The Black Pickup
I was freshly moved from South Jersey to the farm country of Ohio in the midst of a frozen February, 2012. I’d given up my job, my friends, my close proximity to New York City, to the shore, so that Lynn could have her dream job.
We had a big hundred-plus-year-old farmhouse out in the middle of nothing but corn and soybean fields. The property had a fruit-tree orchard, some land for a big garden, and a few acres of fields of to the side, separating us from the farm next door. There was a little shed just beyond the kitchen door and, at the end of a fifty-yard driveway, a big old hangar of a garage.
In the midst of winter, the place was desolate. ” The fields, as far as the eye could see, were a stubble of harvested stalks and perpetually overcast. Frigid wind sliced across the emptiness and late at night I sometimes heard whispering although everyone else was asleep.
Lynn was off at work all day, and I was home doing nothing. I was supposed to be writing, supposed to be searching online for another teaching gig. In fact, dozing was my thing. The place sapped my consciousness. Any task was too much for me except going to the kitchen to make sandwiches. ” The other thing I did a lot of was put my sweatshirt and coat on and go out on the porch to smoke a couple of cigarettes and stare off into the distance across the empty fields.
Eventually I ran out of cigarettes and had to get dressed like a human being, not just shorts and a T-shirt, and go out in the car. I remember that’s just what I did, actually happy to have a mission. It was around one in the afternoon. I pulled out of the driveway in my CRV and headed east. Town was eleven miles away, and to get there I had to take narrow, impossibly straight roads lined with telephone poles spaced out judiciously to mark infinity.
I rarely passed a car coming or going. The deep country was a place I’d always wanted to live until I actually did. “ere was a peregrine falcon on the telephone wire, and off across an empty field I saw the hunched forms of two coyotes. For some reason I looked up into my rear view mirror, and there was a black pickup truck right on my ass.
Tailgating wasn’t the word for it. I had no idea where it’d come from. I’m not a brave driver or a fast driver to begin with, and I was unfamiliar with the roads, which made me more leery. Besides there was still a rime of ice on the cracked asphalt from a snowstorm two days earlier.
I did what I always did when I encountered a sudden problem driving; I slammed on the brakes. Not a great idea. I don’t know how the truck didn’t hit me. The high beams flashed on and off and the horn blared. In my rearview mirror, I saw a hulking figure behind the wheel. My inclination was to give him the finger, but the last thing I needed was to be run off the road and beaten senseless by some corn-fed hodunk. I pulled slowly over to the side, and he flew past me, horn blaring. Once he was out of sight, I started again for town.
At the convenience store, I bought a couple of packs of butts and a twleve-pack of beer for that night. Driving down the main street, I looked around to see if the black truck was parked anywhere. The town is small, three tanning salons, a closed bank, a dive bar, a gas station, the convenience store, and a little park where they had a yearly ox roast that attracted more flies than people.
I looked everywhere for the truck. I’m not sure what I expected to do if I found it. Luckily, no luck. I headed back home, window cracked halfway, smoking a cig and daydreaming about breaking into the beers and smoking a joint on the porch that night. Every once in a while, I peered up at my rearview mirror just to see that the coast was clear,
I was about halfway home when off in the far distance of that long straight road I spotted a vehicle moving swiftly, gaining speed on me. “No way,” I said aloud and pushed down on the accelerator a bit. I looked up again to see if I could make out the model of car. It had drawn close enough for me to see that it wasn’t a car at all but a pickup truck. “Fuck,” I said, and in that instant it took for me to say it, it had become clear that not only was it a truck but it was a black truck.
He must have been doing 90 on that poopy country road. I pushed down on the gas, to my mind, recklessly, but as wild as I thought I was driving, I didn’t stand a chance of outpacing him. I looked at the speedometer and I was only doing 55. “Jesus,” I said, threw the butt out the window and closed it. I inched up to 60 mph but felt as if the car was getting out of control. “en the truck was right behind me, flashing its lights and beeping.
I pulled over at almost exactly the spot I’d pulled over on the way to town. My heart was pounding, and as I hit the brakes to coast to the side, the car wriggled erratically. A dark blur blew past me and I saw the guy in the driver’s seat. He stared over at me with a dull expression while chewing on a cigar that looked like a piece of black rope. One detail I caught as he whipped out of sight was that under his orange cap in the back, the hair had been shaved from his scalp behind his ear and there was a big white Frankenstein scar like his head had been stitched back on. It matched up somehow in my mind with the decal on his back window—a spear point with a sword in it and lightning bolts shooting across it like scars.
For the next few weeks, every time I left the house, I’d warily check my rearview mirror, and not once was it in vain. “at guy had to be spying on me. I asked the farmers on either side of my place if they knew who it was, describing the truck to them. Both of them more or less said the same thing, “Oh, yeah, that black truck, I’ve seen it before.”
I had no idea if it came from in the direction of town or west, where I pictured things were that much staler than where we lived. I asked around at the diner and convenience store if anybody recognized the vehicle. “en about three weeks after my first encounter with the pickup, I went out to get butts and couldn’t believe it when I’d made it all the way to Main Street in town without being tailgated. What a relief. The way back home, the same.
Days passed. A couple of weeks passed, and I saw neither hide nor hair of my nemesis. I figured he’d probably gotten fed up with me because I wasn’t about to race him, and I certainly wasn’t going to pull over and fight him. I could live with the shame.
A Cold Notion
The stories were starting to congeal between my ears, and I desperately needed some fresh air and exercise. I decided to hitch up the dog and drive over to this enormous piece of parkland not that far from our house. It was partially on the way to town but then a left and a trip down a two-mile straight road and then a right. The place was empty in the cold end of February. Sometimes, in the late afternoon, Fin the dog and I were the only ones there.
As much as I was down on Ohio, the landscape of this area was beautiful and varied. “ere was a lake that we could walk around; there was a place where they’d restored a few hundred acres to its original prairie state. “ere was a trail through the woods along a creek that as far as we’d followed it, it just kept on going. “Those walks did a lot to start to bring me around, and we went religiously, seeing as there was nothing else to do.
One gray afternoon, early in March, we went to the park as usual. It was still freezing, colder than it had been in days. We made our usual transit around the lake and were heading for the parking lot when, just before we left the trail, I thought I heard the sound of someone’s voice. Fin stopped short and peered down the embankment where it led through the trees to the lake. As I approached I heard the voice distinctly over the wind. I sidled up and looked down. The sight startled me. “There was a guy down there, his back to me. His head was cocked to the side like he might have known we were looking at him but he didn’t want to make full-on eye contact. He was talking to himself or praying or something, and then I saw the gun barrel next to his leg. He was holding a rifle.
I pulled Fin by the leash and double-timed it as fast as my bubble butt could carry me back to the parking lot. When I came through the trees and saw my car, I noticed the black pickup was parked a few spots over from it, the only two vehicles in the lot. We got in the car and split. As I pulled out of the lot, I saw the driver emerging from the woods. In my flight, I tried to identify him as the same guy who’d passed me on the road. For a moment, I was certain of it but grew less so the nearer I got to home.
Later it struck me that I might have smelled traces of that short black cigar on the breeze—an aroma somewhere between a horse blanket and the dark back part of a closet. The wind was blowing a clip that day, though, and I’m not sure the memory was real. Fin and I stayed away from the park for a few weeks, but eventually I really needed to get out, and the weather had gotten much nicer as spring came on.
With enough distance in time, I was willing to chalk up the driver with the gun as just a product of my paranoia. I wondered if that’s what I’d really seen. Most days I didn’t interact with anyone except Lynn when she got home late at night from work. Anyway, there were a lot of people at the park with the better weather, so Fin and I returned. It felt great to get back to walking, and there was no sign of the pickup on the road or in the parking lot.
All through the end of March and into April and May we traipsed every inch of that park, building strength and health. One afternoon, making our way through a light drizzle along the stream, deeper and deeper into the woods than we’d ever been before, we came upon something on the ground set off from the bank a few yards. I’d not have seen it if there hadn’t been at that bend a number of large, orange-hued toadstools dotting the ground. I followed them to where they were thickest, and there, in an obviously constructed stone circle, I found evidence of a recent fire.
At the center of the pile of blackened ash were the bones of some animal formed into a teepee with the skull, that of maybe a dog or fox or coyote, sitting atop the teepee point. Smoke still curled up through the empty eye holes. The smell was sharp and sent a cold notion creeping up my spine. A sacrifice? I wondered. Some kind of ritual? My ears did that prehistoric thing when suddenly they prick up to listen for trouble.
I spun slowly around and looked everywhere to see if someone was watching me. Fin whined a little and walked a circle around me as if to herd me back to moving. On the ground, just outside the ring of stones, I saw a few half-smoked black cigars. I don’t know why I did it, but before I left the scene, I stepped into the ring of stones and kicked over the bones and skull. They clattered in every direction. And then we ran along the stream. We saw no one. Upon our return home, I felt exhilarated. Something about my insinuating myself into the remains of that ritual site energized me. That night, for the first time since I’d moved to Ohio, I went back to writing.
Having grown up on Long Island and lived in Jersey, the kinds of rituals I was used to were coffee and cigarettes in the morning while reading the newspaper, going to the bar Friday nights. I’d never been part of anything where animals were being sacrificed and burned, unless you count my old man’s barbecues.
There was a large Pennsylvania Dutch influence in Ohio. More Amish settled in Ohio than in Pennsylvania. The “Dutch” part of the equation didn’t mean these folks were from Holland; it meant they were from Germany—Deutch. The language group was Low German and some of them practiced a kind of ritualistic magic tied to the earth. Much of it probably began as a pagan religion in Europe and then was subsumed by the coming of Christianity. I read up on hex magic.
Supposedly it still survived in the area from Pennsylvania throughout Ohio and into Indiana. It dealt with the elements, the weather, the power of the earth. “ere were entities that needed cajoling and adepts that needed consultation if you wanted to work a curse on someone or set a charm to help a friend out of a bind. I was surprised that so much of it still existed. It took a little looking, but I found a real hex doctor nearby and went to visit. My meeting with the old man wasn’t cheap. From what I’d read online he was the real deal, though.
Averal Braun lived two towns over, back in the woods in an old house you’d miss a hundred times driving by on the road. He gave me a whole protocol to follow before I came to see him, so that no evil spirits followed me or something like that. The acts I was to perform seemed ridiculous, and I was sworn not to discuss them.
I had a sit down with him for the better part of an hour on his screened-in porch. He was a hard guy to read—a strict demeanor when composed but easy to laugh. His hairdo was munchkinlike—tufts erupting from the top and sides of his head. He wore old-fashioned spectacles with round lenses and wire arms.
There were certain things I asked him that he said he couldn’t answer, but he was forthcoming as to a lot of the history of the rituals and tradition, the nature of some of the symbols used. He had a lot of great local stories from the time he was a boy and the magic was more widely practiced—a corrupt physician taken by a death fetch, a woman who burst into flames, talking animals, and love charms galore.
The one thing he was emphatic about was that I not dig too deeply into it. I told him I might want to use the subject of it in a story, and he said that would probably be OK, as long as I was vague and didn’t name names or give away spells. “You don’t want to anger someone who really knows what they’re doing with this, though,” he said and nodded slowly. His prominent Adam’s apple bobbed up and down like a third eye taking me in through a scrim of throat flesh.
“You know, Mr. Ford,” he said. “”There’s a big difference as to how the supernatural operates in storybooks and real life. You say you’re a writer.”
“In real life, the supernatural declines to explain. In fiction, it must. I’m not talking about sleight of hand by some clever magus. I mean events that are truly supernatural. In those cases, the storyline runs deeper than most are willing to dive.”
I came out with my story about the stone circle and the sacrificed animal. When I told him, the first thing he asked me is what kind of animal it was that had been killed. I told him either a fox, a dog, or a coyote, and then asked him if it made a difference. He shook his head and muttered “Nah,” although it was clear that it did. He had me tell him where precisely the stone circle had been in the woods, and I did my best. He seemed interested in the giant orange mushrooms that dotted the site.
“Do you have any enemies?” he asked.
“Not that I’m aware of. But I do have a hunch that the guy who killed that creature is the same guy who had been following me in his pickup truck.”
“You’d never seen him before?”
“Never saw him till that first day in February when I pulled out of my driveway. I hadn’t done anything to him.”
“Wait a second,” said the old man. “What do you mean by you hadn’t? Have you since?”
“Well, I scattered his bone pile, but . . .”
I quit talking because Braun took a comb out of the pocket of his flannel shirt and slapped it three times against the back of his left wrist. “Listen, Mr. Ford,” he said. “You can’t think of those operating in spellwork and Pow-Wow as if they’re tied to the regular passage of time or its perceived effects. You understand?”
He put the comb back in his shirt pocket, clapped his hands, and pointed at me. “You got it.”
“So he might have been harassing me on the road because I wrecked his bone pile, even though my wrecking the bone pile came after his harassing me?”
Braun nodded. “But you know, it could all mean something else entirely. It could have to do with something that hasn’t even happened yet. Speak no more about it now. Take this,” he said and handed me an everyday object (he said if I told anyone about it, it’d lose its power to protect me). “Keep that on you all the time. Go home now and don’t be thinking about Pow-Wow for a while. Write about something else. I got a protection charm at work. Be wary of anyone who seems cockeyed to you. Don’t have any business with them. I’ll send somebody by to check up on you in a while. A day might come, after this is resolved, when you’ll realize what it was about. “The pieces will fly together.”
Of course I was more intrigued than ever, but the old guy scared the crap out of me. I was about as fearless against the supernatural as I was driving over fifty. I kept the whole thing out of my mind and wrote a story set in Japan. Half the time I thought Braun was pulling my leg, but still, when I’d get up in the middle of the night to take a piss, I’d peer out the bedroom window to see if the black truck was parked in front of the house. I wanted to tell Lynn, but I was sworn to secrecy, and the whole thing was just getting way too complicated to describe.
Stranger in the Orchard
I had story deadlines, and I’d picked up a few classes a semester at a liberal arts university about forty-five minutes away. Life was starting to fill up with Ohio. I didn’t have much time for the park, but when Fin and I did go we’d stay away from the creek through the woods and stick to the lake or prairie. It was mid-July, still and hot, and I didn’t give a damn about hexes and spells; I was too busy praying that the air conditioner would keep running till October.
Off from teaching, I consumed a lot of wine by moonlight on the porch. I’d sit out there with Lynn and a couple of bottles, a candle going, watching the fireflies across the field next to the house. She usually fell asleep somewhere around 11:00, and I’d wake her to go up to bed, and then I’d sit there and rock and smoke and drink into the following morning. The sunrises, I heard, were beautiful, and Lynn would send me photos of the dawn she’d snapped before heading out to work, but I never witnessed one as I’d usually climbed into bed just as the birds began to sing. The clouds of the afternoon were towering palaces of cotton, ships heading out to sea.
On a Monday afternoon in late July, I was sitting out in the orchard. There was a warm breeze blowing across the fields and filtering into shadows beneath the trees. “ere were trace scents of apple and pear. I could see the clear blue sky through the leaves and hear the insects in the garden. I had my iPad on a stand and a keyboard and was writing a story about a local museum I’d recently visited.
The hair on the back of my neck stood up and the goosebumps gave me a shiver. I turned around in my chair and looked behind me. “ere stood a tall young woman with bangs, mid-length hair, and a jaw as wide as my forehead. She was dressed in some old-time pink dress as if fashioned from a cotton feed sack.
“Well?” I said. I looked at Fin, who was standing there quietly sniffing her shoes, and thought thanks for the warning, buddy.
She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose with her free hand. In the other was a metal detector and a metal shovel. “Hello, sir. Sorry to bother you. My name is Sylvia Benet, and I’m a graduate history student at Ohio State University. I’m involved in a project where we are going to some of the older properties in the area and doing shallow metal searches for everyday objects of the past, old coins, etc.”
“You want to look around in my yard?”
“This place has been here a hundred years, am I correct?” she asked.
“Over a hundred,” I said. “Go ahead and look around.”
“I’ll let you know if I find anything.” Fin followed behind her as she headed for the side of the house.
A while had passed and I’d given myself back up to the writing when I felt her behind me again. I turned and she stepped forward. It was as if she’d have stood there all day waiting if I’d decided not to turn. She didn’t have her equipment with her but she held a strange object in her hand.
“Look what I found out in the middle of the field,” she said. She laid what looked like a tree root on the table next to the keyboard. It was splayed at the bottom into a Y, and at the other end there was a bulbous knot with crude facial features etched into it and rusted metal screws for eyes. “It was the screws that let me pick it up on the detector.”
“What the hell is it?” I asked.
“Some kind of homemade doll,” she said.
“You know, that tree in the corner of your property,” she said and pointed off beyond the garage.
“The white oak?” I asked.
“Yes. “at’s a very famous landmark around here, or at least it was back in the day. It’s a stunning tree.”
“A landmark?” I said.
“A landmark and also involved in more than one local legend.”
“Sometimes I just find myself sitting on the porch staring at it,” I told her.
“Well, sorry to bother you. Just thought I’d bring that for you to see. I’m going to finish up in the front by the porch and then be on my way.”
“You’ll let me know if you find anything else?” I asked, but she’d already started away and I’d spoken too softly for her to hear.
I held the tree-root doll in my hands and stared out through the trees at the cornfields beyond our garden. I watched the breeze move through them while I wondered about the origins of the root. I’m not sure how long I sat like that, but eventually I put the thing aside and got back to work. I’d decided if the girl wanted to take the thing with her for school, I’d say yes.
An hour passed, and when next I looked up, I noticed that the sky had darkened considerably and that the breeze had become a wind. The storm was moving in from the west, which was the usual direction for bad weather. I knew the rain would begin to fall in seconds. I picked up my iPad and keyboard and stand, the root doll, and headed for the house. Fin was at my heels, and he barked. We made our way to the porch at the side of the house, where I set everything down on a small table and then sat and lit a cigarette.
It only struck me then that I’d not seen the student again. I got up and made my way around the porch to the front of the house. She was nowhere in sight and her car was gone. “Oh, well,” I said to Fin and returned to my seat and my cigarettes. I looked across the field at the white oak. Sometimes at night, after a few wines, I could literally feel that tree breathing. Now, with the doll, obviously fashioned from an oak root, I could feel it thinking.
That night, on the porch, when I showed the doll to Lynn, she said, “That’s weird.”
“Get rid of it.”
“Throw it in the back by the cornfield, where the compost heap is. You know, the Christmas tree graveyard back there.” “You want me to just leave it there? Lurking?”
Lynn drank her wine and shut her eyes, leaning back onto her chair. “ere was an owl calling from the north, off in the windbreak amidst the sea of corn. “We’ll have to burn it,” she said.
The very next day, after a solid morning of writing, I decided in the late afternoon to cook an early dinner. Lynn wouldn’t return till late and would already have eaten, so why wait? I fixed up a chicken and stuck it in the oven to bake. While it cooked, I sat at the counter in the kitchen reading Basho and there was a knock. Fin barked like mad. I shu’ed over to the door in my bare feet and opened it. “ere was a man and woman standing on the porch. He was in his early seventies, I’d say—a shorter, rounded fellow with white hair, big lips, and a hat. She was a very tall woman with a coat and purse from my mother’s era.
They were from around the bend, from a church over there. I missed whatever denomination it was. I don’t think it was Baptist nor Mennonite, some Christian deal I’d never heard of. Anyway, they were very nice. We stood on the porch and chatted. I explained to them that I really appreciated them coming by but that I wasn’t very religious.
“That’s a shame,” said the guy. “We were hoping you’d come over and visit.”
“Thanks,” I said, “but I don’t think so.” I tried to smile.
“The reason it’s too bad,” said the preacher’s wife, “is we’ve got an opening for someone right now. “at doesn’t happen as often as you think.”
“What do you mean, an opening?”
“A spot,” said the preacher. “Last week this young guy who was part of the parish got himself killed in a car wreck over on the back way to town. He was run off into a ditch by a guy in a pickup.”
I was slightly stunned by how enamored they’d thought I’d be of the concept of their having a “spot” for me, not to mention the surprise news of the pickup. I was struck silent.
Finally, after waiting for me to respond, the preacher said, “The cops got the driver of the truck. Oh, yeah, he’s going to jail, but we’ve got a place for you among us.”
“Was it a black pickup?” I asked.
“They both nodded.
It took me a while to unload them off the porch. I endured the whole thing out of respect for their reaching out, although I found their offer, to say the least, kind of spooky. I let these concerns slip away because I had to wrap my imagination simultaneously around the fact that the black pickup had recently been hunting, and the fact that the infernal driver was now behind bars, which was a relief.
As the old couple stepped off the bottom step of the porch, she turned back and said, “”The young man, from our church who passed away, he grew up as a child in your house.”
“Grew up here?” I said and for some reason pointed at the boards of the porch.
They didn’t answer, and they didn’t look back. “They got into a midsized, older-model sedan, pulled out of the driveway, and were gone. My chicken was burned, and the oak doll was missing from the table on the porch when Lynn and I stepped out for wine later that evening. “ere was no possible other explanation but that the pastor and his wife took off with the thing. I told Lynn and she said, “Let them have it. At least we’re rid of it.”
I got a gig doing a reading in New York City; a decent reason for escaping the cornfields and hitting the road. I decided not to take a flight but to drive to South Jersey, park the car at the Hamilton train station in the overnight lot, and get a room in the city for a few days. I figured not spending for a plane ticket would offset the expense of a hotel in the Rotten Apple.
Lynn was glad to see me get out of the house and encouraged the trip. The drive to Jersey wasn’t bad. Along the way I listened to a book on tape about the making of Orson Welles’s last, nevershown film, “The Other Side of the Wind. I spent a night with my painter friend, Barney, down in Dividing Creek in South Jersey, and then stayed a night with some old neighbors who lived closer to the train station. The next morning, before sunrise, I took off for New York. I stowed my car in the parking garage and was on my way.
The place I’d booked in NYC was as cheap as I could get it—less than 200 bucks. The room was made for some smaller race of people. I had to sidle around the bed, which took up the majority of the room, stand sideways in the shower, and sort of hover over the bowl to take a shit. At some point in the middle of each of the three long nights I stayed in that room, I woke in a sweat, choking. Each time I managed to calm down and take hold of myself. The good part was that I was so busy I only inhabited the miserable hovel for a few hours per night. I had lunches with editors and my agent and saw old friends. I made visits to a few of my favorite restaurants and museums.
The evening of the reading, the last night I’d be in the city, I had an early dinner and some drinks at the B Bar on East 4th Street. The place I had to read was up 4th a few blocks, so it was convenient, plus the B Bar, at the time, had a spot outside, a patio where you could still smoke. I had a salad and a beer by myself out there on a beautiful summer evening. My manuscript was on the table, and I leisurely went through it. All was well, and I was actually looking forward to heading back to Ohio the next day.
Just as I checked my watch and saw that I only had a half hour before I’d have to head up the street to the KGB Bar, someone stepped up to my table and put their hand out as if to shake. I looked up, confused, and took in the person’s face. Still, out of politeness I shook hands.
“Can I help you?” I said.
“The stranger, a guy of about my age with a beard and salt and pepper, hair pulled the empty seat out across from me and sat down. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m getting old.” But his face wasn’t familiar in the least.
“Binghamton University,” he said, and I nodded. I had attended undergraduate and graduate school there. I shifted my thinking.
“Writing workshop with Gardner.”
That was a class and professor I’d had.
“Oh fuck it, Jeff,” he said. “Toby Madduc.”
“The name was familiar to me, and now that it had been said, I did recognize the face, although, I suppose much like mine, it had gone through the fun-house mirror of time.
“Toby,” I said. “What the hell. I’m so sorry I didn’t recognize you. You actually are looking great.”
“Oh, fuck, no I’m not,” he said. “The waitress passed by and he turned to order us beers.
“What have you been up to?” I asked.
“Just working. But hey, I’ve seen what you’ve been up to. I’ve read all your books and story collections, seen the reviews in the Times, the LA Times, the Washington Post. Awesome. You’re famous.” He smiled, and I couldn’t tell if he was being genuine or breaking my balls.
“Yeah,” I said, “that fame is a relative term. What are you doing?”
“I’m working on Wall Street. You know, I pull in a ton of dough and I’m depressed.” He laughed.
“Did you keep up with the writing at all?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“The waitress brought the beers. I told him that I’d moved out to Ohio so my wife could get a job she wanted. When he asked what it was like, I said, “Slow as shit. Otherwise, we’re out in the country, which is different.”
“I’m living in Brooklyn Heights,” he said.
I told him that I had to get going because the reading would start in about twenty minutes. He said, “I can’t make it, I’m sorry. Would love to see you read a story. It’s great to know someone actually got published from that workshop. I’ll tell you what, give me the address of the hotel you’re staying at. I’ll come by late. I gotta go back up to midtown for a meeting with a friend around 11 p.m. I’ll stop by your hotel and get you.”
I half-heartedly tried to beg off. “I have to split back to Ohio tomorrow,” I told him.
“Listen, bud, this woman I’m meeting later is none other than the fiction editor at the New Yorker.”
“Get the fuck out of here,” I said.
“I’m her broker. You gotta come and meet her.”
“I’m pretty sure the fiction editor at the New Yorker has no interest in meeting me.”
“Trust me, she’ll be into it. I’m telling you. She likes all that speculative crap. Really, you should come. She’s a million cracks.”
As I wrote out the address of my hotel on the back of a matchbook, I asked him, so what’s this editor’s name?”
“You mean you’ve never heard of Deb Tresnum?”
I thought for a moment but had to eventually admit I hadn’t and shook my head.
“There’s only one thing a little freaky about her,” he said. “She can’t blink. She’s got some medical condition that prevents her from blinking. Once an hour, she’s gotta put drops in her eyes.”
“Sounds bleak,” I said.
“Well, it’s a little unnerving, but, like I said, she’s smooth.”
I made it to the KGB with a few minutes to spare and sat on the steps outside smoking a cigarette before heading up the long flight of stairs that led to the bar. While I was sitting there, relaxing, I tried to dredge up some memories of Toby from college. I really didn’t remember much about him. What I recalled was his presence on the periphery of parties we’d have, or I could clearly see him reading a story in the workshop. Otherwise, all was unclear. While I had a moment, I took out my phone and texted Barney, whom I’d just stayed with down along the Delaware River. The reason I thought of him was because he’d been in that same fiction workshop in college. I thought maybe he could jog my memory. I left him a quick message on his phone as to where I was and who I’d met.
The reading went off great. I read with a younger writer. He went first, there was a short break, and then I went. “ere was a good crowd and they seemed to like our stories. I saw a lot of my friends from New York City there. Afterward a bunch of us went out to dinner at a Greek place. I did a lot of drinking—much more than I usually do. Luckily, I kept my wits about me so as to have enough for cab fare on the way back to the hotel. That party broke up around 11. I caught a cab, but when he dropped me off at the Lilliputian Hotel, the driver charged me much more than I thought was right. I thought that fare should have been ten at best, with a tip, but this worked out to a solid fifteen dollars. For a second I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to pay it. The guy didn’t take a card. Then I remembered I had a five dollar bill folded four times and stuck into the corner of a secret compartment of my wallet. I was relieved as hell to find it, and being loaded, didn’t think twice about using it.
Back in my room, I sat on the bed and stared out the window at the city lights. Something was bothering me. I wasn’t so drunk as to feel sick, and my high was starting slowly to wear off. I took my wallet out and opened it and stared into the empty spot where the five had been. It was then that I realized that the meticulously folded five spot had been the protective charm given to me by Averal Braun, the hex doctor. I felt a distinct sinking feeling in my gut and was short of breath. My phone dinged, and I dug it out of my pocket. “ere was a message from Barney. It read—“Tried to call, no answer. What are you talking about? Toby died during 9/11.” Right then, there was a pounding at my room door. I trembled, my mouth went dry, and I could feel my heart chugging.
“Ford, are you in there?” I heard Toby’s voice, but now it was a little harsher, a little darker.
The pounding continued, the calling of my name. He got angrier and angrier each time. But I sat where I was, in the dark, my fists clenched, my eyes squeezed shut, and my mind telling me none of this could possibly be happening. “at was one morning I did see the dawn.
Summer faded, and I willingly turned the air-conditioning off in the second week of October. No more sweating, no more slapping the annoying flies out on the porch. A beautiful wind had come up one night, and I was charmed by the sound of it rattling the dead leaves in the trees. Sitting on the porch alone, a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, Lynn having gone off to bed, I sipped my wine and listened to the ocean-breaker sound the brown foliage in the giant white oak made across the field.
I closed my eyes and rocked and began to doze, when from out in the night there came this horrible raspy moan. I stopped rocking. “The cry came again, sounding as if whatever made it was lurking behind the garage. Fin stood up and went to the porch steps as if intending to investigate. I called him to me, and he came and sat next to the rocker. “The sound came a third time, and it was loud and hellish like the devil was choking on a sinner’s blood. “at’s exactly the image it conjured in my mind.
I was afraid to get up, afraid to make any movement that might draw it to me. I sat in silence for a minute or so and the night was still again. I thought perhaps the creature had moved off, but then I became concerned because if it moved from behind the garage, my question was, “Where did it move to?” I slowly stood from the rocker and listened intently. Another growl erupted suddenly, and I tossed the blanket back on the chair and ran for the porch door. I was inside in a second. Fin followed me. I slammed it shut. “What the fuck?” I said to the dog.
“The very next morning, the cop cars came streaming down the road past the house. It was unusual in that you hardly saw any cars at all on that road, let alone five state troopers. Later, when I went out for cigarettes, I saw that one of the black cars was parked midway down the road at the turnoff for the back way toward town. An officer with a bald head and sunglasses was standing at the corner, holding a shotgun. I stopped and asked him what was going on. As he approached my car, I saw down the two mile stretch of road ahead that there was a trooper car there too with two officers out of the vehicle, one on either side of the road.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“The cop said, “”They had a detail of prisoners out on the side of Rt. 70 cleaning up this morning and one of them made a break. We’re pretty sure he’s held up in one of these cornfields around here. You live up the road?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Keep your doors locked and give us a call if you notice anything.”
“Will do,” I said. “Thanks for the rundown.”
“We’ll catch him,” said the cop.
Famous last words, ’cause they didn’t catch him. By the next afternoon, the story of the runaway convict was all over the local news and had made it to CNN online. “ere were cop cars all over the roads between the fields—sheriff’s department, U.S. Marshals, local town cops, state troopers. When I went out for butts, I saw they had tracking dogs they were leading into the cornfields. “ere was a helicopter circling about. What I learned on the radio was that the convict had been in the army special forces and had training to survive outside on his own, and that’s why the authorities were having such a hard time getting him. He knew how to throw the dogs off or hide in culverts, stay ahead of his pursuers. “They believed he was still right in our general area. For all I knew, he could have been holed up in the old shed in our yard.
There was a week and a half before the corn would come down, and if they didn’t have him by then, they’d have to get him as there’d be no place left to hide. I sat in the back in the cool weather, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, writing at my little table in the orchard. Every once and a while, I’d look up and out across the cornfield beyond our property to see if there was anything large moving through the rows. The corn had all gone utterly brown and almost clacked together in the wind it was so dry. Since it was feed corn and corn for industry, the farmers waited till absolutely all of the sugar had been drained from the plant into the ears.
I wasn’t fearful about the convict—that is until one day when my son and his girlfriend came over to visit. We sat on the porch and drank coffee, and Brianna, Jack’s girlfriend, who’d grown up in town, told me that she knew the guy who had escaped into the cornfields. She was in the high school class just a year later than his.
“He was always a crazy fucker,” she said.
“You mean that guy was from around here?” I asked.
“Oh yeah. Jem Nelson.”
“A bad character?” I asked.
“Not so much bad as just weird. A loner. He finally went away and joined the army. He was over in Afghanistan, sneaking around and cutting throats. What do they call it, a ranger or Special Forces? He came back and never really fit in. “en they arrested him a little while ago for killing some guy back on Morgan Road. He was loaded or high on something and he drove the guy off the road with his truck.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Are you talking about a black pickup truck?”
“Yeah, that guy,” said Brianna and laughed. “Did you ever get in front of him on the road?”
Later on, when Jack and Brianna went back to their apartment in town, I went around and locked all the doors and windows. Lynn was away on a business trip and was due to be gone all week. I was petrified that Jem Nelson would surface in the backyard and try to force his way into the house at night. He already seemed to have something against me, or something had something against me. Trying to sort out the threads of magic and hex and plain old madness was impossible. I kept a big butcher knife, sort of like a kitchen machete, handy whenever I had to go out at night to take a bag of garbage to the can. I stayed off the porch, and when it was time for Fin to go out for a piss at the end of the night, I put him on the chain so he couldn’t go too far.
Eventually the harvest started, and the farmers began dismantling the rows of corn. Over a period of a few days the vast fields were mowed and all of the bounty of the summer months was stored away. The cops were on hand for the entire thing, dogs at the ready to give chase when Jem Nelson lost his cover and ran for it. “he U.S. Marshals went door to door and checked everyone’s outbuildings and sheds. To my surprise and theirs, they never found the guy. In my garage as well as the one next door and one around the corner owned by the Mennonites, they did find evidence that he’d probably stayed in those structures during the colder nights of the manhunt. “The officers showed me there was a dead animal in the back of my garage. “They pulled it out and laid it on the ground. It was a red fox.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Why would he leave that in my garage?”
“You can’t eat the animal. Well, you can, but you’ve got to marinate it for a long time and it is really gamey and tough eating. And you’ve got to boil it extensively. But you can eat the tongue after cooking it over a direct flame for a few minutes,” said the officer. “And that’s what he did here,” he said, pointing at the dead animal. Its coat was beautiful and its tail fluffy. Nelson had used some of my old manuscript pages he’d dug out of a box to start the fire he used to cook it.
“It’s a little sustenance, and a little sustenance goes a long way when you’re on the lam,” said the Marshal.
“Seems a horrible waste,” I said. “So where is he now?”
“Most of the fields are down, and he’s not been spotted from the helicopter. We’ve checked pretty much every building he could possibly be holed up in. I guess he slipped the net and has moved on. We’ll get him eventually.”
But they never did.
The fact that he had been in the garage freaked me more than a little. A few days after the police had given up the stakeout, I was out there straightening things up in the spot where the escapee had hidden. On the concrete floor, between two boxes, I found the root figure the history student had dug up over the summer. I had no idea how it had gotten there. I tried to wonder what path it had taken to find its way to my garage, but every avenue I daydreamed boggled my mind beyond comprehension. The night before Lynn got back, I burned the little effigy. It snap, crackled, popped, and I made sure it turned to ash. On a night of a full moon and Venus glowing brightly on the horizon, I buried the ashes out amid the roots of the white oak.
“Five-Pointed Spell” © 2017 Jeffrey Ford. Originally published in Horror Library #6. Excerpted with permission of the author of Big Dark Hole, published on July 6, 2021, by Small Beer Press.