A Pale Heart

“Boy? Boy?” my cousin Floyd Lee screamed. “Boys play with toys. I’m Sammy. I play with your mammy.”

My little brother Coby swung with all his weight, which was considerable. Floyd Lee’s mouth clomped shut, and he fluttered backwards, landed on his butt. Coby didn’t say nothing, only jumped at Floyd Lee, but Floyd clawed himself up and took off. While I was laughing, Coby got after him like white on rice. They cut across the street from my aunt’s toward our house. Together, they jumped the ditch, and Coby–who’d never done it before–snared Floyd Lee in mid-flight and threw him to the ground.

Floyd Lee looked shocked, Coby, too because he just sat there on Floyd, his face red as a ember and his eyes charged-up like fire. Floyd Lee started hollering, “Mama, Mama, he’s got me.”

Imagine that. A twelve-year old calling his mama to save him from some fair-is-fair, up-and-up ass-whipping.

“Help, Mama, he’s got the devil in him. Help!”

Now, that was just crazy, far as I was concerned. Coby wasn’t the devil. I ought to know, he’s my brother.

But as usual, I’m putting the cart before the horse. This fight was the solution to a problem that all started when my Uncle Thew, one of Daddy’s brothers, come down to Georgia to visit, that summer when I’d turned twelve and Coby was about nine.

My Uncle Thew fancied himself a country singer. He lived in Nashville, worked as a plumber, but on the side, he wrote country music songs. Mama said Tammy Wynette done one of his songs once, on one of her albums. That was back when she was married to George Jones, back before she got her D-I-V-O-R-C-E. Every time him and his wife and kids got down to Cloud Springs, everybody met for supper and some after-eating picking, singing, and poker playing. Thew’s sons, Hank William and Ferlin, was about mine and Coby’s age.

This one weekend, everybody come in, and we met at Aunt Verbena’s, just across the street from our house. Holland, Daddy, and Thew got out their guitars and started up singing–if you want to call it singing. Holland said Thew had a voice like Jim Reeves, but to me he sounds like, well, Uncle Thew. Mama said he’d be a recording star if he sounded good on tape. That was his problem, he didn’t sound good on tape. I couldn’t know, I never heard him on tape. Couldn’t complain, though, because any singing was a sight better than what Holland did. Now if you took an old tomcat, run over him in the truck, put it in reverse and backed up on it and parked, you’d have near the sound Holland made when he sung.

They started picking, then singing “Cheating Heart.” About the time Holland joined in for the chorus, I started looking for the door. And Lord knows, I was in my rights. His singing pained me. In the neck, in the butt, in the…well just everywhere you could think of, he pained me. He had a lot of potential that way.

“Uncle Holland,” I called out, “I wish you was on the radio.”

“Why’s that?” He took a sip of his Pabst.

“So I could turn you off.” Everybody laughed, except for Holland.

Just when I was getting warmed up, Aunt Verbena said to my mama, “Calla, don’t you think the boys would like to play some horseshoes? Holland’ done strung up some flood lights out back. Floyd Lee, why don’t you and the boys go out back for some horseshoes.”

My mama looked at me, nodded her head, and said, “Y’all get on out of here.”

“But I want to watch them play some cards,” said Coby. He was always whining about something. I know it got on Mama’s nerves, so he never got what he wanted. But being a mama’s boy, he whined anyhow.

“We ain’t’ playing cards, yet. And if you don’t go outside, you ain’t watching when we do.”

Coby started whining some more, so I said, “Let’s go outside, y’all.”

A second later, we was outside, the screen door was slamming, and Aunt Verbena was hollering, “Close the door. Was you born in a barn?”

I always wondered about that saying. Once I asked my mama, who always says that too, didn’t she know where I was born? Wasn’t she present during the blessed event? She said don’t be a smart mouth, but it seemed a logical question to ask.

Anyhow, we went around to the backyard. Now say what you will about the Sebright’s–they’re rowdy, loud, and the women in the family drink beer–but they know their horseshoes, and they have the yard for it. Long and narrow, it goes about three hundred feet straight back until it dead-ends at Maw’s house and the Devil’s chain. Maw is Holland’ mama, and she lives close so it’s easy for Verbena to take of her. The Devil is Maw’s dog–a great, big huge, chow with brown-orange fur and a blue tongue.

Every once in a while, the Devil would break loose, pull the chain right out of the doghouse, and go about his business terrorizing the neighborhood. I remember one time, there was this evangelist from Park City Baptist who come around spreading the word and passing out Little Debbie cakes. Well, it was early one Saturday morning, and he was standing in the door, half-preaching, and Mama, still in her gown, had the door half-open, her foot behind it so he couldn’t get in. If you’ve ever been evangelized by a Park City Baptist, you know your whole day is shot if they get inside, and if they make it to the couch, you might as well set another place for dinner.

And on top of that, it was already hot outside. So there was Mama, the evangelist, and Coby, who’d eat one Little Debbie cake and was begging for another one.

All of a sudden, Coby starts to hollering, “The Devil, Mama, I see the Devil. He done broke loose.”

I jumped up on the couch and looked out the window and sure enough, here come the Devil across the street, dragging his chain behind him.

“The Devil,” Coby screamed.

The evangelist must of thought Coby was seeing visions, because he laid hands on him and started to praying.

My mama lifted his hands off Coby’s head, pushed my brother back, said “Scuse me, brother,” and slammed the door.

The reverend seemed mystified, and the way his mouth was hanging open, it’s a wonder some bug didn’t fly in it. He didn’t move for what seemed like days, but it was only seconds before the Devil come bounding across the yard. I think the dog was smiling when he jumped on the porch.

The chain tinkled like a bell gone flat. The reverend turned around just in time. From the look in eyes and the way he lit out off the porch, he was having a spiritual experience himself.

So we were going to play some horseshoes. Me and Hank William was one team, and Ferlin and Floyd Lee was the other. Coby, being left out, wasn’t none too happy. When he started up, I told him he could play for the first team that lost.

Floyd Lee threw the switch, and the backyard lit up like the second coming. Uncle Holland, who was a horseshoes nut from way back, had rigged up metal poles about twenty feet high. He put floodlights on top. At night, the whole yard could be lit up, and you could play you some horseshoes all night long, if you was so inclined. The only thing was the bugs. Holland used yellow bulbs instead of white, thinking that’d keep the bugs chased off. Of course, when you turned them on, every bug in two counties came by to be chased off. Mama said he should of used heat lamps instead so you could get a tan while you was playing.

Floyd Lee was first up. His toss clanged against the staub and rounded away. “Crud!” he said.

Hank William went next. He didn’t get no keepers. On his turn, Ferlin didn’t get no ringers, but he did leave a leaner on the staub. My first throw knocked of the leaner, and my second was a dead ringer. We played cancels, so the score was nothing to nothing.

That’s the way it stayed. Me and Floyd Lee usually canceled each other, and Hank William and Ferlin just weren’t hitting on much. They didn’t have no lit up horseshoes emporium by their house, I guess.

Eventually, though, Hank William got some points, and Floyd Lee missed some throws. A half-hour later, we’d won the game. Floyd Lee wasn’t none too happy. He come out with the s-word, the d-word, and even G-d.

Me and Hank William just smiled at each other. I picked up the shoes and called out, “Next,” just like my daddy use to.

“My turn,” said Coby and picked up a pair, intending to play.

“You ain’t,” shouted Floyd Lee and yanked the shoes out of his hand. “I done lost once, and I ain’t playing with no G-d retard.”

“Ain’t no retard.” Coby grabbed the shoes, but Floyd Lee tossed them to Ferlin, playing a little keep away. See, the problem is even though Floyd Lee was only a year older than Coby, Coby’s took awhile to mature.

“It’s my turn,” Coby said, flying back and forth after the shoes. “Let me have them.”

I guess I should of helped him out, but after the time Coby busted Floyd Lee’s nuts and I stepped in, Daddy told me I had to let him handle some things on his own.

“Let me have them.”

“Make me, boy.” Floyd Lee got right up in his face, almost spitting.

“I will, boy.”

What Coby couldn’t see was Ferlin sneaking in on all fours behind him. Floyd Lee up and shoved him, and Coby landed in his butt in the soppy grass.

“Boys play with toys.” Floyd Lee said. “I’m Sammy, I play with your mammy.”

There it was. Laid out for the whole world to see. If ever Coby had cause to stand up and knock Hell out Floyd Lee, that was it. You didn’t go around talking trash about somebody’s mama unless you wanted a fight.

But there wasn’t going to be one. Ferlin got up real slow, like he did when he’d been praying. Me and Hank William scooted closer, but nobody said nothing. Floyd Lee stood over Coby, his fists half-cocked.

Coby just looked at me, his eyes sorrowful, about to cry. He mumbled something, then jumped up and run towards Maw’s house. The Devil barked once when he come by.

We all stood still, kind of in shock, until Floyd said, “Crybaby. What a sissy,” then picked up the horseshoes and said, “Come on, y’all. Let’s play some.”

While me and Hank William took our first throw, Hank said to me out the side of his mouth, “I don’t know whose ass I’d whip, if I was you. Floyd Lee’s for talking about my mama or Coby’s for letting him say it.”

I wanted to tell him to mind his own business, he didn’t know Coby, that he was sensitive and easy to hurt. Didn’t he know what Coby had to put up with from these people? Didn’t he know Coby had to find his own way? My Grandma’d always said that most of us have a red heart full of anger and passion, but Coby’s was softer, kind of pale and easy to bruise. But I knew Hank William was right. I felt real guilty, but there wasn’t I could say.

From then on, my heart just wasn’t in the game. I missed the staub a lot, and they won pretty easy. Floyd Lee was awful full of himself, yelling, “I whipped you, I whipped you.”

I guess he didn’t notice how often my throws were closer to him than the staub.

“Floyd Lee, you’re all mouth.”

“That’s what the girls always say.”

I walked up to him. “One of these days, your mouth is going to overload your ass.”

My family always said that I got my red hair and temper from the same place, that’s why I fight so much, just like my Uncle Bake. I wasn’t thinking much about that then, only about taking my cousin down a few notches.

You know, mama’s must have this feeling. I once saw on a TV commercial where this woman going down the road had this premonition that her baby was going to be in an accident. She got so nervous, she ran up a tree, and sure enough the baby, who was in the back, was in an accident. Aunt Verbena must of had a premonition. Either that, or she saw the same commercial, because about then, she called out the window, “Floyd Lee, you boys about through?”

He saw his chance. “Yeah, Mama.”

“Then come over to Calla’s. We’s playing cards over there.” She closed the window, then opened it again. “And turn out them lights before you come.”

Floyd Lee headed for the switch.

I hollered, “Coby. Co-by. It’s time for the card game.”

The lights went out and the heavens were dark. “Turn those durn things back on,” I said. “I have to find Coby.” I started towards Maw Sebright’s house. “And leave them on til I get back.”

They started stacking the shoes on the stabs. The dull, tinny sounds echoed by Maw’s as I walked around the little, white house.

“Coby,” I whispered because I didn’t want to wake the Devil. “Where the heck are you?”

I looked under the house. There wasn’t no foundation, only cinder blocks stacked on the four corners, so it was a good place to hide. But only I found pipes and wires and webs.

“Coby,” I whispered again.

“Over here,” he said in a plain voice.

When I rounded the corner, I felt like I did the time I got into Grandmaw’s snuff box–woozy and confused, like there wasn’t no gravity. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was like a vision. The light wasn’t too good, so I squinted, then put my hand on the house for balance.

My little brother, the one who’d just run off from his loud- mouth cousin, was sitting on the ground, rubbing the Devil’s stomach, and that dog–the demon of the neighborhood–had a look of complete and total rapture on his face. His blue tongue looked purple in the yellow light, and his fur seemed to glow. I swear, he looked positively angelic.

“Jesus Christ Jones, Coby. What are you doing?”

“Patting this here dog.”

“Come here, before he eats you alive.”

“Oh, he won’t do no such thing.”

“That dog’s meaner’n a snake. Why you think they call him the Devil?”

Coby didn’t answer for a long time. All of a sudden, the dog yawned and shook. I wasn’t taking no chances, so I ducked real quick around the corner. “Hey, Coby. How’d you keep from getting your head bit off?”

He waited a long time to answer. I couldn’t see his face in the dark. I heard my cousins messing around, but they seemed awfully far away. With the bright lights, I knew they couldn’t see me and Coby. If they had, they wouldn’t of believed their eyes, either.

“I was so durn mad,” he said after awhile, “I just run straight back here, not thinking about the dog. He didn’t make any sound til I was right up on him, then he barked and jumped up on me. I froze. I mean, I hit the ground flat on my back, then I froze. I wanted to holler, but it was like my throat was broke. I kept thinking, Lord, this dog’s going to tear my throat out. He starts sniffing at me. I almost peed in my pants. Then this tongue comes out, and he’s licking me on the face.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye, I ain’t. I started giggling, and he licked me more. When I could get up, I patted him some. After awhile, you come by.”

“That’s a miracle,” I said. I’d heard stories about how this dog tore out the dogcatcher’s throat and bit the mail man’s tire so hard it gave him a flat. But here was my little brother patting his belly. That dog must of known that Coby had a pale heart. Sometimes, dogs are like that.

“You want to pat him?”

“No way, no how, nowhere,” I said.

“He’s real gentle, once you get to know him.”

“That’s one pleasure I’ll have to pass on.” After a minute, I said, “Coby, why’d you run off like that?”

“‘Cause I was scared.”

“Scared or not, you can’t let people get away with saying stuff about your mama.”

“I know it.”

“Well, if you know it, why didn’t you do something?”

“I said I was scared.”

“Scared of what? Getting whipped?” I said.

“No, that ain’t it. Just scared of getting into a fight.”

“What are you talking about? Me and you been in lots of fights before.”

“You beating me up is not what I call a fight.”

“Ain’t you ever been in no fights at school?”



“Well, that time I kicked Floyd Lee in the balls.”

“That don’t count.”

“Didn’t think so.”

He didn’t say nothing again, so I did. “What do you think you’re going to do?”

“Don’t know.”

I give up, I said to myself. “Well, they’re about to start playing cards over at the house. You come on over when you’re ready to show your face.”

I retraced my steps around the house, half-disgusted. I couldn’t see it. He could pat a mean dog, but he couldn’t stand up to his cousin. Some things just mystified me.

I was almost up to the house when Floyd Lee said, “Come on, slow poke. We ain’t got all night.”

I knew he wasn’t talking to me that way, so I turned around to see Coby stomping up the path. He had his jaw set, and his tongue was sort of seeping out of his mouth. I knew what that meant. I’d seen that tongue before. Somebody was about to get hit, and this time, it wasn’t him.

“Oh, did the cry-baby get his widdle feelings hurt?”

“I ain’t no cry-baby, boy.”

I really didn’t hear what Floyd Lee said next, but I’d heard his comeback enough to know. Instead, I watched Coby’s fist while he wadded it up real tight. Just as Floyd spouted off, that fist flew. I couldn’t of set him up better myself.

Floyd Lee bit his tongue, and blood sprinkled everywhere. He run across the street to our house. Started hollering, “Mama, he’s got me.” And the funny thing is, Coby did get him, finally.

Our house emptied faster than church after Sunday service. Aunt Verbena jumped on Coby and Floyd to separate them.

“What the Hell’s going on?” my mama said.

“Are you two boys fighting?” Aunt Verbena said, then saw the blood leaking out of her boy’s face. “Oh, sweet Jesus. Holland. Hol-land! Get your hind end out here.”

Uncle Holland come to the door, a Pabst in one hand, his cards in the other, looking kind of befuddled. “What’s it now, Verbena? We’re playing deucy’s loosey.”

“Don’t just stand there, help me get Floyd Lee home.”  Just then, like he’d just thought of it, old cousin started bawling, while Aunt Verbena led him by the hand to their house.

“Ah, Hellfire, he’ll be all right,” said Uncle Holland. “Let’s play some cards.”

“What’s all this about?” Mama checked Coby for damage.

Coby didn’t say nothing, so I did, seeing as I was part of the whole commotion. “Floyd Lee said something nasty…”

“That ain’t no call to get in no fight…”

“…about you.”

“Oh.” She looked at Coby and kissed him on the head. “That’s different. I guess I’d better see about helping Verbena.”

Uncle Thew elbowed my daddy and said, “I told you he’d get him one day, just give him enough time.”

Daddy didn’t say nothing–he never did, so that wasn’t no surprise–he just looked at me and Coby something fierce, then said in his voice, deep as a well, “You boys playing cards, or what?”

That was as good as we could of hoped for, I thought, as we went in the screen door. I was just glad they didn’t ask us to sing with them.

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