I don’t claim that this story is true, and I don’t care if you believe it. It happened in 1973, when I was ten years old. It’s impossible to verify. But I’m still going to tell it to you.
On this particular hot summer night, I ran through the swamp behind the trailer park as hard as I could, even though the night was dark and moonless. I’d run this same trail many times, so I knew where to turn, when to jump, and how fast it was safe to go in the straightaways. Even if I stepped on a cottonmouth, I’d be gone before it had time to turn and bite me.
I didn’t have a watch, so I had no idea what time it was; it had been 9:30 when I left home, slipping out the narrow window and dropping soundlessly to the ground while my mom yelled after my dad’s car. No one came out of any of the other trailers near us; people no longer paid any attention when my mom yelled at my dad.
At last I reached the old house, but I didn’t run to the door. Instead I went to a flat place in the yard where the untended grass was considerably thinner. I got on my hands and knees and yelled down at the ground.
“Tater! Tater! You in there?”
“I’m down here,” a voice drawled back. “What you want, boy?”
“They caught the devil!”
“The police!” In my childhood drawl, it came out, “POE–lease.”
The ground rose in front of me, as the plywood sheet covered with sod lifted, allowing a shaft of yellow light to punch out into the steamy darkness. It backlit Tater’s head, so that I couldn’t see his face.
“Boy, it’s awful late for nonsense.”
“It ain’t nonsense! Mr. Moose done called my daddy, and he’s headed down there to look.”
“Mr. Moose,” he repeated with a snort. “Moose” Gimble was the mayor, and probably would be until the town dried up and blew away; it was certain no one else wanted the job. “Well, then, your daddy can tell you all about it when he gets back.”
“He ain’t gonna tell me nothing,” I whined. “You know that. Ain’t you curious?”
He pushed the roof of his little hole up higher; behind him I saw the table, chair and portable black and white TV. He’d even hung a picture of an old man praying over a loaf of bread on the dirt wall. “I ain’t never curious about nonsense.”
“It ain’t nonsense!” I insisted.
“Why you bothering me about it?”
“Because you told me once that you shook the devil’s hand. I figure you’d know if this was the real devil or not!”
He stared at me in a way I couldn’t, at that age, understand. It was the look of a man being reminded of the worst thing he ever did. “Boy,” he said softly, “you better be right about this.”
“I am! Now come on, before they send him to Brushy Mountain or Bolivar!” Brushy Mountain was the state prison, while the small town of Bolivar had become synonymous with the mental hospital just outside its borders.
He turned out the light and climbed out of his hole, using the step ladder he kept for the purpose. He was barefoot, wore overalls, and his long gray hair was tied back in a ponytail. My mom said he’d been in Vietnam, like my big brother, and had done too much acid over there, which is why he lived in a ten–foot–square hole beside his house. But he seemed older than that to me, almost eternally old. Sometimes I thought of him as made out of the same mud and weeds that grew in the swamp all around us.
I followed him eagerly over to his old truck, a Frankenstein vehicle made of various parts welded or bolted together (duct tape hadn’t yet become the go–to repair tool it would in a few years). “Y’all get up on in there and turn the key when I tell you,” he said to me, and raised the hood. I was used to starting my car for my daddy on cold mornings, so I knew what to do, although I had to scoot down awkwardly to reach the clutch. He opened the enormous hood, fiddled with something inside the engine, then hollered, “Turn it over!” I turned the key and it started with a great grinding sound that settled into a rattling vibration that made me squirm on the bench seat. The smell of burning gasoline filled the air.
All this happened in the dark, so when he climbed in and turned on the headlights, it was a huge change. Suddenly all the shadows dashed to either side of those shafts of straight white light, which for an instant looked so clean they might be solid. Then smoke from the engine drifted into them, giving them hard edges, and every bug in the area swarmed into them.
“This ole thing ain’t good for much more,” he muttered mostly to himself. Then he turned the immense steering wheel with a grunt of effort, and the truck groaned as it started down the gravel driveway. It wasn’t noticeably smoother when we hit the blacktop, probably because the old truck had no working suspension. Tater said nothing, but turned on the AM radio, which blared gospel music from its tinny speakers. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and, without taking his eyes from the road, offered one to me. “No, thanks,” I said. He grabbed the end of one with his teeth, pulled it from the pack and pushed the cigarette lighter in until it clicked.
As a choir with perfect diction sang “Almost Persuaded,” we drove the empty highway until we reached town. The lone red light stopped us, and as we waited, we saw the cluster of cars around the city hall, and the group made up entirely of men gathered outside.
“Looks like something is going on there,” Tater muttered.
“See? I told ya!”
“What’s your daddy gonna say when he sees you?”
“I’ll be sneaky.”
Tater laughed. “You better be. I ain’t takin’ a bullet for you.”
At the time I took everything adults said literally, so I wondered why he thought my daddy would shoot at me; I assumed Mom was right, and it was some holdover from Vietnam. I didn’t say anything, though. If Daddy got to drinking with his buddies and there was a gun around, he just might start shooting.
When the light changed, we parked far enough away from the crowd that I could slip in and hide amongst the parked cars. The city hall, with its two–cell jail, was a square brick building with barred windows and little lights that illuminated the sign above the door. Street lights lit up the parking lot. On one side was the post office, and on the other an overgrown vacant lot where the little notions store had burned down two years earlier. A man in a police uniform stood on the city hall steps, chatting with those nearest him. I knew him; he went to our church, and bragged about how many people he beat up.
Tater walked up to the group of men standing outside and said, “So is this bullshit story I hear true? They got the devil locked up in there?”
“Sure enough,” one said. His voice was slurry like my daddy’s when he drank. “Tom Blazer caught him trying to break into his barn.”
“He’s got horns and a damn tail,” someone else said.
Tater laughed. “That a fact. Is he bright red, too?”
“He is,” a third voice confirmed.
“Then sure enough, it must be the devil,” Tater said. I was too young to recognize his sarcasm, so what I took as his certainty bolstered my determination.
I knew the jail cells were at the rear of the building, so I wove my way through the cars until I reached the vacant lot. The weeds came up to my shoulders, so it was no problem sneaking through, avoiding the broken bottles that littered the ground. At last I reached the back, and saw the cell windows.
They were high on the wall, narrow and horizontal, with bars too close together to allow even me to slip through, had I been brave enough. Only one cell had its lights on, and from my position crouched at the edge of the weeds, I could see only the plaster ceiling.
Then a shadow moved across it.
Someone was indeed in the cell.
The shadow stopped. It was in the shape of a human head, except that two small horns, gracefully curved like those of fat Mr. Brasher’s bull, rose from it.
Then suddenly, the head was standing at the window, looking out into the night, looking, I was certain, right at me.
I could see it only from the nose up, and because the light was behind it, I could make out no facial details. But the horns seemed to be jet black, and the hairless head was, in fact, a deep, dark red.
I crouched in the weeds and held my breath.
We’d learned about the devil in Sunday school, but he’d seemed a remote figure then, one who might have once walked the earth but now sat on his throne in hell, directing evil thoughts into people’s minds from a great distance. But if this was the devil, and he was here on earth…
I wasn’t equipped to handle the theology then, so those thoughts trailed off. The horned figure at the window seemed to let out a huff, and I smelled something rancid, like a particularly vile, wet fart. Then it turned away.
As it turned, something whooshed around and struck the bars. It moved like a whip, but it sounded like metal against metal. I realized with horror that it was the tip of his tail.
Just then a firm hand grabbed the back of my shirt collar and yanked me to my feet. I twisted around, expecting to see my daddy, but instead it was the face of Maso, the black farmer who lived down the road from the trailer park. When we went fishing, me and daddy always stopped by his place and dropped off any of the fish we didn’t feel like cleaning, which—depending on how much Daddy snuck from the vodka he kept in his tackle box—could be quite a bit. Maso was always polite and deferential, but then, given the times, he had to be. I wondered what he really thought of us.
He released me and said, “I thought I saw your little tow–headed skull poking up above the grass. Your daddy know you’re here?”
“I seen him around front. Should we go tell him?”
“What you think you gonna see back here?”
“I did see it! I seen the devil!”
Maso laughed the same way my Daddy did when he thought I was being particularly stupid, but there was no malice in it. “Lemme ask you something, little man: you really think a podunk town like this would be able to catch the devil and put him in jail?”
“But I just seen him!”
“What did you see?”
I looked back up at the window, which was now just an empty view of the cell ceiling. “I seen his horns. And his tail.”
“Want me to lift you up so you can see more?”
I didn’t even think about it. “No!”
“Then you best run on home before your daddy catches you. I ain’t gonna mention it.”
And he didn’t. I ran back along the highway until I knew I could cut through the swamp. At first I was scared to do it, then I remembered the devil was in jail. What could there be in the shadows to scare me? I made it back home, slipped back into my room without waking Mama on the couch, and pulled the sheet over my head. I don’t know if I slept that night; in my memory, I was wide awake the whole time.
The next day, people in the trailer park talked about nothing else. I didn’t dare ask anyone directly about it, since I might give away what I’d done. But as soon as I could, I slipped back over to Tater’s.
“Oh, it weren’t nothing,” he said as he peeked out of his hole. “The county sheriff came to get him about one in the morning, but there weren’t nobody in the cell. Everybody figured it was some kinda joke played by that ol’ fire–and–brimstone pastor down to the Primitive Baptist Church.” Then he chuckled. “That is, everybody with any sense. A bunch of ‘em believed the Devil bribed Chief Blackwell to let him out.
“Did anybody get a good look at him?”
“No! The devil!”
“Nobody I know. Now get on out of here, I’m busy.”
And that was that. I never asked my Daddy about that night, and as I grew older, I accepted that the suggestion hovering in the hot summer air had worked on my child’s brain and conjured what I thought I’d seen.
Except for one thing. About a week afterwards, Tater started driving around a new truck. I mean brand new, a 1975 Chevy Blazer with four–wheel drive and a camper shell. Lots of people asked where he’d gotten the money for it, since otherwise his lifestyle didn’t change. He still spent most of the time in his hole. But I stopped slipping over to see him after that, because for me, the source of the new truck was as plain as day. And the proof?
It was painted red. Devil red.
(Editors’ Note: Alex Bledsoe is interviewed by Deborah Stanish in this issue.)
© 2015 by Alex Bledsoe