By Bizarre Hands
For Scott Cupp
When the traveling preacher heard about the Widow Case and her retarded girl, he set out in his black Dodge to get over there before Halloween night.
Preacher Judd, as he called himself—though his name was really Billy Fred Williams—had this thing for retarded girls, due to the fact that his sister had been simple-headed, and his mama always said it was a shame she was probably going to burn in hell like a pan of biscuits forgot in the oven, just on account of not having a full set of brains.
This was a thing he had thought on considerable, and this considerable thinking made it so he couldn't pass up the idea of baptizing and giving some God-training to female retards. It was something he wanted to do in the worst way, though he had to admit there wasn't any burning desire in him to do the same for boys or men or women that were half-wits, but due to his sister having been one, he certainly had this thing for girl simples.
And he had this thing for Halloween, because that was the night the Lord took his sister to hell, and he might have taken her to glory had she had any Bible-learning or God-sense. But she didn't have a drop, and it was partly his own fault, because he knew about God and could sing some hymns pretty good. But he'd never turned a word of benediction or gospel music in her direction. Not one word. Nor had his mama, and his papa wasn't around to do squat.
The old man ran off with a buck-toothed laundry woman that used to go house to house taking in wash and bringing it back the next day, but when she took in their wash, she took in Papa too, and she never brought either of them back. And if that wasn't bad enough, the laundry contained everything they had in the way of decent clothes, including a couple of pairs of nice dress pants and some pin-striped shirts like niggers wear to funerals. This left him with one old pair of faded overalls that he used to wear to slop the hogs before the critters killed and ate Granny and they had to get rid of them because they didn't want to eat nothing that had eaten somebody they knew. So, it wasn't bad enough Papa ran off with a beaver-toothed wash woman and his sister was a drooling retard, he now had only the one pair of ugly, old overalls to wear to school, and this gave the other kids three things to tease him about, and they never missed a chance to do it. Well, four things. He was kind of ugly too.
It got tiresome.
Preacher Judd could remember nights waking up with his sister crawled up in the bed alongside him, lying on her back, eyes wide open, her face bathed in cool moonlight, picking her nose and eating what she found, while he rested on one elbow and tried to figure why she was that way.
He finally gave up figuring, decided that she ought to have some fun, and he could have some fun too. Come Halloween, he got him a bar of soap for marking up windows and a few rocks for knocking out some, and he made his sister and himself ghost-suits out of old sheets in which he cut mouth and eye holes.
This was her fifteenth year and she had never been trick-or-treating. He had designs that she should go this time, and they did, and later after they'd done it, he walked her back home, and later yet, they found her out back of the house in her ghost suit, only the sheet had turned red because her head was bashed in with something and she had bled out like an ankle-hung hog. And someone had turned her trick-or-treat sack — the handle of which was still clutched in her fat grip — inside out and taken every bit of candy she'd gotten from the neighbors.
The sheriff came out, pulled up the sheet and saw that she was naked under it, and he looked her over and said that she looked raped to him, and that she had been killed by bizarre hands.
Bizarre hands never did make sense to Preacher Judd, but he loved the sound of it, and never did let it slip away, and when he would tell about his poor sister, naked under the sheet, her brains smashed out and her trick-or-treat bag turned inside out, he'd never miss ending the story with the sheriff's line about her having died by bizarre hands.
It had a kind of ring to it.
He parked his Dodge by the roadside, got out and walked up to the Widow Case's, sipping on a Frostie Root Beer. But even though it was late October, the Southern sun was as hot as Satan's ass and the root beer was anything but frosty.
Preacher Judd was decked out in his black suit, white shirt and black loafers with black and white checked socks, and he had on his black hat, which was short-brimmed and made him look, he thought, exactly like a traveling preacher ought to look.
Widow Case was out at the well, cranking a bucket of water, and nearby, running hell out of a hill of ants with a stick she was waggling, was the retarded girl, and Preacher Judd thought she looked remarkably like his sister.
He came up, took off his hat and held it over his chest as though he were pressing his heart into proper place, and smiled at the widow with all his gold-backed teeth.
Widow Case put one hand on a bony hip, used the other to prop the bucket of water on the well curbing. She looked like a shaved weasel, Preacher Judd thought, though her ankles weren't shaved a bit and were perfectly weasel-like. The hair there was thick and black enough to be mistaken for thin socks at a distance.
"Reckon you've come far enough," she said. "You look like one of them Jehova Witnesses or such. Or one of them kind that run around with snakes in their teeth and hop to nigger music."
"No, ma'am, I don't hop to nothing, and last snake I seen I run over with my car."
"You here to take up money for missionaries to give to them starving African niggers? If you are, forget it. I don't give to the niggers around here, sure ain't giving to no hungry foreign niggers that can't even speak English."
"Ain't collecting money for nobody. Not even myself."
"Well, I ain't seen you around here before, and I don't know you from white rice. You might be one of them mash murderers for all I know."
"No, ma'am, I ain't a mash murderer, and I ain't from around here. I'm from East Texas."
She gave him a hard look. "Lots of niggers there."
"Place is rotten with them. Can't throw a dog tick without you've hit a burr-head in the noggin'. That's one of the reasons I'm traveling through here, so I can talk to white folks about God. Talking to niggers is like," and he lifted a hand to point, "talking to that well-curbing there, only that well-curbing is smarter and a lot less likely to sass, since it ain't expecting no civil rights or a chance to crowd up with our young'ns in schools. It knows its place and it stays there, and that's something for that well-curbing, if it ain't nothing for niggers."
Preacher Judd was feeling pretty good now. He could see she was starting to eat out of his hand. He put on his hat and looked at the girl. She was on her elbows now, her head down and her butt up. The dress she was wearing was way too short and had broken open in back from her having outgrown it. Her panties were dirt-stained and there was gravel, like little BBs hanging off of them. He thought she had legs that looked strong enough to wrap around an alligator's neck and choke it to death.
"Cindereller there," the widow said, noticing he was watching, "ain't gonna have to worry about going to school with niggers. She ain't got the sense of a nigger. She ain't got no sense at all. A dead rabbit knows more than she knows. All she does is play around all day, eat bugs and such and drool. In case you haven't noticed, she's simple."
"Yes, ma'am, I noticed. Had a sister the same way. She got killed on a Halloween night, was raped and murdered and had her trick-or-treat candy stolen, and it was done, the sheriff said, by bizarre hands."
Preacher Judd held up a hand. "No kiddin'. She went on to hell, I reckon, 'cause she didn't have any God talk in her. And retard or not, she deserved some so she wouldn't have to cook for eternity. I mean, think on it. How hot it must be down there, her boiling in her own sweat, and she didn't do nothing, and it's mostly my fault cause I didn't teach her a thing about the Lord Jesus and his daddy, God."
Widow Case thought that over. "Took her Halloween candy too, huh?"
"Whole kit and kaboodle. Rape, murder and candy theft, one fatal swoop. That's why I hate to see a young'n like yours who might not have no Word of God in her.... Is she without training?"
"She ain't even toilet trained. You couldn't perch her on the outdoor convenience if she was sick and her manage to hit the hole. She can't do nothing that don't make a mess. You can't teach her a thing. Half the time she don't even know her name." As if to prove this, Widow Case called, "Cindereller."
Cinderella had one eye against the anthill now and was trying to look down the hole. Her butt was way up and she was rocking forward on her knees.
"See," said Widow Case, throwing up her hands. "She's worse than any little ole baby, and it ain't no easy row to hoe with her here and me not having a man around to do the heavy work."
"I can see that.... By the way, call me Preacher Judd.... And can I help you tote that bucket up to the house there?"
"Well now," said Widow Case, looking all the more like a weasel, "I'd appreciate that kindly."
He got the bucket and they walked up to the house. Cinderella followed, and pretty soon she was circling around him like she was a shark closing in for the kill, the circles each time getting a mite smaller. She did this by running with her back bent and her knuckles almost touching the ground. Ropes of saliva dripped out of her mouth.
Watching her, Preacher Judd got a sort of warm feeling all over. She certainly reminded him of his sister. Only she had liked to scoop up dirt, dog mess and stuff as she ran, and toss it at him. It wasn't a thing he thought he'd missed until just that moment, but now the truth was out and he felt a little teary eyed. He half-hoped Cinderella would pick up something and throw it on him.
The house was a big, drafty thing circled by a wide flowerbed that didn't look to have been worked in years. A narrow porch ran halfway around it, and the front porch had man-tall windows on either side of the door.
Inside, Preacher Judd hung his hat on one of the foil wrapped rabbit ears perched on top of an old Sylvania TV set, and followed the widow and her child into the kitchen.
The kitchen had big iron frying pans hanging on wall pegs, and there was a framed embroidery that read "God watches over this house." It had been faded by sunlight coming through the window over the sink.
Preacher Judd sat the bucket on the icebox—the old sort that used real ice — then they all went back to the living room. Widow Case told him to sit down and asked him if he'd like some ice-tea.
"Yes, this bottle of Frostie ain't so good." He took the bottle out of his coat pocket and gave it to her.
Widow Case held it up and squinted at the little line of liquid in the bottom. "You gonna want this?"
"No ma'am, just pour what's left out and you can have the deposit." He took his Bible from his other pocket and opened it. "You don't mind if I try and read a verse or two to your Cindy, do you?"
"You make an effort on that while I fix us some tea. And I'll bring some things for ham sandwiches, too."
"That would be right nice. I could use a bite."
Widow Case went to the kitchen and Preacher Judd smiled at Cinderella. "You know tonight's Halloween, Cindy?"
Cinderella pulled up her dress, picked astray ant off her knee and ate it.
"Halloween is my favorite time of the year," he continued. "That may be strange for a preacher to say, considering it's a devil thing, but I've always loved it. It just does something to my blood. It's like a tonic for me, you know?"
She didn't know. Cinderella went over to the TV and turned it on.
Preacher Judd got up, turned it off. "Let's don't run the Sylvania right now, baby child," he said. "Let's you and me talk about God."
Cinderella squatted down in front of the set, not seeming to notice it had been cut off. She watched the dark screen like the White Rabbit considering a plunge down the rabbit hole.
Glancing out the window, Preacher Judd saw that the sun looked like a dropped cherry snow cone melting into the clay road that led out to Highway 80, and already the tumblebug of night was rolling in blue-black and heavy. A feeling of frustration went over him, because he knew he was losing time and he knew what he had to do.
Opening his Bible, he read a verse and Cinderella didn't so much as look up until he finished and said a prayer and ended it with "Amen."
"Uhman," she said suddenly.
Preacher Judd jumped with surprise, slammed the Bible shut and dunked it in his pocket. "Well, well now," he said with delight, "that does it. She's got some Bible training."
Widow Case came in with the tray of fixings. "What's that?"
"She said some of a prayer," Preacher Judd said. "That cinches it. God don't expect much from retards, and that ought to do for keeping her from burning in hell." He practically skipped over to the woman and her tray, stuck two fingers in a glass of tea, whirled and sprinkled the drops on Cinderella's head. Cinderella held out a hand as if checking for rain.
Preacher Judd bellowed out. "I pronounce you baptized. In the name of God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen."
"Well, I'll swan," the widow said. "That there tea works for baptizing?" She sat the tray on the coffee table.
"It ain't the tea water, it's what's said and who says it that makes it take.... Consider that gal legal baptized.... Now, she ought to have some fun, too, don't you think? Not having a full head of brains don't mean she shouldn't have some fun."
"She likes what she does with them ants," Widow Case said.
"I know, but I'm talking about something special. It's Halloween. Time for young folks to have fun, even if they are retards. In fact, retards like it better than anyone else. They love this stuff.... A thing my sister enjoyed was dressing up like a ghost."
"Ghost?" Widow Case was seated on the couch, making the sandwiches. She had a big butcher knife and she was using it to spread mustard on bread and cut ham slices.
"We took this old sheet, you see, cut some mouth and eye holes in it, then we wore them and went trick-or-treating."
"I don't know that I've got an old sheet. And there ain't a house close enough for trick-or-treatin' at."
"I could take her around in my car. That would be fun, I think. I'd like to see her have fun, wouldn't you? She'd be real scary too under that sheet, big as she is and liking to run stooped down with her knuckles dragging."
To make his point, he bent forward, humped his back, let his hands dangle and made a face he thought was in imitation of Cinderella.
"She would be scary, I admit that," Widow Case said. "Though that sheet over her head would take some away from it. Sometimes she scares me when I don't got my mind on her, you know? Like if I'm napping in there on the bed, and I sorta open my eyes, and there she is, looking at me like she looks at them ants. I declare, she looks like she'd like to take a stick and whirl it around on me."
"You need a sheet, a white one, for a ghost-suit."
"Now maybe it would be nice for Cindereller to go out and have some fun." She finished making the sandwiches and stood up. "I'll see what I can find."
"Good, good," Preacher Judd said rubbing his hands together. "You can let me make the outfit. I'm real good at it."
While Widow Case went to look for a sheet, Preacher Judd ate one of the sandwiches, took one and handed it down to Cinderella. Cinderella promptly took the bread off of it, ate the meat, and laid the mustard sides down on her knees.
When the meat was chewed, she took to the mustard bread, cramming it into her mouth and smacking her lips loudly.
"Is that good, sugar?" Preacher Judd asked.
Cinderella smiled some mustard bread at him and he couldn't help but think the mustard looked a lot like baby shit, and he had to turn his head away.
"This do?" Widow Case said, coming into the room with a slightly yellowed sheet and a pair of scissors.
"That's the thing," Preacher Judd said, taking a swig from his iced tea. He set the tea down and called to Cinderella.
"Come on, sugar, let's you and me go in the bedroom there and get you fixed up and surprise your mama."
It took a bit of coaxing, but he finally got her up and took her into the bedroom with the sheet and scissors. He half-closed the bedroom door and called out to the widow. "You're going to like this."
After a moment, Widow Case heard the scissors snipping away and Cinderella grunting like a hog to trough. When the scissors sound stopped, she heard Preacher Judd talking in a low voice, trying to coach Cinderella on something, but as she wanted it to be a surprise, she quit trying to hear. She went over to the couch and fiddled with a sandwich, but she didn't eat it, As soon as she'd gotten out of eyesight of Preacher Judd, she'd upended the last of his root beer and it was as bad as he said. It sort of made her stomach sick and didn't encourage her to add any food to it.
Suddenly the bedroom door was knocked back, and Cinderella, having a big time of it, charged into the room with her arms held out in front of her yelling, "Woooo, woooo, goats."
Widow Case let out a laugh. Cinderella ran around the room yelling, "Woooo, woooo, goats," until she tripped over the coffee table and sent the sandwich makings and herself flying.
Preacher Judd, who'd followed her in after a second, went over and helped her up. The Widow Case, who had curled up on the couch in natural defense against the flying food and retarded girl, now uncurled when she saw something dangling on Preacher Judd's arm. She knew what it was, but she asked anyway. "What's that?"
"One of your piller cases. For a trick-or-treat sack."
"Oh," Widow Case said stiffly, and she went to straightening up the coffee table and picking the ham and makings off the floor.
Preacher Judd saw that the sun was no longer visible, He walked over to a window and looked out. The tumblebug of night was even more blue-black now and the moon was out, big as a dinner plate, and looking like it had gravy stains on it.
"I think we've got to go now," he said. "We'll be back in a few hours, just long enough to run the houses around here."
"Whoa, whoa," Widow Case said. "Trick-or-treatin' I can go for, but I can't let my daughter go off with no strange man."
"I ain't strange. I'm a preacher."
"You strike me as an all-right fella that wants to do things right, but I still can't let you take my daughter off without me going. People would talk."
Preacher Judd started to sweat. "I'll pay you some money to let me take her on."
Widow Case stared at him. She had moved up close now and he could smell root beer on her breath. Right then he knew what she'd done and he didn't like it any. It wasn't that he'd wanted it, but somehow it seemed dishonest to him that she swigged it without asking him. He thought she was going to pour it out. He started to say as much when she spoke up.
"I don't like the sound of that none, you offering me money.
"I just want her for the night," he said, pulling Cinderella close to him. "She'd have fun."
"I don't like the sound of that no better. Maybe you ain't as right-thinking as I thought."
Widow Case took a step back and reached the butcher knife off the table and pushed it at him. "I reckon you better just let go of her and run on out to that car of yours and take your ownself trick-or-treatin'. And without my piller case."
"No, ma'am, can't do that. I've come for Cindy and that's the thing God expects of me, and I'm going to do it. I got to do it. I didn't do my sister right and she's burning in hell. I'm doing Cindy right. She said some of a prayer and she's baptized. Anything happened to her, wouldn't be on my conscience."
Widow Case trembled a bit. Cinderella lifted up her ghost-suit with her free hand to look at herself, and Widow Case saw that she was naked as a jaybird underneath.
"You let go of her arm right now, you pervert. And drop that pillercase…. Toss it on the couch would be better. It's clean."
He didn't do either.
Widow Case's teeth went together like a bear trap and made about as much noise, and she slashed at him with the knife.
He stepped back out of the way and let go of Cinderella, who suddenly let out a screech, broke and ran, started around the room yelling, "Wooooo, wooooo, goats."
Preacher Judd hadn't moved quick enough, and the knife had cut through the pillowcase, his coat and shirtsleeve, but hadn't broke the skin.
When Widow Case saw her slashed pillowcase fall to the floor, a fire went through her. The same fire that went through Preacher Judd when he realized his J.C. Penney's suitcoat—which had cost him, with the pants, $39.95 on sale—was ruined.
They started circling one another, arms outstretched like wrestlers ready for the run together, and Widow Case had the advantage on account of having the knife.
But she fell for Preacher Judd holding up his left hand and wiggling two fingers like mule ears, and while she was looking at that, he hit her with a right cross and floored her. Her head hit the coffee table and the ham and fixings flew up again.
Preacher Judd jumped on top of her and held her knife hand down with one of his, while he picked up the ham with the other and hit her in the face with it, but the ham was so greasy it kept sliding off and he couldn't get a good blow in.
Finally he tossed the ham down and started wrestling the knife away from her with both hands while she chewed on one of his forearms until he screamed.
Cinderella was still running about, going, "Wooooo, wooooo, goats," and when she ran by the Sylvania, her arm hit the foil-wrapped rabbit ears and sent them flying.
Preacher Judd finally got the knife away from Widow Case, cutting his hand slightly in the process, and that made him mad. He stabbed her in the back as she rolled out from under him and tried to run off on all fours. He got on top of her again, knocking her flat, and he tried to pull the knife out. He pulled and tugged, but it wouldn't come free. She was as strong as a cow and was crawling across the floor and pulling him along as he hung tight to the thick, wooden butcher-knife handle. Blood was boiling all over the place.
Out of the corner of his eye, Preacher Judd saw that his retard was going wild, flapping around in her ghost-suit like a fat dove, bouncing off walls and tumbling over furniture. She wasn't making the ghost sounds now. She knew something was up and she didn't like it.
"Now, now," he called to her as Widow Case dragged him across the floor, yelling all the while, "Bloody murder, I'm being kilt, bloody murder, bloody murder!"
"Shut up, goddamnit!" he yelled. Then, reflecting on his words, he turned his face heavenward. "Forgive me my language, God." Then he said sweetly to Cinderella, who was incomplete bouncing distress, "Take it easy, honey. Ain't nothing wrong, not a thing."
"Oh Lordy mercy, I'm being kilt!" Widow Case yelled.
"Die, you stupid old cow."
But she didn't die. He couldn't believe it, but she was starting to stand. The knife he was clinging to pulled him to his feet, and when she was up, she whipped an elbow around, whacked him in the ribs and sent him flying.
About that time, Cinderella broke through a window, tumbled onto the porch, over the edge and into the empty flowerbed.
Preacher Judd got up and ran at Widow Case, hitting her just above the knees and knocking her down, cracking her head aloud one on the Sylvania, but it still didn't send her out. She was strong enough to grab him by the throat with both hands and throttle him.
As she did, he turned his head slightly away from her digging fingers, and through the broken window he could see his retarded ghost. She was doing a kind of two step, first to the left, then to the right, going, "Unhhh, unhhhh," and it reminded Preacher Judd of one of them dances sinners do in them places with lots of blinking lights and girls up on pedestals doing lashes with their hips.
He made a fist and hit the widow a couple of times, and she let go of him and rolled away. She got up, staggered a second, then started running toward the kitchen, the knife still in her back, only deeper from having fallen on it.
He ran after her and she staggered into the wall, her hands hitting out and knocking one of the big iron frying pans off its peg and down on her head. It made a loud bong, and Widow Case went down.
Preacher Judd let out a sigh. He was glad for that. He was tired. He grabbed up the pan and whammed her a few times, then, still carrying the pan, he found his hat in the living room and went out on the porch to look for Cinderella.
She wasn't in sight.
He ran out in the front yard calling her, and saw her making the rear corner of the house, running wildly, hands close to the ground, her butt flashing in the moonlight every time the sheet popped up. She was heading for the woods out back.
He ran after her, but she made the woods well ahead of him. He followed in, but didn't see her. "Cindy," he called. "It's me. Ole Preacher Judd. I come to read you some Bible verses. You'd like that wouldn't you?" Then he commenced to coo like he was talking to a baby, but still Cinderella did not appear.
He trucked around through the woods with his frying pan for half an hour, but didn't see a sign of her. For a half-wit, she was a good hider.
Preacher Judd was covered in sweat and the night was growing slightly cool and the old Halloween moon was climbing to the stars. He felt like just giving up. He sat down on the ground and started to cry.
Nothing ever seemed to work out right. That night he'd taken his sister out hadn't gone fully right. They'd gotten the candy and he'd brought her home, but later, when he tried to get her in bed with him for a little bit of the thing animals do without sin, she wouldn't go for it, and she always had before. Now she was uppity over having a ghost-suit and going trick-or-treating. Worse yet, her wearing that sheet with nothing under it did something for him. He didn't know what it was, but the idea of it made him kind of crazy.
But he couldn't talk or bribe her into a thing. She ran out back and he ran after her and tackled her, and when he started doing to her what he wanted to do, out beneath the Halloween moon, underneath the apple tree, she started screaming. She could scream real loud, and he'd had to choke her some and beat her in the head with a rock. After that, he felt he should make like some kind of theft was at the bottom of it all, so he took all her Halloween candy.
He was sick thinking back on that night. Her dying without no God-training made him feel lousy. And he couldn't get those Tootsie Rolls out of his mind. There must have been three dozen of them. Later he got so sick from eating them all in one sitting that to this day he couldn't stand the smell of chocolate.
He was thinking on these misfortunes, when he saw through the limbs and brush a white sheet go by.
Preacher Judd poked his head up and saw Cinderella running down a little path going, "Wooooo, wooooo, goats."
She had already forgotten about him and had the ghost thing on her mind.
He got up and crept after her with his frying pan. Pretty soon she disappeared over a dip in the trail and he followed her down.
She was sitting at the bottom of the trail between two pines, and ahead of her was a clear lake with the moon shining its face in the water. Across the water the trees thinned, and he could see the glow of lights from a house. She was looking at those lights and the big moon in the water and was saying over and over, "Oh, priddy, priddy."
He walked up behind her and said, "It sure is, sugar," and he hit her in the head with the pan. It gave a real solid ring, kind of like the clap of a sweet church bell. He figured that one shot to the bean was sufficient, since it was a good overhand lick, but she was still sitting up and he didn't want to be no slacker about things, so he hit her a couple more times, and by the second time, her head didn't give a ring, just sort of a dull thump, like he was hitting a thick, rubber bag full of mud.
She fell over on what was left of her head and her butt cocked up in the air, exposed as the sheet fell down her back. He took a long look at it, but found he wasn't interested in doing what animals do without sin anymore. All that hitting on the Widow Case and Cinderella had tuckered him out.
He pulled his arm way back, tossed the frying pan with all his might toward the lake. It went in with a soft splash. He turned back toward the house and his car, and when he got out to the road, he cranked up the Dodge and drove away noticing that the Halloween sky was looking blacker. It was because the moon had slipped behind some dark clouds. He thought it looked like a suffering face behind a veil, and as he drove away from the Case's, he stuck his head out the window for a better look. By the time he made the hill that dipped down toward Highway 80, the clouds had passed along, and he'd come to see it more as a happy jack-o-lantern than a sad face, and he took that as a sign that he had done well.
"By Bizarre Hands" was originally published in 1988 in Hardboiled #9. It later appeared in By Bizarre Hands, a collection of Lansdale's short stories published by Avon Books, and in High Cotton: Selected Short Stories of Joe R. Lansdale, published by Golden Gryphon Press. "By Bizarre Hands" © 1988 Joe R. Lansdale. All rights reserved.
Come on back next week, kids, for more non-stop hilarity from Champion Mojo Storyteller Joe R. Lansdale! A new story will be posted on Thursday, July 25th!