By Jody T. Pratt
Calvin tosses and turns on the twin-sized mattress, its springs sounding off in clanks and clinks. As he sits up, his shifting stomach acid makes his belly groan. He rubs it, reassuring that comfort will be on its way. Then, he plants his feet on the aged hardwood floor.
The floors creak and complain because of his heavy weight. Calvin stands upright into a teeth-chattering stretch. He pauses to not wake his grandparents, let alone his brother, whom he occupies the bed with. His eldest brother sleeps soundly across the room. Having much practice, Calvin transfers weight from his heels to the tips of his toes.
He opens the door at a slug’s pace and squeezes through it, but not past the point where the hinges would omit noise. His pacing pays off when he reaches the top of the staircase, staring down into a layer of darkness where there is a hint of moonlight. Behind a tightly fastened door, the hum of Grandpa Woods’ sleep apnea machine slightly combats Grandma Odessa’s stereo, which plays a melody of ocean waves and North American waterfalls.
Mr. Tum Tum, the family cat, bumps and nudges by, which reminds Calvin of his goal. As he descends the stairs, counting each step, Mr. Tum Tum blurts “meow” as if to tell his partner to hurry. Calvin places an index finger on his lips, then mouths a warning to the cat, Imma eat yo’ ass next.
Heeding his warning, Mr. Tum Tum stretches before trotting the rest of the stairs to the source of the moonlight. Picking up the pace, Calvin floats down the rest of the way, cutting through the Georgia summer humidity that fills his grandparents’ home.
Following the moonlight’s length shown through the window above the sink, Calvin finds himself in the kitchen. A gurgling, flapping sound comes from his belly. One hand reaches for the handle of the old Wanderlust Co. fridge, while the other makes clockwise and counterclockwise motions around his belly. So close to our reward.
Pulling the handle slowly, Calvin hears the magnetic strip lining the frame pop pap and grows overzealous. He bites his lower lip and holds his breath as if it will help his anonymity. His hand falls from beneath his oversized “North Dakota Cougars” women’s softball shirt to aid his other hand in opening the door.
The glorious, beige-tinted light illuminates the boy’s smile and fills the kitchen. The refrigerator’s engine sputters louder but is ignored by the door opener and Mr. Tum Tum who paws at the heavy whipping cream.
The young boy, who couldn’t be older than 11 or 12, joins Mr. Tum Tum eagerly. He grabs grapes, a few tepid leftovers from dinner, swigs of milk, and orange juice labeled, “Grandma’s Juice! Thieves will get the SWITCH!”
Calvin takes a bite and a half of all he sees, swallowing mouthfuls, making room for more. And there he saw it. Slightly hidden behind a half jug of whole milk, a fat slice of blueberry pie wrapped in cellophane on a small paper plate. No doubt in his mind, it was from last Wednesday’s church service and fundraiser at Mercy’s Touch Baptist Church. The fundraiser, from what he and his brothers suspected, was for the pastor’s new swimming pool.
Calvin gulps, only to make more room in his mouth. His crumb-covered smile grew as he reached with both hands towards the piece of pie.
“Calvin Lamont Westle? Boy, get yo’ little ass up out my damn refrigerator! You done almost made me put you down, son!” says Grandpa Wood as he turns on the kitchen light.
Startled and embarrassed, Calvin bumps the back of his head exiting the refrigerator. His 71-year-old grandfather peers over the door, holding his matte, black .38 Special. The barrel is engraved with the words ON MY LAP AT ALL TIMES. Grandpa proceeds into the kitchen with bare feet, wearing a loose wife beater, form-fitting briefs, and his Marines Semper Fi tattoo dotted by patches of gray curls.
“So, this is what yo’ momma and daddy was talkin’ bout, huh?” Grandpa Wood fusses. “Comin’ down at the devil’s hour and eatin’ all the damn food up! Have you been doing this all summer, boy?”
Calvin interrupts, trying to defuse being caught red-handed.
“No, Grandpa Wood, I… I… I heard something downstairs, and… and I came down to see what it was. The refrigerator was making weird noises and—”
“So, you decided to clean it out, son? Look at you. You covered in all sorts of junk—yesterday’s sandwich, tonight’s supper, and don’t think I haven’t noticed that extra pulp on your top lip.”
Embarrassed, Calvin tries to hold on to some dignity, “I’m sorry, Grandpa. Please don’t tell Mom and Da—”
Grandpa rolls his eyes, interjecting, “Boy, if I was a snitch, we would be in a mansion in a gated community, dammit.”
Calvin laughs charitably, but feeding Grandpa’s ego falls to the wayside this time. The old man’s face goes deadpan. “I ain’t the one you gotta worry ‘bout. It’s somebody else you’s got to worry about.”
“Oh, you gon’ tell Grandma?”
“Hush, boy! I’m talking ‘bout Stumpy Johnson.”
“Johnson!” Grandpa shouts, “Never mind. Clean up and head on to the bed, boy.”
Calvin agrees and washes his face in the lower-level bathroom. Grandpa Wood sweeps up the crumbs and wipes the droplets of juice to keep Grandma unaware. Calvin peeks out of the bathroom door, turning off the light to be concealed in the darkness. He feels eyes on him, an unnerving stare in the opposite direction of the kitchen. Goosebumps spread from the back of his neck, down his spine, branching to his arms and legs. He turns only to see the darkness of the living room, confused at the wave of discomfort.
“Son, get yo’ tail on to bed,” Grandpa Wood interjects.
“I… I—” Calvin replies, pointing at the darkness of the living room. Grandpa, somewhat smiling and somewhat shaking his head, picks up his .38 from the counter. He moves toward the light switch, and Calvin scampers to the landing of the stairwell before he shuts them off.
As they start up the stairs, Grandpa Wood’s free hand, damp from the sink rinse, lands on Calvin’s shoulder.
“Look, son, you can’t just eat ‘cause you hungry. Let your body rest and let your mind relax. You want them boys to call you all them names forever?”
Calvin stares at his feet, climbing the stairs, defeated and embarrassed.
“I’m a take that as a no,” Grandpa says. “They are your brothers, and they love you. You gotta stand up for yourself and not eat your feelings.”
Calvin lets out a deep sigh. “I don’t know. I get so hungry.”
He picks up the speed on the last five steps, wanting the conversation to end. He stops before entering the room shared with his brothers over the last eight summers.
Grandpa answers winded, “Take yo’ tail to bed, boy!”
Calvin pauses a few paces from his bedroom door, “Who is Stumpy Johnson?”
“Ooh, yes, that’s right!” Grandpa says, pivoting towards Calvin. “Let’s see, Stumpy Johnson was an old and tattered house Negro on the Marie Plantation. That same one just over yonder by the creek. Skinny as the day is long, he was a mean-sum-bitch. Nasty too. He was so fair-skinned, he believed he was a white man when his master was gone. Dressing in his master’s clothes, sleeping in the master’s bed. Whenever the master leaves the plantation from business or what have you. Until he was caught sleeping in the master’s bed. Mmm, boy was beaten so bad he ended up losing his left arm from the elbow down due to infection. And they tried to take his foot, but he pleaded and begged, promising he would forever be beholden of ‘Massa.’ And halfway through cutting it off, they stopped. So now, you can hear him walk through the night with a thump—slide, thump—slide.
“He paid the price for overstepping in front of all the slaves. He was sent from living in the main house to living in the basement, only to come out at night and do his work. To make it up to his master, he would carry around an unfinished wooden club whittled from an oak tree. He’d say, ‘I’m trying to catch the youngin’s making mischief and stealing food.’
“Stumpy Johnson took joy in the catch—and even more in the punishment. He would leave out food sometimes—just for kicks. He would even sing a little song... like... erm… oh:
Greedy, Greedy little Negro
Using the night for one’s own plunder
Greedy, Greedy little Negro
Let this club cure your hunger. Greedy, Greedy little Negro
Eating Massa out of house and home
Greedy, Greedy little Negro.”
Calvin cringes at the song. The hair on the back of his neck stands tall.
Grandpa further explains, “As Stumpy sings his tune, your body freezes in horror as his strides are slow. Before you know it, your hand is glued to the nearest surface. Your eyes are unblinking, unmoving, no matter how much your heart desires. He raises his club high into the darkness, then—THWHACK!” Grandpa Wood claps his hand in Calvin’s face, making him flinch and step back.
Stunned, Calvin’s heart thumps hard in his chest.
“Welp, gon’ head to bed now, boy,” says Grandpa, shutting off the hallway light with the muzzle of his .38.
Calvin stands speechless. Consumed by the night, he quickly retreats into his shared room. He feels as if those staring eyes are still at the bottom of the stairwell. He slams his bedroom door quickly behind him, which, surprisingly, leaves the room unbothered. The silence gives him a sense of relief. He takes a few steps backward until his heel catches a Hot Wheel, causing him to lose balance. One arm braces for landing, and the other shoots out towards his older brother’s bed with no clear grip. Calvin lands on his bottom with a bounce. He closes his eyes and stifles his groan for the sake of the room.
Pausing in embarrassment, Calvin hears a voice, ever so slightly, downstairs. One that labors in breathing.
“Ha-ha, you didn’t hurt yourself now, did yah. Greedy, greedy little Negro?”
Calvin opens his eyes in confusion. Nah, Grandpa Wood wouldn’t go this far to scare me just because I ate the rest of the roast beef and grapes.
Faint thumps ascend the staircase. He scrambles and leaps to the full-sized bed shared with his older brother, Kevin.
“Calvin, you need to chill,” Kevin says, turning over to find slumber again.
“Did you hear that, Kevin?” Calvin asks, pulling the covers over himself. Kevin fails to respond. Calvin realizes Kevin doesn’t have his hearing aid in. That can’t be Stumpy Johnson. He-He’s not real. He can’t be real.
The slow thumps become heavier and less rhythmic. Thump—thump——thump-thump.
Calvin pulls the covers over his head.
A fusty odor of rot wafts through the dense humid air. An aroma that Calvin can taste, replacing the dollar store Wild Mint Madness toothpaste applied earlier. Calvin can no longer manage his breath. He closes his eyes, muttering words of comfort, images of home, love, and happiness from his parents.
The thumps come to a sudden halt, and Calvin’s eyes peer from beneath the frayed Snoopy cover. He looks around the room and finds nothing out of the ordinary. A sudden movement brings his attention to the two-inch space at the bottom of the door and the aged hardwood floor. He sits on his knees in wonderment, trying to comprehend the situation. Outside the door, a pair of what seems to be decaying feet stands, leaving Calvin at a loss for words. Tears flow as he grips his covers. There’s a slight turn of the door knob.
Greedy, Greedy little Negro
Using the night for one’s own plunder
Greedy, Greedy little Negro
Let this club cure—
Shaking in dread, Calvin lets out a scream, trying to alert his older brothers. Andre partially sits up in response. Calvin points to the bottom of the bedroom door where he sees the shadow.
He screams, “Andre! Kevin! It’s Stumpy Johnson!”
Calvin leaps from his bed with fists clenched tight. The door handle turns ever so slightly. Andre sends a pillow hurling at his youngest brother’s head. The show of force to suggest, Calvin, shut up!
Calvin runs to the door, applying his entire body weight against it. He then grasps the door handle with all his strength, but he can hardly stop the movement. The odor intensifies to the point Calvin retches repeatedly. The sound arouses Andre in a fury.
“Calvin, what the hell are you doing? What is that smell?”
“H-help me! It’s Stumpy Johnson!” Calvin manages to say.
Andre jumps out of bed and helps Calvin apply pressure, leaning in with his shoulder.
“Somebody is in the house!” Calvin says, “Grandpa caught me sneaking food, and… and he said there was a house slave that catches little slaves and breaks their bones and—”
Andre interrupts angrily, “Wait, what—Grandpa Wood said. Ugh, Calvin, stop!” He stops assisting and grabs Calvin by his shoulders, pulling him away from the door. “Grandpa Wood was fuckin’ with you, Calvin!” Andre flips on the light switch, awakening Kevin.
“Why the light? What’s up?” Kevin signs before Andre signs back.
Andre signs back, “Don’t worry, go back to sleep, Kevin.”
Calvin continues in fear and frustration, “No, it’s the truth! Grandpa Wood said! He is standing at the door, ready to break all my bones!”
Laughter comes from the opposite side of the door. “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Andre swings open the bedroom door, revealing Grandma Odessa and Grandpa Wood, hardly containing their laughter. Each having one arm tucked in their matching pajamas and the other reaching into the room. They nearly fall to the floor laughing. Calvin immediately starts crying. Andre rolls his eyes and returns to his bed.
“Aww, my poor baby boy, Grandma is so sorry. Come here, baby,” says Grandma Odessa. She composes herself and embraces Calvin with open arms.
“I bet your tail won’t be eating all my damn leftover sweet potato fries no more, will ya?” Grandpa Wood says between bouts of laughter.
“Oh, stop, Wood. He gets it,” Grandma Odessa says in a regretful tone. With a kiss to Calvin’s forehead, she sends him to bed. “Now ya’ll, get some sleep because we got the water park tomorrow!”
“Yay,” the brothers say.
After the ruckus settles, and the lights are turned off, and everyone is in bed, Calvin stares at the ceiling. What was that smell that made him retch? Was it his mind playing tricks on him? Doubt floods over him like sweat on a Georgian summer.
“Get some sleep.” Andre says, turning over.
“Okay,” Calvin sniffles in response.
Calvin positions himself, his thoughts growing and smaller and smaller as a comfortable position is found. A few burps and stomach gurgles later, he is fast asleep. And when he dreams, the dreams come like waves. He sees Stumpy Johnson many times, just as terrifying as the last, and just as many times as he is caught, Calvin kills him. Just as savage as the previous, every dream sequence starts the same way—a gun, a fork, a shoestring. Calvin would sneak down the stairs, the way he did earlier that night, opening the refrigerator and seeing a piece of food on a brass plate with a brass fork. The piece of food is indistinct but tantalizes Calvin’s eyes. Impulse leads to a song sung that Calvin can’t quite understand.
The dream cycle ends with the boy opening the refrigerator and waking up to the smell of Grandma Odessa’s greasy, cheesy potatoes and bacon.
Calvin never awakes from his slumber to steal food the rest of the summer. And better yet, he never dreams of Stumpy Johnson after that night, and Stumpy Johnson was forgotten.
There is a drawn-out farewell from Calvin and his siblings by Grandma Odessa and Grandpa Wood. Many kisses and lingering hugs. Calvin embraces Grandpa Wood for the last time that summer. The last summer he would spend with all of his brothers at once.
Waves and kisses through the window of the train. And soon his grandparents are as small as ants. The boys settle in comfortably for the familiar, yet long, seven-hour train ride home to Figstern, North Dakota.
Calvin and his brothers adapt to life at home effortlessly, returning to routine as quickly as they left it. Since that night in the kitchen with Grandpa Wood, Calvin has no want or need to sneak food at night, not even to ask for seconds. In turn, Calvin loses weight, and the weight he loses brings on praise from his parents. Soon, school begins, and so does the discomfort and anxiety of sixth grade.
Calvin begins to have a recurring nightmare of eating in the cafeteria. Blurred faces cheer him on, and with every plate he licks clean and spoonful he swallows, cheers grow louder and louder. Raising his arms in victory as the last dish is finished, he is hoisted on the shoulders of the blurry-faced enthusiasts. A crown tilts on his head. A sash is gifted across his chest that reads North Dakota’s Greatest Eater. The blurry-faced individuals throw him onto the floor. He appears so full he can’t roll over on his belly. A giant fork descends from the clouds, and the crowd roars with laughter. The fork impales him, lifting him past the clouds to the giant fork holder sitting atop a refrigerator.
Calvin awakes from the nightmare with a grumble in his belly. Calvin tosses and turns; every growl and gurgle causes him to sit up with unease. He reaches for a cup of water on his bedside table, which sits there for when he wants to eat, but the cup is empty. He hates bathroom water, so he stands in his doorway devising a plan in which he would fetch water from the kitchen.
Calvin tiptoes past his older brother’s bedroom. He’s now out of practice in the act of food robbery and notices it is darker in the house than he remembered. So dark, he stubs his toe two or three times before reaching the kitchen.
With measured pace, Calvin fills his water glass. As soon as it is filled, he drinks until it is empty. Filling the cup again, he notices a vertical streak of golden light out of the corner of his eye. Turning his head, he sees the refrigerator omit a glow. He places the water cup on the black-and-white marble countertop. Wanting to close the door, he can’t help but pull it open after a rumbling grumble. To his chagrin, nothing looks appetizing to his talkative belly. Before he closes the door, he sees something wrapped in an icy covering of cellophane towards the back of the refrigerator.
Calvin reaches for the cellophane-covered mystery, unwrapping carefully. It wears a note on its plate, Mom’s treat! Do not touch! There sat a hefty portion of blueberry pie—half frozen, half coagulated. Calvin scoops a mouthful onto the plastic fork, careful not to spill it, and opens his mouth. Calvin eases the fork through his lips and closes his eyes with glee and pleasure. With every chew, Calvin thinks about the next fork and the next, and the next. The hair rises on the back of his neck as his ears hear:
“Greedy, greedy little Negro…” Thump...slide.
Calvin freezes as if in a trance, and tears fill his eyes. Goosebumps pour in bigger and bigger waves as his nose meets a familiar fusty odor of rot wafting through the night air.
“… Using the night for one’s own plunder….” Thump...slide.
Calvin slowly stands erect and turns his head towards the voice.
There stands a patchy silhouette of a one-armed man, bone thin; his clothing barely hanging onto his frail frame.
“Greedy, Greedy little Negro…” Thump...slide. His stride is solid and accurate without hindrance. “Let this club cure your hunger…” Thump...slide.
Its simper reveals its greasy-toned huddle of teeth. One milky white eye drifts, coming and going as it pleases. “Greedy, Greedy little Negro…” Thump.. slide.
Calvin’s left-hand shoots in front of him, searching for the nearest counter space. His feet glide atop the kitchen floor, slipping and sliding as he fights a pull with every bit of strength he can muster.
“Eating Massa out of house and home…” Thump...slide.
His left hand doesn’t move and is glued to the marble kitchen island, but Calvin has full function of the rest of his body.
“No! Please no! Mommy! Dad! DAD! Please help!” Calvin screams at the top of his lungs.
Just then, the light down the opposite end of the hallway turns on, and Calvin looks in that direction. As he looks back, Stumpy Johnson is gone. But Calvin’s hand remains on the counter. Try as he might, and indeed, he tries with furious tugs and pulls, he can’t remove his hand. Though he can’t remove his hand, he feels relief. But soon the light from the hall blinks, then turns off. Calvin screams an unintelligible, wailing cry. Not before looking over his shoulder and seeing Stumpy Johnson raise his club high.
“Greedy, Greedy little Negro...”
With every thwack of the club, Calvin’s body jounces and jumps in pain as his throat does not execute sound. His eyes water as he looks over to see the splash of his own blood meet Stumpy Johnson’s decaying, dripping flesh. He sends an unmoving leer down at Calvin, a smile slathered upon his rotting face. Stumpy Johnson’s cheeks quivers with every impact, shaking the island violently and even cracking the granite in continuous fissures.
Jody T. Pratt, author of "Blueberry Pie," is from Sacramento, California. He has spent a lifetime consuming dark fiction in television and books, developing a taste for its misfortune and horror. He aims to elevate the genre of black thriller, suspense, and horror to become a force in the dark fiction genre. Pratt, who also powerlifts and competes in the super-heavyweight class, aspires to write in both television and film.