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By Erskine Caldwell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1935 Erskine Caldwell
All rights reserved.
The mud-spattered rattle-trap of an automobile rolled off the road and came to a dead stop beside the magnolia tree. The tall gaunt-looking man who looked as if he had been living on half-rations since the day he was weaned sat grim and motionless, with his hands gripped around the steeringwheel. His eyes were fastened upon the row of sagging fence posts ahead.
Clay Horey leaned forward in his chair on the porch, screwing up his eyes to soften the glare of the sun on white sand, and tried to see who was there. For a while he could not make himself believe that he had actually seen anyone there. Sitting on the porch staring at the colorless dry country, week after week, year after year, he had got so he could not believe his own eyes sometimes.
"That doggone old chicory just clouds up a man's eyes in the summertime," he said. "I ought to be getting me a jug of corn some of these days. Looks like there aint nothing else fit to shake a man awake."
With his eyes closed, Clay tried to hear through the ringing of heat in his ears the disturbance of a stranger's arrival. He could recognize the jabbering of a jaybird and the screech of a tightening plowshare, and all the other familiar sounds that came to him from miles around over the sandy plowlands, but it was hard for him to distinguish strange sounds in his own front yard.
"It can't be so doggone much of anybody," he said at last, opening his eyes wide. "If it is, he's way off his track, coming out here."
Clay continued to stare at the grim-looking man in the topless car, shaking his head bewilderedly. He could think of no man in the whole world who would come from that direction, and at that time of day, to see him. He had no money to buy anything with, and he had no money to pay on what he owed; it was just a waste of time for anybody to go to the bother of coming so far out of the way to see him.
Once more he strained his eyes to see, but there was no motion within sight to convince him that he was not dreaming over the pot of chicory he had drunk for breakfast that morning. There were no clouds in the pale blue sky, there was no breeze to stir the leaves on the magnolia tree, there was no motion in the endless gliding and wheeling of the buzzards overhead, and now the ramshackle automobile and dust-stained stranger were as inert as the row of sagging fence posts beside the road.
Clay tried once more to convince himself that what he thought he had seen was merely an illusion of heat and sand. He would have liked to pull his hat down over his eyes and take another short little snooze before suppertime, but when he tried it, the mirage refused to be swept away merely by the motion of pulling down the brim of his hat. He sat up, angry and nervous, and stared across the yard.
"It couldn't be so doggone much of anybody," he said, "or he wouldn't have shut off the engine before he turned in off the road. I never did see anybody that pinched the gas tank who was worth a doggone."
Nearly five minutes had passed when the motor suddenly started to run backward of its own accord. The dust-stained man in the car jumped, and sat stiff and erect, appearing as if he had been waiting for it to happen but had been caught off guard.
The backward-running engine began going faster and faster. When a car that has been driven in the heat without water in the radiator, and with not much oil in the crankcase, begins to wind up backward of its own accord after the switch has been turned off, a man never has to wait long to find out what is going to happen. When it sounded to Clay as though the whole machine would break down under the grinding vibration that shook it from fender to fender, the motor suddenly unwound itself with a whirr like the breaking of the mainspring in an alarm clock. It ended with an ear-splitting backfire in the shattered exhaust pipe.
When it was all over, the stranger relaxed. A dense cloud of nauseating black smoke billowed over the car for a moment and then floated towards the house.
The echo of the backfire had barely died out when a bevy of bluejays swept out of the woods in a flurry, chattering and hawking as if they had discovered a snake in a tree.
"I reckon I ought to go ask him what he wants," Clay said. "It looks like he aint got the sense to come in out of the heat of the day."
The wave of black smoke was beginning to disintegrate in the hot midday air, but the sickening odor hovered over the porch and began to drift through the open doors and windows of the house.
Clay jumped to his feet, upsetting his chair.
"Damn the man who'd drive right spang up to the front door and let loose a stink like that!" he said, wide awake at last. He began to feel sick in the pit of his stomach. "I've never been so doggone mad in all my life!"
He could bear it no longer. He leaned over the porch railing, pressing a thumb and forefinger against the sides of his nose, and blew with all his might. Even then he could still smell it; it was all the more sickening.
"Damn the man who'd do that right in the front yard," he said, shouting angrily at the tall leather-faced stranger.
Clay began beating against the post that held up the roof. He made so much noise, shaking the house with his hammering fists, that his wife came running through the hall to the door behind him.
"Who made that awful smell out here, Clay?" Dene asked haltingly. "It's the nastiest thing."
Clay pointed at the man getting out of the automobile under the magnolia tree.
Dene muttered something he could not understand and, holding her skirts to her knees, ran from the porch in wild-eyed fright.
Clay went down the steps into the yard. The man had got out and he was walking up and down in long strides, stretching his legs and stopping every few steps to shake one of his feet. The man's clothes were wrinkled and dust-stained. His leather-skinned face looked as if it had been sprayed with brown paint.
"My name's Semon Dye," he said, eying Clay from head to toe, but ignoring him as if he had been a stick of wood. "What's yours?"
He thrust out his hand at Clay, pushing it at him as though it were a pole wrapped in an old coat. Clay looked down at the hand, stepping back each time it was thrust closer. The hand followed him to the fence.
"I told you my name," Semon said. "Now, what's yours?"
Clay, his back against the fence post, looked at the big hand with its thumb sticking up like a nubbin of red corn.
"Me?" Clay said. "Why, I'm Clay Horey."
Semon seized his hand and shook it until Clay's arm felt numb.
"I'm mighty pleased to know you," Semon said, still shaking his hand. "I sure am pleased."
Semon dropped the hand, and it fell against Clay's thigh like a bag of buckshot.
Semon looked at the house and barn over Clay's shoulders, twisting his neck in order to see everything in sight.
"Nice-looking place you've got here," he said finally. "I used to own a fine farm myself, once."
He turned around and looked down the road towards the group of Negro cabins several hundred yards away. In front of the cabins stretched the cotton fields; behind them were the woods bordering the creek. Semon continued to look at the cabins.
"Hands?" he asked, opening his eyes wide and nodding his head slowly while he watched Clay's lips.
Clay nodded, following the motions of Semon's head, but catching himself in time to keep from opening his eyes as Semon did.
"Hardy and George are raising a little corn for me this year," Clay said. "They're out in the field somewhere now."
Semon turned once more and looked at the quarters. Clay followed his gaze, but he could see nothing down there to hold anybody's attention as it did Semon's.
While they waited and looked, a Negro girl came out of one of the cabins and went down the road.
Clay was still waiting for Semon Dye to state the nature of his business and to explain what he was doing out there. He was not accustomed to having strangers drive up and stop at his house, because the State road was eight or nine miles away, and the country road in front of the house led nowhere. It came to an end three miles up the creek in the middle of a canebrake.
Semon still did not offer to say what he was doing back there in the country.
"You're a long way from home, aint you?" Clay asked at last, unable to wait any longer.
"Yes and no," Semon said. "I am and I aint."
Semon jabbed his stiff thumb into Clay's left ribs, at the same time making a sucking sound with his lips that sounded as if he were calling a dog.
"Good God Almighty, man!" Clay shouted, jumping a foot into the air. "Don't never do that!"
"Ticklish?" Semon asked.
Clay regarded him carefully from the corner of his eye.
"No," he said, "but I just never could stand to be goosed."
"Some folks are like that," Semon said. "I reckon you must be one of them."
"That's how I figured it," Clay said, scowling, and rubbing his ribs. "I never thought I'd have to be told about it, though."
Semon laughed for the first time, and started to the house. He did not wait for Clay.
"It feels pretty good to be here, after riding like I have," Semon said. "The best part of it is in getting here in plenty of time for supper."
They were half way to the house. Clay ran up behind Semon and grabbed him by the coat tail.
"Now, wait a minute," Clay said threateningly, jerking Semon's coat excitedly. "Now, just hold on here a minute."
Semon shook him loose with a tug of his coat.
"Don't you dare lay hands on a man of God, Horey," he said sternly.
Clay stared up at the leather-colored face.
"You wouldn't happen to be a preacher, would you?" he asked, atremble, seeing for the first time the black dust-stained suit and hat and the stringy black bow tie.
"I am, I am," Semon stated, his brows dropping to a straight line across his face. "Don't you lay hands on a man of God, Horey. I am Semon Dye."
He reached forward to jab Clay with his stiff thumb, but Clay jumped beyond his reach.
"Well, then, that's all the difference in the world," Clay said, going ahead and leading the way to the porch. "That makes one hell of a difference, since you're Semon Dye. I did hear the name out there under the tree, but I didn't pay a bit of attention to it. I sure am glad you reminded me of it, too. I somehow got the notion in my head that you was a good-for-nothing rascal out for no good. But that makes all the difference in the world between me and you. You are as welcome as the day is long. I sure feel proud to have you. I sure do, even if I do say it myself."
Semon looked down upon him from his great height, smiling and nodding his head to show that he held no hard feelings.
"I'm mighty proud to see you come," Clay said. "Aiming to do some preaching around here somewhere?"
"Nothing else but," Semon said. He stopped and looked down the road again towards the Negro cabins. The girl had gone out of sight in a bend of the road. "Reckon you could fix me up for a spell, coz?"
"I'll do my doggone best," Clay said. "However, it's true that I ain't got much. Not much more'n you see right now."
"That's all right," Semon said, laying a hand on Clay's shoulders. "I aint used to a splurge, anyway, except when it comes to having a little fun with the girls and women. When a man feels the need of a little poontang to perk him up, he feels like making short shift with what satisfies ordinary people."
"Well," Clay said, "I don't know that I ought to say it, but—"
"Don't mistake me for kicking yet, coz," Semon said, patting his shoulder. "I've hardly had a chance to do any looking around so far."
"Well, it's just like I started out to say," Clay put in. "Maybe this aint exactly the place you aimed for, because to tell the truth—"
"Don't let that worry you, Horey. If I can't get the lay of the land by tomorrow morning, I'll just pack up and move on. I've been traveling and preaching almost all my life, and I can make hay where the next man can't see nothing but stony ground."
Clay shook his head, but pulled up a chair for Semon to sit down in.
"It's going to be pretty rough-going here," Clay said after thinking a while. "There hasn't been a preacher of count around here in I don't know how many years, maybe not for eight or ten of them. The last one I recall about said he did his damnedest, but it wasn't no use. He said when he left that the folks had gone too far to help any in this life."
"The sinfuller they are, the better I like it," Semon said, putting his feet on the railing and leaning back in the chair. "I came here to preach the wickedness out of you people, and what I start, I finish."
"You've got a pretty big order on your hands then. You don't know the people in Rocky Comfort like I do. I was born among them, and I'm still one of them. When it comes to being sinful, I don't know nobody else in Georgia that's in the running. That's God's own truth, if I do say it."
"That's because they've never had the voice of Semon Dye to scare the daylights out of their sinful natures," he said, shaking his head. "I've never had a single complaint in all my days of preaching. People all over say I sure know how to get the Devil's number, and I'll run the Devil out of this place, if I don't drop dead before I'm done."
Clay glanced at Semon's big hands and feet, and at the six feet and eight inches of him that had bent double in the middle when he propped his feet on the railing.
"I don't need preaching to as bad as some of the rest of them," Clay told him. "I'm proud to say that. I've been leading a right straight life for the past seven or eight months, or more. I've never been so doggone good in all my days before. I don't know what gets into me, at times. I just don't ache to be bad no more. I'd a heap rather sit here on my porch, through the spring and summer, than to go out and be bad."
"Everybody's wicked," Semon stated grimly.
"Everybody?" Clay asked, hesitating a moment. "You too?"
Semon laughed a little, mining towards Clay as though he was about to jab him in the ribs again. Clay moved his chair a few more inches.
"I'm Semon Dye," he said, suddenly becoming stern. "The Lord don't have to bother about me. He sort of gives me a free rein."
"I reckon that would come in handy at times," Clay said.
"Coz," Semon said, winking one of the slits in his leather-tight face, "you spoke a mouthful."
There was a noise of some kind just inside one of the windows. Both Semon and Clay turned around when they heard it.
"You don't live here all by yourself, do you, Horey?" he said.
"Not so you could notice it. I've got a wife inside the house, there. I reckon that was her making that noise we just heard. She's awful curious about strangers, but it's like dragging an ox by the tail to try to make her be sociable with somebody she never saw hair of before. We've been married now only since last fall. Dene's daddy took sick and died last November, and he didn't stay dead three days before me and her got married."
Semon nodded approvingly.
"And then there's that little Vearl around here somewhere. Vearl's my former wife's boy. He don't stay at the house, here, much. It looks like he'd rather stay down at the quarters with Susan and her raft of pickaninnies."
Semon nodded some more. He wet his lips with his tongue and dried them with the back of his hand.
"That's real fine, Horey. A man nowadays ought to have a wife. I always like to visit a man who's got a wife in the house. I never stay more than a day at a place where a man hasn't got a wife."
"I sure do like to just sit here and listen to you talk," Clay said. "You talk like a real smart man. I've heard folks say that Semon Dye was the smartest man in the whole country, but I never thought I'd live to see him ride up and stop at my house. And, come to think of it, I never ran across a man who'd ever even so much as seen Semon Dye. I've heard all kinds of tales about you, and I reckon now I'll have something to talk about, too. When they start talking about Semon Dye, I'll step right in and tell them a little something that they never heard about before."
There was a long pause. Clay was getting his breath back, and Semon was listening for sounds in the house.
"How old did you say your wife is, Horey?"
"That's funny," Clay said. "I didn't know as I'd told you her age."
"Well," Semon said, "being as how I'm going to put up here a while, I'd like to know what there is to know."
Excerpted from Journeyman by Erskine Caldwell. Copyright © 1935 Erskine Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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