- Author : Lisa Morton
"The Devil Came to Mamie's on Hallowe'en" was first published in Cemetery Dance Magazine #60
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The Devil Came to Mamie’s on Hallowe’en
by Lisa Morton
It was Hallowe’en night, and business was slow at the whorehouse.
Leona didn’t put much stock in the stories that kept other folk indoors on this night. She’d laughed over stories about Jacky-Ma-Lantern, who’d once outsmarted the Bad Man and then couldn’t get into Hell or Heaven, and so on Hallowe’en he wandered around lighting his way with a coal kept in a pumpkin. She’d once seen the strange blue lights in the bayou that some said led unwary travelers to their doom on this night, but she didn’t really believe they were spirits. And her favorite of Miss Mamie’s girls, Lizzie, had talked about going down to New Orleans once and meeting up with a real hoodoo man, who she’d watched bring a dead boy back to life on All Saints’ Day. But as much as Leona loved Lizzie, she thought even decent, smart folk could sometimes be bamboozled when they found something they just plain wanted to believe in.
It was about midnight now (“the witching hour”, Leona remembered Lizzie once calling it), and the swamp just behind Miss Mamie’s was dark and quiet, no flatboats poling up to the dock tonight, unloading new customers. Leona wondered again where Lizzie had gotten to; Beulah, the cook, said she’d left out the backdoor about four that afternoon, just as the sun was going down. She’d taken a big kettle with her, and said she’d be back around night. It wasn’t safe to wander around the bayou any night, and Leona couldn’t imagine where Lizzie had gone.
It didn’t help that Mamie’s scrawny old cat, Lumpy (so named because he was as black as a lump of coal), was missing, too.
So Leona sat on the back porch, waiting, hoping one or the other would show up soon. Beulah had already gone home, and the kitchen was cool but the night was unseasonably warm and humid. Usually she’d have to be in the main parlor, playing the piano for the customers, but there weren’t many of them tonight.
Leona cranked the phonograph again, and settled back on the old splintered wood of the porch steps to listen to Ma Rainey. Harold, Miss Mamie’s bartender and muscle, had been into town today, and Leona had given him seventy-five cents to get the record for her. It was “Traveling Blues”, and Leona swayed back and forth, humming along, as the song spilled out of the phonograph’s big horn.
I went to the depot, looked up and down the board,
I went to the depot, looked up and down the board,
I asked the ticket agent, “It’s my time on this road?”
Leona had listened to the song enough now that she’d be able to play it on the piano when she went back in; if anyone wanted to hear, she could sing it, too.
Fact was, she thought she could sing it just as good as Ma Rainey herself.
One of the funny things about Miss Mamie was that she only wanted live music at her “establishment”; she claimed the menfolk didn’t want to hear just records, although Leona knew plenty of menfolk who liked Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Sippie Wallace. Miss Mamie, though, said she’d paid plenty of money for that piano, and live music gave her place “a touch of class”. Truthfully, Leona was glad, because it gave her a way to make herself useful around Mamie’s place – she had a natural gift for the piano and for singing.
Unfortunately, even those gifts wouldn’t carry her much longer.
Miss Mamie had come into the kitchen yesterday afternoon, before most of the other women had even gotten up yet, and she’d called Leona away from the washing and sat her down at the table. Mamie’d just gotten back from doing some banking in town, and she was dressed up, looking fine for a woman of forty. It was no wonder she still got customers requesting her services.
“That Jackson Smith done asked about you again last night,” she’d said, while lighting a cigarette.
Leona had tried not to squirm. “That so?”
“Um-hmm.” Miss Mamie took a drag from her smoke, then went on. “He’d pay extra for you, Leona, since it’d be your first time. We’d both make some mighty nice money off’n it.”
“I’m not doin’ nothin’ with Jackson Smith,” Leona had replied.
“He’s not so bad,” Mamie said, squinting at Leona through her tobacco haze.
“I know he’s not, Miss Mamie, but I…”
At that point Mamie had actually set the cigarette down and leaned across the table, and Leona’d had to struggle not to lean back, away. “Now you listen to me, child: You sixteen years old, you a woman now. I promised your mama, God bless her, to look after you ‘til you was growed. She was one of the finest ladies I ever had work for me, and I owed her, but I figure the time you growed is now. I can’t keep carryin’ you, Leona – ”
Leona had cut her off. “But Miss Mamie, you your own self said I was the best piano player you’s ever likely to hear – ”
“I did, but, honey, we need somebody to play something livelier here, not those slow things you like. You put a few drinks in these boys and give ‘em that slow music, and they likely to just fall asleep before we can even get ‘em upstairs with a girl. Don’t nobody make no money then.”
Leona looked down, hurt. “That slow music’s the blues, Miss Mamie. I thought the men liked it.”
Mamie reached out and stroked Leona’s wrist. “They do, honey, but it’s not good for business. Now, I could get me somebody from town to play the piano, play them nice fast tunes; might not be so good as you, but I wouldn’t have to give ‘em room and board, neither.”
Leona had felt a cold chill settle into her then. She’d known for a time this was coming, but she’d hoped she might have a little longer. Just long enough to save for a ticket to Chicago or Atlanta and a couple of months of room and board while she tried to get a job singing, maybe even make a record of her own…
Miss Mamie had taken a last pull off her cigarette, then stubbed it out in a china plate. “I love you like my own, Leona, you know that; I done raised you since before you could put two words together. But you need to be makin’ a decision: Either you stay here and take up The Life, or you move on.”
Miss Mamie had gotten up then and left.
Beulah, the cook, had worked over the stove in the corner, listening quietly. She was a kind woman who came out here, to the edge of the bayou, every day to work for Miss Mamie. She’d never minded that Leona slept in the kitchen, and kept her phonograph there; she liked the music, too, and she liked Leona.
She’d waited until Mamie had gone, then she’d come over to where Leona sat, wiping furiously at her tears. “Don’t cry, honey,” she’d said, in her soft, sweet voice. “You can sing just as good as any of ‘em, just as good as Ma or Bessie or Victoria Spivey. You don’t need this place.”
Leona had looked up at Beulah gratefully. “You think so?”
“I know so,” Beulah had said, giving her a hug that smelled like warm cornbread. “The only men you need to make money is the kind that’ll let you sing, and you’ll make a lot more money than you’d make here. You believe that.”
Leona wished she could.
She tried to imagine herself saying yes, going into one of the upstairs bedrooms with Jackson Smith, who would be sweaty and smell like machine oil and liquor, and feeling his rough hands on her skin. She tried to imagine doing that every night, doing that five or ten times a night, until she was too old and none of the men wanted her.
Leona felt something hot on her cheek, and realized she was crying again. She brushed the tears away, angry at herself. It was a simple decision.
Stay or go.
Sing the blues…or live them.
The song finished, and Leona lifted the needle off the record. She was about to play it again when she heard something out in the brush, near the edge of the swamp.
“Lumpy?” she called out, hoping to see the mangy old cat scamper up.
Instead, she spotted a light bobbing among the trees, nearing. A few seconds later the lantern rounded a big mangrove, and Leona saw it was –
She started to smile and was about to dart forward, when she saw Lizzie stop about thirty feet away.
“That you, Leona?”
Something was wrong with Lizzie.
Even from this distance, Leona could see her pale smock – usually spotless – was spotty and stained, and the night breeze took on a terrible scent, something spoke of death and terror, as it passed over Lizzie.
“It’s me, Lizzie. Is somethin’ wrong - ?”
Lizzie took a few more steps forward. “Anybody else out here?”
Leona shook her head. “No’m, just us.”
Lizzie reached her now, and Leona actually gasped. The older woman was covered in bloodstains, and there were long scratch marks on her hands and arms, marks that were just barely scabbed over. Her left hand was also burned, and Leona saw pink flesh and white blisters.
And the smell nearly made Leona gag.
“What that smell, Lizzie?”
“Leona, honey, can you do me a favor? Bring some warm water, a towel, some new clothes. I can’t let nobody else see me like this. Can you do that for me?”
Leona couldn’t stop staring. “Should I get the doctor?”
“No, that’s…that’s not my blood. It’s Lumpy’s.”
Leona placed that awful odor now: She’d smelled it once when Lumpy had lost part of an ear in a fight with a raccoon, and he’d somehow covered himself in this acrid fear scent.
Lizzie made a fluttering motion with her hands. “Oh honey, we’ll talk about that ol’ cat later. Can you just get me those things now?”
Leona nodded and ran off.
Five minutes later she had a pail of warm water, towels and a new dress. She stood by as Lizzie stripped out of the remains of her old clothes, and started to towel that smell off her skin.
“What happened to Lumpy?”
“I’m sorry, Leona, I know you liked that critter, but he’s dead now. Just as well, anyway – cat’s bad luck in a whorehouse.”
“Dead?” Leona actually flinched from the news.
Lizzie looked at the girl carefully. “Leona, honey, can you keep a secret?”
Leona nodded, but she was already starting to suspect this was one secret she wasn’t about to much like.
“All right. Remember I told you about that hoodoo man I met in New Orleans? Well, he gave me some secrets.”
“He told me how to call the Devil.”
Leona gaped for a moment, then stifled a laugh. If she didn’t believe in Jacky-Ma-Lantern, she didn’t see much reason to believe in the Devil, either.
“Don’t laugh, child. I did it, and it worked.”
Leona made an exaggerated gesture of looking around. “Where is he, Lizzie? I don’t see me no Devil.”
Lizzie ignored her. “Here’s what that hoodoo man told me: On Hallow’s Eve, he said, you needs a black cat. You boil that animal alive, then you take the bones and wash ‘em in a spring, until the Devil comes to you. Then you can ask him for whatever you want.”
Leona suddenly realized the meaning of the scratches, the blood and the burns on Lizzie’s arms, of the kettle that Beulah had seen Lizzie leave with in the afternoon, and the knowledge staggered her. “Oh lawd, Lizzie…you boiled that poor animal alive…”
“Leona, that cat was so old he couldn’t even catch him a horsefly no more.”
“But that…that ain’t right…”
“Right or not, honey – it worked. I boiled him near that spring out in the woods, the one not far from ol’ Guffey’s farm, then I washed those bones in that spring, and I looked up…and sure ‘nough, I seen this man walkin’ up to me. He asked what I was wantin’, and I tol’ him.”
Leona asked, “What’d you say?”
Lizzie finished washing, and started shrugging into the new dress. “I tol’ him I wanted a rich man to come and love me and take me out of this place, far away. And he said it’d happen tonight.”
Leona guffawed. “You can’t believe that – ”
Lizzie finished straightening out the dress. “I can believe it. It’s happenin’ right now.” She walked up to Leona and gave her a small kiss on the cheek, and whispered, “You ‘bout the only part of Mamie’s I’ll miss.”
Then she walked past Leona, into the house.
Leona stood for a moment, shocked, unable to move.
She toed at the tattered dress Lizzie had left on the ground, trying not to imagine Lumpy being forced into a boiling kettle, screaming in agony as Lizzie held him down…
She shook the pictures out of her head, then turned and walked back into the house.
She was just leaving the kitchen and heading for the piano in the front parlor when Miss Mamie’s bustled up. “There you are, child! We’ve got johns, and we need some music. And for lawd’s sake, try to play somethin’ lively!”
“Yes, Miss Mamie.”
Leona hurried to the piano, and glanced towards the bar, where there stood only a single customer. He was leaning across the mahogany counter, chatting idly to Harold while his drink was fixed. He wore a spotless, expensive suit and hat in the most current style, in a pale pastel color. His hair was neatly pommaded into curls, and his posture and build shouted confidence and money. When he turned to glance back towards the piano for a moment, Leona’s breath caught in her throat.
He was without question the handsomest man she’d ever seen. He grinned as he saw her, with his liquid brown eyes and perfect jawline and gleaming teeth.
Miss Mamie was fawning over this newcomer, plainly sensing the money as well, and just before she sat down to play, Leona overheard the name “Lizzie.”
She was into the third bar of Sippie Wallace’s “Jack of Diamond Blues” when Lizzie entered the bar and sidled up to the stranger, smiling. Leona couldn’t hear their conversation, but it was only a few seconds before Lizzie cried out, ecstatic, leapt up from her bar stool, gave the stranger a brief kiss and then ran from the room.
The stranger smiled after her, and then turned that look on Leona.
And in that instant Leona’s fingers failed her, because she knew who the stranger was, and she knew that Lizzie had told her the truth.
“Leona, honey, play somethin’ happy,” Miss Mamie called to her, still grinning at the fine-looking man. “Looks like Lizzie done gone and got herself a marriage proposal.”
Leona tried to smile, but it was a weak attempt. She tried to remember one of the rags she’d heard on a trip to the music store last month, but it came out sounding melancholy.
Leona saw Miss Mamie bustle from the room, and realized it was just her, Harold the bartender, and the stranger now. She felt his eyes on her, and tried to look down only at her hands, moving across the keys, trying to find the sprightly melody that was hidden somewhere inside the tune –
“Why don’t you play something you can sing to?”
Leona started to reply, happened to glance back – and froze, her jaw hanging open like a cartoon character.
The handsome black man was gone; the man who had just spoken to her was white, mid-thirties, wearing a pinstriped suit.
“I heard you can sing pretty good,” he said, resting an elbow on the top of the piano, grinning down at her.
“I…ain’t so good,” Leona said, not because she believed it, but because she didn’t want to talk to him, no matter what color he was.
The Bad Man.
“C’mon, now, girl, you act like it’s a sin to sing.”
“Might be,” Leona said. Her palms felt sweaty, and she could hear her heart thumping faster than a rag rhythm.
He shrugged, and took a step back. “Guess I got the wrong girl. See, I’m scouting for the Toby. You know what that is?”
“Yes, sir, I knows.” Lizzie’d once had a john who played fiddle for Butterbeans and Suzie, and Lizzie had made sure he talked to Leona all about “riding the Toby”, or traveling the circuit put together by the Theatre Owners’ Booking Association. The fiddler had told her horror stories about being stranded in towns without hotels for coloreds, and dealing with theatre owners who charged performers three times what a meal anywhere else would cost…but he’d laughed as he told his tales, and Leona could tell he wouldn’t give up that fiddle for anything.
And it was sure better than working for Miss Mamie. Leona dreamed of a day when people came to listen to her , not just be entertained until they could get a girl to take them upstairs.
“I’m looking for new performers. Heard through the grapevine that there was a colored girl working in some backwoods whorehouse who’d knock my socks off. But, if that’s not you…”
What if he really was a booking agent for the Toby? Could she afford to pass up what might be her only chance? And if he wasn’t - if he really was the Devil himself – then she’d sing like heaven for him, and give him a case of the blues he’d never get over.
He chuckled, amused, then said, “So sing for me.”
She thought for a moment, and remembered Beulah telling her that she sang “Hard Time Blues” even better than Ida Cox. She picked out the opening notes on the piano, then let the pain and fear and humiliation and sadness explode deep inside her, until all the emotions could only be channeled up through her throat and out through her words, released into the world.
I never seen such a real hard time before,
I never seen such a real hard time before,
The wolf keeps walking all round my door.
All thoughts of where she was and who she was playing for vanished as she gave herself, body and soul, to the song. She closed her eyes and just felt and played, and when she finished she knew she’d never sung that well before. She was drained, covered in sweat and tears, weary with a bone-deep exhaustion she’d never felt before.
The sound of slow applause drew her back.
She wiped at her eyes and turned to see the white man slowly clapping. He finished, and half-collapsed onto the piano.
“Lord, girl, they weren’t just whistling Dixie. I do believe you may be even better than Bessie or Ma. You could make somebody a lot of money, you know that?”
Leona should have been pleased, but right now all she wanted was the comfort of her little pallet in the kitchen’s warm pantry.
The agent stepped closer, bending over her in what he probably hoped was some sort of intimate, even fatherly, gesture. “It really takes it out of you, don’t it?”
Leona just nodded.
“You’re too damn good to be stuck in this place. That Miss Mamie, she’s okay, but she don’t realize what she’s got in you. You need to be on the circuit. We can start you touring, just a few of the smaller theaters first, maybe opening for one of the bigger acts, then we move you up on the bill, get you bigger venues, start recording. How’d you like to see your name on a number-one record?”
Leona finally risked a glance up at him, and offered a shy smile. “That’d be fine, mister.”
He laughed. “Atta girl. Okay, so let’s make a deal, you and me.”
Leona’s fatigue was suddenly replaced with a numbing dread. “A…deal…?”
“Sure. Always gotta do the paperwork.”
He reached into a pocket and pulled forth a few sheets of folded paper and a pen. “Standard contract. All you have to do is sign, then I’ll make your arrangements. In twenty-four hours you’ll be on a train to Atlanta, ready to play the 81 Theater.”
Leona knew that wasn’t possible; no real booking agent could get anyone into Atlanta’s biggest theater in a day. At least no human booking agent.
“You’re him, aren’t you?”
Leona couldn’t bring herself to say the usual names; she settled on the one from the Jacky-Ma-Lantern story. “The Bad Man.”
She looked up now to see him squinting down at her. He didn’t look like the Devil – no red skin, no horns, no pointed ears or tail. He looked like what he said he was.
And yet…there was something in his eyes, something that wasn’t right. She suddenly knew this – thing – standing over her was ancient, and intelligent, and wanted her soul.
“C’mon, Leona, what’s worse: Me giving you the life you deserve, or Miss Mamie wanting to make you part of The Life that killed your mama?”
Leona didn’t answer, didn’t move. She got the impression that the lights had gone down around her. In an instant of panic she looked up for Harold, but couldn’t see the bar in the sudden gloom. She wasn’t even sure she could find her way out of this room now.
“Look what I’m doing for Lizzie: Giving her a fine, rich, handsome husband. She’s going to be happy, Leona. You could be, too.”
“Lizzie called you here tonight?”
He cocked one shoulder in a half-motion of apology. “Yes, and I know you liked that old cat, so I’m sorry about that, but sometimes the rituals must be…obeyed.”
“And what you want from me?”
“You know, Leona. It’s the usual transaction.”
Leona whispered, “My soul.”
He murmured in agreement, and then just stood there, looking at her.
Leona slid just far enough away from him that she could stand to look up, into his old, old eyes. “But how would I sing?”
He looked back at her, and Leona saw the first sign of doubt on his face, a crack in his confidence. “You’ll still sing just as well, your voice will still be yours – ”
Leona dared to cut him off. “But the voice ain’t nothin’ without the soul.”
“It won’t matter. You’ll be famous and rich anyway.”
“It’ll matter to me.”
He seemed to gain several inches in height, and the lights grew even dimmer, until his pale white face was all Leona could see.
“So, what – you’d rather be working here, letting Jackson Smith grind into you, or worse – how about Parson Mills? He must weigh – what, three, four hundred pounds? How’d you like to have that on top of you, Leona, pounding away at you, and all so’s you can make fifty cents, and get on with the next customer? Is that what you want?”
Leona’s face grew hot, and her eyes filled with tears again. “No, but I – ”
“But you WHAT?!” He was furious now, and Leona half-expected to see him start spitting brimstone sparks. “You really think you can get out of here some other way? I got news for you, honey: You’re good, but you’re not that good. You’d just be one more little colored girl trying to hustle up jobs until you get forced to be some white lady’s maid to earn a dollar, or worse – wind up as a crib whore in some house that’ll make Miss Mamie’s look like the Ritz. Hell’s gonna look pretty Goddamn fine after what life’s got in store for you, girly.”
Suddenly something changed in Leona, something she’d kept carefully tamped down erupted out, and she let it. She was on her feet and shouting into his moon-like face:
“Let me tell you somethin’, mister: I know how good I can sing, and I know there’s lots of white men and colored men both who’ll try to take advantage of me. But maybe I’m smarter than you give me credit for, and maybe I don’t mind hard work and some heartache, because I’m already pretty used to it. So maybe the best thing you can do right now is get outta my way and let me leave here on my own two feet.”
Leona walked by him, and the room was there again, and Harold was staring at her as she walked by him, her face still wet but determined.
She ignored him.
It took her maybe two minutes to rush to the pantry, and pack everything she owned into a burlap potato sack. If Lumpy were still alive, she would’ve taken him, too.
As it was, she’d leave alone. She’d managed to save up nearly ten dollars from tips over the last year, and she thought it might be enough to get her a train ticket to Atlanta, or maybe New Orleans.
She walked back through the parlor, towards the front door. Miss Mamie was there, staring at her.
“Child, what - ?!”
Leona silenced her with a quick kiss, and a goodbye. “I’m sorry, Miss Mamie. You been kind to me, and I ‘preciate it, but I got to go.”
Leona nodded, and headed for the front door –
- where the Bad Man stood, waiting.
“You sure you want to go that way? Even if you do get to the city, you know what to do when you get there?” Now his laughter was a hollow, bad sound. “You’re just like a rabbit runnin’ right into the coon dog’s mouth.”
“Get out of my way,” Leona said.
He didn’t move. “Last chance, Leona. I won’t come to you again, no matter how bad it gets. You’re liable to be wishing you could conjure me back up a month from now. If you even get that far; it’s a bad night, tonight. Lots of things out there in the dark that’d find you mighty tasty.”
Leona looked straight at him as she reached for the doorknob. “Can’t be nothin’ worse out there’n what’s in here.”
He let her go.
Without another word she strode out the front door, down the steps, and onto the soft dirt trail that eventually led to town, five miles on. He was right, of course; it was dangerous to walk this path at night, with everything from snakes to robbers about.
Somehow Leona didn’t think they’d trouble her.
There was a railway station in town, and she thought the first train came about sunrise. She’d be on it, no matter where it was headed.
She cradled the burlap sack in her arms, and started to sing to herself as she walked into the warm Hallowe’en night, away from Miss Mamie’s, never looking back.
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