The Mojo Hand – Obren Bokich
October 17, 2021
Mrs. Clauster ran her first grade class at the Brentwood School for Gifted Children with an iron fist, so her students were relieved when the young substitute shyly entered their classroom. The name she printed on the chalkboard was “Ms. Winkle,” with an emphasis on the independent woman’s title, and her gentle style endeared her to the class immediately. Except for Henry Worthington. Henry fell madly in love.
Aware that his age and height might be problematical, Henry decided to establish himself in his teacher’s mind as more than just another snot-nosed brat. He’d been reading for two years, the last without moving his lips, and usually found the rudimentary exercises beneath him. But for Ms. Winkle he became a dynamo, not only rattling off his own answers but jumping in to help out any classmate who took a breath before responding. During penmanship, which had previously bored him to death, he gave his P’s, Q’s, and R’s calligraphic flourishes. When she stopped at his desk to compliment him, the floral notes of her deodorant made him lightheaded.
As the last of his annoying peers shuffled out at the 3:30 p.m. bell, Henry picked up his backpack and gave her a crooked smile. Ms. Winkle said, “Yes, Henry, is there something you needed?”
He said, “You smell nice.”
His mother’s silver Jaguar was parked at the curb when Henry walked out of the school. Used to her son’s wild flights, she took him calling his new teacher his “baby” and that he was going to marry her in stride, although she did suggest six-year-olds probably couldn’t wed in California.
Henry said, “I’ll talk to Lightnin’ about it. He’ll know what to do.”
“Lightnin’” was her son’s newest imaginary friend. His first had been Jon, short for “Jonquille,” a boy who had been his own age when a large wave plucked him from a Malibu Beach. Henry had enjoyed playing with him, but he left water spots on the window seat and carpet in his bedroom, so he was relieved when the kid moved on.
Lightnin’ was the ghostly Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins, king of the Texas Blues. Henry had found a box of Blues records exploring the basement, primarily electric stuff like the Kings, BB, Albert, and Freddy. But there were a number of country Blues discs as well from the likes of Furry Lewis, Sonny Terry, Fred MacDowell, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Because of his fondness for trains, his favorite was Hopkins’ “Freight Train Blues,” which he played so many times on his little record player his mother took to noise-canceling headphones “so she wouldn’t go mad.” Henry wasn’t surprised when he returned to his room one day to find Lightnin’s lanky frame relaxing on the window seat. He recognized his hero immediately from the album cover pictures and the raspy purr of his voice when he said, “Son, you got to play somethin’ else sometime. You gone wear that record out.”
When they got home that day, Henry ran straight upstairs to his room. As usual when he locked the door and turned around, Lightnin’ was perched in the window, one long leg crossed over the other. “Boy, you look like the cat ate the canary,” he said, sliding a half-pint of Bourbon Deluxe from his pocket.
“What does that mean?” asked Henry as his friend took a healthy pull from the bottle.
“It mean somethin’ good happen today.”
“Better than good. My new teacher is the most beautiful lady in the world, and I want to marry her. The only thing is, Mom says I can’t ’cause I’m only six.”
“She might be right ’bout that,” allowed Lightnin’. “Even in Alabama.”
Henry frowned. “It doesn’t seem fair.”
“Life ain’t always fair, son. But it do favor the one tries hardest. And there’s other kind of marriage. For zample, there’s your common law-type marriage, where you jess say you is married and it jess your business and the lady’s.”
“I guess Mom doesn’t know about that one,” said Henry. “How do I do it?”
“That easy. Give your lady lots of compliments. Like if she got the fine big laigs, you tell her that. Or if she got nice hair or smell good.”
“I already told her she smells good,” said Henry.
Lightnin’ nodded his approval. “Now you got to get her some nice present.”
Lightnin’ enjoyed another taste from the flat brown bottle, wiped his lips politely on the back of his hand, and indicated the pink ceramic piggy bank on Henry’s bookshelf. “How much you got in that pig?”
“Nine dollars and twenty-nine cents.” Henry audited its contents daily.
“That won’t buy a diamond ring, that fo’ sho. But womens like flowers.”
“Like at the Safeway by the magazines?”
“Zactly, and that reminds me. Candy. Womens do love candy.”
“Like red vines?”
“Maybe younger ones, but a real lady, she like chocolates.”
Henry was animated at dinner that night, lavishly praising his new teacher, including a reference to her fine big legs, which caused his mother to look at his father with a raised eyebrow. She’d taken him to his first therapist when he was three, then worked her way through two more, settling on Dr. Goldstein. When Henry started talking about Lightnin’, the doctor assured her it was a positive development after the tragic Jon. “His imagination is encompassing a uniquely differentiated personality that will allow him to release inner conflict in a safe and non-threatening manner.” Goldstein also prescribed Ritalin and a regimen of homeopathic supplements, the latter conveniently available for purchase from his receptionist. After his breathless paean to Ms. Winkle, Henry told his parents his teacher asked him to be at school early the next day for a special project. Given her concern that Henry was too involved in his fantasies, his mother was delighted. She was also pleased when he said he wanted to be in bed early to be “fresh” in the morning. In fact, he lay awake well past midnight, obsessing about his baby, the glorious Ms. Winkle.
Henry’s mother was concerned that the school seemed deserted when she dropped him off at seven a.m., but he assured her Ms. Winkle would be there. He waited inside the main front doors until she drove off, then walked three blocks to the supermarket they passed every day on the drive to school. The flowers, a spray of purple irises, were $4.99, leaving only $4.30 for chocolates. He settled on a six-pack of Snickers bars, his favorite, imagining sharing them with Ms. Winkle for a romantic lunch.
Ms. Winkle was surprised to see him seated in the empty classroom as she walked in, but before she could speak he was on his feet offering her the flowers. She said, “Thank you, Henry,” puzzled at the cellophane-wrapped Snickers bars he placed on her desk. “What are these for?”
“For being so pretty and nice,” said Henry. “And I think your legs are fine, even if they aren’t big.”
At that moment the door opened slightly and a little girl with twin tufts of beribboned hair asked if it was OK to come in. Relieved at the interruption, Ms. Winkle said, “Yes! It’s Jessie, isn’t it?” she added as she rushed to prop open the door with the brown rubber wedge.
The little girl murmured, “Jessica” as she took her seat under Henry’s peeved glare. Two more children arrived as Ms. Winkle returned the candy, saying, “It’s very thoughtful of you, Henry, but I can’t accept these, and you must promise not to do this again.”
He sulked the rest of the day, although Ms. Winkle did put the flowers in a glass of water on her desk. He ate the Snickers bars for lunch by himself in the schoolyard. His mother noticed he was subdued when she picked him up at the end of school and inquired why. He said, “My tummy hurts.”
Checking his forehead, she said, “You don’t have a fever. Did you eat the sandwich I made for you?”
“Yeah,” he lied, gazing out the window. “When you met Dad, did he give you flowers and candy?”
Henry ran to his room as soon as they got home to consult with Lightnin’ about the debacle at school, but for the first time his friend wasn’t there when he’d locked the door and turned around. Panicked, he was about to check the rest of the house and the yard when he heard the coffee cream purr of his voice. “Land sake, boy, you gots to learn some patience. Po’ Lightnin’s got the arthuritis. Doan move fast as he used to.”
Lightnin’ was sitting on one of the tiny chairs at his play table, his knees nearly as high as his chin. “And you got to get some proper furniture for a ol’ man. Hard enough gettin’ down here, I doan want to think ‘bout gettin’ up again. What’s wrong? Look like your dog died.”
Henry said, “I don’t have a dog.”
“It a figure of speech. Mean you lookin’ sad.”
“She didn’t take me seriously,” said Henry. “She treated me like a child.”
“You is a chile.”
“But I have feelings.”
“You do that,” allowed Lightnin’. “You give her the flowers?”
“Womens usually like that. How ‘bout the chocolates? I never knowed one didn’t take to those.”
“They kind of made her mad.”
“What kinda chocolates you give her? My baby like the round one with a cherry in the middle.”
“I got her a bag of Snickers bars.”
“Snickers? Boy, you doan give no fine woman damn Snickers. What you thinkin’?”
“I only had four dollars and thirty cents left,” said Henry, on the verge of tears.
Lightnin’ softened. “Hey, son, it OK. Nothin’ wrong with Snickers. She give ‘em back?”
“Well, let’s see ‘em. I wouldn’t mind havin’ one right now. Been a while.”
“I ate them.”
“Damn boy, the whole bag? Surprised you ain’t sick.”
Henry hung his head, his shame complete. “I kind of am.”
“Ate ‘em all,” Lightnin’ grumbled. “Time you thought of somebody sides y’own self.”
He considered the problem for a moment, then said, “What you needs is a mojo hand. Yeah, mojo do the trick.”
Henry said, “What’s that?”
“Then she’ll love me?”
“Woman can’t resist man with a good mojo.”
Suddenly hopeful, Henry asked, “Where do I get one?”
“Get a mojo hand from a Hoodoo priest.” He scratched his chin. “But might be hard to find one in Brentwood. You maybe got to make it fo’ your own self.” Lightnin’ recrossed his legs and furrowed his brow. “But I gotta know you serious ‘bout this. Mojo ain’t chile play. Can’t make a proper mojo ‘less you serious.”
Henry assured him he was.
“OK, first you got to have the flannel cloth, red in color, fo’ love.”
Henry said, “What’s flannel cloth?”
“Like PJ’s. You got PJ’s doncha?”
“Yeah,” said Henry cautiously. He selected red flannel bottoms printed with cartoon lions from his bureau. “It’s the Lion King, my best ones.”
Lightnin’ nodded his approval. “Lion King. That good. Lion got good juju. You got scissors?”
Henry opened the desk drawer. Among crayons, colored pencils, cardstock, ruler, and glue was a pair of blunted scissors. Lightnin’ chose them, plus the ruler and a black crayon. “First, we got to cut a square. Everything got to be your odd number, so we make it seven inches on a side.” He marked the sides with the crayon, then picked up the scissors. He nipped a hole to insert one of the blunt blades, but his fingers barely fit the tiny scissors. “You better do this,” he said, handing them off.
The scissors weren’t made for fabric. In fact, they were barely sharp enough to cut paper, but Henry managed to cut a serviceable seven-inch square with a lion cub in the center.
“Lightnin’ said, “Now you needs the ‘grediants: animal, min’ral and herb. You got a frog?”
“You mean a live one?” said Henry.
“Dead. Live one won’t stay in the bag.”
“Will a lizard do?”
“Frog best, but I s’pose that work.”
Henry returned to the same drawer that had held the pajama top and brought back a shriveled reptile, about two inches long from nose to the stump where its tail had been.
“Why you keep that thing with your PJ’s?”
“I don’t think Mom would like it.”
“You right ’bout that,” said Lightnin’ as he put the lizard in the center of the cloth. “Now you need some herb. You got man root?”
Henry said, “I don’t think so.”
“Also called gin sang? Make you feel sexy.” He selected a red piece of cardstock and wrote “GIN SANG” in block letters. “Then you needs magnets, two.” Lightnin’ wrote down the words. To the list, he added candle and matches, coin, whiskey, perfume oil, salt, and a dish of water.
“Now come the most important ‘gredients: somthin’ personal, some of her writing, ‘specially your name, some of her hair or fingernails, and some spit or lady juice.” He wrote each item in careful block letters.
Henry said, “What’s lady juice?”
Lightnin’ considered this, then scratched it out, saying, “Forget ’bout that one.”
That night at dinner, Henry was so amped his mother decided to speak to Dr. Goldstein about his medication. As he ate his dinner, he studied the letter magnets on the refrigerator. Then he remembered the man root and asked if they had any.
She said, “What in heaven’s name is that?”
“I think they also call it gin sang.”
“Oh, ginseng. Yes, we have some tea. What do you want it for?”
“I heard it’s good,” said Henry.
She said, “I’m not sure it’s good for children,” then turned to his father and said, “Do you think he looks peaked?”
Henry’s father, cautious in such matters said, “Maybe a little.”
Henry said, “I finished my supper. Can I play in my room?”
“Don’t you want dessert? We have ice cream.”
Henry said, “I’m trying to cut down on sugar,” having heard her say this many times. And it was easy after his Snickers lunch.
As he passed the refrigerator, he took down crayon masterpieces held by an H and a W alphabet magnet, quietly pocketing them.
In his room, Henry emptied a puzzle box into a drawer and stowed the flannel in it, plus the lizard and magnets. The pig now held only three pennies, the shiniest of which was added to the box. He stowed the box in his toy bin, his heart full of love for his baby.
In the morning, Henry was able to collect most of the items on the list after his father left for work and while his mother was showering, including a bottle labeled “personal lubricant” from her nightstand.
The personal items from Ms. Winkle were easily obtained as well. When she greeted the class that morning, she handed him a note for his parents which included his name in her handwriting. During recess, he asked to be excused to go to the restroom and returned to the empty classroom. He’d seen she kept her purse in her desk drawer, and her hairbrush yielded thick brown hair, which was lovingly stowed in an envelope. The bonus find was a wad of used chewing gum in its paper wrapper at the bottom of the cluttered bag. The unlocked drawer would be handy later, as Lightnin’ said he needed to hide items from the mojo on her person, such as the H magnet and her name written in his hand.
At the end of the day, Henry blasted from his mother’s car and ran to his room, barely able to contain himself as he locked the door. When he turned around, Lightnin’ was sitting sideways in the bay window gazing at a scatter of cirrus clouds feathering the sky. The old man said, “Never get over how pretty it is. One of the things I miss most.”
Wasting no time, Henry added the wad of gum and the envelope with the lock of hair to the mojo box. Rubbing his hands together, he said, “I think I got everything.”
“That good,” said Lightnin’, lowering his scarecrow frame onto one of the tiny chairs at Henry’s table. He picked up the box, selected the red flannel square, and smoothed it on the table. After lighting the candle in its center, he passed the tiny stiff lizard over the flame, saying, “Toby, we doan got no frog, but please accept this lizard so Miz Winkie love Henry.”
“Winkle,” corrected the boy. “How come you call it ‘Toby’?”
“ ‘Mojo hand’s name always be Toby. That jus the way things is.”
He picked up the shiny penny and passed it over the flame. “Toby, here be your money, so Miz Winkle know Henry take good care of her.”
Lightnin’ picked up the teabag and said, “What the hell is this?”
“It’s gin sang,” said Henry. “It said so on the box.”
“Doan look like no man root. Man root got laigs and a johnson.”
Henry said, “What’s a johnson?”
“That your jelly roll, ‘tween your laigs.”
Henry looked sadly at the teabag. “It was the best I could do.”
Lightnin’ shook his head in disgust but passed the teabag over the flame. “Toby, here be Henry’s sorry-assed man root.”
He picked up the H and W magnets and separated them, turning them over in his fingers. He put them back together and held them over the flame. “Toby, here be Henry’s ‘lectric power for Miz Winkle.” He pulled them apart, placed the W next to the lizard, then gave the H to the boy. “You got to hide this one someplace on her person.”
Henry put it in his pocket, then Lightnin’ gave him the note from Ms. Winkle. “Now cut out your name.”
Henry did so and gave it to Lightnin’, who passed it over the flame. “Toby, here be Henry’s name in Ms. Winkle’s own writin’. Spread thoughts of him from that hand to her heart.” He folded the slip of paper and put it in the middle of the cloth.
“OK, now we needs some kinda string or twine or leather lace; tie it up tight.”
“A shoelace!” said Henry. He fished a sneaker out from under his bed and gave one of the laces to Lightnin’, who gathered up the corners of the mojo bag and wrapped it around the top, forming a scrotum-like bag. He sat back and admired his handiwork.
“Is it done?” said Henry.
“Nope. Got to cleanse it. Got to breathe it. Got to oil it and got to feed it. Pour some water in that bowl, then salt, and stir till it dissolve.”
Henry did that.
“Now wet it with your finger. This called cleanin’ your mojo.”
When Lightnin’ was satisfied the mojo had been sufficiently cleansed, he said, “Now got to oil it,” removing the pink plastic bottle from the box. He looked at the label and shook his head, impressed. “Hee hee. ‘Xandu Personal Lubricant.’ Toby goan love this. Put some on your finger and wipe it down, all over like.”
Henry did this, and soon the mojo glistened with oil and smelled like strawberries.
“Now you gotta breathe life in it,” said Lightnin’. “Blow in slow, sayin’, ‘Toby, you’s alive. Toby, you’s alive.”
Henry put his lips to the top of the bag and blew, repeating, “Toby, you’s alive, Toby, you’s alive.”
“Keep goin’,” said Lightnin’. “Think on Miz Winkle an’ her fine hair an’ laigs and bosoms, and say, ‘Toby, Miz Winkle be the finest of all womens, make her be mine.”
Henry did this, although the blowing was making him a dizzy.
The candle shot a jet of flame, then went out. Lightnin’ said, “Now pass him through the smoke.”
Henry moved his mojo over the candle, the smoke curling around it like a satisfied cat. As it wafted away, Lightnin’ said, “Now we got to feed it. You got the whiskey?”
Henry got his father’s Scotch from the toy bin, a twenty-one-year-old single malt Glenfiddich. Lightnin’ said, “Toby goan love this. But I best have a taste first.” He unstoppered the bottle and put it to his lips. After rolling the amber liquid on his palate, he said, “I’ll just save little of this for later,” pulling the bourbon half-pint from this back pocket. After he’d topped it up, he handed Henry the Scotch and said, “You try some of that.”
Henry looked at it dubiously.
“Go ahead, won’t bite.”
Henry said, “Do I have to?”
“You want Miz Winkle, you got to drink with Toby like he your fren.”
Henry cautiously raised the bottle to his lips and swallowed the liquid fire. Choking, he said, “Gosh.” When Lightnin’s throaty laugh filled the room, Henry croaked, “Quiet or Mom will hear you,” his voice box numbed.
A moment later, Henry’s mother was at his door.
The locked door had been Dr. Goldstein’s suggestion, “…to help Henry develop as a singular person.” His father had said if Henry were any more singular, they could patent him, but left such matters to his wife. Now regretting the door policy, she said, “Henry? Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, Mom.”
“What are you doing?”
“Playing quietly by myself.”
She paused, then said, “You know you can tell me anything.”
“I know,” said Henry.
Henry waited until her footsteps retreated before saying, “She always has to know what I’m doing.”
“ ‘Cause she love you. Way folks are.”
Henry looked at the red flannel bag, glistening with personal lubricant, and said, “Now what?”
“Pour a few drops of that whiskey in the top and say, ‘Toby, make Miz Winkle mine.’ ”
Henry whispered the words into his mojo.
“Fore you sleep, put Toby neath your pillow and whisper to him how good a fren he is and how you want him to help you win Miz Winkle. More you talk to Toby, more he help you.”
Lightnin’ sat back and crossed his arms.
“Now, this the most important thing. You got to keep Toby hid. Nobody see him but you.”
“What about you? You’re my best friend.”
“Not even me, son. When you sleep, he be ‘neath your pillow. When you go out, he be in your pocket. And you got to give Miz Winkle that other magnet. Best she not know ‘bout it, but she do need to have it.”
Ms. Winkle was kind to a fault, which was why she’d avoided a psychological red flag by sending Henry home with a note requesting a private meeting. She thought Henry was just wildly imaginative and needed work on boundaries. She was trusting, as well. She didn’t doubt him when he said he’d given her note to his mother. But there was something different about him that day that made her uncomfortable, even though the usually disruptive boy was attentive and polite.
When Henry got home from school, he flew up the stairs to his room. But when he turned around after locking his door he was alone. For a moment he despaired, then remembered his Lightnin’s words, “Can’t ax Toby do somthin’ fo’ you, you don’t do nothin’ fo’ him. You got to give in life to get.”
Henry put his mojo on the table, got the mojo box and whiskey from the toy bin, then knelt and clasped his hands the way he did in church. “Toby,” he said, “I bring you food.” He pulled the stopper from the whiskey bottle and poured a bit into the top of the bag, hoping it was OK if he didn’t drink any this time. He opened the lubricant bottle, put some of the pink oil on his finger, and massaged it into the bag, intoning, “Toby, I dress you with this oil.”
Ms. Winkle had, indeed, seemed to treat him differently that day, smiling at him the way she had before the Snickers debacle, calling on him and complimenting his reading ability in front of the class. For this, he gave Toby full credit, and he told him so now and thanked him.
When his mother rapped and called “Bedtime,” Henry hid Toby beneath his pillow and unlocked the door. Reasoning it would be politic, he surprised her by asking to be tucked in after he brushed his teeth. When the house was dark and quiet and with Toby beneath his head, he slept, confident victory was at hand.
The worst day of Ms. Winkle’s life began as an ordinary one. She woke at six and breakfasted with her mother, with whom she lived, as her irregular earnings from substitute teaching weren’t enough for her to afford a place of her own.
From the moment the school day began, she sensed something was off. Henry, the boy she’d mentioned to her mother over breakfast, gave her an unnerving smile when he entered the room. Usually, he was so talkative he didn’t need to be called upon, but he was quiet, studying her intently in a way that made her feel naked and vulnerable, but also oddly excited.
In the lunchroom, he sat beside her, again without speaking, just smiling confidently. When he cleaned his plate, she complimented him and stroked his hair, afterward chiding herself for doing so.
That afternoon she fumbled through the lessons and exercises, repeatedly losing her train of thought, and was relieved when Henry filed out with the other children at the final bell. But he returned, slipping the door closed behind himself.
She was still at her desk, so focused arranging a stack of papers for grading she didn’t notice he was in the room until he placed his hand on her thigh. She felt powerless to remove it. Neither could she prevent him from climbing onto her lap. And when he clasped her hair and pulled her lips to his, she surrendered to his kiss.
It was then the custodian entered the room and the police were summoned. Ms. Winkle was escorted from the building, hands zip-tied behind her back. Because she was so pretty, the booking officers leaked her teary mascara-streaked mugshot to their Facebook pages. It went viral and was seen by millions.
Henry was taken to the nurse’s office while the principal contacted his parents. The nurse, Ms. Anderson, was a sleek blonde, her figure the opposite of Ms. Winkle’s, slim and taught from miles of cycling and running. She gave him a juice box with a straw you push through a little hole as she sat next to him close enough he sensed the heat and perfume of her body cucumber and citrus and her soft reassuring voice promised nurturing and power and rapture.