more lost time since they had to argue about where to try next before moving operations to the chosen spot. It proved to be prime digging soil, however, and the hole was soon finished. That’s when they realized their gloves were back in the truck. They’d be wrestling a messy, diesel soaked cross with bare hands. The thought did not appeal to the fastidious Darrell Ray one bit.

When they started working on the first hole, a dog inside the house began to bark. Another in the backyard soon joined. Mr. Jack had said there would be an inside dog, and that another one might be in a backyard pen. So it wasn’t the dogs, but they thought the barking might attract attention which motivated the diggers to make a modest increase in the pace of their work.

This lack of urgency was a mistake. The barking dog in back was Belle, short for Beelzebub. She was the bad-tempered by-product of a brief but turbulent liaison between a vicious Rhodesian Ridgeback and a brutal Catahoula Cur, the latter being a local breed raised to herd and fight wild hogs. Her distinguishing features were powerful shoulders crowned by a ridge of stiff hair along her backbone, dark mottled fur, a milky-white, “glass,” eye, a paranoid disposition, and an all-consuming desire to protect her human family from strangers.

Considering her lineage, Belle was on the small side. That hadn’t kept her from becoming boss dog of the big pack of hounds out at the family’s farm. Thanks to this status, she was a frequent guest at their house in town. While the men in the front yard debated, then moved to another spot and began digging a second hole, Belle was inside her pen in the back yard, moving dirt at a frantic pace as she dug her own hole.

The moment the triumphant front yard crew slipped the diesel soaked cross into their new hole, Belle escaped. Stealth was not one of her strong suits, however. The targets of her intended assault were soon alerted by the sound of loud, angry barks approaching around the side of the house at a very high rate of speed.

The two men spotted the dark, barking projectile heading their way at the same time. Floyd yelled something, snatched up the post-hole digger and began doing his best to hold off the snarling menace. Darrell Ray splashed on the gas, dug out his lighter, and set the cross afire. If either one realized they hadn’t braced it upright, neither seemed interested in correcting the oversight.

Seeing the cross starting to burn, Dickie Lee cranked his truck and came down to pick them up. Remembering Bullock’s warning about not leaving evidence, Darrell Ray managed to pick up the empty containers without attracting the dog’s attention. Floyd’s occasional yelps made it clear he was having uneven results in his efforts to avoid Belle’s assault. As he fought a desperate, rear-guard holding action, they once again tripped over the hedge and then stumbled back through the ditch to the edge of the road.

Before Dickie Lee could come to a full stop, Darrell Ray threw the empty can and bottle into the truck bed and jumped into the cab. They waited, with some impatience, as Floyd lurched backward into the cab while trying to deny Belle any more samples of his flesh. Once inside, he yanked in the protective digger. This move sent the handles smashing into the windshield. Ignoring Dickie Lee’s angry protests, Floyd slammed the door shut before Belle could follow him into the crowded cab.

A glint of light made Darrell Ray turn around and look through the cracked, rear window. When he shouted that headlights were approaching, Dickie Lee stopped complaining about his busted windshield and gunned the engine.

It flooded and died.

They had the good luck to be facing downhill. Dickie Lee shifted into neutral and yelled at Darrell Ray and Floyd to get out and push. However, at that moment Belle was doing her best to scramble in through the still open passenger window. Darrell Ray and Floyd yelled right back for him to get the hell out and shove himself. Even Dickie Lee could follow their logic and complied. As the oncoming headlights got nearer, the truck began inching its way downhill.

That was when Belle became aware of the new and very vulnerable target of opportunity standing outside the open driver’s door. She raced around behind the tailgate and pounced on Dickie Lee’s unprotected left leg. He responded with a short but intense string of obscenities. Jumping back behind the wheel, he yanked the door shut, just missing Belle’s open jaws and bared teeth. Shifting into low gear, he released the clutch. The truck backfired, then the motor caught. As they raced away, the cross seemed to be giving them a slow parting bow that ended with it toppling over onto the grass.

Left behind amidst the exhaust fumes, and shreds of denim, a small-to-medium sized, mixed-breed dog watched the retreating taillights and bayed in savage triumph.

#

 

After dropping Bebe off, Mark drove to the Burger Barn. As usual, nothing was happening. He ordered a cheeseburger and sat down to wait. Two guys he kind of remembered came in and joined him. It wasn't until they began talking about the football team’s chances that he placed them. These two well-built products of the school’s new weight room had been on the junior varsity team back when he was a senior.

One of them mentioned Tommy Jackson. “I guess you heard “T.J.” got shot up pretty bad over in Nam?” Mark nodded. “Well, Coach Lamar said he talked to T.J.’s folks this afternoon. The Army docs say it’s touch and go for him to pull through.”

“That’s rough,” said Mark. “T.J. was a helluva nice guy. And he and Connie just had that baby.”

“Yep,” said the other player. “When T.J. shipped out, he left her a little present.”

“Yeah, T.J. was one running back who always delivered the goods,” said his friend. The crack got the conversation off the uncomfortable subjects of life and death and back to sports.

As he listened to the two young players talk about football and women, Mark felt a melancholy sense of loss. Part of it was realizing that at some point during the last three years, he’d become an outsider looking in on what had once been his world. But there was also the news about Tommy Jackson. It reminded him that while others his age were dealing with real life, he was just a college student floating through an extended childhood.

When Mark finished his burger, he wished them good luck that fall and left. It seemed odd to be coming home from a Saturday night date so early. But with Bebe needing to get up before dawn, a short date had been mandatory. What the date lacked in quantity, however, it made up in quality.

He’d taken her back to the Catfish Shack up on the north shore of Big Bear Lake. It’s where they’d gone on their first date. By now it was too hot to sit outside. So they’d gotten a small table next to one of the big picture windows looking out over the lake. It gave them a great view of the sunset and later the moon’s reflection on the dark, still water. It had been a long, enjoyable meal.

It must also have been pretty romantic, decided Mark, with a pleased grin. When they were driving away, Bebe hinted that since she had to get home early, she’d be agreeable to spending the rest of their date, “parking.”

The make-out session was unforgettable. The almost pleasurable ache in his groin was proof they hadn’t “gone all the way.” But he hadn’t expected that, not this soon. It was enough just to have her body on top of his, to feel her hips grind against him, to explore her curves and hidden places, to hear her moans, and to savor the taste of her mouth pressed against his. After years of longing, it was more than enough, for the time being.

These pleasant, erotic thoughts vanished the moment he topped the hill near his aunt and uncle’s house. A small fire was burning in their front yard. He parked across the street, got out and hurried over the ditch and the line of short shrubs that guarded the front yard. Two men were standing by the fire. He headed towards them through the humid gloom.

“What are you doing home so early?” asked his father.

“No stamina,” said his uncle. “Back in our day, we’d just be getting good and wound up about now.” Frank Williams was a tall, thin man who always seemed to be looking down his long nose when speaking to people. Belle lay at his feet watching Mark with unblinking eyes.

“Guess I’m just quicker at tending to business,” Mark deadpanned. The two older men chuckled at the comeback and then fell silent.

It became obvious they weren’t going to volunteer any information. So Mark asked what seemed like a logical question. “Why is there a fire out here in the front yard? I thought y’all went in for nice restaurants and dancing on your Saturday nights out, not marshmallow roasts.”

“Well, if you’d pay attention instead of insulting your elders,” said his uncle, “you might have noticed that this humble little fire began life as a burning cross.”

Mark turned and stared at the embers. “The Klan burned a cross in your front yard?”

Jake Cahill shook his head and turned to his brother-in-law. “I apologize, Frank, the boy’s a little slower than usual tonight. But if memory serves me right, he’s been on a date with Jack Boudreaux’s daughter. That must explains his condition.”

“No apologies needed. Don’t be too rough on the boy. I’ve seen that gal around town a lot in the last few weeks. And for a little thing, she does pack a lot of distractions.”

Before Mark could be teased anymore, his cousin Frankie walked out the front door. “Well, I managed to get Emily off the phone,” he said, referring to his mother. “And thanks to her come-to-Jesus talk with our sheriff, I’ve picked up a lot of new words.”

“She let him have it, huh?” asked Frank, sipping on the scotch and soda his son had just handed him.

Frankie nodded, “I’m not sure, but I think she called him about everything but a Christian. Then she laid the big hurt on him by saying he’d never be invited back to a Christmas party.”

“Well, there goes any chance of his being re-elected,” said Mark. Emily Williams’ annual Christmas parties might not be the height of the social season but were a crucial fixture of the political season. “I take it both our sainted mothers are in the house.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Frankie, “Aunt Leigh’s doing her best to calm down her wild-eyed sister.”

“That feisty, red-headed nurse has no sense of humor when it comes to her front yard,” observed Frank.

“How’d you like to be Tobias the next time he has to go to the hospital?” said Jake Cahill, with a grin. As Director of Nursing at Pinefield General, Emily Williams ruled the small hospital with a stern but even hand.

“Why does she think the sheriff did it?” asked Mark.

“Oh, the sheriff didn’t do it,” said Frankie. “But she’s sure he was involved, and as we all know, she’s always right.”

Mark grinned at his cousin. Frankie was still in junior high but big for his age and smart for any age. “So who did the dirty deed?”

In the light from the dying fire, he could just make out his father’s face. “We’re not sure, son. But thanks to Belle and the Saturday night bridge game going on across the street at Junior Stephenson’s we’ve got a pretty good idea. When all the barking started, Amanda Marshall, Ester Pierce, Birdie Stephenson and the rest of those gray-haired card sharks stopped playing long enough to scope out the action.”

When Jake paused to sip on his drink, Frank, who loathed any silence, picked up the story. “All of ‘em came rushing over here the moment we pulled up. They were yellin’ about how the guys who did it had just driven off in a dark colored pickup. Ester said that just after sweet Belle here,” he began scratching the dog’s ears, “tore into one of them, the other started the cross burning. She’s not sure, but thinks he might have been the Sims boy who works at the lumber yard.”

“You’re the lawyer, Frank,” said the senior Cahill, “but I don’t think that’d stand up in court. It’s a good ways from here to the Stephenson’s house, Ester’s older than dirt, and about all the light she had was from the cross itself.”

As his father was talking all the tumblers fell into place for Mark. Speaking in a low, monotone, he broke in. “The thing is Dad; I think she’s right.”

It was a simple statement of fact, devoid of either humor or conditions, and it stopped all conversation. Noticing the silence and the looks he was getting, Mark began telling them about overhearing the phone call between Jack Boudreaux and Darrell Ray Sims while he was waiting for Bebe. “This,” he said, pointing to the pile of glowing embers, “has got to be what he meant by, ‘tonight’s job.’”

“Well, if that’s the case, it does make you kinda wonder what that cute little daughter of his might know about this,” mused Frank.

“Hey, wait, there’s no way she had anything to do with it. I mean, she was with me tonight. Besides, a lot of other kids around here have relatives who,” Mark paused, aware of the admission he was on the make, “who, I guess, must be in the Klan.”

“Oh, you’re right about that,” agreed Frank, finishing his drink and stretching. “But I don’t know any others with a daddy who runs the local group.”

Frankie said he was going back in to check on Emily. “In that case,” said his father, “bring me a jar with a lid when you come back.”

There was a brief silence as Frankie disappeared into the house. “Okay,” said Mark, “what are you going to do with a jar?”

“I’m gonna collect some of those ashes and keep them on the mantel.” His uncle’s tone implied the answer should have been obvious.

“Might make the cover of “Southern Living,” said Jake, while swatting a mosquito that had braved its way through the smoke.

Without warning, Frank changed the subject. “You know if it was that Sims kid, I’m going to kick his ass. When that fool brother of his got killed at the mill, I represented the family.”

“I remember,” said Jake.

“The reason I did it,” continued Frank, “was because his mother’s daddy, old man Felton James, was one of the finest men who ever drew a breath and he made first-rate moonshine. Of course with that big brood of kids, they didn’t have a pot to piss in. Lord, there must have been a dozen. Emma Jean, that’s Darrell Ray’s mother, was the baby of the family, cute as hell, and Felton’s favorite. It tore him all to hell when she married that loser. You knew Felton, didn’t you, Jake?”

Jake Cahill nodded, and Frank turned to Mark. “That guy Emma Jean married was as sorry as they come. He’d give white trash a bad name and couldn’t keep a job. About all, he could do was drink and keep knocking her up. He’s the one who killed Ike Carter’s wife and kid and left Ike all crippled up. After that, he did Emma Jean and the rest of us a big favor by running away.”

Jake interrupted, “And if I remember right, she was still a good-looking woman when you took the case. Which I’m sure had nothing to do with you taking just expenses out of the settlement.”

“Why, of course not. She was just a poor, young lady in distress. That’s all.”

Mark wondered if Willie knew about Sims’ father and the wreck. But he wanted to get back to the subject of Jack Boudreaux. If the two men started going over past deeds and misdemeanors, his legs would give out long before their memories. Subtlety was wasted on his uncle. This called for a direct approach.

“ I apologize in advance for being young and stupid--genes and environment are a tough combo to overcome. But what makes you think Mr. Boudreaux is head of the Klan? I mean, he hasn’t lived around here that long. Besides, he’s a Cajun, and I guess he used to be a Catholic, although they all go to New Life Baptist now.”

There was a pause, then Frank began. The teasing, mocking tone was gone from his voice. “A guy I knew in law school lives down near where Boudreaux comes from. We got to talking one day at a bar convention, and Boudreaux’s name came up. My friend said Boudreaux was a nice enough guy but had always been about a brick short of a load.”

“Some things never change,” said Jake Cahill.

Frank nodded. “Boudreaux had this piss-ant little hardware store and was just getting by. Then his wife, who was supposed to be a real knockout, and his newborn baby boy, were killed. Seems she was going way too fast on a foggy morning and rear-ended some old colored fellow whose truck had stalled. This girl you’re dating, she was in the backseat and just got banged up. After that, Boudreaux got even stranger. He never went anyplace but the store and wouldn’t let anyone else in his house. It was just him and that girl of his. My friend said she looked like a miniature of his dead wife.

“A few years later, he met the current Mrs. Boudreaux. She was doing his books or something.” Frank paused and looked at Mark, “Well, if you’ve met the lady you know she’s the one who runs that show. Anyway, she got him to become a Baptist and hooked him up with some of her redneck relatives who were big shots in the Klan. They’re the ones who told him about Pierce Lumber being for sale. With his wife’s connections and brains, it didn’t take him long to become the honcho of our local outfit. That last part came from some guys who got out of it when he took over. Said they didn’t like his super gung-ho style or some of the new members.”

“Do you think this cross burning is because of that Peeping Tom case?”

“It could be. That’s Boudreaux’s style. I doubt if the guys who did it are even in the Klan. He strikes me as the type who likes to play at being a big shot and a war hero but gets other folks to do most of his dirty work.”

At this point, Mark’s father broke in. “Son, I’m going to tell you something because you’re dating that girl. That’s okay with me, I suppose. But it means you’ve got to put up with her daddy.” This strange preamble ensured Mark’s total attention. “Don’t let yourself get sucked into his war hero crap. I’m not going to tell you how I know, but take it from me, Boudreaux never left the country during the war.”

“But what about that sword he has and the scar from the Japanese bayonet?”

“Jap swords are a dime a dozen,” said Frank. “And I’ll bet he got that scar in a bar fight.”

“Boudreaux was in the service,” said Jake, “that much of his story is true. But he never went overseas. There’s nothing wrong with that. I was never in combat and didn’t get over to Europe until it was almost over. The thing is, I don’t lie about what I did or didn’t do. For whatever reason, Boudreaux does.”

“Sounds like a dream father-in-law to me,” said Frank, leaning over to pat Belle. “My unsolicited advice is to proceed with caution.”

-- to be continued --

 

 

*** Note to readers: A short story version of this chapter appeared earlier in, Stories Space as ‘The Belle of Catawba Street’ That version ends with the scene of Belle’ chasing off the would-be cross burners.

 

Any comments, whether brickbats or bouquets would be appreciated.

 

 

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