The Devil's Rematch
by Spencer Ellsworth
The Devil walked right into church one Sunday and told us he was taking the town
back. Pastor Tucker was halfway through his sermon, done with damnation,
working up to redemption, when the wind kicked in the back door, screeching and
howling, blowing Mrs. Goodson's new hat all the way up to the choir loft. We
looked back and saw him silhouetted in the doorway.
"What're you doing here?" Pastor Tucker asked.
There were some in the congregation, old Kevin Dodgson or maybe Mrs. Cook,
must have recognized old Scratch from before. I'd never seen him. He was a tall
fellow, handsome in a kind of untouchable way. Too good to be true, my girls
would say. "I told you I would come back, Richard Tucker."
"In the middle of my sermon you show up, in my church, in my town?"
"Go on with your sermon. I can wait."
"No, we'll settle this now." The pastor raised his big index finger, like a sausage.
"I threw you and your people out of this town fifty years ago, boy. I can do it
again, right now."
"You beat me fair, Pastor. But don't get all unsporting just because I want a
rematch. Best two of three, I say."
A rustle went through the congregation. We'd all heard the stories and I reckon
we'd all started to believe them after a while, but here was the proof, before even
the most skeptical of eyes. My momma said there were little pockets of Hell all
over, and Wadesville'd been a mighty dangerous and dark place till Pastor Tucker
rolled into town fifty years ago and threw old Scratch out.
Pastor stepped away from the pulpit and faced the Devil down the aisle. "All right,
then, boy, let's have it."
Devil laughed. It was a weird sound, just a hint of a howling gale. "I'm a fair man,
Richard. I didn't come back to throw down an old fellow. I'll give you one week to
find a younger champion. Till then, I'll be around, just talking." He looked right
around the congregation. "Your people can keep an eye on me."
Pastor Tucker was shaking with anger. "Not in my town."
"One week, Pastor." That politician grin again. "Think of it as a test of your
congregation. I'm doing you a favor." He waved his hand one more time and the
wind howled around the church, picking up Mrs. Goodson's hat and bringing it
down to his hand. He handed it to her, smiled, and left.
"A fair man," Pastor Tucker tossed his Bible down. "A fair man?!"
There's two men I know of done wrestled an angel. One, of course, was old
Jacob-Israel, who wouldn't let the angel go till he would bless him.
The other was Pastor Tucker, though in his case it was a fallen angel, and he
wouldn't let Lucifer go till he agreed to split for good. Course, as we'd seen, old
Scratch was the worst kind of bad penny.
Back when Pastor Tucker was young, he'd been just as gentle, but big as an ox.
Full of the fire of ministry, he'd asked around, heard about Wadesville, and headed
on out here to shine the Lord's light into the darkest places.
The pastor always said there weren't no problems in the world didn't have an
answer in the Bible. And when he'd seen Wadesville, seen the whoredoms goingon in the street and smelled the stench of corruption and bootlegging, seen how the
common folk were afraid to deal with each other for fear of all the cheating going
on, well, then old Pastor Tucker, he did what a man should do. He buried himself
in that Bible. Four whole days of fasting and prayer, he looked for the answer, and
he come up at the end and called out the Devil himself for a wrestling match.
See Pastor Tucker, he figured he had the faith of Jacob-Israel, and he knew that the
Devil wasn't no stronger in body than any other angel. So he made his challenge,
and pretty soon folk started talking, and the Devil had to put up or lose his
Satan came on down to the lawn right in front of the church, where Pastor Tucker
marked out a spot for them. He jumped right in and wrestled the man of God. Just
like in the Bible, it went on all night. Pastor, he'd been praying all that week, but
he'd also spent a few good years roping bulls in the rodeo circuit, and that was
what got him through. Around four in the morning, Pastor Tucker got a good full
nelson on Lucifer, and that was it.
Or so they said. Most folks who heard the story while they were passing through
didn't believe it. But once you'd been here a few years, and talked enough with the
pastor, it just sank in. Good folks will believe the truth, when it's clear what the
After church, Pastor called a committee meeting to deal with the problem. I was
there, me being the mayor. He had his other stalwarts around him -- youth pastor
Jon Jefferson, who was being groomed to take over the church; Bob Mull, head of
the general store; and old Kevin Dodgson, who'd been the town drunk fifty years
ago and knew more about the Devil than any other man present.
"Well," Pastor Tucker said. Normally by now he would've got his cool back, but
today he'd been flustered beyond recovery. "We need a hell of a wrestler. No more
Bob Mull nodded. We all knew who the Pastor was talking about. Elmer, the
colored boy, only colored boy in town, lifted freight at Bob's store on the
weekends. During the weekdays, he logged pinewoods down by the Georgia
border with his cousins from Murphy. That boy could fill the choir loft with his
shoulders, his mama used to say. Trouble was, Elmer wasn't too fond of white
folks, not since his daddy turned up on the end of a rope ten years ago. Elmer
hadn't been to the church since his daddy died, when he was about eight.
"Pastor, I pay the boy fair and all, but he ain't said more than three words to me."
Bob looked at me. "Your girl Susie, now she was friends with Elmer way back
Susie and Elmer were friends, but that was before Elmer left school, before he took
a dislike to white folks. Now, Susie was being courted real heavy by Jon Jefferson
and thinking about the life of a pastor's wife. "I'll talk to Susie. And maybe Jon
here can meet with Elmer's mama, Grace. She might have some pull with her boy."
"Y'all are thinking the physical. Don't forget the spiritual," Jon said. "We gotta
hold prayers and Bible studies. And we gotta start loving our neighbors. You know
what that means, Hal Fletcher. You and Rich Evan need to suspend that mayoral
"Hold on now," I said. "We can run a clean race."
"You said that before --" Jon began.
"Well, this time I mean it," I said. "Boy, believe me. We know what's at stake here
Kevin Dodgson interrupted. "Look at what old Scratch been doing." He stood up.
Kevin was a good man -- in church all the time, and anyone who talked to him
he'd tell them about the evils of the bottle. Usually quiet. "He had his hooks in us
before today. We was like a tin of cream, just waiting for the cat to eat us up."
It was uncomfortable quiet then, and we all looked up at Pastor Tucker. The pastor
wasn't saying nothing.
I knew the Devil had his hand in things when I got home. My girls was screaming
at each other over clothes and jewelry the other one had borrowed.
"Girls!" I exploded myself. "Vanity! The whole town's in danger, and you're
fighting over your vanity!"
Well that scared them, and Susie sat me down and poured me a glass of water.
"What's wrong, Daddy?"
When I was done they was just about painted white. "The Devil was there?"
"You should have been up in church, Susie, you'd know," I said.
"Daddy, Jon wasn't preaching today and I was tired. Come on now. Lord knows
my heart." She poured me a glass of water. "So you want me to go talk to Elmer?"
"If you can," I said. "You ever say anything to him anymore?"
She shook her head. "Been a while, Daddy." She looked at Theresa. "Now, Reese,
she was friends with Elmer too."
Theresa, my youngest, practically tripped standing up in a huff. "Last time I saw
Elmer he crossed the street 'fore I could say good day."
"In my day that was a sign of respect from a Negro to a white woman," I said.
"Daddy!" Susie and Theresa shouted together. By the time they were done telling
me that I sounded ten different kinds of ignorant, and this was the seventies now,
for heaven's sake, and Doctor King had been the Lord's man, they'd made up their
minds to convince Elmer to help us out. I grinned on the side, where they couldn't
"I got it," Theresa said. "We can ask Elmer to dinner. A proper bit of Southern
hospitality. Don't nobody say no to dinner at the mayor's house."
It was a good idea, but Lordy, could it go wrong. "What if he asks about his
daddy?" I said.
"You'll say you don't know who killed Elmer's daddy," Susie said.
"Better yet, you can find out," Theresa said. "You, of anyone."
"It's best left alone," I said. We had poked around a bit when it happened, but the
mountain families keep quiet. This town's got a million old grudges, you see, and
the Devil's grudge ain't got a hair compared to some of them.
"Oh, Daddy," Reese said. "Don't be a fool. You knew someone was gonna have to
answer to that eventually."
"Watch your lip, girl," I said sharply. "You can talk about Doctor King all you
want, but Wadesville don't change like that."
Reese stormed off in a huff.
"I'm gonna go ask Elmer and his mammy to dinner," Susie said in the awkward
silence that followed.
After they left, I went into the kitchen to think and ate me a couple of olives. (I got
this terrible disease with one hell of a name, but what it boils down to is I can't
taste much of anything -- 'cept olives. Go figure.) I took myself a little drink of
moonshine, too. I can taste moonshine, when it's brewed real strong, but don't go
spreading that around. Wasn't no devil had Elmer's heart, but the old black man's
burden. If there's one thing bigger than race in North Carolina, it's what's in that
Bible. I had to make Elmer see that.
Devil was waiting on Main Street when I took my morning walk. I just about
jumped out of my skin when he came strolling 'round the corner.
"Mayor Fletcher," he said, with that shiny old smile. "I've heard such things about
you. Why, I was just talking to old Kevin Dodgson."
"You stop right there, Devil," I said, backing up and crossing myself like a
Catholic. "I want nothing to do with you."
"Maybe I can ask you the same question I asked Kevin. Tell me, you think Job
deserved it? Even a little?"
"I . . . Devil, you know the Bible better than any man. Out of my way, in the name
of the Lord Jesus."
Devil laughed. "You do throw his name around. If God's a just God, then Job had
to deserve it a little bit, don't you think?"
I don't know why, but I done rose to the bait. "Devil, I believe you just annoyed
him 'cause you liked to, and it's beyond me why the good Lord didn't put a stop to
He laughed at that, the Devil did. "So you think I'm just bothering you for the, heh,
hell of it?"
"Seems that a mayor who lets most of the bootleggers slide wouldn't know much
I brushed on past the Devil and kept on my walk. He was laughing again. I made
sure to go the long way 'round to get home. I could hear him hollering as I went on
my way. "Anyone spare a bite to eat? Trade it for a nice family Bible. I got plenty
of 'em. Or maybe some dirty pictures? Come on, where's your Christian charity?"
When I got home Reese was in the kitchen and Susie was on the couch talking and
laughing with Jon Jefferson.
"Girls, what's going on? You talk to Elmer?"
"I did, Daddy," Susie said.
"Elmer didn't say much." She looked over at Jon. "But Grace said they'd love to
come up for dinner tomorrow night."
"I got to get everything ready," Reese said, rushing out of the kitchen to stick a list
in my hand. "Daddy, you best head to the grocery store 'fore it closes. I need all
She had a list could make a man's mouth water with anticipation -- leastways a
man who could taste other than olives. Collards and pork, fatback, fresh corn and
chicken and eggs. Course, wasn't no way I would go to the grocery for it. "Girl, I
can get all this from Ted Grimsby tomorrow for half the price at the farmer's
"That won't work, Pa. I need to get started tonight." Reese leaned against the wall
and fanned herself. She wasn't a pretty girl, my Reese, not like Susie. Thick around
the rear end and horse-faced, but the girl could cook corn muffins and pot-likker
like a lost art. "I need to mix the biscuits so's they can rise. I need to bone the
chicken and pound it and I need to marinate the pork. And there's the cornbread."
Jon Jefferson whistled. "Reese, you could kill me with hunger just talking."
I said, "Jon, if I didn't know better, I'd think you was courting both my daughters."
They laughed a bit, but there was too much truth to laugh for long -- Reese was
half in love with Jon Jefferson herself, and Susie couldn't cook a lick, so Jon was
always showing up at mealtimes.
"That grocery store's criminal," I said to Reese. "You know they get their
watermelon from Mexico? What kinda man sells Mexican watermelon in North
She put her hands on her hips. "You want some of this dinner or not?"
"I ain't gonna taste it."
"That hasn't stopped you from putting it all away before," Susie laughed.
"You two are like old mean cats," I said as I turned toward the door. "How do you
stand it, Jon?"
"The good Lord protects me," Jon said, "most of the time." I saw him looking
between Reese and Susie and again I wondered which one the boy might really
take, if he got to choose.
On the way to the grocery store I saw Pastor Tucker walking down the street. I
pulled the car over and said, "Pastor, it ain't safe to wander around at the moment.
Hop in here."
The pastor took himself a minute to get settled, muttering, "Thank you."
"Pastor, you all right?" I asked. "You know who I am?"
He gave me a look fit for a hornet's nest. "Course I do, Hal Fletcher."
I drove on in silence and pulled into the Food Lion parking lot.
"He's got you," Pastor Tucker muttered. "He's got us all. You know what we've
got to do," Pastor Tucker continued, working up just like he was giving a sermon,
"I've been saying it for years. We got to clean up this town, finish what I started all
those years ago. We got to stop forgiving adultery and thievery and bootlegging."
He looked right at me. "And we can't let the sheet-heads get away with what they
did to Elmer's daddy. We need to give that boy the man that done it."
"Pastor," I began, "it ain't as simple as all that. There's a lot of old grudges and it
don't do no good to stir them up --"
"It is simple!" Pastor slammed his hand down on the dashboard hard enough to
make me jump. "It's as simple as sin and righteousness, and you know it!"
"Pastor, by now whoever-it-was has kids and grandkids and are bound to be real
sorry they ever cut holes in that sheet. It's only going to make trouble to push it
now. Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord."
Pastor glared. "I hear the Devil quoting scripture at me all week, Hal Fletcher.
Every time I walk up and down Main Street, he trails after me with a bit of
Leviticus or Romans. Sometimes he quotes the Song of Solomon fit to drive the
"Uh . . . sorry."
"You just ask yourself whether your soul is clean before the Lord," Pastor Tucker
said as he got out. "You just think on that."
That man could lay the guilt on like butter on bread.
"Damn it, he's right," I said, though no one heard but the Lord.
Grace and Elmer knocked on the door at seven sharp the next night. I answered the
door in my favorite suit. "Grace Thornton! It's been too long, now. How are you?
And is that --" I craned my neck. "Elmer?"
I couldn't see Elmer on account of him standing down in the driveway, the only
light the spark of his cigarette.
"Won't you come in?" I called.
He finished that cigarette slow as you please and headed up the steps, coming into
the light. That boy was even bigger than the last time I saw him. He coulda passed
for some man-version of the Big Bad Wolf -- crooked nose, iron-black jaw, big
black eyes. I expected Grace Thornton to say a few words. She wasn't one to
tolerate rudeness. But she just looked from me to Elmer and smiled. "So nice of
you to have us over."
After they'd set in our living room for a bit, I was sure things couldn't've got more
awkward. Jon, he shook Elmer's hand and Elmer pretty much crushed it. Susie, she
said, "Howdy Elmer. How's the logging going?" and he just shook his head. Boy,
it was like having a mean old coon -- I mean a raccoon -- in the house, and a
handful of dogs that were trying to be on their best behavior.
"Elmer," I said. "Susie told you 'bout our predicament up at the church."
Elmer looked away. "I been going to Faith Bible Flock in Franklin with my
I turned again to Grace. Like I said, she was a proper woman, but she just sat there.
"Boy . . .," I started. "You know why you're here --"
"Dinner!" Reese called from the dining room. We all got up and headed in.
And that's when Elmer cracked. "Hot damn," he said.
"Elmer! The Lord hears," Grace said.
I couldn't blame the boy. Reese had done up a mean table. Pork chops, fried
chicken cutlets, cornbread and biscuits, gravy thick and white with cream. On the
side she had collard greens, corn fried with bacon and green onions, fried squash,
and a mound of coleslaw.
"I don't want no leftovers now," Reese said, and for the first time she looked at
Elmer. "Eat up."
Elmer, polite as you please, replied "Yes, ma'am."
We set in. I got to say, Reese's cooking always looked so damn good it almost
made me forget I couldn't taste it. Elmer, big as he was, ate like he was twice that
size. Grace Thornton even forgot herself and took God's name. "Good Lord. This
"You oughtta taste her Christmas ham," I said around another bite of cornbread,
"or that sweet potato pie. Reese, tell me you made that sweet potato pie."
"Didn't make none for you, Daddy," she said, and poked me in the stomach.
Elmer perked up from his plate. "Sweet potato pie, y'say?"
Reese smiled at him. She had a nice smile, at least. "Long as you don't leave me no
I had a few more biscuits and a dollop of gravy left on my plate when Elmer said,
"I believe you got something to ask me."
Everyone stopped eating. "I believe you know what I'm going to ask you," I said.
Elmer had a big bite of fried squash, hanging orange and stringy against the dark
skin of his jaws. Covering his mouth while he chewed, Elmer said, "I'll tell you,
Mayor, I always thought this town'd be better off in Hell."
"Elmer," Grace began, but Elmer turned and said, "Momma, I've been waiting for
justice my whole life. This here's the man who could get it. But he ain't said a
word about Daddy."
Everyone was looking at me. They looked surprised as a cat seein' a yard full of
dogs when I said, "I'll get you a name. That's it. Just the name. You do with that as
Elmer cracked a big, wicked smile looked half like the Devil's. "Then you got your
"Mighty easy, I must say."
"Easy said, anyway," I muttered.
"Who's ready for pie?" Reese called.
Next day I nursed my coffee at the diner until I saw Rich Evans come in.
"Over here," I said.
Rich Evans was what we called a Flor-Idiot. He started out spending summers here
and winters in Florida. Someone made the mistake of involving the man in local
politics after his wife died and now he was dug in, a fixture of the town. He had ran
me a couple of good races, winning once, but I was going to whup him this time.
Last time we'd gotten a little nasty, with a bit of name-calling in the local paper --
but it was clean now, and it would stay clean.
He spoke in that Yankee accent, flat as a sheet of tin and with about as much music
as a dial tone. "How are you doing, Hal Fletcher? I brought you a jar of olives.
Kalamata, my favorite." He had picked up a bit of Southern hospitality, I can say
"Thank you much," I said, and took the olives.
He sat down. "I've been working on my speech for my rally on Saturday, so I don't
have a lot of time."
"Why, Mr. Evans, I finished my speech for my rally on Saturday a week ago. But
that ain't what this is about."
"What is it then? Jon talked to me," Rich said. "I told him I was running a clean
"I said the same."
"I certainly hope so," Rich said.
I did not rise to that, praise the Lord. "I need your help on something here. I figure
there's something to be done, and I can't do it by myself." It ain't safe, I almost
"What are you talking about, Hal Fletcher? What on earth would you need me
"I'm heading out to Bill Weaver's place in an hour to talk to him about Elmer's
daddy. I would get old Sheriff Doby to come, but he's just retired up to Brevard. I
need someone to show them Weavers we're serious." These were the old mountain
families, the ones most folk in Wadesville kept on the good side of, less they
wanted the sheet-heads to turn up.
"You want to know who killed Elmer Thornton's father."
"Yeah. This is before your time, understand. But things get said, and old grudges
trickle on down."
Rich nodded. "Hal, you've got a lot more pull with that crowd than I ever would. I
get most of my votes from the kids and the retirees."
"That's why I need you," I said. "They know me. They know I been letting their
shenanigans go, and they know why. When they see I'm joined up with Rich
Evans, they'll know I mean business." I popped the olives' top and put one in my
mouth. Boy, Rich liked 'em sour. "Pastor's right. This town's slipped too much
since he cleaned it up. We need to crack down, and it starts with Elmer's daddy."
Rich took a bit to think about it -- ordered himself some coffee and a sandwich
while we sat there in silence. Finally Rich said, "All right."
"Lord have mercy," I said. "Old Scratch has truly come to town when you're
conceding to me, Rich Evans."
The Weavers had intermarried with the other mountain folk, especially the
Hoovers, so much that folk called them all the Woovers. Most of them lived up a
criss-crossing road that headed between Coal Mountain and Purdel Mountain, with
a passel of kids and twice as many dogs. Folk didn't go up there without a good
can of mace for the dogs. I thought about stopping to buy one but figured maybe a
little faith in the Lord would do the same.
"Now when we stop," Rich Evans said, "this is how we'll do it. I'll press him, you
keep him as happy as you can. Good cop, bad cop."
My first instinct was always to go against whatever Rich said, but this time I had to
admit that it was a good idea. 'Sides, if Rich Evans was hard on them, I'd get their
vote. "All right."
"Now, if you'd see my point of view on the bus routes --"
"Keep the Lord's peace, Rich," I said. My, but the man's Yankee voice did grate.
An army of dogs come flooding out of that house toward us when we stopped --
big mean black things that looked like they could give even Elmer pause. Bill
Weaver came out of the main house, his white gut hanging out bare over a pair of
stained jeans. "Hal. And Rich Evans?" Bill Weaver was the ringleader these days,
since his daddy Tom died. He'd given money to my campaign before, and he was a
friend. Much as a Woover can be a friend.
"We're here to talk to you, Bill," I said.
"Down, boys," he called to the dogs. "Come on inside. Get yourself some
We followed him in and sat down at the kitchen table. The house was covered in
crosses, I must say -- cross-shaped clocks, crosses that formed picture frames
around the giant family pictures of the Woovers. So many crosses on the walls it
was hard to see the old wallpaper underneath which had, if I saw right, little
crosses on it. Funny. The Woovers hardly ever showed up to church.
He went straight for the cupboard. "You boys want some moonshine?" he asked.
Rich Evans looked at me, and I looked back at him. Finally, I said, "Not now,
Bill poured himself a little cup from a Mason jar. He took a big drink and laid back
in his chair. "How're y'all?"
"Can't taste nothing, and my wound from Okinawa's hurtin' something fierce."
Bill Weaver'd been on Okinawa, too. Usually, he'd pop right up and start talking
about the war.
Not this time. "Okinawa don't bear thinking about, these days. Whole world's
going to Hell. What's this all about?"
I could tell he had heard something. I remembered something my daddy said, back
when I was getting into politics. You cross one good old boy, you crossed the
whole South. I told him what was going on, and he admitted that he'd heard about
the Devil being in town. On the subject of Elmer, his eyes narrowed a bit.
"Elmer's gonna get the name and wrestle the Devil, or nothing," I said.
Bill sipped his moonshine. "That boy's a problem."
"He's the only wrestler we got," I said. "Ain't nothing gonna change that."
Bill sucked in a deep breath with the tang of that moonshine and set down the cup.
"Ain't this just like a --" well, I ain't gonna repeat where he went after that for a
bit. Used a few words that ain't fit for polite company no more. "Since all that
marching and singing and bitching about the buses, they's worse than ever. Ain't
enough to eat at our restaurants, they're going after our daughters and our
government. I'm just glad someone got that crazy preacher --"
"Well," I interrupted, because I could feel Rich Evans getting restless, "all Elmer
wants is a bit of information, now. Don't know what he'll do with it." I cast a look
at Rich Evans and wished I could tell him to keep quiet, don't cross him.
He didn't read the look.
"Listen up," Rich Evans said. "We've let your bootlegging and gun-running go for
a long time, because you're good old boys and Hal has a soft spot for good old
boys. But this is different. This is a battle for our souls. You don't give that boy his
name, then you'll be paying an entirely different set of tariffs, if you know what I
Bill looked at Rich Evans slant-eyed again. He yanked out a pack of smokes.
"Wife won't abide this in the house. You fellers want to follow me out?"
Rich Evans glared at me on the way, as we passed under a cross nailed up above
Soon as we were out all those dogs started snapping at us. This time Bill didn't call
"Listen, now," Bill said. "I knew this was coming. I've been talking to my brothers
'bout this Elmer thing, and we reckon a couple of things. Mainly we think that
Elmer might be big, but he ain't got the power of the Lord with him like the pastor
did." Rich and I backed up toward the car, them dogs still growling, showing teeth
like big white spots. I felt like I was trying to back out of Hell. If Hell smelled of
dog turds. "We'll be stuck with the Devil one way or another, and way I hear it,
he's still a white fella. Elmer'll have those cousins of his up here, eating with us,
chasing our daughters -- you don't want to let them overrun the town. You give
them people an inch, they'll take a mile. They're making their play for power, I tell
you, all that marching and carrying on. It's like we never fought in no war, the way
they got this country."
That boy might as well have been Jefferson Davis reborn, 'cept he was about five
times dumber. "You're a damn fool, Bill Weaver," I said. "All the boy wants is a
"How 'bout the Devil? Or God hisself? I didn't see either of them standing in the
way of that rope." Bill smirked.
"Oh come on now," I said. One of them dogs was close enough to snap at me and
grab a mouthful of my trousers. I pulled away, and felt the pants rip up my side.
One of the dogs lunged for Rich. He kicked the dog but it just got meaner,
snapping and snapping, and he yanked open the door of the car, trying to jump in
and kick the dog away at the same time.
"You a coward, Bill?" I said. Kind of a funny thing to say, since I was sliding up
the hood of that car to get away from a dog that was a lot smaller than Elmer.
"Ain't afraid of no one," Bill said.
"Then give me a name, and you can deal with Elmer all you want."
Bill laughed. "Get in your car, fellas, before the dogs get you."
Rich Evans yelled, "Come on, Hal," he said. "Before these good old boys realize
what they've done."
"Damn it, Bill Weaver!" I said from the roof of the car. "Afraid of Elmer Thornton.
I didn't think I'd see the day."
Bill Weaver hesitated. I could see him turning something over in his mind. "Fine
then, Hal Fletcher. Tell him my daddy did it. Old Tom Weaver, who is now in Hell
at his own lynching party."
I reached down and opened my door, kicked the nearest dog in the throat, and
jumped in the car. Rich bolted down that hill, screeching round the turns, up on
two tires, just about flying into the trees. He finally stomped on the brake and
wheeled into the trailer park at the bottom of the hill.
Rich put a hand to his forehead. "I've never been so scared in my life, Hal Fletcher.
Your good old boys." Rich put a hand to his heart. "Can't take that."
"Rich, you all right there?"
"I'm fine," Rich finally said, though he didn't sound it.
"Devil's favorite tool is fear," I said. "Don't worry. We got our name now, and
Elmer will wrestle."
Rich Evans dropped me off outside my house a ways. I needed the walk, I told
him. And I did -- there was plenty to sort out before Elmer took on old Scratch
"I still plan to whup you in the race," I said to Rich.
"I bet you do," he said. "Be safe, Hal. Watch out."
"Don't mind the sheet-heads, Rich," I said. "They's dumber than the wood they
Didn't look like it was much comfort for him.
Walking home, for a minute there I found myself entertaining old Scratch's
question. Did Job deserve it? That Bible made it pretty clear that he didn't, so
unless it left something out, he was a good fellow. But Scratch managed to talk the
Lord himself into that big nasty joke on Job. I was taught that the Lord God was a
just God. Was it possible that, deep down, Job needed a little punishing?
"Shut yourself up, Hal Fletcher," I whispered. "Don't you think about what that
bastard said. That's just pure idiot, right there."
I was so busy with that talk that I didn't really look up, not till I was in view of the
Reese was on the porch with a basket of rolls. That wasn't so strange -- she was
always going off with rolls or cookies to Jon's, or Pastor Tucker's, or her grandma
in the nursing home. No, what was strange was who she was handing the rolls to.
He stood in the light of the porch, and when he took the rolls, he bowed his head
real polite -- and then I watched, slack-jawed, as he took Reese and gave her a
kiss. Just a little peck on the cheek, but I saw Reese turn red, and it wasn't no
embarrassed red -- I could see it in her face, that face I raised up from a baby -- I
could see that she liked it.
I was frozen to the spot. I only got my senses when Elmer started back down the
steps and started to open the door to his car. "Hold on now!" I shouted. "Hold on!
What're you doing?"
"Daddy!" Reese shouted. Elmer looked back at me. Reese blushed again, but she
just said, "Elmer just took me to the store, seeing as how Susie's got the car."
"Is that right?" I asked, and repeated myself, making sure Elmer could tell what I
was talking about. "Is that right?"
"Yes sir, it is," Elmer said. "Reese called me up and said she wanted to make
cookies for the match tomorrow, but she needed herself some eggs, so I took her
down to Food Lion --"
"Come here, boy," I said. I was about to face down a man the size of a truck, when
I'd been quivering in my boots over Bill Weaver's dogs. "I saw what you did. I
saw you put your hands on her."
"Hands?" Elmer said.
"Daddy, it wasn't no more than a peck on the cheek," Reese said.
"Don't you tell me nothing!" I said. "What do you think you were doing to my
daughter? What reason do I have to trust you?"
"I was being flirty, sir, nothing more," Elmer said, polite as you please. "I
"Apologize to my girl," I said. "Apologize! You smooth-talking son of a --" I cut
myself off. "Do it."
Elmer looked back, still polite. "Reese, I am sorry, I was out of line there."
Reese nodded. "That's all right, Elmer."
"You come in here," I said, "into my house, eating my food, sitting on my couch,
with your demands and your --" I was fuming so bad. This boy, of all boys,
kissing my girl. "It's true. We give you people an inch and you take a mile," I
muttered, I thought under my breath.
Elmer grabbed my shirt. He growled, "You've gone too far, old man."
I stared up into those black eyes and thought, He's going to kill me. And the part of
me that actually had some sense came back for a minute and said, Hal Fletcher,
you've done it now, you've ruined it all for the whole town, you dumb --
Elmer dropped me. My rear hit the ground and I stared up at him. He shook his
head. "Trash," he said. "I picked up trash. I'd better go wash my hands." He
stopped on the way to the car. "You got my name?"
"I --" What in the world does a man say? "I'm a fool, Elmer, I'm real sor--"
"You got my name?"
He wasn't listening to me. Wasn't going to either, save for two words.
"Tom Weaver," I said.
Elmer got in his car, brushing past me without a word. But then, before he pulled
off, he rolled down the window and said, "Thank you for the biscuits, Reese."
I sat on the ground, not moving as his car tore off.
I sat there thinking about what a fool I was. My problem with the boy was never
that he was black. I might have though he was lippy, rude and mean as a blind dog
but -- well, I'd been the worst kind of fool: an old fool being over-protective of his
Reese stormed in and slammed the door. I remembered what old Kevin had said.
The Devil had done his work well in Wadesville. Or we'd done his work for him.
And I reckoned that if the Lord picked on Job, who didn't deserve it, then
Wadesville was in for trouble.
I tried to talk to Reese the next morning, before we went to the wrestling match.
She was sitting at the table, and I could tell she was upset. She'd baked three
batches of cookies but saved herself a little bowl of the dough and was eating it
"You don't want a tummyache tonight," I said. She looked up at me, then back
down at the dough. "Reese," I said, but what was there to say? Still, I tried. "Reese,
I was one hell of an idiot last night. I'm sorry."
She ate another spoonful of the cookie dough, and then she started crying. "Damn
"Language," I said.
"You're one to talk." She got up. "I've got to get dressed. If you want a use for
yourself, pack up some of those cookies."
All around the church yard, there were tables with lemonade and cookies. Old
Scratch was in the center of the lawn, just smiling and drinking lemonade. I
wondered who'd been polite enough to share that with him. "Fine lemonade," he
said. "I'll remember this one when I come into my kingdom."
It was plain enough that he'd done some work in Wadesville. I saw folks glaring at
each other. Jon and Susie were sitting next to each other, but they weren't
touching. Couple of folks had their Bibles out, but none of them was reading, and
mostly they all looked as pissed-off at their neighbors as they did at old Scratch.
Pastor Tucker was watching Devil warm up on the lawn. Pastor had a look in his
eye like he was afraid and angry at the same time.
"Where's your boy?" Devil asked.
"The Lord will provide," the pastor said.
I thought he might have gone a bit crazy. Elmer had his name and had every reason
to hope this town went to hell. There was little chance he'd show. But he did. His
car, same one I'd seen last night, came rolling up the street, followed by a couple
more. Elmer got out, and some other black boys followed him. I could only
assume they were his cousins; they were almost as big as Elmer.
Elmer wasn't wearing nothing but a pair of jeans, and across his chest he'd painted
something -- a long line of chains that stretched across him and wound down his
arms. There was another chain painted on his forehead.
"Well," old Scratch said. "Someone got dressed up."
Elmer walked right between the tables, right up to old Scratch. "You ready to do
this?" he said.
"I believe so." Devil looked around at all of us.
"Listen up!" Elmer slapped his hands against his chest. "Listen good, folks. You
done nothing for me, you hear? Nothing. You covered up my daddy's death and
you shut me out of your lunch counter and you called me whatever name suited
you and now you're expecting me to save you." He turned to the Devil. "Least this
fellow's honest about who he is. As far as I'm concerned, you can all go to hell
with him." He traced the chains across his chest. "These represent the chains y'all
put on me. On all black folk. Take a good look. You need me now, but as soon as
you're done, you'll put me back in chains."
Old Scratch looked pretty amused. Everyone else was hanging their head or
whispering to the person next to them. What was Elmer doing?
"Devil," Elmer said. "Come on. We gotta give them a little show."
"Well, you got done up so pretty, how could I resist?" the Devil replied.
Elmer smiled and moved in like he was about to grab the Devil in a wrestling pose.
Old Scratch was up in his own pose right away, but as soon as Elmer got close, old
Scratch grabbed him and tossed him. Elmer hit the ground and curled up into a ball
like a baby.
"Elmer!" I shouted, and the pastor and Jon Jefferson and all of them shouted it too,
and Reese loudest of all. He wasn't moving. Devil got down, getting grass stains
on that white suit of his, and he grabbed Elmer in a half-nelson. He was nasty
about it, too -- I saw the Devil's fist smack Elmer in the side of the head when he
grabbed him. But Elmer didn't move. Devil yanked Elmer up by the neck like he
was tossing a log. He threw Elmer across the yard.
Elmer didn't fight it. He hit the bushes in front of the church and bounced off, back
onto the lawn, flat on his face. He stayed there.
The Devil cackled. "Woo! It's like sticking a pig! I woulda worn a better suit if I
knew I wouldn't break a sweat." He came up to Elmer and prodded Elmer's back
with his white shoe. "You need a minute there, boy?"
From where he was laying on the ground, Elmer said, "Come and get me, Devil."
The Devil got on Elmer and yanked his leg up into a hold. Wasn't nobody talking,
but we were all counting.
It was one of Elmer's cousins finally said it. "Three. He's down."
"Damn it to hell, Elmer!" I heard Rich Evans shout. Everyone else was shouting
something too, though I, this time, was smart enough to keep my mouth shut.
Old Scratch stood up. "I believe Wadesville is mine." I could feel his gaze heating
up, darkening, little bit of fire coming into it. Devil was coming into his own now.
"You're going to do what I say, and the Lord's not gonna help you."
Elmer stood up. "I'm off to wash off these chains, folks."
"Elmer," Old Scratch said. He turned around. Devil smiled that politician smile and
said, "I guess it's a lie, ain't it?"
"Well, I gave a . . ." and the Devil said you-know-what, right there to Elmer's face,
". . . an inch, and he didn't take the mile."
Damned if Elmer didn't laugh! "Whatever you say, Devil," Elmer replied.
His cousins, though, weren't laughing. One of them grabbed him by the arm.
"Elmer," he said. "Elmer, you going to let him talk to you like that?"
"Like what?" Elmer said. "That was as fair a match as you'll ever get from a white
"You going to let him call you that in front of everyone?"
Elmer paused. "Ain't nothing no one else hasn't said." He fixed me with his gaze.
"What, you want I should wrestle everyone ever called me that?"
God bless her, Reese chose that moment to speak up. "Elmer Thornton," she said,
Elmer got a real uncomfortable look on his face. Nobody spoke until finally, one of
Elmer's cousins said, "You got blood on your ear, Elmer."
Rich Evans jumped on that. "Lucifer, you were too rough. That's out of line,
messing with his ear."
The Devil snorted. "You ever seen a wrestling match? Little blood on the ear
comes with it."
"All I'm saying is the match is suspect," Rich Evans said. "We want a clean fight.
A rematch is the only way to tell."
Elmer didn't say much. The Devil straightened his hair and picked grass from his
elbows, half-watching Elmer. "What is it, Elmer? You gonna call rematch? For
Pastor Tucker was looking back and forth from the Devil to Elmer, back and forth,
back and forth. One of Elmer's cousins grabbed him and whispered in his ear. I
heard a little piece of it. ". . .crazy son of a . . . least the mayor tried to
'pologize . . ."
Elmer looked around, glowering at everyone in the audience, his cousins included.
"You take it back and I'll move on."
The Devil laughed. "You think I'm gonna take something back? Me?"
"Damn right you are."
"Tell you what, Elmer. I'll throw you a few favors. Maybe some women. You got
your eye on one? Need money? You've earned it." Devil smiled.
"You think I need something from you?" Elmer spat. "You gonna give me respect,
Devil, that's what you're gonna give."
The Devil sighed. "Pastor Tucker had some mighty faith, Elmer. You don't." That
damn smile again. "Let me be, son. You got no reason to help these folks."
Elmer moved into the ring, but not before shooting one more hard look my way.
None of us could really tell what he was going to do. I reckon Elmer was angry, so
angry that he was ready to take it out on the Devil. Would it happen? I didn't think
so; anger was the Devil's tool, after all.
But there's a righteous wrath in the Lord. When I saw the boy go back in the ring, I
didn't see Elmer but I saw Jesus his own self, with a whip o'nine-tails, driving the
moneylenders from the temple.
Suppose Elmer looked at the Devil and saw all the white folks he ever knew,
bringing him and his down like they weren't even people.
Elmer rushed in and grabbed old Scratch, tossing him down to the grass. Scratch
was up in a second and they circled, then locked in on each other, circling, circling,
gripping each other like a single being of rotating black and white. Devil pushed
Elmer back, but the boy dug in his heels and wouldn't be moved, and then he
pushed the Devil back, and then they were on the ground scrabbling for a position
-- and then Elmer broke away to get up --
This went on. And it went on. It got dark and the street lamp lit up the grass,
trampled near to dirt now. Elmer'd proved himself as far as we were all concerned.
But he kept going. Elmer pulled old Scratch down to the ground and clutched that
Devil's hands, pulling him close and lifting the Devil off the ground. Old Scratch
kicked and kicked, but Elmer had him in the air. The Devil gasped for breath and
Elmer shouted, "Vengeance is mine!" and he slammed the Devil to the ground and
for three breathless seconds we all stared as the Devil's arm flopped around like a
snake under the hold Elmer had on him.
It was Pastor Tucker said, "Three."
Devil sat there, heaving. Pastor Tucker got up and put his arms around Elmer, who
didn't respond at all, even though Pastor Tucker clutched him close, one big old
man with one big young one. "God bless you, Elmer Thornton," he said. Then he
turned back to the Devil and pointed a finger. "Now get out of my town."
Old Scratch, he sat there and he laughed. He laughed and laughed. "Hal Fletcher,"
he said after another bout of laughter, "I'm gonna give you that answer."
I didn't respond.
"Job, you see, was a man who took himself too serious." Old Scratch stood up. "He
deserved a little pranking. Everyone does, I reckon."
And the Devil went off down the street, laughing and carrying on.
Elmer was heaving, still out of breath, still in the pastor's arms. I reached a hand to
help him up. He looked at me, a glower fit to skin cats.
"Elmer," I said, "you done what no one else could do, and for that you got . . . well,
you got my admiration, son."
"No one else could do." Elmer laughed and shook his head. "Truth ain't much of
an apology, Mayor."
"Well, damn, Elmer . . ." I exhaled. "I'm real sorry, and I truly mean it."
Elmer took my hand and got up, looking down at me.
"I'm real sorry," I repeated, quietly. There was an awful lot of ground for those
three words to cover. Miles and miles and years and years.
Elmer exhaled. "S'pose you are. Well, thanks." He didn't stick his hand out or give
me a smile or nothing, he just tromped off, stretching out his sore arms. I watched
him go, and I wondered whether King David and Samson was so ornery. Reckon
Folk still don't change much around here. Elmer quit his job at the general store.
Few years later, I heard he'd been stabbed and left in a ditch. Crazy enough, he
lived. Takes a lot to kill a boy that big. He became a minister after that. God's still
a God of miracles.
Bill Weaver fell down a well he was digging on his property. Nobody said nothing
I retired from the mayor's office after Rich Evans died. Not much fun without him
around. Susie lives in town with Jon, but Reese -- well, she only answers her
phone once in a while. I met her husband once, a funny little Mexican boy with
glasses and a gut. I was real polite, but I reckon he'd heard the story of Elmer,
cause he wasn't. Maybe she'll warm up once she gives me grandkids.
It's beyond me or anyone to say, but I reckon the Lord and the Devil still get
together over beers and a wager, like they did for old Job. Both of them got a real
nasty sense of humor.