From the novel Rufus, by Jeff Lowe
Rose fumbled in her purse for her vaping kit. As she took out the e-cigarette she said, “Do you mind?”
Mott pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her dress pocket, nudged one out and held it toward Rose. “Honey, you’re in Hell’s Back Forty now. May as well go with the genuine evil.”
Rose looked at the proffered cigarette for a moment, then dropped her vaping kit back in her purse and accepted the gift. Mott flicked her lighter and Rose took a deep drag. The two women were standing on the front porch, leaning against the railing.
“I’m afraid I said something that upset Chet,” Rose said. “I’m sorry.”
Mott was quiet for a few moments. When she spoke she didn’t look at Rose. “I wasn’t raised here in Crockett County,” she said. “Chet and I met at Auburn. First time I came here was when we were dating. This old house is where his grandfather lived and farmed, where his daddy grew up.” She took a drag. The smoke drifted out as she talked.
“I had never even heard of Rufus, growing up. Then Chet and I were here on this very porch, this was before we were married, and he told me a Rufus story. Apparently that’s something the guys around here do to impress the girls. Anyway, just some simple boogeyman story about some mysterious old black man, dressed in rags, wearing a big old tattered straw hat, comes out of nowhere to snatch some poor unsuspecting, disobedient white child who has wandered away from home. Totes her off in his old burlap sack to do God-knows-what. Child’s never found again.
“I assumed he was making it up out of whole cloth. I didn’t think that much of it at the time. In fact, Chet’s story was rather bland in comparison to The Exorcist or something. Anyway, the very next day we were sitting on this porch again, just chatting, and a car drove up and stopped in the road right there in front of the house. Back in those days the county didn’t put much gravel on that road, so it was mostly dirt, and the red dust that a car would kick up on a dry day, oh, it was awful.
“A young black man was at the wheel. He leaned out the window and he called to us, ‘hey, have y’all seen Rufus?’ Well, I must tell you, a bit of a thrill went through me at that. Chet laughed and said ‘no, not today,’ and the young man drove off, raising dust. But I noticed as he drove off, there was a young woman sitting in the passenger seat. Young white woman, maybe seventeen years old. She was clutching something against her chest. I only saw her for a very brief moment, but it seemed like she was holding a baby blanket and a pacifier or a rattle or something. And she had this look on her face of total… terror. She didn’t say a word. It chilled me to the very marrow.
“I asked Chet later if he had set it up, because it went along with his story so well it seemed like it was planned or rehearsed. He said no, he had never seen those people before.” Mott lit another cigarette and dropped the butt of the old one in a flower pot on the railing.
“What I’m about to tell you, Rose, I don’t tell to just anyone,” she said, “but I think you may need to hear it. Well, Chet and I got married, I got pregnant, and it was a very difficult pregnancy for me. During the delivery I passed out. I flatlined, essentially. Went into a coma for a few days, in fact. When I came to, they told me my baby… didn’t make it. And she was gone. Just like that. I never got to hold her, see her, touch her. Tell her how much I loved her. She was just… gone.
“Anyway, driving home from the hospital, it was dusk, almost nighttime. We were on a county road, and as we went around a curve, the headlights very briefly shined on what looked to me like someone walking on the side of the road. Someone dressed in rags, wearing a big, tattered straw hat, with a sack slung over his shoulder. Something… wriggling in the sack. The sound of… a baby crying. And I knew right then and there as surely as I know my own name… it was my child in that sack. My baby girl.
“I screamed at Chet to stop the car. I jumped out and looked. I scrambled through the brush on the side of the road. Looking. Calling out. It took a good while for Chet to calm me down enough to get me back in the car. He said that I had been sleeping and must have had a nightmare. That there had been no one walking on the side of the road. Nowadays people say I may have had post-partum depression, or even PTSD. Suffice to say, from that day to this, the name ‘Rufus’ has not been spoken in this house.”
“I’m sorry, Mott, I didn’t mean to…”
“Don’t worry, honey. I suppose it’s time. I admire you, in fact. Confronting the monster, rather than hiding from it, as I have done all these years. You know, I have heard it said around these parts that if Rufus wants something of yours, he comes to you in a dream.” She finally turned to look at Rose. “You had a dream, didn’t you?”
Rose shrugged nervously and took another deep drag on her cigarette. “Dreams,” she said, “don’t really matter. What matters is the evidence in that package. And why it was sent to me, and by whom.”
“Don’t worry, Rose, dear. I’ll read the manuscript to him. He really does have eye problems. Reading gives him a bad headache. He wasn’t just putting you off. I heard your whole conversation, by the way. The window’s open and I’m an insatiable eavesdropper. He tried to hide the Rufus part of your ‘ransom note’ to save me from hearing it. He’s protective of me.
“You should know, Rose: After my difficulties with my pregnancy, I had to have a hysterectomy, so Chet and I never had any more children of our own. Those boys—AJ, Charlie, Coop, Horace—they were like sons to him. And to me. So Chet has a hard time believing they could be anything but the magnificent young men he coached in high school.
“Of course, people change. I understand that. Or they reveal parts of themselves that had been hidden. I mean, who could have predicted that D’Mon Brown could have done that to your parents? But Chet and I both know these boys very, very well. If there’s a Rufus cult, they’re not in it, believe me.
“As for your meeting them, well, I have at least a little good news for you.” Mott peeked through the window into the house, then lowered her voice. “Coop’s coming for Chet’s birthday. All the way from California. You’ll get to meet him in a little bit. He should be here shortly.”
Rose said, “Can you tell me a little bit about him before he gets here?”
“Of course, dear,” Mott said. “You see, Coop and his family didn’t come to Crockett until the boys were about to enter the eighth grade. AJ, Charlie, and Horace were all born here and were friends since the day they entered elementary school.
“Coop, on the other and, was born and raised in New York City. His father, Melvin, is an accountant, and his mother, Millie, is a hairdresser. Two of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. Millie does my hair and Melvin does our taxes, so we know them quite well.
“Anyway, Coop grew up in a rather rough neighborhood in the lower East Side of Manhattan and for whatever reason, he was, from the time he started school, the victim of some rather severe bullying. He used to say that’s why he learned to run so fast, to get away from his tormentors. And so, growing up, he became a depressed, neurotic child. Melvin and Millie took him to therapists, but it didn’t help him much.
“And then one day, this was in the summer between seventh and eighth grades, poor Coop became a victim of something called ‘the knockout game.’ He was walking down the street, minding his own business, when some thug just punched him in the face. Out of nowhere, for no reason at all other than pure hatred. Knocked him out cold, broke his orbital bone. Had to spend the night in the hospital. He was twelve years old.
“Well, Mel and Millie had had enough. They decided they’d move down to Florida and start a new life. And so they packed up and drove South. And as they were passing through Crockett County, their car broke down. Mel used to say how he felt it was as close to the middle of nowhere as you could get east of the Mississippi. But luckily, they found someone who offered to fix their car.
“That someone was Lamar Hawk. And it was while they were at Lamar’s place that Coop met Charlie. Well, Charlie took Coop under his wing and they went off on a jaunt with AJ and Horace. Well. They were gone all day and when they got back that evening, Lamar had fixed the Benjamins’ car—oh, Lamar was an absolute artist as a car mechanic!—and Mel said, ‘OK, hop in, let’s go!’
“And do you know, Coop just stood there. He looked at his new friends and then he looked back at his parents and he said, ‘Y’all go, I’m gonna stay here.’ Can you believe it? Millie said it was the first time in his life Coop ever used the word, y’all. But there was something about seeing him with those boys, so happy and full of life, that they decided they’d give Crockett County a try. Been here ever since.
“At that time they were, as far as anyone knew, the only Jews in the county. But the way Charlie, AJ, and Horace welcomed him into their little tribe gave Coop a sense of belonging and… what’s the word?... camaraderie that… well, Millie said it turned his anxiety into confidence better and faster than any of his therapists back in New York ever came close to doing. Coop never missed a chance to gig frogs or shoot a rifle or eat grits and bacon or do anything that would burnish his country-boy bonafides. And when the boys found how fast a runner he was, well, the die was cast. He was what they had been looking for: the fourth piece of the four-by-four-hundred relay team they had long dreamed of being.
“But I have to tell you this. You’ll love this, Rose. Horace told me this story. You see, it was also Coop’s thirteenth birthday that day their car broke down. And that day on their jaunt, the boys went to AJ’s house, and there Coop met AJ’s big sister, Lizzie. Let me tell you something, Rose. Lizzie Crockett, despite what you may hear from people around here—they call her white trash, a redneck tramp, and so forth, but they’re just jealous—Lizzie Crockett may have been the most gorgeous teenage girl that ever walked on God’s green earth. And a flirt! Oh my Lord could that girl tease the boys! Anyway, Lizzie flirted with Coop—a little wink, you know, that husky little laugh of hers, a peck on the cheek—and Coop was hooked. Later on, Coop told Horace that that was the best bar mitzvah gift any Jew ever got in the whole history of the world.”
There was a crackle on the gravel road in front of the house and Mott turned to look. Rose looked too. As the car slowed and turned into the driveway, a smile grew on Mott’s face. She squeezed Rose’s arm. “He’s here,” she said, and put her finger to her lips. “Shh. Don’t tell Chet. It’s a surprise.”
As Mott skipped down the steps to meet Coop, Rose saw the blue-tail fly land on the railing. She picked up the flyswatter Mott had left hanging on a hook. She swatted the fly and hit it, but when she lifted the flyswatter, the blue-tail fly buzzed away, unhurt and annoyed.
(End Chapter 2. Go to Chapter 3.)