The Tale of Willie Patton

“I’m going to kill you, Willie.”

Willie looked up from his Lay-Z-Boy, a piece of popcorn still dangling from his lip. Mattie was framed in the kitchen doorway, a butcherin’ knife in her right hand and her left thumb rubbing the back of the blade. She spoke again, softly, as though she were dreaming.

“I’m going to kill you now.”

“You ain’t.” Willie said, staring up to her face.

“I am. I’m going to kill you, Willie Patton. I’m going to kill you, tonight.”

Willie looked at her a little while longer and then turned his attention back to the TV screen, where a frustrated Mr. Cosby was berating his son about earrings. It was one of Willie’s favorite episodes, and she was ruining it with all her hollerin’. He waved his hand at her in a disbelieving motion.

“I tell you, you ain’t. ‘Sides, even if you tried I’d kill you.”

He barked out a laugh, but the next words out of her mouth made his blood run cold.

“You ain’t strong enough to kill me. Ain’t no one stronger than me.”

He had heard the same six words on the second day of their married life, three years ago. He’d met Mattie at Old Man Hodge’s bar out on Highway 109. He (Hodges) had had a blues bland play special for the Fourth of July celebration going on in the parish. He’d spotted Mattie across the bar room and decide to go ask her for a dance. His friends told him no, not Mattie, any sister but Mattie. Mattie’s too big, Willie, they’d say, she’d just about crush you in bed. And they had all laughed, but Willie shrugged it off and decided to ask her to dance anyway. He liked her big arms and big chest and, most importantly, he had heard that Mattie was just about the best cook this side of the Arkansas border. Willie was tired of eatin’ tuna fish and beans in his trailer at night. It was about time someone cooked him something a little more special.

So he had danced with Mattie despite all the catcalls from the walls of the bar, and halfway through their third dance he’s asked Mattie if she wanted to be his girlfriend. Mattie had caught a deep, thoughtful look in her face and decided no, thank you, not at the present time. Willie then asked if she liked to come home to his trailer tonight. Mattie got the same look on her face again and this time said yes, thank you, that’d be just fine.

So they went home to his trailer and made love while fireworks burst above the lake’s surface like kamikaze lightin’ bugs. And Willie was happy, for two reasons. First, it turns out that Mattie didn’t crush him in bed, cause he was on top. Second, she made a breakfast fit for a king the next day: a stack of pancakes, a pound of crispy bacon, a dozen or so eggs. Course, Mattie ate most of it but that didn’t mind to Willie one bit since he got more than enough and it was terrific, better than his momma used to cook.

And Mattie had asked, “Well is that all right?”

And Willie had replied, “Yeah, that’s all right.”

So they had dated the next two years. Willie liked dating because he didn’t have to be married to her and still got a good breakfast in the morning, packed lunch in the afternoon, and a hearty dinner in the evenin’. He also got someone to tell all his stories to, to clean the fish that he’d caught, to make love to at night. But after about a year and a half Mattie had started getting restless and asking Willie when he was going to propose to her.

“Aw shit, Mattie, I don’t know about that,” Willie said as he helped himself to another plate of pan-fried chicken. “Isn’t this pretty good, what we got going on? Look at my trailer, it’s only got three rooms, and we always have to squeeze tight whenever we’re in there on the bed.” He smiled as sweetly as he could. “ ‘Sides, I’m always out working or such. I’m hardly home, really.”

All of this was true, at least to Willie. His trailer was small, but it was besides an old oxbow lake and the fishing was always good, it seemed to Mattie. And he did work a dozen or so odd jobs throughout the year that always kept him busy from sunup till sundown, but that didn’t seem to bother Mattie either. The only thing that seemed to bother Mattie was his cold feet. So she kept on pressin’ him and pressin’ him until finally, one day in late December, while they were drinking hot cocoa that Mattie had made fresh, she asked again. This time Willie, looking around at all the Christmas decorations Mattie had put up and with the feeling of hot cocoa she had made running through his veins, he had said yes.

They had gotten married in the courthouse, with Judge Matthews presiding and with some of Willie’s friends as witnesses. Then they had gone out to Hodges for their honeymoon and had gone back to the trailer on their wedding night. It all went pretty well, actually. Mattie even let him try a few new things in the bedroom that night since he was her husband now and all. The breakfast the next morning was spectacular: blueberry pancakes, sausage, homemade biscuits, fresh fried fish, eggs, bacon, the works. Mattie said it was to celebrate, and Willie had replied that with all this food they could be eating breakfast for the next week. Which was just all right with him, and Mattie had beamed and stepped outside to feed the gators.

Of all the things that Mattie did, Willie hated this one the worst. She’d go out on the end of the small, rickety pier that Willie’s daddy had built for him ten years ago and fling out leftover bits of food, like fish heads and meat cuttings and scraps of things into the water. Nothing wrong with that, except that it didn’t seem to be fish and turtles that were eating the scraps like normal. Instead, Willie had been surprised to look out the window one evening and see gators, five or six of them, swimming around the pier not five or six inches below Mattie herself. Willie had ran outside to the bank alarmed and shouted,

“Hey Mattie! Whatchoo doing, girl, get out of there! Them gators liable to jump out and snatch you!”

Whereupon Mattie had turned around with a confused look on her face and, seeing Willie on the bank, laughed and said, “Ah, hell, Willie, ain’t hurtin no one to have a few gators around.”

“Woman, I fish off the end of that pier!”

“And what you think, Willie, they ain’t there below the surface watchin ya?"

That was the first time that Mattie made his blood run cold, giving him the image of a dozen swamp dogs lying just underneath the surface of the water, watching Willie on the pier or Willie on the bank or Willie on his fishing boat. Suddenly the once small and insignificant lake seemed very scary to him, filled with reptilian eyes, watching.

“Willie, what’s the matter with you? Looks like you seen a ghost!”

Willie turned to the Mattie’s voice and watched her walk off the pier. And God be damned if those gators didn’t just sink below the surface as soon as she did. He followed Mattie back into the house, still feeling the eyes of the gators on his back. He hadn’t as soon shut the door as he started yellin to Mattie about how crazy she was feeding gators and how he wasn’t going to stand having them around his pier.

Mattie got a bemused look on her wide face. “Willie, don’t tell me you scared of a couple of gators, now? And you living on a lake in Louisiana!”

He didn’t want to admit it, but of course he was scared. Willie was scared of gators and always had been, ever since his father had taken him hunting for one with a couple of his buddies. They had finally found a gator and had a shot at it, only to discover that gators didn’t respond well to your everyday hunting rifle. Or to a couple of drunken fools in a tiny aluminum boat shooting at them. The gator had simple rolled underneath the boat and knocked the whole thing over. Willie only remembered flying through the air and watching as he landed in front of the ten foot monster and couldn’t do a damn thing about it. His father and his cronies had fallen on the other side, but Willie had the luck to fall straight in front of the creature’s snout. He didn’t remember much, only it seemed like he had barely hit the surface before he was back on the boat’s bottom which bobbed up and down like a cork in the water. He had cried and cried, even after Willie’s dad and flipped the boat over. Even after they made it back to shore. Even after Willie’s dad had beat him for crying so much. He’d only stopped crying when his momma had come in and started hugging him and whisperin, “Only a fool messes with a gator. Only a fool. Tryin to get my baby kill. Only a fool messes with a gator.”

But he had told Mattie no, he wasn’t scared. And he had just watched her ever since, walking outside and throwing those scrapings to the gators. And it seemed to him that as the months went by there were more and more gators each time. Mattie was unafraid of the gators and didn’t seem to mind the growing numbers.

One day, though, Willie decided that he had had enough. When Mattie came in after throwing those scrapings to them, he spoke up.

“Mattie, I don’t want you feeding those damn things anymore. That’s enough now.”

“And what do you want me to do with the scrapings, Willie. We ain’t got one of those fancy food disposers.”

“I don’t care, you can just throw ‘em away with the rest of the garbage.”

“I ain’t throwing away good food when there are creatures of God that can eat them.”

“Them ain’t God’s creatures, they’re Hades’.”

“Willie, you fool of shit,” she said, laughing. “I’m not going to stop just because you’re afraid of gators.”

Willie didn’t know what had gotten in to him, but the next minute he was rising out his chair and backhanding Mattie across her face.

“You do what I say now, woman, you hear? I’m your husband, and you do what I say.”

Mattie’s eyes stayed closed for a while, but when she opened them and faced them, he seem to hear his momma’s voice in his head. Only a fool messes with a gator. And Willie just kept hearing his momma’s voice over and over again, while he tried to back away from the frightening thing that had once been his wife.

“You listen to me, here, Willie.”

Her face had lost its broad smile, her eyes closed in slits. She seemed to swell almost, until she took up half the kitchen and all of Willie’s sight. Her jaw had jutted forward a few inches and in the glare of the fluorescent light Willie could just see the faint gleam of the line of her teeth.

“You listen to me,” she said again. “Ain’t no man gonna hit me, Willie Patton. Ain’t no man under God’s sun gonna strike at me and get away with it. You know why, Willie?”

Willie shook his head mutely.

“Ain’t no one stronger than me, Willie.” Her eyes seemed to be shining, but it wasn’t because of the glare off the fluorescent lights. “Ain’t no one stronger than me. My mother wasn’t stronger than me, so she’d died giving birth. None of my older brothers and sisters were stronger than me, and they learned to when they tried to hassle me. And my father, Willie, sure as hell wasn’t stronger than me. I taught him that the first day he tried to beat. He start whupping up on me cause I wouldn’t let him in my room at night. He’d holler, ‘open this door and let you’re daddy in!’ Then he’d try to open it, but I’d be on the other side keeping it shut. He wasn’t strong enough to open the door, so the next day he tries to beat me up, to teach me a lesson. He started hittin on me, and I thought, Willie, ‘hell, I’m stronger than him.’ So I reached up and squeezed his throat until he fell to the floor.”

Willie’s trailer was as silent as the lake on a weekday morning at 5 o’clock, and he felt that there were reptilian eyes here, too, watching him and waiting. He opened his mouth to speak, but near jumped out of his skin when Mattie’s hand flew up. She just touched him, though, lightly on the lips, so light he could hardly feel it.

“I like you, Willie, even though you treat me like shit sometimes. Hell, I guess that means I love you. So I’m going to give you a full pardon this time, you hear?” Her features seemed to be retracting: her jaw bone shrank back, her eyes opened up again, she resumed normal Mattie size. She’d smiled at him, and given him a pat on the cheek.

“I love you Willie, so I only tell you that once. You’d better hope it won’t be twice.”

And now she was saying it again. She was saying it while she was rubbing her left thumb over the back of a butcherin’ knife, and Willie came to the realization that yes, her saying it twice wasn’t such a good thing. Not a good thing at all.

“You stay calm now, Mattie. You just calm down, put the knife down, and we’ll have a good talk, now, you just calm-"

“I am calm, Willie.” She raised the knife to her chest with the point right at Willie’s heart. She looked at him, and Willie felt a thrill of horror when he saw her jaw jutting forward, her slitted eyes, and her swollen body. She advanced and he took a step back, instinctively.

“What’s this all about, now, Mattie? What’s gotten in to you, woman?”

“It’s not what I’ve gotten into, Willie, it’s what that little prick of yours has gotten into. Mostly Briona’s little snatch.”

Willy felt all the water evaporate in his mouth, and his forced laugh sounded more like his Aunt Jeri’s cat hacking a hairball.

“Girl, what, what you talking about, girl?” he asked, pouring fake amusement over his words like syrup on pancakes. “What you talking about?”

“You shouldn’t of done it, Willie.” She took another step and Willie realized his back was against the wall. “Why did you sleep with her, what for? The whole church is talkin’ about it, the whole goddamn town! Everybody been laughin’ behind my back!”

“They was doing that before I was sleeping with Briona, Mattie. They’ve always laughed at you, they always have!”

Willie was screeching and didn’t even care. Truth be told, he hoped that his screeching woke up the old Hendersons who lived a couple of ways down in another trailer. He was screeching as high as he could go.

“I slept her with her cause you just a big, ugly, hoss of a woman!” He started laughing, almost manically. “I did it cause Briona’s going to give me children, and you can’t. I did it cause Briona’s pretty, and you ain’t. I did it because Briona’s not throwing away scraps of food to gators. That’s why I did it!” He was panting now, his skinny frame was trembling from head to toe. “You some kind of voodoo woman, feeding those gators and laughing at me. You some kind of voodoo woman, that’s why you can’t have children. You sit in church and everybody laughs cause Mattie is taking up half the pew. You work for some rich white woman and clean her house and takes cares of her children, you’d wipe up her shit and smile after you’ve done it. You a weak-ass fool, Mattie!”

She darted forward, a blur to Willie’s vision, and for just one moment Willie thought that her skin was changing. He could have sowrn that a diamond-shaped pattern was running down her arms. He thought he saw her face jut forward an impossible length, thought he saw her hands and feet form claws. He realized he was hallucinatin’, but by then it was too late. By then Mattie had stabbed him in the stomach, and he thought he saw the trailer change colors. He felt the blade in him in an abstract way, almost the same way he was aware of the blood leaking out like water from a busted pipe. He was dimly aware of screaming and beating his fist against Mattie, to no avail. He felt the blade draw back and pierce him again, but this time the pain was white-hot and when he pushed Mattie, he had enough strength to make her step back a little and darted pasted her towards the door.

He pushed it open, aware of her coming up behind him. Damn, but a woman that large was so fast! He tripped down the concrete steps, but kept moving. He was only screaming one thing in his head Run, run, run, run, run, run, run! He ran forward, and heard Mattie laughing behind him. Go on and laugh, crazy-ass, he thought, go on and laugh. You’ll be laughing when I make it to the road and flag somebody down, you crazy bitch.

Outside it had grown dark and a sheer mist hung in the air. He couldn’t see anything in front of him, he only kept telling himself to

keep moving forward. Mattie hadn’t quit laughing, and ten seconds later he realized why. He realized why she was laughing when he heard the hollow sound of wood and felt the world shake beneath him. He had walked out of the wrong door. He wasn’t on the blacktop of the road. He was on his pier. And he could hear Mattie laughing right behind him. Laughing because he didn’t have anywhere to go. Laughing because she had him now.

He tried to think. The pier ended not two feet in front of him. To his left, his old aluminum fishing beat boat rocked gently against the side of the pier. For a while, he entertained the notion of jumping in his boat and riding away. But the woozy feeling he felt in his head told him that he could hardly move anymore, much less crank up the motor. Besides, it was too late for any plans. Mattie was in front of him, now, and he had no where left to go. I’ll push her to the right of the pier, away from the boat, he thought. That way, she’ll fall in the water and I can make a run for it.

“What you thinking about, Willie?”

Willie gasped and pressed down on his wound harder. “I’m thinking about the look on your face when they send you to jail, Mattie!” He wheezed.

Mattie laughed. “I ain’t going to jail, Willie.”

“Even if you kill me, they’ll find my body. They’ll find my body and find you, just like they do on the TV.”

Mattie wasn’t laughing anymore. She stepped closer, and Willie took another instinctive step back. He knew that he only had another step before he wouldn’t be stepping on anything but water. And he wasn’t no Jesus.

“They ain’t gonna find you, Willie."

Willie looked around, searching for words to respond. He was looking around when he noticed for the first time the glow of dozens of eyes. Hundreds, maybe. The gators were everywhere, all over the water. They had broken the surface; they were watching him now and weren’t hiding it. Enraged, Willie let out a scream and charged forward, forgetting about Mattie for a moment and only thinking about the dry land that was only twelve or so feet away from him. Mattie caught him easily and stabbed him twice more.

“They ain’t going to find you, Willie,” she said calmly as she stabbed him. “They ain’t going to find you cause I’m not killing anybody.”

“You ain’t?” Willie whispered disbelievingly, his mouth full of blood.

“Nope. I’m just throwing out a few scraps of garbage.”

That’s when Willie started laughing hysterically, even as he started to cry. He kept on laughing as Mattie pinned him down and started hacking his arms off. He kept on shrieking with laughter as he heard the plop of the water as Mattie threw something over the side. He kept on while he heard the thrashing of the gators fighting over a scrap of garbage. Willie kept on laughing until he was dead, and the last gator had gotten its fill.

The Tale of Willie Patton

William H

Joined December 2007

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