I used to work on the river. The Cherokee. Then I was on the Hugh Martin. The H C Murry. It had a better store than them uptown. After the first war they wasnt no more packetboat trade. I was born in nineteen and hundred. Of a night you could hear them boats howlin on the river like souls. The old Martin had a steamhorn could and used to did bring the glass out of folks’ sashes. I went on the river when I was twelve. I weighed a hunnerd and eighty pound then. This white man shot me cause I whipped him. I didnt know no better. I was older then, must of been fourteen. Dumb as shit. I went home and got better and fore I could see him to kill him somebody had done done it. Cut his head off. Wasnt no friend of mine. Thowed my black ass in the jailhouse. Went up the side of my head with they old clubs and shit. I laid there in the dark, they aint give me nothin to eat yet. That was my first acquaintance of the wrath of the path. That’s goin on forty year now and it dont signify a goddamn thing. These bloods down here think it’s somethin to whip up on some police. They think that’s really somethin. Shit. You aint got nothin for it but a busted head. You caint do nothin with them motherfuckers. I wouldnt fight em at all if I could keep from it.
Suttree bent to see his face. Jones blinked, eyeballs like eggs in the mammoth black skull. He must have read his pale friend’s look because he said almost to himself: That’s the truth.
How did you get out?
They found his head. Man had it in a shoebox.
He was unscrewing the bottlecap, taking a drink. His eyes closed and opened slowly in the gloom. This man was a gambler and a whoremaster. He never drunk nor smoked. Run a whorehouse on Front Street that was well known in them days. Boats come in, the hands would all turn out for his place. Streets full of whores, queers any color. Thieves. They come out like roaches whenever you had a dockin. Then this feller cut his head off and carried it around in a shoebox with him. He got drunk one night down on Central Avenue and started showin the old head around. Folks runnin screamin into the streets. Next day I’s out.
Was he crazy?
I dont know. He didnt kill him to rob him. I guess he was a little bit crazy.
Would you have killed him?
I dont know. I reckon I would if that was how he’d of wanted it.
Suttree took a sip of his beer. He could hear Smokehouse in the outer room again, puttering about, glass clinking. He looked at Jones. Have you ever killed anyone? he said.
Not on purpose, said Jones.
From Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. I read an echo of Huck and Jim in Sut and Jones, perhaps—a faint, distorted, reverberated echo, sure—but an echo. This episode also seems to obliquely reference Queequeg’s adventures with the shrunken head in Nantucket.