Edward Tug was nobody special to Step Hall, especially now that he was a dead man. Step waited on shore while Fred Titus and Elmo pulled the body onto the grass and laid him next to the half-submerged boat they’d found drifting among the cypress stumps that morning. Edward Tug himself had washed into the cypress cove and come to rest against a broken branch dragging in the water. Two fat ducks had paddled noiselessly around the body, diving now and then for bottom grass, then flicking their tails sharply before bobbing upright. They were still paddling near the farthest stumps, undisturbed by the men.
Step nudged the toe of his shoe against what remained of the boat. It was made of old waterlogged pieces of road timber strapped to a mule watering trough, the whole thing not much bigger than a coffin. Any fool would have known with just one look that the thing would never stay afloat.
But Edward Tug was worse than a fool. He was in love. Or had been, as of last night when he was still a living man. Now he was no better than the rotting hunks of soggy timber dragged up on shore. The only difference was that Tug would be put into a dry box and planted several feet deep in the ground, whereas the old boat would be left where it lay to break apart and sink into the mud and eventually support a growth of quack grass, bramble, and locust bush, thus returning to the earth at a somewhat different rate than the man who had built it.
Tug had come to work at neighboring Red Leaf plantation not a year ago, and somehow in that short time his bloodhound nose had sniffed out young Lizzie Birdsong at Sweet Hope, and he’d been courting her a month now. At first he’d been able to take the short route across the lake–walking on water, they called it–over the wide sandbar that appeared in summer at low water. But with nearly a month of rain, the lake had risen enough to cover the bar. If he’d been free to cross in daylight, he might have tried slogging through water over his knees, but at night there was no way to tell where the submerged bar lay.
What did it matter now, anyways? Step wondered. Dead was dead.
They hauled Edward Tug’s body up onto the grass and rolled him on his back. “I suppose somebody gotta go tell Miss Lizzie,” Fred Titus said.
They studied the dead man. His face was young and peaceful, with one side of his mouth turned up a little, like he had just thought of something pleasant. “What about over to Red Leaf?” Elmo asked. “Ain’t he got no family?”
Step Hall shook his head at the foolishness of Elmo’s question. “Was a travelin’ man,” Fred Titus told him.
“Look like he come to the end of the road,” Elmo answered.
They rolled the dead man inside a tarp and hefted him onto the back of Step’s wagon. It was getting toward midmorning, and the air was hot and steamy and full of lake sounds, frogs and buzzing insects and splashing fish and calling birds. They had to get moving. This last onslaught of rain and flooding had caused a lot of damage. Farmers were still pulling out flattened, rotting plants and cutting broken branches in hopes of giving the standing cotton a chance to recover, a chance neither the crops nor man nor animal would have had if the levee had broken like it had threatened. The rain had come at a bad time, with some of the crop starting to open up, though many of the plants were still in boll and looked like they might make it. There were worse things that could have happened–a tornado tearing through the fields and ripping out entire acres, or rain and flooding when the bolls were all opened. There was no saving green cotton battered down into the muddy earth by wind and rain. Still, what had happened was bad enough. He could forget about ending up with any spending money this year, that was for sure.
He’d been working with Fred that morning, helping him pick through his swamped field, when Elmo came huffing up to them talking about a body in the lake. “You just seein’ things,” they told Elmo. “You dreamin’, ain’t woke up yet.” But they’d followed him anyway. Now the man lay before them, dead as any dream they might have had.
“That’s that, I guess,” Fred Titus said, as he shoved the load a little deeper into the wagon bed. The men stood there a minute longer, looking at the rolled-up tarp.
Finally Step climbed into the wagon. “I’ll come back and finish helping you, Fred. Soon’s I’m done.” He slapped the reins, and the mule creaked forward.
Once he’d pulled onto the soft, yellow-dirt road from the lake, he felt something loose fall and settle around the wagon, like a curtain moving in a summer breeze. The mule’s ears twitched forward and back, as if she had felt it too. Step Hall would not allow himself to turn and look back over his shoulder into the wagon bed. “No sir,” he said out loud, and he watched the mule’s ears twitch again. Edward Tug was a sighing, weeping force behind him. Nothing worse than a man called away in the middle of love. “Wasn’t my doing,” Step Hall thought. “All I did was stop you from becoming fish food and lake bottom. Just you remember that.”
The dead man groaned. It was one thing to be called to the other side when your life was hard and miserable and lonely and painful. But this was plain bad luck, the worst bad luck of all, to finally have some little spark of love, the sap running through your limbs making you a new man, only to be cut down with no fair warning, drowned in muddy water while your heart was beating and your body stirring after the one thing that could make you feel good about being alive.
The curtain fluttered in the breeze behind Step Hall as Edward Tug mulled over his bad luck and tried to find a way out to finish his unfinished business with Lizzie Birdsong.
Step kept his eyes straight ahead on the mule’s backside. He’d known plenty of dead men at Sweet Hope. There were his parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, his sister, two of his own children and his first wife, and what amounted to a town full of friends. And then there were all the workers, the Italian tenants and their children on the plantation who’d died of fever or accidents. Like now, the fields dotted with mostly Italian workers, some blacks. How many of them, this time next year, he wondered.
Ghosts didn’t bother him the way they seemed to get under the skin of some people, maybe because he now knew more dead people than living. It was all a matter of figuring out how to act right with them, and both sides had to figure it out, both the living and the dead.
For the dead, the first few days were the hardest. Even the ones who’d been wasting away in bed for months with no hope of recovery seemed surprised to find themselves finally and actually on the other side. Not even a dying man can fully believe that his life is really going to end, Step Hall had learned. It always took them a while to get used to the idea of no longer being alive.
Of course, he had no plans of going there anytime soon, not if he had anything to say on the matter. A man with a wife and children had responsibilities. A man with a job like his could not just take up and leave. Still, he thought now and then about what it would be like. Hard not to, living at Sweet Hope.
The mule creaked on out past Fish Bayou and rounded the corner near the company office. Mr. Horton stood at the loading dock, sucking his teeth and eyeing Step.
“Where you think you goin’?” Horton said when the wagon neared him.
“Got a load to deliver to Red Leaf, Mr. Horton,” Step told the man. “Just picked it up now.”
“What you talkin’ about, ‘load’?” Horton said. He hitched his pants and started down the ramp. Step studied the mule’s rear end while he listened to Horton poke around the back, reach in, and move the tarp aside.
“What in hell?” the man said.
“Found him in the lake,” Step told him. “He’s from Red Leaf.”
“What the God Almighty was he doing in the lake over here?” Horton said. He walked around to face Step Hall. “What was he coming over this way for? You know this man?”
“No, sir,” Step answered. “Just know he from Red Leaf. Maybe fell in fishing and got washed over with the high waters.”
Horton studied Step’s face, looking for the lie, and a reason for it. “You don’t know this man, but you know he’s from Red Leaf?”
“Yes, sir,” Step answered.
Horton squinted at Step, considering. “You know too much for your own damn good, I can tell you that much,” he told him.
Step lowered his eyes. “No sir, Mr. Horton, I don’t know nothin’. Ceps that a dead man is got to be buried.”
Horton kept his eyes on Step, as if he would challenge him. Not all white folks believed that a dead black man needed to be buried. Step had seen more than one of his people flung into the swamp for their final resting.
The workers would sneak back after hours and try to retrieve the body, but sometimes it had already been swallowed up by the muck.
A mosquito settled on Step’s leg, and he watched it walk toward his knee, then stop.
“I better see this wagon pulling back here in half an hour,” Horton told him.
“Yes, sir. Won’t even take me no half hour.” He brushed the mosquito away.
“I’ll be watchin’ for you,” Horton said.
Step shook the reins, nudging the mule forward. They curved around the bayou and out onto the big road.
Edward Tug sighed.
The road to Red Leaf was bordered by fields that looked to be in better shape than sections of Sweet Hope. The land was a little higher, so it drained better. Some of the land was part of another small plantation, owned by two brothers, but some, as he headed west, made up the outer reaches of Red Leaf. It would take him twenty minutes at a good clip to reach the office, and at least that long to get back, and no telling how long to unload his wagon; Horton knew this as well as he did. Just try to make a mule walk at a clip, though.
He felt the air open up around him, and the wide space made him breathe deeply, like there was something freer out there where the road was wide and went somewhere. He knew it was only his mind playing tricks, but he liked the feeling anyway. He’d been on this road plenty of times, and he’d been to the village and back, and to other places, too, all over the states of Arkansas and Mississippi and down into Louisiana, even up to Tennessee a couple times. When he was younger he’d had ideas. There was that time he worked with his cousin at the wagon works, and they’d had big plans of starting their own business, and then there were the farms he’d worked on that he was going to own someday, once he just paid off his share. Even now, didn’t he talk about doing something with that handful of chickens he owned? Another plan that started out fine but didn’t go anywhere. You can take a road like this, a dirt road, he thought, or a good, solid cobblestone road in a big city, and it don’t matter; they all come out the same place.
“Even if you takin’ a boat,” Edward Tug said. The curtain fluttered; the dead man sighed. Goin’ back to Red Leaf, didn’t he know it.
“At least you had a taste of love,” Step thought to Edward Tug. “Some men don’t even get that.”
Step Hall had tasted. He had sat down at the table and eaten until he was full, and then he had just kept on eating. And he wasn’t just talking about the body part of love, the kind that drives a dog across two counties with its tongue dragging in the dirt and its eyes all crazy. He’d had that kind when he was young, and later with his first wife, too, though it was just starting to turn into the other kind when she took sick with snakebite. Body love was probably the only kind Edward Tug had tasted, being a young man, but you never knew what was inside a person.
It wasn’t until Step met Fancy that he learned there was another kind of love, something that lifted you up outside yourself so you were like a ghost, riding up on the air, touching her as she rose up in the air too. It was another part of you, separate from your body, but connected to it, too–so scary it felt good, and so good it felt scary. He called it soul love.
Body love would drive you across a flooded lake in a leaky tub on a pitch-black night with no thought that any trouble could come your way–all for the purpose of scratching a hundred-year itch between your legs. Soul love might find you sinking in the same leaky boat, only this time you’d be laying down your life on purpose for the one you loved, never mind the itch.
When he was younger he would have done crazy things for body love, but lay down his life for some gal? Not a chance. Now, though, for his children or his wife, if they were in danger, wouldn’t he go swimming through a snake-filled swamp to save them? Or run into a burning barn if they were trapped inside? It made him shudder, imagining the leaping flames, hearing his babies cry, not knowing if he was going to lose them.
“Maybe I just got too much time for thinkin’,” Step told himself. Edward Tug sighed behind him.
“Tell me about too much time.”
And then there it was again: Step saw his son Tobe’s face, that time a couple years back, the river sweeping the boy away. That look in his eyes. “Daddy,” the boy had cried out, weak and helpless, a little calf. Step had not gone into that water. An Italian, Serafin Pascala, was already swimming toward the boy by the time Step reached the bank. And then Serafin stretched his arm out and clamped his hand onto Tobe’s arm and fought the current, trying to get them both back to dry land while the bunch of men–they’d been out there haying–stood watching, calling, throwing a rope that washed back empty each time.
He’d looked at that scene a hundred times or more since it happened. Him standing there on dry land with his jaw hanging slack while the other man saved his son. Why hadn’t his own legs moved? he’d asked himself more than once. Why hadn’t he even thought of jumping in? But the man was already in the river by the time Step arrived, and can’t all of you jump in.
Minutes after Serafin laid the dripping, exhausted boy safe on shore, Step looked at the scene for the first time, trying to get a clear view. No matter which way he looked, though, the picture stayed muddied.
“What I think I know about love?” he asked himself. “I don’t know nothing.” It killed him, always coming back to that place.
And what if Serafin hadn’t made it to shore? What if Step had had to live the rest of his life knowing he had stood on shore watching, doing nothing? Losing his son? He couldn’t imagine it.
“Didn’t you just tell me I ain’t got it so bad?” Edward Tug asked him.
“Who’s talkin’ to you?” Step Hall said, his voice rising. He looked around at the flat green land, scattered with weary workers, but nobody was close enough to pay him any mind. “Anyways,” he told Edward Tug, “when it’s your time and you’re called, that’s different. Wasn’t my boy’s time.”
The back of the wagon rattled. It was Edward Tug’s turn to raise his voice. “What the hell kind of time you call that, drowning me on the way to a long, sweet night of love? Wish’t somebody come along to save me. I would’ve been saved, don’t have to ask me twice.”
This was getting somewhere deep for Step. What if it really had been his boy’s time, and the Italian had interfered? But he wasn’t sure you could interfere with the hand of God. Step shook his head, trying to make his mind go somewhere else. But it just wouldn’t break loose all the way. He watched his boy getting carried farther downstream.
“What’s it like?” he found himself asking Edward Tug. “Drowning?”
The wagon rocked over the soft earth while Edward Tug mulled the question. “Hard to say,” he finally said. “You don’t feel the water no more. You all filled up and hot inside, and it feel like you waitin’ forever for somethin’ to give. It’s kind of sweet.”
Step Hall pondered the answer. “Don’t sound like drownin’ to me.”
“I should know.”
“Sound like you mixin’ up how it feel bein’ with your gal.”
The wagon shook slightly from side to side, and the mule laid its ears back and raised its head, as if trying to turn to look at what was causing the commotion in the wagon. It was Edward Tug having a good laugh. “I think you got that right.”
Step hadn’t meant it as a joke. He was trying to figure things out, that was all. But he chuckled, in spite of himself.
It felt like one of those times when you’d like to pass a bottle back to a friend, offer him a drink and then take a good long pull yourself. But Step had no bottle, and as far as he knew, ghosts could not drink or eat or partake in any human bodily functions.
“Don’t know ‘bout that,” Edward Tug said. “I can pass on the whiskey, but got me some other business I’d like to tend to.”
Step squinted up the road ahead of him, shaking his head. He saw the pecan grove, up on the left. The road into Red Leaf was just on the other side.
“Red Leaf coming up,” Step announced. “Coming home.”
The wagon went still and heavy, and for a moment Step wondered if Edward Tug had left him. Good riddance, he thought.
“I’m not keen on gettin’ buried, you know,” Edward Tug told him.
This was the last thing he needed, a scared ghost. “Mr. Horton like to throw you in the swamp, if you want.”
“Nor that,” Edward Tug said.
“What’s the matter, you gettin’ cold feet?”
“My feets been cold since last night,” Edward Tug reminded him.
Step passed the pecan grove and turned down the drive to Red Leaf. They passed the long, low wagon building and then the mule yard. A couple of men looked up.
“‘S’pose I should take you straight to the company office,” Step Hall said. Edward Tug started moaning. The mule lifted its head and snorted, then let out a high-pitched bray that sounded almost as pitiful as the man.
“They better not ask me to go diggin’ no hole,” Step said. “This ain’t my business. I got my own business over to Sweet Hope.”
Edward Tug moaned. “Gonna be blacker than inside this tarp. Colder than that lake. Not a sound in the world, my ears all stopped up with mud.”
He was giving Step Hall the goose-skin. “You a ghost,” Step reminded him. “You don’t have to stay there if you don’t like it.” But as soon as the words came out of his mouth he regretted them. A man didn’t want to go giving somebody like Edward Tug ideas. “What I means, you got no ears to stop up anymore.”
“I hear you all right, don’t I?”
Step pulled the wagon up in front of the Red Leaf office and climbed down. By the time his feet touched the dirt, Mr. Lane, the manager, was standing there to meet him.
“Got something belong to you,” Step told the man.
Mr. Lane cocked his head in that high way that said, what in the world could a colored sharecropper have of mine? But he followed Step to the back of the wagon, curious as an old dog eyeing a bone.
Step pointed to the rolled-up tarp. “Pulled him out of the lake at Sweet Hope this mornin’,” he told Mr. Lane. “Washed up into the cypress stumps, man worked for you.”
Mr. Lane stared at the tarp a minute, as if he was trying to see how the piece of spotty, mildewed canvas amounted to the man Step Hall was talking about. Then he furrowed his brow. “Less see,” he said.
Step grabbed the end of the tarp with both hands and pulled it toward him. It didn’t come easily. First it snagged on a broken floorboard so that he had to rock the tarp and jerk it forward to free it. It was heavy, like a big sack full of lead weights. He pulled the tarp around and rolled Edward Tug over, dragged the whole thing back toward himself and rolled him over again, unwrapping the man. The motion reminded Step of Fancy kneading out her biscuit dough, except this dough was hard and stiff. Tug was all tensed up, refusing to help out at all.
Step lifted the tarp aside to reveal the man, and it nearly took his breath away. A cold, ashy stranger lay before him, hair and clothes damp and dirty and flattened to the body like they’d been painted on. The pleasant expression had turned to a grimace, and the face looked hard and sunken now, and in distress. It was funny how when you held somebody in your mind they took on certain features, so that when you saw them in person again it came as a surprise. They didn’t look anything like what they’d turned into in your head. The way Step saw it, Edward Tug was a sassy, likeable young fellow. But in the flesh he was nothing more than a washed-up corpse, the flesh already settling down into itself.
Mr. Lane leaned forward to have a look. He gazed at the body for a minute, the way anybody will pause to look at death and see himself briefly, and then see that it is not himself after all, and be relieved.
“Take him on down the end of this road to the big pile of rubbish,” Lane told Step Hall. “Got a couple boys workin’ there’ll know what to do with him.”
Step knew better than to wait for a thank-you. Mr. Lane wandered back into the Red Leaf office, and Step laid the tarp gently over Edward Tug’s ashy face and drove the wagon on down the road.
It wasn’t far to go, but it was a long ride just the same. He felt that heaviness riding in back of him, the self-righteous silence, Edward Tug’s anger at both Step Hall and fate. In that silence, Step wrangled with the two opposing pictures in his mind: the spunky young fellow he’d been having a conversation with and the unrecognizable corpse in the back of his wagon. Even the mule stepped lightly. If he didn’t know better, Step would have said the animal was trying to walk on its tiptoes out of respect.
What’s done is done, he thought. It was sad, though.
In a short while he’d be back helping Fred Titus clean out his field, and then they’d move on to his own field, where Fred would turn around and help him. He tried to tally up the damages, but the numbers wouldn’t stay put in his head. It didn’t look like anybody at Sweet Hope would be making a profit this year. Probably most, himself included, wouldn’t even break even. Another long, lean winter.
The dead man sniffled. Step Hall pretended not to hear.
He pulled the wagon up at the rubbish heap, where two dusty black men were unloading dried stalks and branches from a wagon and feeding them into a bonfire they had going. Another pile as big as a cotton shack loomed off to the side, and every now and then one of the men stabbed a pitchfork into that heap and swung a fork full of debris into the fire. The fire seemed to burn in the same slow, lazy way the men worked. They glanced up at Step Hall and nodded. He waited for them to stop working and come see what he wanted. The man with the pitch fork stabbed it into the pile so it jutted out at an angle. He ran his hands down the side of his pants and stood looking at Step. The other man laid both his hands on the side of the wagon he’d been unloading and stood leaning into it, as if he was trying to catch his breath or else think of something profound to say. “Mornin’,” Step called to the men. “Boss told me to give you this.” He pointed with his thumb to the back of his wagon. “Got a dead man needs burying.”
The men looked at him as if he had just asked them if they could nail a few slats up on a pig shed.
“Where you want him?” Step asked the man.
“That ain’t my brother Zachary?” the man with the pitchfork asked in a startled way.
“This nobody’s brother,” Step told him. “This Edward Tug, that fancy young fellow.”
“Figures,” the pitchfork man said, looking annoyed.
“Where you want him?” Step asked again.
“What about a box?” the leaning-over man asked. “Boss say put him in a box?”
“Didn’t say nothin’ ‘bout no box, just say bring him to you boys.”
“How come he don’t take him up to the graveyard?” the other man said.
“Now how I’m supposed to know that?” the man answered. “How I’m supposed to know the reason for anything Mr. Lane say to do?”
“I don’t even know where I’m gonna find me a shovel,” the other man said.
“Tellin’ us to burn this rubbish, now tellin’ us go dig a hole,” the leaning-over man said. He pushed himself away from the wagon and straightened up. “You got any dip on you?” he asked his friend.
The man stuck his hands in his pockets and felt around. One of the hands poked right through the pants and came out down on the man’s thigh, and Step watched the hand wiggle around and then disappear back into the pants.
“I hope he don’t expect me to dig no hole with no pitchfork,” the other man said.
“How ‘bout I just leave him here while you two figure this out?” Step said. He said it in a friendly way. “I got a farm to tend to, and boss told me to get right back.”
“Samuel got a shovel over to his place,” the leaning-over man said. Now he patted his shirt pocket, except there was no pocket there, just a flap of cloth hanging from one corner.
“Wish’t he’d make up his mind what he want us to do,” the pitchfork man said.
“First he tell us don’t let this fire go out, now what? What about this fire?”
The other man shook his head, still patting his clothes. He looked at Step. “You got any dip on you I can borrow?”
“Sorry,” Step told the man. “Never touch it.”
“Well, then, I guess we just gonna let this fire burn out then,” the other man said.
Step went to pull Edward Tug’s body off the wagon. He figured he’d put it on the ground and then drive away while the other two debated what to do. When he reached for the tarp, he saw that a couple of flies were buzzing around it, and it made him indignant. He swatted them away with such force that the two men looked over to see what he was doing.
He grabbed the end of the tarp and slid it toward him, off the back of the wagon. He held the end that was Edward Tug’s head and shoulders, but it was like a sandbag packed tight and dried hard as a rock. “You gotta help me,” he implored Edward Tug.
The man who had held the pitchfork looked insulted as he approached. “We was comin’ to that,” he told Step Hall.
“I didn’t mean—” Step answered.
The other man sauntered over. They gripped different parts of Edward Tug and slid him off the wagon. The two men grunted with the weight of him as they tried to carry the body to lay near the side of the dry rubbish heap. Step felt his throat tighten as he helped carry the dead man. Edward Tug’s silence and heaviness wounded him. It was as if the dead man was trying to tell him that his death and everything that was happening to him were Step’s fault.
They dropped the weight near the heap and it made a heavy thud against the dirt.
“You sure you got a body in there?” the leaning-over man asked. “You sure you ain’t wrapped up some railroad ties or a big sack of river rocks?”
The other man straightened up, then put his hand to the small of his back as he looked down at the tarp.
“I come back to get the tarp,” Step Hall told them. “It belong to Sweet Hope.” He turned to go.
“Don’t leave me,” Edward Tug told him.
He stopped in his tracks and turned around to stare at the tarp.
“What’s the matter?” the one man asked.
Step looked into their faces to see if they had heard. “That man,” Step told them, pointing to the tarp. “I don’t owe him nothin’.”
They looked at him curiously. “Awright,” the leaning-over man said. Step climbed into his wagon.
“You give me my last ride,” Edward Tug said desperately. “That’s next to savin’ me.”
Step stared over at the heap of tarp, his face rigid. He looked at the men, but they didn’t pay him any mind as they resumed debating what to do about the fire. To be on the safe side, Step answered the man with his thoughts. “I didn’t save you. You done already drowned before I come along.” He glared hard at the tarp. Then he shook the reins and started moving.
“You the only friend I got,” Edward Tug pleaded.
“Oh hell,” Step said out loud. The two men looked up at him and shrugged sympathetically. They nodded to him as he pulled the wagon back out onto the dirt road and drove away. He could still hear the fire crackling behind him, and he let out a little sigh of relief. This was one dead man he could be thankful he was leaving behind.
He had almost reached the Red Leaf store when he heard the familiar voice come trailing across the fields to him: “Tell Miss Lizzie I’ll be lookin’ her up.”
Mary Bucci Bush’s book of short stories, A Place of Light , was republished by Guernica Editions in 2007. Her new novel, Sweet Hope, about Italians and African Americans living and working together on a Mississippi Delta cotton plantation 1901-1906 has just been accepted for publication by Guernica Editions. Her fiction has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies. She is a professor of English and Creative Writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
She can be contacted at mbbucci [at] aol [dot] com.