The Devil’s Punchbowl
Midnight in the garden of the dead.
A silver-white moon hangs high over the mirror-black river and the tired levee, shedding cold light on the Louisiana delta stretching off toward Texas. I stand among the luminous stones on the Mississippi side, shivering like the only living man for miles. At my feet lies a stark slab of granite, and under that stone lies the body of my wife. The monument at its head reads:
SARAH ELIZABETH CAGE
Daughter. Wife. Mother. Teacher.
She is loved.
I haven’t sneaked into the cemetery at midnight to visit my wife’s grave. I’ve come at the urgent request of a friend. But I didn’t come here for the sake of friendship. I came out of guilt. And fear.
The man I’m waiting for is forty-five years old, yet in my mind he will always be nine. That’s when our friendship peaked, during the Apollo 11 moon landing. But you don’t often make friends like those you make as a boy, so the debt is a long one. My guilt is the kind you feel when someone slips away and you don’t do enough to maintain the tie, all the more painful because over the years Tim Jessup managed to get himself into quite a bit of trouble, and after the first eight or nine times, I wasn’t there to get him out of it.
My fear has nothing to do with Tim; he’s merely a messenger, one who may bear tidings I have no wish to hear. News that confirms the rumors being murmured over golf greens at the country club, bellowed between plays beside high school gridirons, and whispered through the hunting camps like a rising breeze before a storm. When Jessup asked to meet me, I resisted. He couldn’t have chosen a worse time to discover a conscience, for me or for the city. Yet in the end I agreed to hear him out. For if the rumors are true—if a uniquely disturbing evil has entered into my town—it was I who opened the door for it. I ran for mayor in a Jeffersonian fit of duty to save my hometown and, in my righteousness, was arrogant enough to believe I could deal with the devil and somehow keep our collective virtue intact. But that, I’m afraid, was wishful thinking.
For months now, a sense of failure has been accreting in my chest like fibrous tissue. I’ve rarely failed at anything, and I have never quit. Most Americans are raised never to give up, and in the South that credo is practically a religion. But two years ago I stood before my wife’s grave with a full heart and the belief that I could by force of will resurrect the idyllic town that had borne me, by closing the racial wounds that had prevented it from becoming the shining beacon I knew it could be, and bringing back the prosperity it deserved. Halfway through my four-year term, I’ve learned that most people don’t want change, even when it’s in their best interest. We pay lip service to ideals, but we live by expediency and by tribal prejudice. Accepting this hypocrisy has nearly broken me.
Sadly, the people closest to me saw this coming long ago. My father and my lover at the time tried to save me from myself, but I would not be swayed. The heaviest burden I bear is knowing that my daughter has paid the highest price for my illusions. Two years ago, I imagined I heard my dead wife’s voice urging me onward. Now all I hear is the empty rush of the wind, whispering the lesson so many have learned before me: You can’t go home again.
My watch reads 12:30 a.m. Thirty minutes past the appointed hour, and there’s still no sign of Tim Jessup among the shoulder-high stones between me and Cemetery Road. With a silent farewell to my wife, I turn and slip between the monuments, working my way back up toward Jewish Hill, our rendezvous point. My feet make no sound in the dewy, manicured grass. The names chiseled on these stones I’ve known all my life. They are the town’s history, and mine: Friedler and Jacobs and Dreyfus up on Jewish Hill, whose stones read Bohemia, Bavaria, Alsace; the Knoxes and Henrys and Thornhills in the Protestant sections; and finally the Donnellys and Binellis and O’Banyons back on Catholic Hill. Most of the corpses in this place had white skin when they were alive, but as in life, the truth here is found at the margins. In the areas marked “Colored Ground” on the cemetery map lie the trusted servants and favored slaves who lived at the margins of the white world and earned a patch of hallowed earth in death. Most of these were interred without a marker. You have to go farther down the road, to the national cemetery, to find the graves of truly free black people, many of them soldiers who lie among the twenty-eight hundred unknown Union dead.
Yet this cemetery breathes an older history. Some people buried here were born in the mid-1700s, and if they were resurrected tomorrow, parts of the town would not look much different to them. Infants who died of yellow fever lie beside Spanish dons and forgotten generals, all moldering beneath crying angels and marble saints, while the gnarled oak branches spread ever wider above them, draped with cinematic beards of Spanish moss. Natchez is the oldest city on the Mississippi River, older even than New Orleans, and when you see the dark, tilted gravestones disappearing into the edges of the forest, you know it.
I last came here to view a million dollars in damage wreaked by drunk vandals on the irreplaceable wrought iron and statuary that make this cemetery unique. Now all four gates are chained shut at dusk. Tim Jessup knows that; it’s one reason he chose this trysting place. When Jessup first called, I thought he was proposing the cemetery for his convenience; he works on one of the riverboat casinos at the foot of the bluff—the Magnolia Queen, moored almost directly below Jewish Hill—and midnight marks the end of his shift. But Tim insisted that the cemetery’s isolation was a necessity, for me as much as for him. Swore, in fact, that I could trust neither my own police department nor any official of the city government. He also made me promise not to call his cell phone or his home for any reason. Part of me considers his claims ridiculous, but a warier clump of brain cells knows from experience that corruption can run deep.
I was a lawyer in another life—a prosecutor. I started out wanting to be Atticus Finch and ended up sending sixteen people to death row. Looking back, I’m not sure how that happened. One day, I simply woke up and realized that I had not been divinely ordained to punish the guilty. So I resigned my position with the Houston district attorney’s office and went home to my joyous wife and daughter. Uncertain what to do with my newfound surplus of time (and facing an acute shortage of funds), I began writing about my courtroom experiences and, like a few other lawyers slipstreaming in the wake of John Grisham, found myself selling enough books to place my name on the bestseller lists. We bought a bigger house and moved Annie to an elite prep school. An unfamiliar sense of self-satisfaction began to creep into my life, a feeling that I was one of the chosen, destined for success in whatever field I chose. I had an enviable career, a wonderful family, a few good friends, lots of faithful readers. I was young enough and arrogant enough to believe that I deserved all this, and foolish enough to think it would last.
Then my wife died.
Four months after my father diagnosed Sarah with cancer, we buried her. The shock of losing her almost broke me, and it shattered my four-year-old daughter. In desperation I fled Houston, taking Annie back to the small Mississippi town where I’d been raised, back to the loving arms of my parents. There—here—before I could begin working my way back to earth, I found myself drawn into a thirty-year-old murder case, one that ultimately saved my life and ended four others. That was seven years ago. Annie’s eleven now, and almost the reincarnation of her mother. She’s sleeping at home while a babysitter waits in my living room, and remembering this I decide that Tim Jessup gets exactly five more minutes of my time. If he can’t make his own midnight meeting, he can damn well come to City Hall during business hours, like everybody else.
My heart labors from climbing the nearly vertical face of Jewish Hill, but each breath brings the magical scent of sweet olive, still blooming in mid-October. Under the sweet olive simmers a roux of thicker smells: kudzu and damp humus and something dead in the trees—maybe a gut-shot deer that evaded its shortsighted poacher. When I reach the edge of the table of earth that is Jewish Hill, the land and sky fall away before me with breathtaking suddenness.
The drop to the river is two hundred feet here, down a kudzu-strangled bluff of windblown loess—rich soil made from rock ground fine by glaciers—the foundation of our city. From this height you can look west over endless flatland with almost intoxicating pride, and I think that feeling is what made so many nations try to claim this land. France, Spain, England, the Confederacy: all tried to hold this earth, and all failed as surely as the Natchez Indians before them. A sagging wire bench still stands beneath an American flag at the western rim of the hill, awaiting mourners, lovers, and all the rest who come here; it looks like the best place to spend Tim’s last four minutes.
As I sit, a pair of headlights moves up Cemetery Road like a ship beating against the wind, tacking back and forth across the lane that winds along the edge of the bluff. I stand, but the headlights do not slow, and soon a nondescript pickup truck rattles past the shotgun shacks across the road and vanishes around the next bend, headed toward the Devil’s Punchbowl, a deep defile out in the county where Natchez Trace outlaws once dumped the corpses of their victims.
“That’s it, Timmy,” I say aloud. “Time’s up.”
The wind off the river has finally found its way into my jacket. I’m cold, tired, and ready to go to bed. The next three days will be the busiest of my year as mayor, beginning with a news conference and a helicopter flight in the morning. But after those three days are up…I’m going to make some profound changes in my life.
Rising from the bench, I walk to my right, toward a gentler slope of the hill, where my old Saab waits beyond the cemetery wall. As I bend to slide down the hill, an urgent whisper breaks the silence of the night: “Hey. Dude? Are you up here?”
A shadow is advancing along the rim of Jewish Hill from the interior of the graveyard. From my vantage point, I can see all four entrances to the cemetery, but I’ve seen no headlights and heard no engine. Yet here is Tim Jessup, materializing like one of the ghosts so many people believe haunt this ancient hill. I know it’s Tim because he used to be a junkie, and he still moves like one, with a herky-jerky progress during which his head perpetually jiggers around as though he’s watching for police while his thin legs carry him forward in the hope of finding his next fix.
Jessup claims to be clean now, thanks largely to his new wife, Julia, who was three years behind us in high school. Julia Stanton married the high school quarterback at nineteen and took five years of punishment before forfeiting that particular game. When I heard she was marrying Jessup, I figured she wanted a perfect record of losses. But the word around town is that she’s worked wonders with Tim. She got him a job and has kept him at it for over a year, dealing blackjack on the casino boats, most recently the Magnolia Queen.
“Penn!” Jessup finally calls out loud. “It’s me, man. Come out!”
The gauntness of his face is unmistakable in the moonlight. Though he and I are the same age—born exactly one month apart—he looks ten years older. His skin has the leathery texture of a man who’s worked too many years under the Mississippi sun. Passing him on the street under that sun, I’ve seen more disturbing signs. His graying mustache is streaked yellow from cigarette smoke, and his skin and eyes have the jaundiced cast of those of a man whose liver hasn’t many years left in it.
What bound Jessup and me tightly as boys was that we were both doctors’ sons. We each understood the weight of that special burden, the way preachers’ sons know that emotional topography. Having a physician as a father brings benefits and burdens, but for eldest sons it brings a universal expectation that someday you’ll follow in your father’s footsteps. In the end both Tim and I failed to fulfill this, but in very different ways. Seeing him closer now, turning haplessly in the dark, it’s hard to imagine that we started our lives in almost the same place. That’s probably the root of my guilt: For though Tim Jessup made a lifetime of bad decisions—in full knowledge of the risks—the one that set them all in train could have been, and in fact was, made by many of us. Only luck carried the rest of us through.
With a sigh of resignation, I step from behind the gravestone and call toward the river, “Tim? Hey, Tim. It’s Penn.”
Jessup whips his head around, and his right hand darts toward his pocket. For a panicked second I fear he’s going to pull a pistol, but then he recognizes me, and his eyes widen with relief.
“Man!” he says with a grin. “At first I thought you’d chickened out. I mean, shit.”
As he shakes my hand, I marvel that at forty-five Jessup still sounds like a strung-out hippie. “You’re the one who’s late, aren’t you?”
He nods more times than necessary, a man who’ll do anything to keep from being still. How does this guy deal blackjack all night?
“I couldn’t rush off the boat,” he explains. “I think they’re watching me. I mean, they’re always watching us. Everybody. But I think maybe they suspect something.”
I want to ask whom he’s talking about, but I assume he’ll get to that. “I didn’t see your car. Where’d you come from?”
A cagey smile splits the weathered face. “I got ways, man. You got to be careful dealing with this class of people. Predators, I kid you not. They sense a threat, they react—bam!” Tim claps his hands together. “Pure instinct. Like sharks in the water.” He glances back toward town. “In fact, we ought to get behind some cover now.” He gestures toward the three-foot-high masonry walls that enclose a nearby family plot. “Just like high school, man. Remember smoking grass behind these walls? Sitting down so the cops couldn’t see the glow of the roach?”
I never got high with Tim during high school, but I see no reason to break whatever flow keeps him calm and talking. The sooner he tells me what he came to say, the sooner I can get out of here.
He vaults the wall with surprising agility, and I step over it after him, recalling with a chill the one memory of this place that I associate with Tim. Late one Halloween night a half dozen boys tossed our banana bikes over the wall and rode wildly through the narrow lanes, laughing hysterically until a pack of wild dogs chased us up into the oak trees near the third gate. Does Tim remember that?
With a last anxious look up Cemetery Road, he sits on the damp ground and leans against the mossy bricks in a corner where two walls meet. I sit against the adjacent wall, facing him at a right angle, my running shoes almost touching his weathered Sperrys. Only now do I realize that he must have changed clothes after work. The dealer’s uniform he usually wears on duty has been replaced by black jeans and a gray T-shirt.
“Couldn’t come out here dressed for work,” he says, as though reading my ...