The Man in Black Clothes
The man’s black clothes lay in a pile at the side of the railroad tracks – a neat, folded pile such as a man might make for clothes he meant to put in a dresser – shirt, slacks, jacket, socks. And set to one side, his black shoes and his black, tall-crown, wide-brim hat.
I stood a moment and stared at the little pile, then I looked all around to see was there anything else around that was odd like that, or any sign of the man himself. But for the narrow track that led to the river, there was an unbroken wall of vegetation all around. On either side, the tracks ran off into a distance made hazy by the summer heat.
I don’t suppose I stood and looked for long, for my fishing buddy Lester wouldn’t hear of it. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get going.” It was summer, we were country boys, and we wanted to fish.
“Wait a minute,” I said. I wanted to know, where was the stick? The man in black always carried with him a long walking stick like Moses. It went everywhere he went, and he was a mystery to us boys, this man dressed every day all in black, who wordlessly stalked the courthouse square. We did not know where he lived, nor how he made his living, but he was a feature in our small town. In winter, his heavy, black coat came down almost to his knees, but even in summer, he wore a jacket like my father wore to church. And a tie. A black tie, same as the shirt.
“Come on,” Lester said again.
“Wait a minute,” I said. I wanted to check for the tie, but Lester had already started down the path to the river. I looked as quick as I could. I wanted to catch up to Lester before he got too far, but I could see no sign of the tie. Nor, either, of the belt.
“That’s weird,” I said.
“I can’t remember,” Lester said. But he was not talking about the clothes. “Do we turn right or left?”
“We go to the right,” I reminded him. “Them clothes is weird,” I said again. “Why would he leave all his clothes in a pile like that?”
Lester pushed past me, down the path to the right. “Come on,” he said. “The worms will spoil in this heat.”
He had a point. It was two hundred yards or more to the river, on a narrow path through tall weeds, across land that had not been plowed or mowed for two years or more. I tried to put the man and his clothes out of mind and to concentrate, lest we got lost.
Which we did. I don’t know which of us lost the path, for we jostled back and forth for the lead and the path narrowed, and then gave out altogether. The Johnson grass reached higher than the tips of our Zebco rods and the cicadas rang in our ears like church-house bells.
“We should of brought his stick with us,” Lester said. “We could have used it to beat back these weeds.”
“I didn’t see no stick,” I said. In point of fact, I was kind of glad not to have found the stick. I always had a childish, superstitious fear of that man’s stick, which he seemed to use as some old men used a cane for he favored one leg. But if so, why not a cane like the other crippled-up old men? It bothered me no end, what with the black clothes, the high-crown black hat, and the man’s piercing black eye, stalking along with that stick, tall as the man himself, topped with a rounded knob and knuckled and veined all down its length as if it were still a living thing.
We looked around us. It was nearly as strange looking back as looking forward; it was as if the grasses had closed behind us as we passed. So there was nothing to do but to press on in the direction where we hoped the river lay.
We were hindered by our rods and tackle boxes and our cans of worms, but we heaved ourselves against the grasses. We kicked and stomped and elbowed our way through, raising clouds of dust and pollen over our heads until at last we found ourselves free of the walls of grass, nearly exhausted, thoroughly scratched and chiggered up, and we stood on a high bank overlooking the river in a grove of bone-white sycamores. There we saw, hanging in the crook of a tree from a gibbet fashioned from the strange man’s stick, tie, and belt, the man himself, blue in the face, pale and naked as a new-born bird.
We did not fish that day. Nor for a long time after.
header image: felix filnkoessl / flickr