ONE MORE LONG LANKIN
ONE MORE LONG LANKIN
Danse Macabre Magazine, Feb 2017 "DM 105 - Audelá"
They call me Babe because it’s silly to call an infant Raleigh. Raleigh comes from an ancestor, an itinerant dust bowl Evangelist, so I’ll have to grow into that name.
They call Errol Mason Old Lanky Pants, because he’s very long in the limbs and his pants barely hit his ankles. Mom and Dad use that formula for nicknames. Old This-y That. Neither hurtful or respectful. They’re not hurtful people, or if so only indirectly. Errol Mason is a hurtful person, though. He once pinched my cheek hard enough to make me cry and I don’t cry easily.
So yes, I am worried when Dad doesn’t pay Mason. Mason built the outdoor brick barbecue just like dad had specified, clearing the grass around it, laying down slate, piling stones and mortar until the whole thing was finished, turreted and strong as a little castle. “Oh God Mom, it looks like a mini golf course,” Betsy says. “Watch your language, Betsy,” says Mom
Dad is ecstatic, until the he finds Mason copulating with my nanny Lass in the master bedroom, windows flung wide for all the world to hear. Dad crows at Mason, pushes him out the front door but lets him get his pants and shirt in order first. Dad’s a decent man, but mostly he doesn’t wanted the neighbors to see the brick barbecue builder stumbling into the yard half-dressed. Lass gets a long talk that night, first about the sanctity of virginity and then about the Devil and temptation. Lass listens, head down, crying a little, mumbling at one point that she might even love Old Lanky Pants. Dad won’t have any of that. Lass is like a daughter to him, though he touches her knee when he talks in a way he won’t with Betsy.
Of course, Dad doesn’t believe Errol Mason is literally the Devil. “Babe,” he says holding me one night around 3am, not because I’m crying but because he can’t sleep and I keep odd hours, “Babe, that man’s touched in a wicked way and maybe it’s best we lead him back to the flock. But I’ll be damned before he gets a cent out of me, defiling the bedspread and our poor Lass like that.”
The next night after he drives Lass home, Dad waits outside her apartment a little while in his idling car. I’m in the back seat. Mom makes him take me on car rides at night, since it helps me sleep, and I get to say goodbye to Lass. She comes back out the door of the building and walks to Mosse & Haye, a neighborhood bar. Dad idles in the parking lot, lights off, singing me “Be Still and Know” in his soft, poor voice. Lass and Mason exit the bar. They kiss under the parking lot flood light, a halo of bugs above them.
Letters start arriving early in the morning, slipping through the mail slot like unwelcome paper tongues. I’m awake, so I hear the metal creak, footsteps, then the truck receding. I don’t know what the letters say, unable to read as I am, but after someone spray paints more words on the backyard barbecue I hear Mom say “Oh how awful, and the neighbors…”
One summer night Peter the cat disappears, Peter the indoor cat.
Dad shows up on Errol Mason’s front door with a few neighborhood men. Sets things straight, he says. Opens a beer that night, self-satisfied. “What’d you do?” says Mom. “Law is law is law,” Says dad. He rubs a bit of froth with a bruised knuckle.
Dad has an overnight trip in Birmingham hearing several cases before the appeals court. He leaves with a suitcase, judges robes and a pistol inside it. He cleans the pistol before he leaves, and I watch him from my carry seat. He calls the police commissioner, an old friend. They promise to have a car drive by every hour. Then he’s gone.
Lass is a quiet girl, and I don’t hear her come in until she’s right over my crib. It’s early morning and while I hear the police car passing outside, it’s not every hour. Lass picks me up and holds me to her breast, against the cotton T-shirt. She’s barefoot. Got in with her key, of course, though Dad said her services wouldn’t be needed anymore. I’m not sad to see her, just wary as an infant can be. I grab at her hair.
Downstairs there’s a shadow in the kitchen. Old Lanky Pants himself, eating cold cuts straight from the fridge. “He here?” Mason asks Lass. His nose is crooked, a still-fresh red split in the bridge. Lass shakes her head. “This the little heir to the house then, heir to the brick barbecue?” Mason reaches out for me, and Lass hesitates, but then she hands me over. This isn’t the Lass I know. “The old lady?” asks Mason. Sleeping, says Lass. “Let’s wake her up and bring her down,” says Mason. And Lass moves to the stairs but he stays her. “Pricking the Babe should do,” he says.
Errol Mason puts me on the kitchen counter and opens drawers until he finds a knife, a long one. I hiccup, look to Lass, who doesn’t stop Mason when he starts. False Lass, not my Lass. I cry and cry, because it hurts of course, being pricked with a knife, but worse because False Lass just stands by, hand to her mouth, saying He’s bleeding all over the counter. She reaches for the paper towels.
“Babe?” says Mom from the top of the stairs. Then “Babe!” and she’s rushing down, because I shouldn’t be down here, I should be asleep. She wails and wails when she sees Old Lanky Pants with the knife and me bleeding on the counter, False Lass trying to wipe the mess with paper towel squares.
She runs at him, claws at him, tries to pick me up but he cuts the back of her hand. She struggles with him, her nightgown catching black spatter, the charm necklace around her neck flashing with moon. Then she runs to the stairs again, yelling to Betsy to run, to lock her door, to… Mason picks her up by the hair at her neck, like a dog’s scruff, and brings her to the pantry, stacked with peanut butter, gallon tubs of ketchup, a forest of cereal. He cuts her throat with a blade so sharp the metal chain of her necklace divides and falls to the floor with a splash.
And despite False Lass’s best efforts to clean the counter and staunch my pricks, I’m but an infant and the damage is done and I feel myself moving upward toward the kitchen’s overhead lamp. Taller now, I see as adults see. There’s blood in the kitchen, there’s blood in the hall, and in the pantry where Mason took Mom.
But I’m still moving upward, to Betsy’s room where she’s crying into a cell phone, and her eyes seem to catch mine as I ascend, leaving myself foot by foot by foot.