Chief Paduke's Revenge

Several years ago my brother and I were talking about practical jokes we had played, stupid pranks and whatnot. My dad was around, and was laughing at the stories he hadn’t heard before, and pointing out the times we hadn’t been nearly as clever as we had thought. Now, my dad has a prankster’s heart, and we were fairly sure he had pulled off some good ones in his day, so we asked him about it. He laughed, and regaled us with the following tale.

One Hallowe’en back in the early 1940’s my dad and his pals were looking for a trick to pull on the unsuspecting citizens of Paducah, Kentucky, my home town. Now Paducah was named for Chief Paduke, a (probably mythical) Indian chief who “sold” some general the land which became Paducah. To venerate this brave warrior the people built a rather dignified granite statue of the chief in the middle of town.

So my dad and the other hooligans thought it would be cool as heck to light up ol’ Chief Paduke for Hallowe’en, and make him look all scary for the kids in the neighborhood. They went scouting around until they found a construction area, and … ahem … borrowed a flaming smudge pot, and placed it carefully on Paduke’s proudly crossed arms.

The effect, to hear him tell it, was quite striking. Here’s this solemn granite face a dozen feet in the air, lit from below with a fiery orange glow. I’m sure quite a few tykes nearly wet their ghost-sheets at the sight! It’ s the kind of thing folks would talk about for days to come.

In fact, all of Paducah was talking about it the next morning. Not, mind you, in the way my dad and his cronies had hoped, however. You see, in their glee at finding a suitable light source, they failed to take into account that smudge pots burn crude oil, producing copious amounts of thick, black, oily smoke, smoke which over the course of Hallowe’en night turned Chief Paduke black as midnight from the arms up. The city had to pay a considerable sum to have the statue sandblasted, and a general reward went out for information concerning the vandals responsible.

It should go without saying that my father did not confess.

All three of us had a good laugh about the story, and then filed it away. A few years later, my family visited Paducah to see my grandparents. (Work duties prevented me from accompanying them.)

According to reports my family was sitting around my Grandma Hall’s living room, telling stories as my family tends to do. My father told some kind of (undoubtedly true) tale at my brother’s expense, and my brother replied, “Well, at least I never turned Chief Paduke black!”

My father and Chief Paduke
My father and Chief Paduke
A hush fell, and then my Grandma Hall looked my father in the eye and said “Jimmy? You mean that it was you who did that? You ought to be ashamed of yourself! If Daddy Hall was still here he’d give you a whooping!” And according to my brother, my dad looked as sheepish as he’d ever seen him. For fifty years he’d gotten away with his crime, and suddenly it was all over.

All over but the hilarity, that is. Everyone present burst out laughing at both the revelation and my father’s response to it. Personally, I suspect my dad likes his Chief Paduke story even more, now. These days he gets to tell how he woulda gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for his blabbermouth son.

Grandma Hall died a couple of years later, but the story of old Chief Paduke lives on. Earlier this year we went back to Paducah, me, my father, and my brother, and while we were there we revisited the scene of my father’s crime.

You know, from looking at this picture, I don’t think he’s ashamed of himself at all.

Veranda

I am standing on the veranda behind my grandfather’s house in Kentucky; it is huge, like a plantation house. There are rocking chairs scattered about, and small tables beside them. A short series of wooden steps lead to the yard. Everything is clean and uncluttered.

In the yard the sun is shining brightly over the acres of dark grass. There are only a few solitary trees, ancient oaks standing watch, their leaves rustling gently. There are large black stones in several places, flat and wide, rising slightly over the close-cropped grass. I am puzzled, as I don’t remember seeing them before.

There are women on the veranda now, of varying ages, all dressed in simple white cotton dresses. They are sitting and reading, talking quietly among themselves, smiling, walking slowly and gracefully down the steps to the yard. I recognize them now – they are women I have known, past lovers, once-close friends, some I know from this life now. They seem to know me as well, though none speak to me.

I go to the yard and walk among them. They acknowledge my presence, but do not speak to me, just smile and then look away. I do not touch anyone, nor do I speak. As I near one of the flat stones, I see that it isn’t a stone at all, but a huge, fat lizard of some kind, with pebbled skin like tiny onyx beads. Sometimes two of three are twined together, basking in the bright sunlight. I look across the yard – there are dozens of small clusters scattered about.

I realize the women are in danger, but I cannot speak. I bend to pick up a lizard; as I do, it turns to me and opens its red, red mouth in a silent hiss, blank eyes staring. I grasp it quickly and stand, holding it close to my chest, then stoop to take another. I walk to the shadow of a tree and drop them; they climb quickly into the branches. I look up, and there are hundreds more, all gazing into me.

When I walk back into the light, many of the women have vanished. As I watch, a girl I loved when I was five bends to examine a pool of blackness on the lawn. There is a flash of obsidian, the girl staggers back, then fades slowly from view. I scan the yard, and I see another woman dissolve into memory.

Motionless in the unbearably bright sun, despair fills my heart.