The Man in Black

Excerpt from the short story, “Cry ‘Bout a Nickel.”  Copyright ©2017 by Paul Greenamyer


The song came to an end with a slap of bass, a trill of clarinet, a sharp snatch of cymbal and a jangly chop of Bobby’s guitar. The sweaty audience stopped dancing and applauded wildly. These kids just went nuts for white songs played black.

Bobby nodded his head in appreciation. He knew the cheering was for him and he knew to look magnanimous. The band – Charlie Wilton on the drums, No-Neck Finch on the bass, and Merle Freeman on the clarinet, ages ranging for 22 to 61 between them – had the sense between them to actually be magnanimous. The boy from Hazelhurst was paying their rent right before their eyes.

“Thank you, thank you!” Bobby said in a loud voice, wiping sweat from his pale face and smiling through the queasiness of what felt like an oncoming stomach malady. “I’m Robert Johnson from right down th’ road. Thank ‘ee for listenin’ and dancin’. My chapeau up here ’t front o’ the stage, it ain’t gonna fill itself. Much obliged of anything y’ can drop in there to keep food in my belly. As you can see, I need it.”

The barn echoed with the sound of clinking change as the revelers dropped pennies, nickels, and dimes into Bobby’s pork pie hat, upended at the lip of the stage.

“Thank you! Thank you!” Bobby said. He grasped a short black youth’s hand, which the youth then shook emphatically. Bobby knew that the boy’s girlfriends were watching and he favored the youth with a pat on the shoulder and a quick “How you been, son? Momma doin’ okay?” He had never met that boy in his life, or his momma. “Thank you! Thank you!” He caught the eyes of a beautiful black girl of maybe 16 in a blue dress. She smiled all the unwise promises in the world to him. Lord help him. “Thank you, th-“

Bobby spotted a man in black, and his spit dried up.

Tall and dapper, his suit immaculately pressed, the man in black wore a fedora with a deep brim that hid most of his face – save for a pointed lower jaw and a white grin between black lips, like a crescent moon, a gash on the night sky. His face was hidden, but Bobby thought he could still see that face. He could never stop seeing that face. Even when Bobby closed his eyes and squeezed the lids tight, he could not shut out the smooth, ageless ogre-face of the man in black.

He wore white gloves and twiddled a silver dollar between his spidery fingers, like a magician. Sensing Bobby’s attention, the man in black flipped that silver dollar through the air. Bobby’s vision blurred feverishly. The room bent, vertigo. He had no idea if the man in black was on the far side of the barn or inches from his nose. The coin flipped end over end, showing Lady Liberty and the angry glare of a bald eagle alternately. The man in black seemed to change with every flip. It landed in Bobby’s hat with a clunk. Precious and dense, it scarcely bounced.

Bobby’s stomach swam. He felt like he might throw up and shit his pants simultaneously. He entertained the idea of picking up the dollar coin and pegging it back at the man in black, as hard as he possibly could. Instead, he nodded a meek thank-you in that direction. He couldn’t toss it back. It was a whole dollar.


What do you think of this excerpt?  Is anything about it unclear or confusing?  What do you take from it?

2 Replies to “The Man in Black”

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