Tuesday, 18 January 2011

REST STOP by Harris Tobias

Rest Stop

Four hooded Klansmen dragged the screaming woman out of her shack. Their leader motioned for the others to bind her wrists. The year was 1949 and the place was a lonely spot a mile from the small town of Doyline, Louisiana. Her crime was...well, there was no crime, not really. Unless being old, black and eccentric constituted criminal behavior. Apparently in the Jim Crow South at that time, it did.

Mama Ju was an old black woman, superstitious to a fault, given to herbs and spells and conjurin’ her potions that cured the sick and brought peace to the lovelorn. Her acts aroused the fears, or were they jealousies of her white neighbors who thought of her as a witch. Three hundred years after the hysteria at Salem, things hadn’t changed all that much. Being accused a witch in the rural south in 1949 brought out the same fear born of ignorance that burned those poor souls so long ago. As always, the Klan was there to help. People called her a witch, but what did that mean? People say all kinds of stuff, that doesn’t make them true.

The hooded leader tossed a rope over a branch of the big oak tree. A great living oak bearded with Spanish moss, it dwarfed the old woman’s shack and swallowed half the sky. He’d already tied a noose at one end. The old woman screamed and fought like the devil, but she could not match the three big men.

“You leave me be, Hal Boggs. Don’t think I don’t know you even with your bed sheet on. And you, Didi Kane, I knew you as a baby. Cured your fevers more’n once.”

The men paid her no heed.

If her words affected them, their masks hid any expression of guilt or dismay from the others. The men dragged her under the big oak and slipped the noose over her head. She was a tiny, skinny thing built more like a bird than a woman but she had a strength that belied her stature and her eyes held a fire that commanded respect. She set that fierce gaze upon her tormentors.

“A curse on you. A curse on all of you,” Mama Ju snarled. “I tell you to your faces you will rue this act. By all the saints and spirits I tell you your seed will not flourish on this Earth. Your issue will be poisoned and you will harvest only pain from your children.”

She might have said more, but Boggs had heard enough. He pulled the rope taught and together the four men pulled mama Ju off the ground, her feet twitched and jiggled a little flutter and then lay still. If she wasn’t a witch in her long years as a healer, she was one when she died. Mama Ju’s curse entered the ears of those ignorant young men and took up residence, sleeping and growing into a malevolent thing. 

By all accounts, Anthony Timms was the luckiest of the four. He never married and died young. He came back from a short stint in the Navy a broken man. No one knew the reason for his less than honorable discharge but there were rumors aplenty.

Homosexuality was the whispered cause and in a town like Doyline that was tantamount to a death sentence. Timms shrugged off the gossip with the aid of cheap wine and diet pills. He was a familiar sight on the streets of Doyline where he panhandled and slept it off in the park or the drunk-tank. He was bitter and unhappy. His brief engagement as the town drunk was cut short by the wheels of a Southern Pacific freight train that sliced the passed out Timms in half. Never having married, it can be said he avoided the curse entirely, but none of the others saw it quite that way.

The remaining three Klansmen, Hal Boggs, Didi Kane and Errol Haverstraw lived on and while they never again spoke of Mama Ju, they never forgot her words either. Despite the curse’s dire predictions of poisoned fruit and the end of their lines, all three young men went on to marry local girls and raise children after a fashion.

Errol Haverstraw, the youngest of the three, spent a few blissful months with his young bride before the Army drafted him for Korea. Before he left he managed to plant his seed. Juliann struggled with her pregnancy while Errol struggled with the North Koreans at the Battle of Bloody Ridge. He stepped on a mine and blew away his legs and his baby making equipment. Juliann got the news and immediately went into labor giving birth to a baby girl three months pre-mature. The baby was given oxygen and died from oxygen toxicity.

The post partum depression proved too much for Juliann’s fragile condition and she killed herself a few days before Errol returned home. Errol spent his remaining years in the dubious care of the Veteran’s Administration wondering what might have been.

Didi Kane escaped the draft but couldn’t escape his bad luck. He married Terry Short and settled down in Doyline working for Terry’s family’s construction business. He learned to operate heavy equipment and made a good living excavating basements and grading roads. He fathered three children with Terry and, from the outside, life looked pretty good. The Kanes enjoyed all the trappings of success—a fine house, swimming pool, nice cars, private schools for the children. Sure they had their problems, what couple doesn’t? They fought about inconsequential things. He drank and lost his temper. After one noisy fight, Didi stormed out of the house and accidentally ran over his daughter who was playing in the driveway. A year later, Terry and their youngest son were killed in a traffic accident on route 261 when a semi, hauling cattle, lost its brakes. Their last child, a boy of eleven was attacked and killed by a neighbor’s Rottwielers. Kane responded to the tragedy by shooting the dogs and the neighbors. He spent the rest of his life in prison replaying the events of that day.

Long before Didi Kane flipped out and shot his neighbors, Hal Boggs was convinced that the curse was real. As soon as he was able he moved his pregnant wife, Lulu, as far away from Doyline as he could get. The Boggs’ moved to Seattle, WA, where Hal got into real estate and made quite a success of himself. Lulu and Hal had just one child, Hal Jr., due to problems with Lulu’s ovaries they considered themselves lucky to have that. The boy grew up smart and strong and privileged. Since he was an only child he was spoiled and indulged. They poured all their hopes and dreams into the boy. Hal jr. was an exceptional child, a fine athlete and scholar, he was their pride and joy.

As the years passed, Hal Sr. began to relax. He found religion and tried to be a better person. When he thought about his past and the awful things he’d done, he felt sorry and prayed for forgiveness. As he aged, he re-invented himself into a crusader against injustice changing both his politics and his racist ideas. He gave generously to charities that benefited black causes and made sure his son embraced the same ideas. He went about as far as a man could in reversing the course of his life and atoning for his racist past.

Hal Jr. grew into a fine young man. He graduated from college with honors and a young woman he asked to be his bride. Hal and Lulu were ecstatic about the thought of grandchildren. The future looked sunny, Hal was sure he’d beaten the curse. The past was buried and forgotten just like Mama Ju. That terrible night under the big tree was a dim memory, which he never spoke of and never thought of.

The world had changed in the 25 years since the lynching—the civil rights movement, the interstate system, jet travel, a man on the moon. There was no place for witches, curses and all that mumbo jumbo.

Hal Jr. got married the summer he graduated from college and before starting medical school. For their honeymoon, the young couple decided on a road trip to New Orleans. They took their time driving through Northern California and South to see the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas then drifting East to Louisiana. The trip was leisurely and the young couple were happy and in love. When they crossed into Louisiana something happened to change the mood of the journey.

Call it fate or happenstance, call it destiny or the power of a dying woman’s words, but the trip across Louisiana brought Hal Jr. and Francis Boggs East on Interstate 20 to a rest stop just outside of Doyline. Hal knew that his father had grown up there but he had never seen the place. He had little interest in the town but thought he and Francis might drive through and tell the old man what they saw. Francis had been driving when the Boggs’s pulled in to use the rest room. The couple got out and stretched. It was a beautiful morning.

Francis went off in search of the ladies room and Hal Jr. walked around getting the kinks out of his back. He looked around and saw the tree, a magnificent old oak spreading its shade over the picnic area. He stood frozen staring at that tree and knew what he had to do. It was a compulsion, it locked his protesting rational mind in a box and took over his will. He went back to the car and found a length of rope in the trunk. He walked stiffly toward the tree his hands fashioning a slipknot of their own accord. He climbed up on the picnic table and tied the rope to a low branch. People at neighboring tables stopped their chatter and watched in disbelief as the handsome young man slipped the noose around his neck and, without the slightest hesitation, jumped from the table. Francis exited the lady’s room and looked around. When what she saw finally registered she gasped and ran to the dangling man.

Harris Tobias was raised by robots disguised as New Yorkers. Despite an awkward childhood he learned to read and write. To date Mr. Tobias has published two detective novels, The Greer Agency and A Felony of Birds, to critical acclaim. In addition he has published short stories in Down in the Dirt Magazine, Literal Translations, Electric Flash and Ray Gun Revival. He currently lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.


  1. Harris, you manage to bring emotion and meaning to short fiction. Good one.

  2. As always, Harris Tobias is never disappointing!

  3. Harris- I liked the simple style you delivered this with and also how the story unfolded so smoothly right to suprise ending.

  4. The dark description of the oak lynching really set the scene and we knew all would not be well. I really enjoyed the subsequent matter of fact delivery, and the way the curse played out reminded me of The Monkey's Paw. A great write, Tobias - I was hooked.

  5. Never mess with a witch. Good story.