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I ever tell you about the time Cliffert Corbett settled a bet by outrunning a bullet? Oh. Well, all right, Little Miss Smarty Ass, here it is again, but this time I’ll stick to the truth, because I got enough sins to write out on St. Peter’s blackboard as it is, thank you, and on the third go-round the truth is easiest to remember. So you just write down what I tell you, just as I tell you, and don’t put in none of your women’s embroidery this time.

You’re too young to remember Cliffert Corbett, I reckon, but he was the kind that even if you did remember him, you wouldn’t remember him, except for this one thing that I am going to tell you, the one remarkable thing he ever did in his life. It started one lazed-out, dragged-in Florida afternoon outside the gas station, when we were all passing around a sack of boiled peanuts and woofing about who was the fastest.

During all this, Cliffert hadn’t said nothing, and he hadn’t intended to say nothing, but Cliffert’s mouth was just like your mouth and mine. Whenever it was shut it was only biding its time, just waiting for the mind to fall down on the job long enough for the mouth to jump into the gap and raise some hell. So when Cliffert squeezed one boiled peanut right into his eye and blinded himself, his mouth was ready. As he blinked away the juice, his mouth up and blabbed: “Any of you fast enough to outrun a bullet?”

They all turned and looked at him, and friend, he wasn’t much to look at. Cliffert was built like a fence post, and a rickety post, too, maybe that last post standing of the old fence in back of the gas station, the one with the lone snipped rusty barbed-wire curl, the one the bobwhites wouldn’t nest in, because the men liked to shoot at it for target practice. And everyone knew that if Cliffert, with his gimpy leg, was to race that fence post, their money would be elsewhere than on Cliffert.

And because what Cliffert had said wasn’t joking like, but more angry, sort of a challenge, Isiah Bird asked, “You saying you can do that?”

And just before Cliffert got the last bit of salt out of his eyes, his mouth told Isiah, “I got five dollars says I can, Isiah Bird.”

From there it didn’t matter how shut Cliffert’s mouth was, because before he knew what hit him Isiah had taken that bet, and the others had jumped in and put down money of their own, and they were hollering for other folks on the street to come get in on the action, and Dad Boykin made up a little register that showed enough money was riding on this to have Cliffert set for life if he just could outrun a bullet, which everyone in town knew he couldn’t do, including Cliffert, plus he didn’t have no five dollars to lose.

“We’ll settle this right now,” said Pump Jeffries, who ran the gas station. “I got my service pistol locked up in the office there, but it’s well greased and ready to go.”

“Hold on!” cried Cliffert, and they all studied him unfriendly like, knowing he was about to back out on the deal his mouth had made.

“I got to use my own gun,” Cliffert said, “and my own bullets.”

They all looked at each other, but when Isiah Bird nodded his head, the others nodded, too. “Fetch ’em, then,” Dad Boykin said. “We’ll wait right here.”

“Now, boys,” said Cliffert, thinking faster than he could run, “you got to give me some time to get ready. Because this ain’t something you can just up and do, no matter how fast you are. You got to practice at it, work up to it. I need to get in shape.”

“Listen at him now. He wants to go into training!”

“How long you need, then?”

“A year,” Clifford said. “I’ll outrun a bullet one year from this very day, the next twenty-first of July, right here in front of the gas station, at noon.”

No one liked this very much, because they were all raring to go right then. But they talked it over and decided that Cliffert wasn’t going to be any more able to outrun a bullet in a year than he was now.

“All right, Cliffert,” they told him. “One year from today.”

So then Cliffert limped on home, tearing his hair and moaning, cursing his fool mouth for getting him into this fix.

He was still moaning when he passed the hoodoo woman’s house. You could tell it was the hoodoo woman’s house because the holes in the cement blocks that held it up were full of charms, and the raked patterns in the dirt yard would move if you looked at them too hard, and the persimmon trees were heavy with blue bottles to catch spirits, and mainly because the hoodoo woman herself was always sitting on the porch, smoking a corncob pipe, at all hours and in all weathers, because her house was ideally situated to watch all the townsfolk going and coming, and she was afraid if she ever went inside she might miss something.

“What ails you, Cliffert Corbett, that you’re carrying on such a way?”

So Cliffert limped into her yard, taking care not to step on any of the wiggly lines, and told her the whole thing.

“So you see, Miz Armetta, I won’t be able to hold my head up in this town no more. I’ll have to go live in Tallahassee with the rest of the liars.”

The hoodoo woman snorted. “Just tell ’em you can’t outrun a bullet, that you’re sorry you stretched it any such a way. Isiah Bird keeps cattle and hogs both, and he’ll let you work off that five dollars you owe him.”

When he heard the word ‘work,’ Cliffert felt faint, and the sun went behind a cloud, and the dirt pattern in the yard looked like a big spider that crouched and waited.

“Oh, Miz Armetta, work is a harsh thing to say to a man! Ain’t you got any other ideas for me than that?”

“Mmmph,” she said, drawing on her pipe. “The holes men dig just to have a place to sit.” She closed her eyes and rocked in her shuck chair and drummed her fingertips on her wrinkled forehead and asked, “They expecting you to use your own bullet?”

“Yes, and my own gun.”

“Well, it’s simple then,” she said. “You need you some slow bullets.”

“What you mean, slow bullets? I never heard tell of such a thing.”

“I ain’t, either,” said the hoodoo woman, “but you got a year to find you some, or make you some.”

Cliffert studied on this all the way home. There he lifted his daddy’s old service pistol and gun belt out of the cedar chest and rummaged an old box of bullets out of the back corner of the Hoosier cabinet and set them both on the kitchen table and sat down before them. He rested his elbows on the oilcloth and rested his chin on his hands. He wasn’t used to thinking, but now that first Isiah Bird and now the hoodoo woman had got him started in that direction, he was sort of beginning to enjoy it. He studied and studied, and by sunset he had his breakthrough.

“The bullet is just a lump of metal,” he told the three-year-and-two-month-old Martha White calendar that twitched and tapped the wall in the evening breeze. “It’s the powder in the cartridge that moves it along. So what I need is slow powder. But what would go into slow powder?”

He grabbed a stubby pencil, and on the topmost Tallahassee Democrat on a stack bound for the outhouse, he began to make a list of slow things.

For week after week, month after month, Cliffert messed at his kitchen table, and then in his back yard, with his gunpowder recipe, looking for the mix that gave a bullet the slowest start possible while still firing. First he ground up some snail shells and turtle shells and mixed that in. He drizzled a spoonful of molasses over it and made such a jommock that he had to start over, so from then on, he used only a dot of molasses in each batch, like the single roly-poly blob Aunt Berth put in the middle of her biscuit after the doctor told her to mind her sugar. For growing grass he had to visit a neighbor’s yard, since his own yard was dirt and unraked dirt at that, but the flecks of dry paint were scraped from his own side porch and in the sun, too, which was one job of work. He tried recipe after recipe, a tad more of this and a teenchy bit less of that, and went through three boxes of bullets test-firing into a propped-up Sears, Roebuck catalog in the back yard, and even though the boxes emptied ever more slowly, he still was dissatisfied. Then one day he went to Fulmer’s Hardware and told his problems to the man himself.

“You try any wet paint?” Mr. Fulmer asked.

“No,” Cliffert said. “Just the flakings. How come you ask me that?”

“Well, I was just thinking,” Mr. Fulmer said. He laid the edge of his left hand down on the counter, like it was slicing bread. “If wet paint is over here.” He held his left hand still and laid down the edge of his right hand about ten inches away. “And dry paint is over here, and it goes from the one to the other, it stands to reason that the wet paint is slower than the dry, since it ain’t caught up yet.”

Cliffert studied Mr. Fulmer’s hands for a spell. The store was silent, except for the plip plip plip from the next aisle. They couldn’t see over the shelf but knew it was six-year-old Louvenia Parler, who liked to wait for her mama in the hardware store so she could play with the nails.

“That stands to reason,” Cliffert finally said, “only if the wet paint is as old as the dry paint, so we know they started at the same time.”

Mr. Fulmer folded his arms. “Now you talking sense. When you last paint your side porch?”

“I myself ain’t never painted it, nor the front porch nor no other part of the house. It don’t look like it’s been painted since God laid down the dirt to make the mountains.”

“That might be the original paint, sure enough, so you’re out of luck. I don’t stock no seventy-five-year-old paint.”

“How old you got?”

Mr. Fulmer blew air between his lips like a noisemaker. “Ohh, let’s see. I probably got paint about as old as Louvenia.”

“Well, even Mr. Ford started somewhere. Let me have a gallon of the oldest you got.”

Mr. Fulmer asked, “What color?” And before he even could regret asking, Cliffert said:

“Whatever color’s the slowest, that’s the one I want.”

Mr. Fulmer laughed. “I know you chasing your tail now. The hell you goin’ tell what color’s slowest? I been pouring paint for thirty years, and it all pours and dries the same.”

Cliffert opened his mouth to say he-didn’t-know-what, but the sound they heard was a little-girl voice from the next aisle over, stretching out her “I” all sassy like.

I-I-I-I know how,” Louvenia said. “I-I-I-I know how to tell.”

Cliffert looked at Mr. Fulmer, and Mr. Fulmer looked at Cliffert, and when they got tired of looking at each other, they looked over the top edge of the shelf and saw Louvenia sitting on the plank floor, calico skirt spread out like a lilypad, and all around her a briar-patch of nails, tenpenny and twopenny, dozens of them, all standing on their heads and ranged like soldiers.

“Tell us, Louvenia honey,” Cliffert said.

“Watch for when a rainbow comes out,” she said, “and see which color comes out the slowest.” She scooped up a handful of twopennies and sifted them through her fingers back into the nail keg, plip plip plip.

“That’s good thinking, Louvenia,” Cliffert said. “I thank you kindly.”

“You’re welcome,” she said.

“You put those back when you’re done, now, Louvenia,” Mr. Fulmer said as he and Cliffert pulled their heads back. “I swear, ever nail in this town will be handled by that child before she’s done.”

“It is a good idea,” Cliffert said, “but my eyes ain’t good enough to make it a practice.”

“Mine, neither,” Mr. Fulmer said. “I see a rainbow all at once, or I don’t see it.”

Cliffert opened his mouth again, but nothing came out. Mr. Fulmer waited. He wasn’t in no hurry. If it hadn’t been a slow day, he wouldn’t have been standing there jawing about dry paint and rainbows. Finally Cliffert turned his hand edgewise and chopped the air seven times.

“They are the same order, ever time, in a rainbow,” Cliffert said. “Read Out Your Good Book In Verse. Red the first, violet the last.”

“Or the other way around,” Mr. Fulmer said. “You going left to right or right to left?”

“Has to be one end or the other,” Cliffert said. “Gimme a gallon of red and a gallon of violet.”

I call it purple,” Mr. Fulmer said, “and paint don’t come in purple. But I can sure mix you some red and blue to make purple.”

“Well, I thank you,” Cliffert said.

Mr. Fulmer whistled his way into the storage room, happy because he had helped solve a little hardware problem and because since the Crash he had about given up on ever moving another gallon of paint.

So Cliffert worked through Christmas adding dibs and dabs of paint to his mix, and after New Year’s he threw in some January molasses ’cause those are the slowest, and then he shot off the results back of his house, bang bang blim bang. “It’s the Battle of Atlanta,” his neighbors cried, and beat the young’uns who walked too near Cliffert’s fence. He didn’t get close to satisfied till the first of June, and only then did he take his gun and his custom-made cartridges over to the hoodoo woman’s house to show her what he had.

“Mmmph, mmmph, mmmph,”said the hoodoo woman. The second “mmmph” meant she was impressed, and the third meant she was flat impressed.

“That’s good, Cliffert Corbett,” she said, “but hold on here, I got one more idea that might make her better still. Now, where’d I put that thing?” She rummaged her right hand through her apron pockets while holding her left hand out in the air stiff and flat, like she was drying her nails in the breeze, only there was no breeze and the nails were black and broken on her knobbed and ropy hand, and Cliffert didn’t like the look of it. Then the hoodoo woman laughed a croupy laugh and pulled forth a corked bottle the size of her thumb, full of a pale green sloshy something. “If it was a snake it woulda bit me,” said the hoodoo woman.

“What is it, Miz Armetta?”

“Money Stay With Me Oil. I reckon if it slows down the money, it might slow down your bullet, too. Here, unstop it for me while I reach out my dropper. Don’t let none get on you, now! This is for fixing, not anointing.”

Cliffert thought the bottle was powerful heavy for such a tee-ninchy dram of liquid, and was glad to hand it back to her when she was done plopping one sallow green blob onto the tip of each cartridge, then wiping them down with a bright red cloth. They should have gleamed brighter then, but instead they looked even duller, like their surface light was being sucked inside to die. “Don’t just stand there,” she said. “Get to writing. We need some name paper. Write your full name nine times in red ink.”

“You got any red ink, Miz Armetta?”

She snorted. “Does Fulmer’s have nails?”

Cliffert’s hand hurt him by the time he was done—he couldn’t make the Fs to suit her, and had to keep doing them over—but he had to admit, when they tried out the test bullet, that a little Money Stay With Me oil had gone a long way.

So on the appointed day, everybody in town who was interested in bets or guns or lies, or who was hanging around the gas station on that fateful day the year before, or who was related to any of those, all turned up at the gas station to see whether Cliffert actually would be there to admit to his lie and pay the man. Everyone was half surprised to see Cliffert limping across the lot, about five minutes to noon, and plumb surprised to see him wearing his daddy’s gun belt. It was cinched to the last hole and still he had to hold it up with both hands, and the holster went down practically to his knee. But sticking out of the holster was a shiny silver gun butt that suggested Cliffert was open for business.

“Cliffert Corbett, you here to outrun a bullet today?” asked Isiah Bird.

“I will sure do that thing, Isiah Bird,” said Cliffert in return.

“Do it, then,” said Dad Boykin. “I got corn to shuck and chicken to pluck. I got obligations.”

Cliffert planted his feet on the asphalt and looked down the side of the station toward the back of the lot, and hollered at the crowd, “Y’all make way so’s a man can work!” But that little bantyweight holding up his belt looked just like a young’un playing gunfighter after a cowboy matinee, and we all just laughed at him. Lord, how we laughed! And didn’t nobody budge an inch until he drew that gun—all slow and solemn-like—and pointed it at us with the steadiest hand you ever saw, and then we all found reasons to get behind him and beside him and up against the walls and otherwise out of the man’s way. So in a few seconds there was nothing between Cliffert’s gun and that shot-up old fence post at the back of the property, the last piece of the fence that separated the gas station from the woods behind. It was right splintered up, though not as much as you’d think, since the men of our town weren’t the greatest shots in Florida, not even drunk.

“On three,” Cliffert said, and he brought that gun up two-handed and squinted down the barrel, and without his hand on it, his gun belt slipped down to his knees. Nobody laughed, though, because that gun was steady, man, steady.

“One,” Cliffert said.

We didn’t say nothing.

“Two,” Cliffert said.

We didn’t breathe.

Then he fired, and we all jumped about a foot in the air. It wasn’t just that the shot was three times as loud as any gunshot has any right to be. It also sounded… wrong. It sounded interrupted. It sounded like a scream that lasts only a half-second before someone claps a hand across your mouth. And the smoke coming out of the barrel was wrong, too. Instead of puffing away in an instant, it uncoiled slow in solid gray ropes, like baby snakes first poking their heads from a hidey-hole in springtime. And the fence post looked just the same as before.

“Misfire,” someone said.

“Wait for it,” Cliffert said, still sighting down the barrel and holding her steady.

The smoke kept on curling. And then, amid the smoke, something dark started pushing forth, like the gun itself was turning wrong side out. Lord have mercy, it was the tip of the bullet sliding into view, and nobody said a word as it eased on out of the barrel. It must have taken a solid minute just for that bullet to clear the gun. And just as we could see daylight between the bullet and the barrel, Cliffert stepped back a pace and raised the gun and blew across the tip. I never saw smoke so loath to be gone. A scrap of it snagged his lip and hung there awhile like a sorry gray mustache before it slid off into nothing.

“Move the gun too quick, you mess up the aim,” Cliffert said. “I was days figuring that out.”

Then I went back to watching the bullet, which was about a foot away and moving steady but no faster than before. In fact, I reckon it was moving even slower, since all its charge was blown, and from here on gravity takes over—in any normal Christian bullet, that is. You ever craned your neck to look up at an airplane that just seems to be making no progress at all? Watching that bullet was like watching that airplane, one about at the level of the tobacco pouch in my shirt pocket. Even Cliffert just stood there, gun still on his shoulder pointing at the top of the chinaberry tree, staring at the bullet he had made, as hypnotized as anyone.

Someone yelled, “Look at the shadow!”

The bullet’s shadow was crawling along the ground, sliding in and out of every chip and crack in the asphalt, in no bigger hurry than the bullet it was tethered to above, and somehow that shadow was even worse than the bullet.

A shudder went through the crowd, and a few folks bust out crying, and they weren’t all women neither, while some others started hollering for Jesus.

Cliffert sort of shook himself all over and said, “Look at me! I near forgot the bet.” He holstered the gun and ambled forward. He was noways in a hurry, but in only a few steps he’d caught up to that bullet he had loosed, and in a few steps more he had walked past it, and as he walked he pulled a wrinkled paper from his pants pocket. He unfolded it and smoothed it out a little and turned around and held it up as he walked. Drawn on the paper in red ink was a bull’s-eye target about six inches across, and Cliffert stumbled a little as he walked backwards, trying to gauge how high the target ought to be for the bullet to hit it square.

Now we had two things of wonderment to look at, Cliffert’s bullet and Cliffert himself, and we all was so busy staring at one and then the other that we hadn’t paid any mind at all to a third thing: Lou Lou Maddox’s toothless mangy old collie dog, the one that was blind in one eye and couldn’t see out the other, and had so much arthritis that she wouldn’t have been walking if she hadn’t been held up and jerked along by the fleas. That old dog had crawled out from under the Maddox porch next door and stood up all rickety and hitched her way across the side yard headed toward the gas station, maybe because she smelled the peanuts boiling, or because she wondered what all the fuss was about, and when we finally noticed her walking into the path of Cliffert’s bullet, we all hollered at once—so loud that the damn dog stopped dead in her tracks and blinked at us with milky eyes, and that bullet not six inches from her shackly ribcage and inching closer.

“Salome!” screamed Lou Lou. “Get out of there, Salome!”

The dog blinked and looked sideways and saw that bullet a-coming. Salome yelped and hopped forward twice, so that the bullet just missed her hindquarters as it headed on.

Now Cliffert had finally got his target situated where he wanted it, by jamming it down on a splinter on that highest fence post at the back of the lot. And by the time the bullet was finally about a half-inch from the bull’s-eye, everyone had had time to go get some supper and find a few more relations to tell about the marvel and bring them on back to the gas station, so the whole damn town was standing gathered around the target in a half-circle, all watching as the bullet nosed into the paper… and dented it a little… and then punched through (we all heard it)… and then kept on going, through the paper and into the fence post (we all heard a little grinding noise, eckity eckity eckity eck, like a mouse in the wall, but all continuous, not afeard of no cat or nothing else in this world, just doing its slow steady job of work)… and then the sawdust started sifting out of the back of the post… and here came the bullet, out the other side (we had flashlights and lanterns trained on it by then), and we all watched as the bullet went on into the brush and into the woods, and then it was so dark we couldn’t see it no more. We thought about following it into the woods with our lights, but then we thought about getting all confused in the dark and getting ahead of it, and how it would be to have that bullet a-nosing into your side, so we decided not to hunt for it but say we did.

“Just imagine,” said the hoodoo woman, the only person in town not at the gas station. Still a-sitting on her porch, she struck a match and fired her pipe and told the shapes gathering in the dirt, “Imagine having nothing better to do all day than watch a man shoot a fence post.” She pointed her pipe stem at a particularly lively patch of ground. “You stay down in that yard, Sonny Jim. I got my eyes on you.”

What happened next?

Well, that was about when I left. So I ain’t any too clear on the rest of it. I know Cliffert collected him some money, off of me and a lot of the others. It was enough to set him up for life in the style to which he was accustomed, not that he was accustomed to much. Someone told me he took the train to Pensacola that week and tried to sell the U.S. Army on what he had done, but the U.S. Army said thank you just the same, it couldn’t see no point, no strategic advantage, in a bullet that even a colicky baby could crawl out of the way of. Not that the U.S. Army had any plans to actually shoot any colicky babies. That was just a for-example. They weren’t aware in Pensacola of any immediate colicky baby threat, although they would continue to monitor the situation. So the U.S. Army hustled Cliffert out of the office, and he went on home and lived out his days a richer and more thoughtful man, but if he ever made any more slow bullets, the news ain’t reached me yet. So that’s more’n I know.

Except no one ever did see that bullet come out of them woods.

Maybe it finally come to rest in a tree, and maybe it didn’t. Maybe it finally run out of juice, and dropped to the ground and died, and maybe it didn’t. Maybe it’s still in there someplace, a-looking around for something to shoot. Maybe it found its way out of them woods long ago. Could be anywhere by now. One day you might be going about your business, pestering the life out of some hopeful old man with that notebook of yourn, and his eyes might get wide and he might say, “Hey!” But it’s too late, because you can’t even get turned ’round good before eckity, eckity, eck, Cliffert Corbett’s bullet is drilling into the back of your head, and next thing you know, there you is, dead as McKinley on the cooling board.

Why ain’t you writing that down?

What? Call yourself educated and can’t even spell eckity, eckity, eck? Shit. I could spell that myself, if I ever needed it done.

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