Stills above are from A Case of the Stubborns, the televised episode based on Robert Bloch’s short story. It aired on December 2, 1984 as episode 9 during season 1 of Tales from the Darkside. (See link after the story…)*
When a crusty old man like Grandpa didn’t believe he was dead, it took more than medical science, and a lot less than most people would think, to convince him otherwise . . . a delightfully creepy story by the author of Psycho.
The morning after he died, Grandpa come downstairs for breakfast.
It kind of took us by surprise.
Ma looked at Pa, Pa looked at little sister Susie, and Susie looked at me. Then we all just set there looking at Grandpa.
“What’s the matter?” he said. “Why you all staring at me like that?”
Nobody said, but I knowed the reason. Only been last night since all of us stood by his bedside when he was took by his attack and passed away right in front of our very eyes. But here he was, up and dressed and feisty as ever.
“What’s for breakfast?” he said.
Ma sort of gulped. “Don’t tell me you fixing to eat?”
“Course I am. I’m nigh starved.”
Ma looked at Pa, but he just rolled his eyes. Then she went and hefted the skillet from the stove and dumped some eggs on a plate.
“That’s more like it,” Grandpa told her. “But don’t I smell sausages?”
Ma got Grandpa some sausage. The way he dug into it, they sure was nothing wrong with his appetite.
After he started on seconds, Grandpa took heed of us staring at him again.
“How come nobody else is eating?” he asked.
“We ain’t hungry,” Pa said. And that was the gospel truth.
“Man’s got to eat to keep up his strenth,” Grandpa told him. “Which reminds me—ain’t you gonna be late at the mill?”
“Don’t figure on working today,” Pa said.
Grandpa squinted at him. “You all fancied up this morning. Shave and a shirt, just like Sunday. You expecting company?”
Ma was looking out the kitchen window, and she give Grandpa a nod. “Yes indeedy. Here he comes now.”
Sure enough, we could see ol’ Bixbee hotfooting up the walk.
Ma went through the parlor to the front door—meaning to head him off, I reckon—but he fooled her and came around the back way. Pa got to the kitchen door too late, on account of Bixbee already had it and his mouth open at the same time.
“Morning, Jethro,” he said, in that treacle-and-molasses voice of his. “And a sad grievous morning it is, too! I purely hate disturbing you so early on this sorrowful occasion, but it looks like today’s another scorcher.” He pulled out a tape-measure. “Best if I got the measurements so’s to get on with the arrangements. Heat like this, the sooner we get everything boxed and squared away the better, if you take my meaning—”
“Sorry,” said Pa, blocking the doorway so ol’ Bixbee couldn’t peek inside. “Needs be you come back later.”
“How much later?”
“Can’t say for sure. We ain’t rightly made up our minds as yet.”
“Well, don’t dilly-dally too long,” Bixbee said. “I’m liable to run short of ice.”
Then Pa shut the door on him and he took off. When Ma come back from the parlor. Pa made a sign for her to keep her gap shut, but of course that didn’t stop Grandpa. “What was that all about?” he asked. “Purely a social call.”
“Since when?” Grandpa looked suspicious. “Ol’ Bixbee ain’t nobody’s friend—him with his high-toned airs! Calls hisself a Southern planter. Shucks, he ain’t nothing but an undertaker.”
“That’s right, Grandpa,” said sister Susie. “He come to fit you for your coffin.”
“Coffin?” Grandpa reared up in his seat like a hog caught in a bobwire fence. “What in bo-diddley blazes do I need with a coffin?”
“Because you’re dead.”
Just like that she come out with it. Ma and Pa was both ready to take after her but Grandpa laughed fit to bust.
“Holy hen-tracks, child—what on earth give you an idee like that?”
Pa moved in on Susie, taking off his belt, but Ma shook her head. Then she nodded to Grandpa.
“It’s true. You passed on last night. Don’t you recollect?”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with my memory,” Grandpa told her. “I had me one of my spells, is all.”
Ma fetched a sigh. “Wasn’t just no spell this time.”
“A fit, mebbe?”
“More’n that. You was took so bad, Pa had to drag Doc Snodgrass out of his office—busted up the game right in the middle of a three-dollar pot. Didn’t do no good, though. By the time he got here you was gone.”
“But I ain’t gone! I’m here.”
Pa spoke up. “Now don’t git up on your high horse, Grandpa. We all saw you. We’re witnesses.”
“Witnesses?” Grandpa hiked his galluses like he always did when he got riled. “What kind of talk is that? You aim to hold a jury-trial to decide if I’m alive or dead?”
“Save your sass, sonny.” Grandpa stood up. “Ain’t nobody got a right to put me six feet under ’thout my say-so.”
“Where you off to?” Ma asked.
“Where I go evvy morning,” Grandpa said. “Gonna set on the front porch and watch the sights.”
Durned if he didn’t do just that, leaving us behind in the kitchen.
“Wouldn’t that frost you?” Ma said. She crooked a finger at the stove. “Here I went and pulled up half the greens in the garden, just planning my spread for after the funeral. I already told folks we’d be serving possum-stew. What will the neighbors think?”
“Don’t you go fret now,” Pa said. “Mebbe he ain’t dead after all.”
Ma made a face. “We know different. He’s just being persnickety.” She nudged at Pa. “Only one thing to do. You go fetch Doc Snodgrass. Tell him he’d best sashay over here right quick and settle this matter once and for all.”
“Reckon so,” Pa said, and went out the back way. Ma looked at me and sister Susie. “You kids go out on the porch and keep Grandpa company. See that he stays put ’til the Doc gets here.”
“Yessum,” said Susie, and we traipsed out of there. Sure enough, Grandpa set in his rocker, big as life, squinting at cars over the road and watching the drivers cuss when they tried to steer around our hogs.
“Lookee here!” he said, pointing. “See that fat feller in the Hupmobile? He came barreling down the road like a bat outta hell—must of been doing thirty mile an hour. ’Fore he could stop, ol’ Bessie poked out of the weeds right in front of him and run that car clean into the ditch. I swear I never seen anything so comical in all my life!”
Susie shook her head. “But you ain’t alive, Grandpa.”
“Now don’t you start in on that again, hear!” Grandpa looked at her, disgusted, and Susie shut up. Right then Doc Snodgrass come driving up front in his big Essex and parked alongside ol’ Bessie’s pork-butt. Doc and Pa got out and moseyed up to the porch. They was jawing away something fierce and I could see Doc shaking his head like he purely disbelieved what Pa was telling him.
Then Doc noticed Grandpa setting there, and he stopped cold in his tracks. His eyes bugged out.
“Jumping Jehosephat!” he said to Grandpa. “What you doing here?”
“What’s it look like?” Grandpa told him. “Can’t a man set on his own front porch and rockify in peace?”
“Rest in peace, that’s what you should be doing,” said Doc. “When I examined you last night you were deader’n a doornail!”
“And you were drunker’n a coot, I reckon,” Grandpa said.
Pa give Doc a nod. “What’d I tell you?”
Doc paid him no heed. He come up to Grandpa. “Mebbe I was a wee bit mistaken,” he said. “Mind if I examine you now?”
“Fire away.” Grandpa grinned. “I got all the time in the world.”
So Doc opened up his little black bag and set about his business. First off he plugged a stethyscope in his ears and tapped Grandpa’s chest. He listened, and then his hands begun to shake.
“I don’t hear nothing,” he said.
“What do you expect to hear—the Grand Ol’ Opry?”
“This here’s no time for funning,” Doc told him. “Suppose I tell you your heart’s stopped beating?”
“Suppose I tell you your stethyscope’s busted?”
Doc begun to break out in a sweat. He fetched out a mirror and held it up to Grandpa’s mouth. Then his hands got to shaking worse than ever.
“See this?” he said. “The mirror’s clear. Means you got no breath left in your body.”
Grandpa shook his head. “Try it on yourself. You got a breath on you would knock a mule over at twenty paces.”
“Mebbe this’ll change your tune.” Doc reached in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “See for yourself.”
“What is it?”
“Your death certificate.” Doc jabbed his finger down. “Just you read what it says on this line. ‘Cause of death—card-yak arrest.’ That’s medical for heart attack. And this here’s a legal paper. It’ll stand up in court.”
“So will I, if you want to drag the law into this,” Grandpa told him. “Be a pretty sight, too—you standing on one side with your damfool piece of paper and me standing on the other! Now, which do you think the judge is going to believe?”
Doc’s eyes bugged out again. He tried to stuff the paper into his pocket but his hands shook so bad he almost didn’t make it.
“What’s wrong with you?” Pa asked.
“I feel poorly,” Doc said. “Got to get back to my office and lie down for a spell.”
He picked up his bag and headed for his car, not looking back.
“Don’t lie down too long,” Grandpa called. “Somebody’s liable to write out a paper saying you died of a hangover.”
When lunchtime come around nobody was hungry. Nobody but Grandpa, that is.
He set down at the table and put away black-eyed peas, hominy grits, a double helping of chitlins, and two big slabs of rhubarb pie with gravy.
Ma was the kind who liked seeing folks enjoy her vittles, but she didn’t look kindly on Grandpa’s appetite. After he finished and went back on the porch she stacked the plates on the drainboard and told us kids to clean up. Then she went into the bedroom and come out with her shawl and pocketbook.
“What you all dressed up about?” Pa said.
“I’m going to church.”
“But this here’s only Thursday.”
“Can’t wait no longer,” Ma told him. “It’s been hot all forenoon and looking to get hotter. I seen you wrinkle up your nose whilst Grandpa was in here for lunch.”
Pa sort of shrugged. “Figgered the chitlins was mebbe a little bit spoiled, is all.”
“Weren’t nothing of the sort,” Ma said. “If you take my meaning.”
“What you fixing to do?”
“Only thing a body can do. I’m putting evvything in the hands of the Lord.”
And off she skedaddled, leaving sister Susie and me to scour the dishes whilst Pa went out back, looking powerful troubled. I spied him through the window, slopping the hogs, but you could tell his heart wasn’t in it.
Susie and me, we went out to keep tabs on Grandpa. Ma was right about the weather heating up. That porch was like a bake-oven in the devil’s own kitchen. Grandpa didn’t seem to pay it any heed, but I did. Couldn’t help but notice Grandpa was getting ripe.
“Look at them flies buzzing ’round him,” Susie said.
“Hush up, sister. Mind your manners.”
But sure enough, them old blueflies buzzed so loud we could hardly hear Grandpa speak. “Hi, young ’uns,” he said. “Come visit a spell.”
“Sun’s too hot for setting,” Susie told him.
“Not so’s I can notice.” He weren’t even working up a sweat.
“What about all them blueflies?”
“Don’t bother me none.” Big ol’ fly landed right on Grandpa’s nose and he didn’t even twitch.
Susie begun to look scared. “He’s dead for sure,” she said.
“Speak up, child,” Grandpa said. “Ain’t polite to go mumbling your elders.”
Just then he spotted Ma marching up the road. Hot as it was, she come along lickety-split, with the Reverend Peabody in tow. He was huffing and puffing, but she never slowed until they fetched up alongside the front porch.
“Howdy, Reverend,” Grandpa sung out.
Reverend Peabody blinked and opened his mouth, but no words come out.
“What’s the matter?” Grandpa said. “Cat got your tongue?”
The Reverend got a kind of sick grin on his face, like a skunk eating bumblebees.
“Reckon I know how you feel,” Grandpa told him. “Sun makes a feller’s throat parch up.” He looked at Ma. “Addie, whyn’t you go fetch the Reverend a little refreshment?”
Ma went in the house.
“Well now, Rev,” said Grandpa. “Rest your britches and be sociable.”
The Reverend swallowed hard. “This here’s not exactly a social call.”
“Then what you come dragging all the way over here for?”
The Reverend swallowed again. “After what Addie and Doc told me, I just had to see for myself.” He looked at the flies buzzing around Grandpa. “Now I wish I’d just took their word on it.”
“Meaning a man in your condition’s got no right to be asking questions. When the good Lord calls, you’re supposed to answer.”
“I ain’t heard nobody calling,” Grandpa said. “Course my hearing’s not what it used to be.”
“So Doc says. That’s why you don’t notice your heart’s not beating.”
“Onny natural for it to slow down a piece. I’m pushing ninety.”
“Did you ever stop to think that ninety might be pushing back? You lived a mighty long stretch, Grandpa. Don’t you reckon mebbe it’s time to lie down and call it quits? Remember what the Good Book says—the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.”
Grandpa got that feisty look on his face. “Well, he ain’t gonna taketh away me.” Reverend Peabody dug into his jeans for a bandana and wiped his forehead. “You got no cause to fear. It’s a mighty rewarding experience. No more sorrow, no more care, all your burdens laid to rest. Not to mention getting out of this hot sun.”
“Can’t hardly feel it.” Grandpa touched his whiskers. “Can’t hardly feel anything.”
The Reverend give him a look. “Hands getting stiff?”
Grandpa nodded. “I’m stiff all over.”
“Just like I thought. You know what that means? Rigor mortis is setting in.”
“Ain’t never heard tell of anybody named Rigger Morris,” Grandpa said. “I got me a touch of the rheumatism, is all.”
The Reverend wiped his forehead again. “You sure want a heap of convincing,” he said. “Won’t take the word of a medical doctor, won’t take the word of the Lord. You’re the contrariest old coot I ever did see.”
“Reckon it’s my nature,” Grandpa told him. “But I ain’t unreasonable. All I’m asking for is proof. Like the feller says, I’m from Missouri. You got to show me.”
The Reverend tucked away his bandana. It was sopping wet anyhow, wouldn’t do him a lick of good. He heaved a big sigh and stared Grandpa right in the eye.
“Some things we just got to take on faith,” he said. “Like you setting here when by rights you should be six feet under the daisies. If I can believe that, why can’t you believe me? I’m telling you the mortal truth when I say you got no call to fuss. Mebbe the notion of lying in the grave don’t rightly hold much appeal for you. Well, I can go along with that. But one thing’s for sure. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust—that’s just a saying. You needn’t trouble yourself about spending eternity in the grave. Whilst your remains rest peaceful in the boneyard, your soul is on the wing. Flying straight up, yesiree, straight into the arms of the Lord! And what a great day it’s fixing to be—you free as a bird and scooting around with them heavenly hosts on high, singing the praises of the Almighty and twanging away like all git-out on your genuine eighteen carats solid golden harp—”
“I ain’t never been much for music,” Grandpa said. “And I get dizzy just standing on a ladder to shingle the privy.” He shook his head. “Tell you what—you think heaven is such a hellfired good proposition, why don’t you go there yourself?”
Just then Ma come back out. “We’re fresh out of lemonade,” she said. “All’s I could find was a jug. I know your feeling about such things, Reverend, but—”
“Praise the Lord!” The Reverend snatched the jug out of her hand, hefted it up, and took a mighty swallow.
“You’re a good woman,” he told Ma. “And I’m much beholden to you.” Then he started down the path for the road, moving fast.
“Here, now!” Ma called after him. “What you aim to do about Grandpa?”
“Have no fear,” the Reverend said. “We must put our trust now in the power of prayer.”
He disappeared down the road, stirring dust.
“Danged if he didn’t take the jug!” Grandpa mumbled. “You ask me, the onny power he trusts is in that corn-likker.”
Ma give him a look. Then she bust out crying and run into the house.
“Now, what got into her?” Grandpa said.
“Never you mind,” I told him. “Susie, you stay here and whisk those flies off Grandpa. I got things to attend to.” And I did.
Even before I went inside I had my mind set. I couldn’t hold still to see Ma bawling that way. She was standing in the kitchen hanging on to Pa, saying, “What can we do? What can we do?”
Pa patted her shoulder. “There now, Addie, don’t you go carrying on. It can’t last forever.”
“Nor can we,” Ma said. “If Grandpa don’t come to his senses, one of these mornings we’ll go downstairs and serve up breakfast to a skeleton. And what do you think the neighbors will say when they see a bag of bones setting out there on my nice front porch? It’s plumb embarrassing, that’s what it is!”
“Never you mind, Ma,” I said. “I got an idea.”
Ma stopped crying. “What kind of idea?”
“I’m fixing to take me a hike over to Spooky Hollow.”
“Spooky Hollow?” Ma turned so pale you couldn’t even see her freckles. “Oh, no, boy—”
“Help is where you find it,” I said. “And I reckon we got no choice.”
Pa took a deep breath. “Ain’t you afeard?”
“Not in daylight,” I told him. “Now don’t you fret. I’ll be back afore dark.”
Then I scooted out the back door.
I went over the fence and hightailed it along the back forty to the crick, stopping just long enough to dig up my piggy-bank from where it was stashed in the weeds alongside the rocks. After that I waded across the water and headed for tall timber.
Once I got into the piney woods I slowed down a smidge to get my bearings. Weren’t no path to follow, because nobody never made one. Folks tended to stay clear of there, even in daytimes—it was just too dark and too lonesome. Never saw no small critters in the brush, and even the birds kep’ shut of this place.
But I knowed where to go. All’s I had to do was top the ridge, then move straight on down. Right smack at the bottom, in the deepest, darkest, lonesomest spot of all, was Spooky Hollow.
In Spooky Hollow was the cave.
And in the cave was the Conjure Lady.
Leastwise I reckoned she was there. But when I come tippy-toeing down to the big black hole in the rocks I didn’t see a mortal soul, just the shadows bunching up on me from all around.
It sure was spooky, and no mistake. I tried not to pay any heed to the way my feet was itching. They wanted to turn and run, but I wasn’t about to be put off.
After a bit I started to sing out. “Anybody home? You got company.”
“It’s me—Jody Tolliver.”
I was wrong about the birds, because now when I looked up I could see the big screech-owl glaring at me from a branch over yonder near the cave.
And when I looked down again, there she was—the Conjure Lady, peeking out at me from the hole between the rocks.
It was the first time I ever laid eyes on her, but it couldn’t be no one else. She was a teensy rail-thin chickabiddy in a linsey-woolsey dress, and the face under her poke-bonnet was black as a lump of coal. Shucks, I says to myself, there ain’t nothing to be afeard of—she’s just a little ol’ lady, is all.
Then she stared up at me and I saw her eyes. They was lots bigger than the screech-owl’s, and twice as glarey.
My feet begun to itch something fierce, but I stared back. “Howdy, Conjure Lady,” I said.
“Whoooo?” said the screech-owl.
“It’s young Tolliver,” the Conjure Lady told him. “What’s the matter, you got wax in your ears? Now go on about your business, you hear?”
The screech-owl give her a dirty look and took off. Then the Conjure Lady come out into the open.
“Pay no heed to Ambrose,” she said. “He ain’t rightly used to company. All’s he ever sees is me and the bats.”
“The bats in the cave.” The Conjure Lady smoothed down her dress. “I beg pardon for not asking you in, but the place is purely a mess. Been meaning to tidy it up, but what with one thing and another—first that dadblamed World War and then this dadgummed Prohibition—I just ain’t got round to it yet.”
“Never you mind,” I said, polite-like. “I come on business.”
“Reckoned you did.”
“Brought you a pretty, too.” I give it to her.
“What is it?”
“Thank you kindly,” said the Conjure Lady.
“Go ahead, bust it open,” I told her.
She whammed it down on a rock and the piggy-bank broke, spilling out money all over the place. She scrabbled it up right quick.
“Been putting aside my cash earnings for nigh onto two years now,” I said. “How much is they?”
“Eighty-seven cents, a Confederate two-bits piece, and this here button.” She kind of grinned. “Sure is a purty one, too! What’s it say on there?”
“Keep Cool With Coolidge.”
“Well, ain’t that a caution.” The Conjure Lady slid the money into her pocket and pinned the button atop her dress. “Now, son—purty is as purty does, like the saying goes. So what can I do for you?”
“It’s about my Grandpa,” I said. “Grandpa Titus Tolliver.”
“Titus Tolliver? Why, I reckon I know him! Use to run a still up in the toolies back of the crick. Fine figure of a man with a big black beard, he is.”
“Is turns to was,” I told her. “Now he’s all dried up with the rheumatiz. Can’t rightly see too good and can’t hear for sour apples.”
“Sure is a crying shame!” the Conjure Lady said. “But sooner or later we all get to feeling poorly. And when you gotta go, you gotta go.”
“That’s the hitch of it. He won’t go.”
“Meaning he’s bound-up?”
“Meaning he’s dead.”
The Conjure Lady give me a hard look. “Do tell,” she said.
So I told. Told her the whole kit and kaboodle, right from the git-go.
She heard me out, not saying a word. And when I finished up she just stared at me until I was fixing to jump out of my skin.
“I reckon you mightn’t believe me,” I said. “But it’s the gospel truth.”
The Conjure Lady shook her head. “I believe you, son. Like I say, I knowed your Grandpappy from the long-ago. He was plumb set in his ways then, and I take it he still is. Sounds to me like he’s got a bad case of the stubborns.”
“Could be,” I said. “But there’s nary a thing we can do about it, nor the Doc or the Reverend either.”
The Conjure Lady wrinkled up her nose. “What you ’spect from them two? They don’t know grit from granola.”
“Mebbe so. But that leaves us betwixt a rock and a hard place—’less you can help.”
“Let me think on it a piece.”
The Conjure Lady pulled a corncob out of her pocket and fired up. I don’t know what brand she smoked, but it smelled something fierce. I begun to get itchy again—not just in the feet but all over. The woods was darker now, and a kind of cold wind come wailing down between the trees, making the leaves whisper to themselves.
“Got to be some way,” I said. “A charm, mebbe, or a spell.”
She shook her head. “Them’s ol’-fashioned. Now this here’s one of them newfangled mental things, so we got to use newfangled idees. Your Grandpa don’t need hex nor hoodoo. Like he says, he’s from Missouri. He got to be showed, is all.”
The Conjure Lady let out a cackle. “I got it!” She give me a wink. “Sure ’nough, the very thing! Now just you hold your water—I won’t be a moment.” And she scooted back into the cave.
I stood there, feeling the wind whooshing down the back of my neck and listening to the leaves that was like voices whispering things I didn’t want to hear too good.
Then she come out again, holding something in her hand.
“Take this,” she said.
“What is it?”
She told me what it was, and then she told me what to do with it.
“You really reckon this’ll work?”
“It’s the onny chance.”
So I stuck it in my britches’ pocket and she give me a little poke. “Now sonny, you best hurry and git home afore supper.”
Nobody had to ask me twice—not with that chill wind moaning and groaning in the trees, and the dark creeping and crawling all around me.
I give her my much-obliged and lit out, leaving the Conjure Lady standing in front of the cave. Last I saw of her she was polishing her Coolidge button with a hunk of poison oak.
Then I was tearing through the woods, up the hill to the ridge and over. By the time I got to the clearing it was pitch-dark, and when I waded the crick I could see the moonlight wiggling on the water. Hawks on the hover went flippy-flapping over the back forty but I didn’t stop to heed. I made a beeline for the fence, up and over, then into the yard and through the back door.
Ma was standing at the stove holding a pot whilst Pa ladled up the soup. They looked downright pleasured to see me. “Thank the Lord!” Ma said. “I was just fixing to send Pa after you.” “I come quick as I could.”
“And none too soon,” Pa told me. “We like to go clean out’n our heads, what with the ruckus and all.”
“What kind of ruckus?”
“First off, Mis Francy. Folks in town told her about Grandpa passing on, so she done the neighborly thing—mixed up a mess of stew to ease our appeytite in time of sorrow. She come lollygagging up the walk, all rigged out in her Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, toting the bowl under her arm and looking like lard wouldn’t melt in her mouth. Along about then she caught sight of Grandpa setting there on the porch, kind of smiling at her through the flies.
“Well, up went the bowl and down come the whole shebang. Looked like it was raining stew-greens all over that fancy Sears and Roebuck dress. And then she turned and headed for kingdom come, letting out a whoop that’d peel the paint off a privy wall.”
“That’s sorrowful,” I said.
“Save your grieving for worse,” Pa told me. “Next thing you know, Bixbee showed up, honking his horn. Wouldn’t come nigh Grandpa, nosiree—I had to traipse clear down to where he set in the hearse.”
“What’d he want?”
“Said he’d come for the remains. And if we didn’t cough them up right fast, he was aiming to take a trip over to the county seat first thing tomorrow morning to get hisself a injection.”
“Injunction,” Ma said, looking like she was ready to bust out with the bawls again. “Said it was a scandal and a shame to let Grandpa set around like this. What with the sun and the flies and all, he was fixing to have the Board of Health put us under quar-and-tine.”
“What did Grandpa say?” I asked.
“Nary a peep. Ol’ Bixbee gunned his hearse out of here and Grandpa kep’ right on rocking with Susie. She come in ’bout half hour ago, when the sun went down—says he’s getting stiff as a board but won’t pay it no heed. Just keeps asking what’s to eat.”
“That’s good,” I said. “On account of I got the very thing. The Conjure Lady give it to me for his supper.”
“What is it—pizen?” Pa looked worried. “You know I’m a God-fearing man and I don’t hold with such doings. ’Sides, how you ’spect to pizen him if he’s already dead?”
“Ain’t nothing of the sort,” I said. “This here’s what she sent.”
And I pulled it out of my britches pocket and showed it to them.
“Now what in the name of kingdom come is that?” Ma asked. I told her what it was, and what to do with it.
“Ain’t never heard tell of such foolishness in all my born days!” Ma told me. Pa looked troubled in his mind. “I knowed I shouldn’t have let you go down to Spooky Hollow. Conjure Lady must be short of her marbles, putting you up to a thing like that.”
“Reckon she knows what she’s doing,” I said. “ ’Sides, I give all my savings for this here—eighty-seven cents, a Confederate quarter, and my Coolidge button.”
“Never you mind about no Coolidge button,” Pa said. “I swiped it off’n a Yankee, anyway—one of them revenooers.” He scratched his chin. “But hard money’s something else. Mebbe we best give this notion a try.”
“Now, Pa—” Ma said.
“You got any better plan?” Pa shook his head. “Way I see it, what with the Board of Health set to come a-snapping at our heels tomorrow, we got to take a chance.”
Ma fetched a sigh that come clean up from her shoes, or would of if she’d been wearing any.
“All right, Jody,” she told me. “You just put it out like the Conjure Lady said. Pa, you go fetch Susie and Grandpa. I’m about to dish up.”
“You sure this’ll do the trick?” Pa asked, looking at what I had in my hand.
“It better,” I said. “It’s all we got.”
So Pa went out and I headed for the table, to do what the Conjure Lady had in mind. Then Pa come back with sister Susie.
“Where’s Grandpa?” Ma asked.
“Moving slow,” Susie said. “Must be that Rigger Morris.”
“No such thing.” Grandpa come through the doorway, walking like a cockroach on a hot griddle. “I’m just a wee mite stiff.”
“Stiff as a four-by-four board.” Pa told him. “Upstairs in bed, that’s where you ought to be, with a lily in your hand.”
“Now don’t start on that again,” Grandpa said. “I told you I ain’t dead so many times I’m blue in the face.”
“You sure are,” said sister Susie. “Ain’t never seen nobody look any bluer.”
And he was that—blue and bloated, kind of—but he paid it no heed. I recollected what Ma said about mebbe having to put up with a skeleton at mealtime, and I sure yearned for the Conjure Lady’s notion to work. It plumb had to, because Grandpa was getting deader by the minute.
But you wouldn’t think so when he caught sight of the vittles on the table. He just stirred his stumps right over to his chair and plunked down.
“Well, now,” Grandpa said. “You done yourself proud tonight, Addie. This here’s my favorite—collards and catfish heads!”
He was all set to take a swipe at the platter when he up and noticed what was setting next to his plate. “
Great day in the morning!” he hollered. “What in tarnation’s this?”
“Ain’t nothing but a napkin,” I said.
“But it’s black!” Grandpa blinked. “Who ever heard tell of a black napkin?”
Pa looked at Ma. “We figger this here’s kind of a special occasion,” he said. “If you take my meaning—”
Grandpa fetched a snort. “Consarn you and your meaning! A black napkin? Never you fear, I know what you’re hinting around at, but it ain’t a-gonna work—nosiree, bub!” And he filled his plate and dug in.
The rest of us just set there staring, first at Grandpa, then at each other.
“What’d I tell you?” Pa said to me, disgusted-like.
I shook my head. “Wait a spell.”
“Better grab whilst you can git,” Grandpa said. “I aim to eat me up a storm.”
And he did. His arms was stiff and his fingers scarce had enough curl left to hold a fork and his jaw-muscles worked extra hard—but he went right on eating. And talking.
“Dead, am I? Ain’t never seen the day a body’d say a thing like that to me before, let alone kinfolk! Now could be I’m tolerable stubborn, but that don’t signify I’m mean. I ain’t about to make trouble for anyone, least of all my own flesh and blood. If I was truly dead and knowed it for a fact—why, I’d be the first one to go right upstairs to my room and lie down forever. But you got to show me proof ’fore I do. That’s the pure and simple of it—let me see some proof!”
“Grandpa,” I said.
“What’s the matter, sonny?”
“Begging your pardon, but you got collards dribbling all over your chin.”
Grandpa put down his fork. “So they is. I thank you kindly.”
And before he rightly knowed what he was doing, Grandpa wiped his mouth on the napkin.
When he finished he looked down at it. He looked once and he looked twice. Then he just set the napkin down gentle-like, stood up from the table, and headed straight for the stairs.
“Goodbye all,” he said. We heard him go clumping up the steps and down the hall into his room and we heard the mattress sag when he laid down on his bed.
Then everything was quiet.
After a while Pa pushed his chair back and went upstairs. Nobody said a word until he come down again.
“Well?” Ma looked at him.
“Ain’t nothing more to worry about,” Pa said. “He’s laid down his burden at last. Gone to glory, amen.”
“Praise be!” Ma said. Then she looked at me and crooked a finger at the napkin. “Best get rid of that.”
I went round and picked it up. Sister Susie give me a funny look. “Ain’t nobody fixing to tell me what happened?” she asked.
I didn’t answer—just toted the napkin out and dropped it deep down in the crick. Weren’t no sense telling anybody the how of it, but the Conjure Lady had the right notion after all. She knowed Grandpa’d get his proof—just as soon as he wiped his mouth.
Ain’t nothing like a black napkin to show up a little ol’ white maggot.
*Images credited to/additional information about the televised version can be found at http://midnitereviews.com/2016/03/tales-from-the-darkside-episode-9-a-case-of-the-stubborns/.