Devil’s Elbow, Kentucky: July 3, 1971
Mark Spencer’s most recent novel is Ghost Walking. He is also the author of the novels The Masked Demon, The Weary Motel, and Love and Reruns in Adams County, as well as the nonfiction bestseller A Haunted Love Story: The Ghosts of the Allen House and the short story collections Wedlock and Trespassers. His work has received the Faulkner Society Faulkner Award for the Short Novel, the Omaha Prize for the Novel, the Bradshaw Book Award, the St. Andrews Press Short Fiction Prize, and four Special Mentions in Pushcart Prize: the Best of the Small Presses. He teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas at Monticello, where he is also the Dean of the School of Arts and Humanities.
“I think science has a chance in our lifetime to conquer death. I think it’s very possible.”—Jim Morrison
His heart and head pounding, heat waves swimming up from the tarry asphalt, the boy ran up Devil’s Elbow Road to old man Lloyd’s Texaco station. Lloyd took his eyes off the numbers rolling on the gas pump just long enough to stab the boy with his mean-old-man eyes.
The boy was trembling. His lungs were on fire.
A stranger, a man in a black suit, was arguing with Lloyd.
“You can’t say that. You can’t say that, my friend!” This stranger was shaking his head and waving his arms. “You have misperceived me. I have dedicated my life to guiding my flock down the path of righteousness.”
Lloyd spit a brown puddle of tobacco juice onto the cracked asphalt, and in the blazing sun it turned to blood. “Path to your pockets, Preacher Man. You drivin’ a new Buick Riviera, for Christ’s sake. . . . Flock of chickens.”
“You surely believe in our Lord, my friend. None enter His kingdom but by His way. Surely, my friend, you know of The Way!”
The boy was working his mouth hopelessly, his throat raw and burning. His chest heaved. Sweat stung his eyes.
The preacher’s face was deeply lined, his dark eyes intense and distressed, his hair white as whole milk. His liver-spotted hands waved as he spouted a few Bible verses the boy vaguely recognized from when he and his mama used to go to church—years ago.
Lloyd hung the gas nozzle back on the pump with a clank and then spit loudly. “The way I see it, ain’t nothin’ but misery.”
The preacher spread his arms wide. “The Lord saves, protects, and loves! Mark my words, friend, there is a God . . . and there is a devil.”
Lloyd glared before muttering, “Then the devil—” Finally, the boy released a wail. Long and high-pitched, it carried over the hills and across the river.
The men gawked. The preacher said, “This boy retarded? Poor child—”
The boy thumped his chest with his fist, and words finally came: “Church . . . bus . . . river.”
Lloyd said, “Give me that again.”
“The frog . . . bus.” He was trembling a little less now. He wiped sweat from his eyes with his forearm, rubbed his palms on his jeans.
The preacher said, “From the F.R.G Bible school? What about it?”
“It went over the Goddamn cliff. At that big curve . . . that hangs over the river. The bus . . . is in the river!”
Lloyd’s eyes got big. “Jesus Christ!”
“The driver . . . he jumped out before. . . . He’s layin’ in the weeds. . . . There’s blood. . . .” The world wobbled, and the boy swayed. The two men stood frozen, their mouths hanging open.
“This ain’t some prank, boy?” Lloyd said, his dark eyes squinted, his gray eyebrows wildly bushy.
The boy flung his arms up as though he were going to take flight like Superman on TV. “I watched the Goddamn bus sink in the Goddamn Ohio River!” Black stars exploded before his eyes. He swayed again.
Softly this time, Lloyd said, “Jesus Christ.”
The preacher looked at an oil stain on the ground. “I just blessed those children.”
Lloyd gave the preacher a scarlet look. “A lot of good—”
“Somebody’s got to help ‘em,” the boy said.
Lloyd’s look turned to wonder. “Help ‘em? They’re all dead, boy,”
The boy’s mouth worked helplessly, then, “But the driver!”
Lloyd’s head bobbed. “Life squad from Manchester would diddle all day gettin’ here. We’ll put him in my pick-up.” His scrawny body moved jerkily like a marionette. The three of them climbed into the cab of Lloyd’s ‘39 Studebaker two-ton with the boy in the middle.
The truck exploded to life with loud clanks and black smoke, and they roared down the winding, tree-lined, crumbling road at a speed that terrified the boy, passing through alternating patches of bright sunlight and deep shadow. The boy’s fishing pole lay in the middle of the road where he had dropped it when the church bus blazed past him. Lloyd’s truck snapped it like a twig.
They approached the curve so fast the boy imagined them sailing right off the cliff like the bus, but they skidded to a stop at the height of the curve, the smell of burning rubber pungent. They climbed out, and the boy leapt into the weeds but stopped dead still when he saw the bus driver. The skinny teenager who had been driving the bus had turned over onto his back. His arms were flung wide, and he stared straight into the noon sun. His mouth hung open. He wasn’t much older than the boy, and he had buckteeth. The preacher came up, caught his breath, and then started muttering a prayer.
Lloyd muttered, “Perkins boy. This will kill his ma and pa.”
Then his old face crumpled. He spun away, dropped to his knees, and started sobbing. The boy had heard people say Lloyd used to be a jolly fat man, like Santa Claus, before his son died in a car wreck there on Devil’s Elbow Road.
The boy stepped over to the edge of the cliff. The drop was about three hundred feet. The river sparkled in the scorching sun. In the distance, a tugboat moved toward Cincinnati. There was no sign of the bus. The river had swallowed it whole.
He thought about Kathy Mayhew, who was on the bus. She had been in his ninth-grade English class the year before, and he had sat behind her, studying the back of her blonde head and smelling her girl smell. She reminded him of the actress who played Jan on The Brady Bunch.
Everything was quiet except for Lloyd’s sobs and the preacher’s soft prayers. The boy kept staring down into the river far below. He swayed between his heels and his toes, staring, waiting for something or someone to appear on the water. He leaned too far forward and barely caught himself.
He looked around when he heard the truck start up. Lloyd shifted gears too slowly for the speed of his ascent back toward the garage, and the transmission whined like an old dog at the moon.
The preacher came up next to the boy and put his hand on his shoulder lightly. “Let’s walk down. See what we can do at the river.”
The boy gave him a look of amazement. See what we can do . . .
Sweat rolled down the preacher’s bright pink face.
See what we can do . . .
The boy wanted to go home and cry in his mama’s arms, but he was fifteen years old.
The long-legged preacher walked fast, like a man with a purpose. The boy shambled along, barely keeping up.
# # #
Near the bottom of the hill—the tail of Devil’s Elbow Road—they came to Kathy Mayhew’s house. It was a small clapboard house with dark-green paint flaking off to reveal an old coat of yellow.
A stout woman in a long gray dress and with her hair pulled into a tight bun came out onto the porch and looked up and down the road. She gripped the porch rail and frowned. She didn’t acknowledge the boy or the preacher as they walked by.
# # #
A clump of trees separated River Road from the Ohio River. The preacher and the boy pushed through the trees and came out on the brown, trash-strewn river bank. Scummy, mossy, fishy smells were thick in the humid air. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed.
The preacher and the boy gazed up at the cliff above and then out at the river. Small items had started to appear on the surface of the water. A pad of yellow paper. A small white purse. A black sneaker. A pair of horn-rimmed eyeglasses. And a dozen pocket-sized Bibles. Red.
These things floated serenely under the brutal sun.
Then the boy saw something very small floating toward him.
He reached down and picked it up. A daisy.
He had seen it in Kathy Mayhew’s hair as the bus flew past him, its exhaust fumes filling his lungs, its creaking and roaring and the screams of its passengers filling his ears. All those kids framed by the open bus windows were a blur, except for Kathy Mayhew. His mind had taken a snapshot of her like one of those photo-finish pictures at the racetrack in Lexington. The daisy was just above her ear.
He noticed he had blood on the tips of his fingers. The bus driver’s. He had touched him and talked to him, telling him how everything was going to be okay. He had barely said a half dozen words to Kathy the whole time he knew her. He had certainly never touched her.
The preacher was staring at the river. The boy said, “Shouldn’t we call the highway patrol or the county sheriff or . . . ?”
“Oh, we’re going to call somebody,” the preacher said as though he were angry and marched into the river until he was waist deep.
He spread his arms wide, palms up, and lifted his face to the merciless sun. The boy couldn’t hear everything the preacher was saying at first, but his voice grew stronger, and the boy heard, “Shift the earth and time to mock Mephistopheles!”
The preacher moved farther into the river until it was at his chest.
# # #
A state trooper materialized out of thin air, standing close to the boy and looking him up and down. Then the trooper looked out to the preacher.
“What you got there?” he asked.
“Got?” The boy thought he was asking about the preacher.
“In your hand.”
“Nothin’.” The boy opened his hand and showed him the daisy.
The man glanced at it, then back to the preacher. “We got a call about a bus going in the river from up there.” He jerked his long chin at the cliff.
“Lloyd called you?”
“Said a boy saw it. You?”
The trooper nodded at the preacher. “Who’s that?”
“He was visiting the Frogs.”
“It’s a church here. In Elbow. Frogs. F.R.G. Church.”
The trooper kept frowning at the boy.
“Friends and Revelers of God.”
# # #
Another trooper arrived. Then a river patrol boat with two men in it.
As the sun had moved and dropped, the preacher had shifted his position, and his profile became a black silhouette against the sun, and the sun’s rays behind him seemed to radiate from him, as though the pores of his skin and the fabric of his suit shot forth beams of light.
His voice wafted over the water. “Undo the horrors of the day, oh Lord, or the devil dances with glee.” The preacher stood in the water rigid. Only his jaw moved. Sweat poured from his face, the redness of it deepening, all of him radiant with the spectrum of the rainbow, but he mostly seemed golden.
At first, the boy thought the preacher was crazy, but the longer the old man stood there, begging God, the boy became more and more amazed at the fact that the preacher really did expect something to happen. The boy wanted to warn him that his mama always said a person could go blind staring into the sun, but the man was old and a preacher, and the boy thought, Maybe he knows what he’s doing.
# # #
A second river patrol boat arrived, and the men in the boats peered into the water out under the cliff and scooped up the floating Bibles.
The preacher stood stock still in the river, only his jaw moving. “I will not abide, Lord! The devil shall not win this day! Strike me dead but I will not abide!”
The first breeze of the day started blowing. Then tree limbs shook. Trash along the weedy bank skittered away.
The boy started looking back and forth between the sun and the preacher and between the preacher and the patrol boats and between the boats and up at the cliff, and he shivered in the stifling heat.
And he started to expect something to happen.
Maybe the church bus would rise up out of the river, float on the water, drift to shore, and all those kids would jump off whooping and hollering with the excitement of their adventure.
Or maybe God’s giant hand would reach down from the sky and pull the bus from the river. And his giant finger would tap the chest of each limp kid on the bus. . . .
Or maybe the earth would spin backwards, and the boats would disappear, and the troopers would vanish, and the boy would be back up on Devil’s Elbow Road with his fishing pole on his shoulder, and the bus would lumber past as it had the other days that summer as he made his way to the river in hopes of catching a catfish for his and his mama’s supper.
# # #
Time disappeared down a hole. It disappeared and the boy would never find it. He thought he maybe fell asleep.
The preacher was still in the water when two divers showed up. They came through the clump of trees, carrying their air tanks, wetsuits, masks, and fins. There were half a dozen troopers now.
Two men in white pants and shirts from the funeral home in Manchester were there too. They each held a Styrofoam cup with a straw, Big Boy Drive-in printed around the cup. They sucked on their straws until they got nothing but air and then tossed the cups down on the river bank, and the stiff breeze blew the cups away.
The preacher was now whirling his arms in circles, and his head shook like somebody holding a high-voltage wire. His white hair blew back from his old skull. He got croaky and whispery as though he was losing his voice, but then, all of a sudden, loud gibberish issued from his lips. He was speaking in tongues, and the boy was certain something was about to happen. The boy stood up and stepped into the water up to his ankles. The wind nearly knocked him down. Talking his God talk, the preacher kept twirling his arms, and it occurred to the boy that maybe the preacher was actually creating the wind.
The boy was barely aware of a siren in the distance.
The sun had turned yellow as a hound dog’s piss.
Then the preacher fell backwards into the water with a loud splash—and disappeared. The boy stepped toward him, the mud of the river bottom sucking at his sneakers. The water was above his knees. He turned and hollered, “Help him!”
He hollered again before anyone heard him.
Finally two troopers looked at him and understood and quickly waded into the water, and the boy waded in farther. Then the preacher suddenly floated up, his arms and legs spread, his face purple in the bright light of the sun.
Each trooper took an arm and the boy cradled his head, and they guided him in. The troopers and the boy stumbled up onto the bank, dragging the preacher onto a slight incline. Breathing hard, soaked to his shoulders, one of the troopers placed two fingers against the big vein in the waddled neck. He held it there, looking off at the clump of trees. The other trooper pressed on the preacher’s chest. Three compressions, then mouth to mouth. Three pushes, then blow. The boy sat down beside the preacher and watched his slack face. The purple was draining away, fading into gray.
Three more compressions, three more breaths.
The siren was close now out on the road.
The trooper stopped the compressions, stood up, and walked away, spitting. The preacher’s head sagged sideways, his face toward the boy as if he were looking at him, but his eyes were closed.
A woman’s wail came out of the trees, and then the woman appeared, her hair crazy, her eyes crazy, her face twisted in agony, screaming, “Where’s my baby? Where’s my baby?”
She stumbled into the river a few yards, then fell, and was gone. The trooper who had taken the preacher’s pulse went in after her and she fought him off. She clubbed his head with her fists and clawed his face and neck with her fingers. The trooper who had been pumping the preacher’s chest went in after her too, and after what seemed a long time, the two troopers dragged her out and flung her onto the bank not far from the preacher, and she screamed and screamed, shaking her head furiously, and her hair, which had come all undone, whipped back and forth across her face. Her dress was ripped wide open and her heavy breasts sagged naked and white, bobbing as her shoulders heaved.
When she stopped screaming, she wailed, “My baby!” One of the troopers approached her, and she flipped onto her back and kicked him. Her hands opened and closed, grabbing at the air. “Let me die!” she screamed. “Let me die!”
Her head continued to swivel back and forth until her eyes latched onto the boy. She and the preacher both now stared at him, except her eyes were wide open. “Boy!” she hollered. “Boy! My baby’s in there! Go save her!”
Then time escaped, again, down a snake hole there on the banks of the Ohio River, July 3rd, 1971.
# # #
It was calm again. No breeze. Just heat so thick the boy felt he would choke on it.
After his mama got off work from her job as a nurse’s aide over in Manchester, she came looking for him. There was no hospital in Devil’s Elbow. There was nothing in Devil’s Elbow.
Word about the church bus had gotten around. Neighbor told neighbor. Phone calls were made. Drivers on the country roads waved each other down. All kinds of people had gathered on the river bank. Even moonshiners had come down from their mountain hideouts.
His mama put her arm around his shoulders and kissed his cheek. His chin quivered.
She hugged him, and he let himself sob into her shoulder.
He didn’t care if the others on the river bank saw.
When he was able to stop, he and his mama sat shoulder to shoulder, and he felt her looking at him for a while, and then they watched the approach of a barge with a crane standing on it. It had been five miles upriver at the construction site of a new bridge. People had been talking about how that bridge was going to change lives.
The dredging would start in the morning.
She said softly, “Let’s go home, baby.”
He shrugged, then shook his head slowly. “You go on. I’ll come in a bit.”
She looked at him a long time before she nodded and walked away in her white nurse-aide shoes.
He stood and looked down at the brown river lapping at his feet. The crushed daisy was in his jean’s left pocket, the pocket he kept money in whenever he had any. He took the daisy out. It was falling apart and he told himself he didn’t want to keep it, so he dropped it. It lay there on the water until it decided to float up against his foot.
The sun was low in the sky now, and three other boys about his age had built a small fire and started roasting hot dogs. They had their shirts off and drank Mountain Dew and belched loudly and laughed and threw rocks into the river. A breeze came up again and the smell of the roasting hot dogs masked the fishy smell of the river for a minute. A part of the boy was still waiting for something to happen. The sun was red now. Maybe at the moment of twilight, it would start—a giant hand would reach out of the sky; the world would spin backwards and . . .
The sun burned between two mountains. The breeze died. One of the other boys said, “Smells like pussy.”
A pressure built in the boy’s head and face, and he shook his head hard as he would to shoo off a fly or a wasp, and he stared at the blinding red sun, and then he sat down and then lay back on a blown-out truck tire . . . and time vanished, again.
# # #
I woke up that evening forty-five years ago when I was that boy, and I opened my eyes to shimmering stars in a black sky and a full moon. The air was still, and I was alone. Then I heard rustling sounds in the grass and the rippling of the river. And my heart was suddenly pounding, and I was scared. I thought about ghosts. If there were ghosts, I didn’t want to see them.
Although the sun had long been down, the road still held the heat of the day. I felt it through the soles of my shoes.
I passed Kathy Mayhew’s house, and it was all lit up, and at least a dozen cars were parked around the side and front. The house was small, and I figured it had to be crowded inside, but not a sound came from it. All those people, and they had all been struck dumb.
# # #
I saw Mama through the screen door bathed in the gray light of the black-and-white TV. We could get two channels on that old Zenith. I went in and sat down next to Mama on the worn-out sofa.
On the eleven o’clock news, the weatherman in a plaid sports coat said that Independence Day was going to be as hot as a firecracker, followed by thunderstorms. The TV picture was grainy, and the weatherman’s body wavered like he had no bones as he broke into fragments. Every few seconds the picture rolled.
The anchorman appeared in the middle of a roll, and for a few seconds the picture didn’t waver or roll while he said the government was predicting 600 deaths on the nation’s highways over the holiday weekend.
Mama said, “I don’t think I want you ever driving.”
She reached over and pulled me against her. “Why do you have to grow up?” She smelled like the hospital.
I sat still and stared at the wavering, rolling TV.
A beer commercial came on. A big mug foamed and spilled over.
# # #
Moonlight shined through my window, and my room was full of shadows, black and motionless. Despite my nap on the river bank, I was bone tired. I imagined my exhaustion being what old people felt most of the time—a dull ache from head to toe, arms and legs that weighed a ton, the desire for sleep trumping the desire for anything else on this earth.
But when I closed my eyes I saw images from that day I didn’t want to see. I also saw things with my eyes open, so I tried staring out the window at the moon, but it started looking like the preacher’s face, so I turned over onto my stomach and pressed my face into my pillow.
I thought about the giant steel crane perched over the river. I imagined its big hook dipping into the muddy water and . . .
On the other side of the wall, Mama’s radio came on. She always turned it on when she was getting ready for bed, and sometimes she’d leave it on all night—for company, she said. Tonight, she had the radio turned up louder than usual, and the disc jockey spun nothing but Doors songs: “Light My Fire,” “Riders on the Storm,” “Roadhouse Blues.” A kaleidoscope of colors—a kind of psychedelic light show—played on the backs of my eyelids. Maybe I was drifting off to sleep, “Love Me Two Times” playing through the wall.
Then the disc jockey said he was playing a tribute to the late Jim Morrison. He said, “The Lizard King, Mr. Mojo Risin, Jim Morrison. Dead today at the age of twenty-seven. In Paris, France.”
Then “LA Woman” was playing.
I dreamed of hot black asphalt shimmering in raging sunlight. I dreamed of an albino toad sailing across a red sky. I dreamed of the preacher standing in the river, his old flesh sunburned and sagging, and he was singing “Love Her Madly” in Jim Morrison’s voice.
Then Kathy Mayhew was the one standing in the river, not the preacher, staring into the blinding sun, and when she looked over her shoulder at me far away on the river bank, her eyes were black holes.
And I saw myself—a little kid. I had a cowlick in my hair and wore a striped shirt and baggy jeans, like a kid on a TV sit-com. I held my fishing pole.
Then I wavered and broke into pieces like people on our old Zenith.
Music throbbed through the wall of my bedroom. Rain fell. Time slithered away.