‘When tyranny becomes law, rebellion becomes duty…’ – Thomas Jefferson
Most North Carolinians would simply have described this day as ‘really, really hot’.
But Gerald liked to read… a lot, and thus he was more articulate than someone who would merely have described this day as ‘hot’.
Gerald would have instead said, ‘today is sultry’. ‘Hot’ didn’t quite describe today’s stifling humidity, or the languid torpor that seemed to drain a body of any trace of vitality. ‘Hot’ didn’t quite do justice to…
Gerald hung his head miserably, wiping a tear from his chubby cheek. Today was Saturday; normally he’d be sitting on his bed, hiding from the sun in his trailer home and reading comic books…
But he wasn’t.
He wasn’t because today, on this sultry, miserable afternoon, old Pappy was being laid to rest.
Gerald closed his eyes, listening to the preacher droning on and on. It didn’t seem right, thought Gerald, that this minister was giving Pappy’s eulogy; it would have seemed more fitting for one of Pappy’s dear friends to have given it.
Pappy hardly even knew this minister, after all, although he would occasionally have a few of the church deacons over. ‘A bit of religion never hurt nobody, boy,” he used to tell Gerald, usually while taking an unhealthy slug from his moonshine crock. “A man’s gotta remember the Almighty once in a while, don’t he? Don’t seem right to go through life without rememberin’ your Maker ever’ now and again.”
Gerald smiled a little as he felt a gentle hand taking his own. At his right stood Kylie McGuinness, his dearest friend in the world. Kylie was pretty, with her sky-blue eyes and blonde ringlets, and popular; she was the polar opposite of chubby, sallow, scorned Gerald.
Pappy wasn’t any relation to Gerald; for all Gerald knew, he wasn’t any relation to anyone. He was just a nice old man who loved to sit on his front porch, waiting for someone to walk by and chat with him. His ramshackle old house sat smack in the middle of Watsonville; the town had tried to condemn it many times, but the old man had always managed to beat the system. And it was a good thing that he did, too, because Pappy had more than ‘a touch’ of agoraphobia. He never left his wreck of a house, and always bribed local boys to deliver his groceries for him. As for his moonshine and pipe tobacco, well… his local ‘shine’ supplier was more than happy to make house calls, since Pappy was his best customer.
Gerald loved old Pappy…
Gerald’s parents were no kind of parents at all, neither his shrewish, chain-smoking mother nor his beer-swilling, loud-mouthed father. His home life was well-nigh unbearable, but whenever home became too much to bear…
Pappy was always there.
Pappy listened to Gerald; he was kind to Gerald. He always shared his half-burnt meals, and his door was always open. There was something in Gerald that desperately needed a Father Figure, and there was obviously something inside of Pappy that yearned to feel needed, to be seen as something other than a cast-off, dismissible old man.
Death had shattered that bond now; a part of Gerald wanted fiercely to regret that he, at the tender age of ten, had chosen an octogenarian as his mentor…
But he couldn’t; Pappy had meant too much to him.
Gerald watched with blurred vision as Pappy’s casket was lowered into the ground. The town, in the absence of a will, had claimed his house. While the house had been condemned, the property had turned out to be quite valuable; thus, money had been set aside for a decent burial.
Gerald was grateful for that.
Pappy had no actual relatives here, at least as far as Gerald could tell. Had Pappy always been alone? Or had he just outlived his entire family?
Somehow, that didn’t seem to matter. Nearly the whole town was here, all of the friends and neighbors that lovable old Pappy had mingled with throughout the long years that had been his life. He may not have had any living family, but he had a wealth of friends.
The crowd dispersed at last, eager to flee the punishing heat as the gravediggers moved in on the plot. Soon the cemetery employees would back-fill the yawning hole in the ground; soon, Pappy would become one with the earth.
Gerald turned, letting go of Kylie’s sweating hand. “Yes, Sir?” he said politely.
The minister knelt before Gerald. (Gerald noticed absently that his hair gel was melting.)
“Pappy left this for you,” said the minister, handing Gerald a small envelope. “It was found on his mantle, next to a note saying to give it to you in the event of his passing.”
Gerald looked away, pushing his glasses up as his eyes flooded anew with tears.
“Thank you,” murmured Gerald, as Kylie took his hand once more. “Ever so much.”
“You’re welcome, Son,” said the minister, rising and patting Gerald awkwardly on his chubby shoulder. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“What is it?” asked Kylie curiously, swishing her black skirt to fan herself as the minister walked away.
“I don’t know,” said Gerald, opening the envelope.
Whatever was in the envelope would be priceless, this Gerald instinctively knew.
Inside was a plain white card, folded in half.
Gerald opened it with bated breath. Only two words were written inside, in Pappy’s shaky scrawl…
Remember Punkin, it read.
“What does that mean?” asked Kylie, raising a pretty eyebrow.
Gerald suppressed a sob, and lovingly folded up the card.
“It’s a long story…” he quavered.
“My dad’s been belly-aching all morning,” Gerald said sourly, taking a bite of something that was very badly burnt. (Pappy claimed that it was meatloaf, but Gerald was a bit skeptical of the description.) “He didn’t vote for the new mayor, so since his guy lost now the whole town’s gonna fall apart.”
“Well, some men don’t know how to just let be,” said Pappy wisely, chasing his bite of ‘meatloaf’ with a slug from his ever-present moonshine jar.
“I suppose,” said Gerald, drowning his next bite underneath a flood of cheap ketchup (in the hopes that his meal would taste less like used charcoal). “I mean, it’s just the mayor.”
“Did I ever tell you about Watsonville’s first mayor?” said Pappy, taking another bite without bothering with any condiment except liquor.
“You remember the first mayor?!” said Gerald, choking as he swallowed his charred excuse for meatloaf.
“Shore, boy,” said Pappy, taking another slug as he swatted a fly that didn’t seem bothered by the deplorable quality of the food. “When I were born, Watsonville was run by the town council. It weren’t until the railroad came through that we decided we needed a mayor.”
“Who was he?”
“Well…” said Pappy, “he were a strange sort of fella, came from up north. He was short, with spindly little arms and legs, and a fat belly. He kinda looked like a spider. He had these thick glasses that made him look like an owl, too. He had this mustache that stuck way out from his head, and he had a grin like a shark.”
“He sounds kind of weird,” said Gerald.
“He always wore this suit with patched elbows, and tails on the jacket. He always wore this old beat-up top hat, too. Sure, boy… he was kinda weird.”
“So did he have to run for the mayor’s office? You know, like win an election and all?”
“Well, sure. But everyone knew he’d win,” said Pappy, pushing his travesty of a meal aside and reaching for his pipe. “He could talk the bark right off a tree, that fella. Smooth as a baby’s ass, his talkin’ was. Bunyip was his name, and the local children started calling him Uncle Bunyip.”
“That sounds downright ridiculous!” laughed Gerald, following Pappy’s lead and pushing his plate aside. “What kind of name is ‘Bunyip’?”
“Well, his name didn’t sound so ‘ridiculous’ when he won his election by a landslide,” said Pappy, lighting his pipe with a match. “Everybody was happy for the new mayor, except this one young fella.”
“And who was that?” asked Gerald curiously.
“There was this one boy,” said Pappy, blowing out a puff of smoke. “I never knew his name, but everybody called him Punkin.”
“Pumpkin?” said Gerald.
“Yep,” said Pappy. “He were an orphan, but he lived in his Daddy’s old house just outside of town. He musta been about thirteen; he got by doin’ farm labor.”
“They just let him live all alone?” said Gerald. “Being just a kid, and all?”
“Times was different back then, I reckon,” said Pappy, taking a long draw from his pipe. “People was just kinda used to letting well enough alone, you know? So yep, Punkin lived all by hisself.”
“So why didn’t Pumpkin like the mayor?” asked Gerald.
“He said the mayor was a bad man,” said Pappy. “Said he saw him creepin’ around houses, making nice with the ladies when their husbands weren’t home. He said that he saw the Yankees who ran the railroad meeting with Uncle Bunyip out in the woods, where no one could see. He said ol’ Bunyip was selling out our town to outsiders, just to line his own pockets.”
“Was all that true?” asked Gerald.
“I dunno,” shrugged Pappy. “But Punkin believed it, and he made so much ruckus that Uncle Bunyip had to give a speech to explain hisself. Oh, he was in fine form, ol’ Bunyip. He talked all nice and smooth, and did this little jig with his tiny feet as he waved his arms about… It was really something to see.”
“And then what happened?”
“I’ll never forget that night,” said Pappy soberly, blowing another cloud of smoke. “I remember Punkin. He was this skinny red-headed kid, and he always wore this old pair of worn-out denim overalls. He was freckly, and he always had this dirty coon-skin hat that he wore, summer and winter both. Well, when Uncle Bunyip finished his speech, Punkin stepped toward the front of the crowd, all by hisself. Everybody took a step back, waiting for him to speak. Punkin was all alone, the one fella who had the balls to say what no one else would.”
“And what did he say?” asked Gerald, waving the wafting pipe smoke away from his face.
“He pointed straight at Uncle Bunyip, and I’ll never forget his face. He was angry, for shore, but he was also brave. He was gonna say what he was gonna say, and he didn’t care if he had to say it all by hisself or not.”
“But what did he say?!” pressed Gerald.
“He pointed right at ol’ Bunyip,” said Pappy, “and he said this: YOU’RE THE DEVIL!!! I SEEN YOU, AND YOU AIN’T FOOLIN’ ANYONE!!!”
“And what happened then?” asked Gerald.
“Everyone laughed at Punkin,” said Pappy. “Even me. I didn’t know why I was laughin’, mind you. I guess I just figured that everyone else was laughin’, so I should too. I’ve always been ashamed of myself for that night.”
“Why?” asked Gerald.
“’Cuz Punkin was brave, and I wasn’t,” said Pappy. “’Cuz Punkin believed in something, and I just went along with the crowd.”
“But what if Punkin was wrong?” asked Gerald. “About Uncle Bunyip being the Devil?”
“That’s what I told myself,” said Pappy, swatting away a fly. “But that was before Bunyip shut down the church.”
“What?” asked Gerald. “He shut down the church? How do you even do that?”
“He got the town council to pass a motion,” said Pappy. “He said with the railroad coming through, our town was gonna become more ‘diverse’. Hell, boy, most of us had to look that word up in the dictionary. He said a big church might offend Jews, or Muslims, or people who weren’t religious at all. So he said we should shut down the big church, and let Christian folk just meet in houses like they did in the old days. He said that would be best for the town, and he scheduled a big speech on a Saturday afternoon to explain hisself.”
“So were you at his speech?” asked Gerald.
“I was,” said Pappy. “But before I went, I finally found some sand in myself. I went to Punkin the night before, in his shack out in the swamp.”
“What did you tell him?” asked Gerald.
“I said he should skip town,” said Pappy. “I told him that folks were talking, and the word ‘lynch’ was coming up more and more often. Remember, son, this was over seventy years ago… Watsonville still had an active Ku Klux Klan chapter back then. Uncle Bunyip used to talk trash about the Klan being ‘lawless’ and all, but that’s another thing Punkin said… He swore he saw Bunyip and the Grand Wizard meeting in the woods. He said Uncle Bunyip was even makin’ backdoor deals with the same folks he said he hated.”
“Wow…” said Gerald.
“Punkin gave me the saddest look you ever seen when I warned him,” said Pappy. “But he agreed that he should leave town. Said he had one more thing to do first, though.”
“What was that?” asked Gerald.
“Well, I wouldn’t find out until the next day…” said Pappy.
“What happened the next day?” pressed Gerald, pushing his glasses up his chubby nose.
“Well, Uncle Bunyip showed up in front of the whole town to give his speech, explaining why he shut down the church. I seen me some fellas I knew were in the Klan, waiting for Punkin to show up again…”
“And did Pumpkin show up?” asked Gerald.
“Yer damn right he did, boy!” said Pappy, taking a draw from his pipe. “Ol’ Bunyip started his speech, doin’ his little jig…”
“And…?” said Gerald.
“And Punkin walked right through the crowd, holding a whisky bottle. Er’body knew Punkin’s late daddy was a drunk, so he had plenty of bottles layin’ around. And Punkin loved to hunt, with the old black-powder rifle his daddy left him…”
“So?” prodded Gerald.
“So Punkin walked towards Uncle Bunyip, as cool as a cucumber. He was holding a bottle filled with black powder, and a lit toilet-paper wick burning through the neck. I was there. I seen him, boy; that kid had murder in his eyes!”
“So what happened?” asked Gerald breathlessly.
“Uncle Bunyip tried to sweet-talk Punkin, but Punkin weren’t having it… so as the Klan boys moved in to protect the mayor, Punkin hauled off n’ chucked that bottle!”
“What happened then?!” asked Gerald, moving away from the edge of the porch. It had begun raining heavily, and quite suddenly; southern thunderstorms worked that way, and both Gerald and Pappy were quite used to them.
“Well…” said Pappy, chasing a draw from his pipe with a gulp of moonshine, “Punkin’s bomb went off, boy-howdy!”
“Did he kill the mayor?” whispered Gerald.
“Boy, I’ma tell you something I ain’t never told anyone!” said Pappy firmly. “But this here’s the damn gospel truth. I done seen it with my own two eyes, and I ain’t ever gonna forget it!”
“So what happened?”
“Punkin done blew up Uncle Bunyip, sure as shit!” said Pappy. “His black-powder bomb went off right in his damn face, and no man coulda survived that! Even the Klan boys took a step back…”
“So he killed the mayor, then?”
“No…” said Pappy, shaking the ashes from his pipe onto his plate. “Boy, I ain’t ever told anyone this. But I’ma tell you, on account of I love you more’n Life Itself.”
“So what happened?!” demanded Gerald, anticipating the end of yet another one of Pappy’s tall tales.
“There were an explosion, and a big cloud of smoke,” said Pappy. “We expected to see pieces of Uncle Bunyip scattered all over the town square…”
“So did Punkin kill the mayor?”
“Yes… and no,” said Pappy, taking another drink. “The smoke started to clear, and the townsfolk waited until it did…”
“And what happened to the mayor?!”
“There weren’t no mayor,” said Pappy grimly. “A man rose from the smoke, a tall, strong man. He was standing just where our skinny-ass mayor had been standing. He used to be the mayor, that man… but he weren’t the mayor no more!”
“Who was he?”
“He was tall, that fella,” said Pappy. “He was dressed all in black, and he had this handsome face, a face any girl would love. He had long, black, curly hair, too… but what I’ll remember ‘til I die were his eyes!!! Yellow, they were, and evil as all hell!”
“So where did the mayor go?”
“That’s what I’m telling you, boy!” snapped Pappy. “That man was the mayor, in his true form at last! And I knew right then that Punkin was right all along. We’d elected the Devil, for certain sure. I seen it with my own two eyes. I were just a boy, but I seen it and I’ll put my hand on the Bible over it.”
“So where did the yellow-eyed man go?”
“He ran into the smoke, and we never seen him again. But I felt the evil drifting off him, boy. And I knew right then that I did right to warn Punkin. He disappeared that night, Punkin did, and didn’t no one never see him again.”
“So where’s Punkin now?” asked Gerald.
“I dunno,” shrugged Pappy. “No one does, I reckon. But he did right, Punkin. He stood strong even when no one believed him. He had the guts to stand alone, whether other folks stood by him or not. And he was right about everything; Uncle Bunyip was the Devil! He was ol’ Scratch, Satan hisself; I seen him.”
“Is this just another one of your stories?” asked Gerald suspiciously, ducking away from the rain.
“Maybe it is, and maybe it ain’t,” shrugged Pappy, rising. “But remember this, boy: If you wanna get by in this world – if you don’t wanna be a damn weenie – remember Punkin. He fought a lil’ war all by hisself. He told the truth even when no one else believed him. The preachers say that cowards ain’t gonna inherit the good Lord’s kingdom… and Punkin warn’t no coward, not by a damn sight! I’ll never forget his freckly face, or his worn-out coonskin hat. That boy had more sand than any man I’ve ever met before or since, and that’s a fact.”
Gerald wiped a splash of rain from his face, and pushed his chair further into the porch. “I don’t wanna walk home in this,” he said plaintively. “And my dad’s gonna be drunk, and Mom’s gonna chew me out for coming home late…”
“You can have the spare bedroom, boy,” said Pappy kindly. “I’ll call your mammy, and tell her you’re safe with me. I’ll make us breakfast in the morning, okay?”
Most boys wouldn’t have been comforted by the ominous prospect of runny eggs and burnt bacon, but Gerald was not most boys. “Thank you, Pappy,” he said gratefully.
Pappy stumbled towards his front door, fighting to find the doorknob. “Have a good night’s sleep, boy,” he said comfortingly. “And remember Punkin, would you? He was a strong boy. You gotta be strong in this world, boy, or it’s gonna run your ass right over.”
And that… was the last time Gerald ever saw Pappy alive.
Pappy called nine-one-one in the middle of the night, reporting chest pains. The ambulance took him away, without even bothering to check that anyone else might be sleeping in the run-down old house.
But before he went to bed for the last time, Pappy left a note on the mantle.
It was raining again, but Gerald knelt before the gravestone nevertheless.
Here Lies Pappy…, read the opening line of the epitaph.
Pappy’s legal name followed the opening line. No one ever used the name, and thus Gerald didn’t even bother to read it. There was also a ‘born here and dead there’ date after it, and Gerald cared little for that information either. Pappy’s life and death were etched firmly in his young mind, and memory accomplished for him what the calendar never could.
All he could think about were Pappy’s final words to him, lovingly written down on the very night of his demise: Remember Punkin…
Punkin had the strength to stand alone, when no one else believed him. Punkin went toe-to-toe with his enemy, despite the knowledge that he was facing the prospect of his own lynching.
Maybe Pappy’s story was fact, and maybe it was fiction. Gerald had known Pappy to tell more than a few tall tales over the years…
But fact or fiction, Punkin’s tale resonated powerfully in Gerald’s young heart.
Gerald rose, and pulled his hood over his head to shield off the pounding rain.
And then he heard something, the sound of someone walking away from the cemetery…
Gerald turned toward the sound, suddenly afraid. Maybe it was the rainstorm that frightened him, or maybe it was just memory. Either way, Gerald ducked behind the trees, watching as a moonlit silhouette tottered slowly away from the graveyard.
It looked, obscured as it was, like the form of a stooped old man…
Shivering from the cold, Gerald re-traced his steps back to Pappy’s grave.
Sitting atop the sodden marble headstone was a threadbare coon-skin cap. It was a small cap, a cap sewn to fit a young boy…
Remember Punkin, would you? Pappy had said. He was a strong boy. You gotta be strong in this world, boy, or it’s gonna run your ass right over.”
“SIR!” shouted Gerald. “You left your hat! Sir…?”
But answer there came none.
Gerald hung his head for a moment…
And then he lovingly picked up the sodden hat, and placed it upon his own head.
Maybe Pappy’s story was the gospel truth, or maybe it was just another well-spun piece of fiction; one could never tell with Pappy. But Gerald would never forget Pappy’s final words: