08 November 2005

3. August 7: 4 miles west of Big Moon.

The preacher and Arliss James sat on the boarding house porch, playing chess across an empty wine barrel. They played by half-remembered rules the preacher had learned as a boy, taught him by an uncle wanted for murder. They were finishing as the long shadow of the old farmhouse fell even with the gravel turnout onto the county road. In the distance, beyond the railroad tracks and telephone wires and the turned gray earth of a fallow field, the highway lay like a black spear.

An orange, three-legged dog no bigger than a sack of flour curled at the men’s feet, snoring lightly.

James clucked his tongue and moved his king: “Check.”

The preacher scratched the red stubble that covered his jaw. He had not shaved, slept, or eaten in three days. There were strange, dark shapes waiting at the edges of his vision.

Across the board, James put his wide, shovel-like hands on the knees of his wool trousers and leaned forward. His brown tie hung loose at the neck, his white shirtsleeves rolled to the elbows. He had a long, flat, ageless face. “Endgame,” he said.

“Give me time,” the preacher said.

James folded his arms across his chest and reared back in his chair. Its woven seat creaked with his weight. He was a tall man, like the preacher, but with more stomach and less hair. What he had grew in gray patches atop his pate.

The preacher was a lean, sinewy, restless man who looked all wrong sitting. He hunched over the wine barrel, his sharp shoulders pushing against his black coat like two plow blades thrusting from the earth. Elbows propped on his knees, the sleeves of his coat rode two inches short of his hairless wrists. He tapped his left boot heel three times. He took a deep breath. Let it out. Took another. Finally, he reached and toppled his king. It rolled on its side.

Arliss James laughed. His right eyetooth was missing. He said, “Man who don’t surpass the master ain’t much,” and began resetting his side of the board.

“I’m no one’s master,” the preacher said, nestling his fingers between the sleeping dog’s ears.

“You are a sore loser though,” James said, placing his pawns.

The preacher smiled, but it was an odd, absent smile. “No, I’m pleased, brother. Pleased you’ve won.”

James chuffed. “Put pleased in your pocket. Save it for a black day.”

The preacher stared out across the boarding house yard, across the barren cotton fields, to the horizon, the highway. The sun was getting lower, the shadows longer. He said: “Mayhap that day’s come, brother.”

James looked up from the board. “What’s that?”

“Mayhap that day’s today. Or tomorrow. Or the next.”

The old man set his final piece—a black pawn.

A set of pipe wind chimes tinkled from the eaves.

“I’ve got something to tell you, brother. Something that may just drive you to despair.”

“This a word from the Lord?”

The preacher, whose green eyes were red and puffy, met James’s gaze and said, “Yes.” He paused, ran one hand through his close red hair. “Only, I don’t know how to say it.”

“Best you open your mouth like always, let Him do the talking.”

It was a long time before the preacher said: “Your granddaughter’s pregnant.”

Now, it was James who was speechless. Ada?”

Ada. She’s with child.”

James became still as the wind blew and the chimes rang and the dog at their feet moaned in its sleep. He fixed his eyes on the preacher’s, and the two men studied one another across the board.

From inside the house came the faint scratch of a record, the soft lilt of a Glen Miller tune: “Begin the Beguine.”

“Whose?”

“I think you already know, brother.”

James let go his chair and shifted his weight. He looked at his palms: the seat’s rough weave had left grooves in his flesh. “Tell me how you know,” he said.

After a long, unpleasant silence, the preacher answered: “I am a man of visions.”

4. August 7: 110 miles west of Big Moon.

Billy and Ginger

5. August 7: 116 miles west of Big Moon.

The kid drove Early to an apartment complex in Whitehaven called Rainbow’s End. The “o” was missing from the sign by the road. They parked in the shade of a stunted elm and took the stairs to the second-floor landing. Early let the kid lead. He smelled frying chicken and marijuana from an open door. An old black man in a wife-beater and chinos stood in the frame, scratching his chest, watching Early and the kid with hooded eyes as they passed. When they came to unit twelve, the kid stopped. Early removed his hat and pressed his ear to the door. Over the roar of a window-unit AC he heard the low drone of a television, faint. Early tried the door: locked. A deadbolt, pin and tumbler. He reached into the bowl of his hat and pulled two metal objects from the band: a lock pick and tension wrench, each no bigger than a matchstick. He put his hat back on, checked his watch, and said to Luke, I’ll be out in ten minutes.

You sure you don’t need—

You wait here.

You’re the boss, boss.

Early let his cold blue eyes linger on the kid, then turned and inserted the wrench into the lock. He turned it as he might a key, slid the pick in above it, and carefully worked the pins. Early closed his eyes, listening. Moved the pick. Seven seconds later, the door clicked open.

The old black man down the way leaned out and stared.

The kid grinned, put one finger to his temple in salute.

The old man shifted his gaze to something else.

Traffic whirred past on the highway.

Early pocketed his tools in his jacket and slipped inside the apartment, closing the door softly behind him. The living room was dim, the only light stealing between the cracks in the blinds. The walls were some un-color paint, the floor a dingy, threadbare gray. No pictures on the walls, no trinkets on shelves. No books. A kitchenette in the back, dishes overflowing from the sink onto the counter. In this room a couch and coffee table, the table littered with cigarette butts, an open Doritos bag, empty beer bottles, roach clips.

He could hear the TV from a door to his left, could see its blue glow. He took a few careful steps toward the light, pausing when the floor creaked beneath his boots. He edged to the doorway and saw, reflected in a full-length mirror mounted on a closet door, a queen-size bed, a black male and white female, both naked and sprawled atop the covers. The boy couldn’t have been more than sixteen, seventeen. He was asleep, his mouth open, one arm thrown over his face. The girl was awake and sitting up, her back against the wall. A few years older, she hunched forward, snapping a lighter at the bowl of a hash pipe. Early heard canned laughter from the TV, which stood on a wire cart adjacent to the mirror. The girl had a plump, full body, pale skin and dark hair, large breasts, razor wire tattooed around her right wrist and ankle. She might have been twenty. Her stash was spread on a piece of butcher’s paper atop her lover’s stomach. She couldn’t get the pipe to light.

Early stepped casually into the room.

The girl, pipe to her mouth, lighter to her pipe, froze. She stared.

Early put one finger to his lips.

More canned laughter from the TV.

The girl glanced at her lover, his chest rising and falling.

Early shook his head.

Slowly, body gone rigid, the girl put her pipe and lighter down on the bed as Early moved across the room. She was trembling when he leaned into her ear and whispered. She listened. Nodded. Early took her by the hands and helped her off the bed. Then, standing behind her, he tucked her right arm into the small of her back and slid his left arm around her throat. His fingers constricted lightly around her windpipe, and this way he led her from the bedroom to the living room, pausing only to close the bedroom door behind him.

The couch was the color of faded limes. The girl sank into the middle, staring at a stain on the floor.

Early went to the kitchen, rummaged in a drawer, and returned. He moved three of the empty beer bottles and the one full ashtray to the floor and sat down on the coffee table, directly across from the naked girl. He carried a Phillips’ head screwdriver with a yellow plastic grip in his right hand. The girl’s eyes fastened on it. Early leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. The screwdriver dangled between his legs. He said: Lucy.

The girl did not respond, only stared at the six-inch steel driver.

Lucy.

She looked up. Her eyes were wet.

Where is Elmo Carter?

Lucy said, Elmo?

Early nodded.

He—he ran me off.

Where?

This town, in the Delta. Big Moon.

In Mississippi?

He grew up there.

Did he keep the suitcase?

He—he buried it. Hid it.

Where, Lucy? Where did he bury it?

She shook her head. Her eyes were thick with Mascara, running black down her cheeks. What lipstick she wore was smeared to the left of her mouth.

Early pressed the cold, flat length of the screwdriver against her inner thigh.

Lucy jumped when it touched her, drew in a sharp, sudden breath.

Early slipped it forward, toward the dark thatch between her legs.

She grabbed at his wrist and he slapped her across the face. She gave out a single sob before his free hand was around her throat, choking off her air. Early planted one knee hard between her legs on the couch, his weight pressing down, smothering her. Then he inserted the tip of the screwdriver into her right ear canal, applied pressure.

Oh Jesus oh God he didn’t tell me nothing, mister, I swear, she gasped. He never told me shit. I swear. I swear. I swear.

Early pressed the screwdriver for a second more, then backed off, resumed his seat on the coffee table. Where was he staying in Big Moon?

She was shaking all over now, unable to meet his eyes. Her arms were useless at her sides like planks, her legs instinctively clutched together. Her head drooped and her hair hung down on either side of her face, fell across her breasts. He got a cousin there, she managed, Hector. He was staying—we both was staying with him. Hector Strong. Got a garage there in town.

He have plans to go elsewhere?

I don’t know, she sobbed. I don’t know.

Early watched a bubble of snot form in her left nostril and pop.

He set the screwdriver on the floor at his boots and touched her knee. She flinched, but he kept his hand there, rubbing gently. When he spoke, his voice was soft, reassuring: Thank you, Lucy. Thank you. That’s all I need to know. I’m going to leave you now and not come back.

She stared at him.

I prom—

Then came the unmistakable metal click of a gun cocking.

What the FUCK is this?

Early whirled, seizing the coffee table as he spun and hurling it at the bedroom door. The lover—who had emerged from the bedroom fully naked—tried to dodge, but he wasn’t fast enough. The table struck his left shoulder and side, sent him reeling into the wall and his gun spinning across the carpet, which gave Early just enough time to snatch the screwdriver and leap. He drove the shaft into the kid’s neck, buried it clear up to the plastic handle. The boy’s eyes went wide and puzzled. He staggered backward and sat down in the floor, against the baseboard. Slowly, he reached up and pulled the screwdriver free. Blood jetted along the bare white wall, and Early stepped back out of range.

He heard the girl screaming, heard her leap at his back from the couch, but she was too close to dodge. She was on him in a second, naked, kicking, biting, clawing, screaming in his ear. He threw her off. She landed sideways on the couch.

The apartment door burst open and Luke strode into the room, automatic pistol up and firing. The first bullet tore the back of Lucy’s head off. The second buried itself in a cushion. The third struck her underneath her left breast. She rolled onto the floor with a heavy thud and lay staring up at the water-stained ceiling.

For a handful of seconds, neither Early nor Luke said anything. Early put one finger in his ear and jiggled it. Luke lowered his gun and stared at Lucy’s corpse. Against the wall, the lover continued to gurgle and twitch. The room was close and hazy with the acrid discharge of the gun.

Shell casings, Early finally said.

Luke blinked. Huh?

Pick up your shell casings, put them in your pocket, and walk calmly out the door and to the car.

Luke looked down and around like a man suddenly aware of a lost dime or quarter. He bent, picked up one brass casing. It had rolled near the edge of the couch. I don’t see the others, he said.

By the door, Early said, and pointed. He picked up the screwdriver, wiped it on the carpet as best he could. Slipped it into his jacket pocket.

Luke went out the door and down the stairs, and Early followed. No one had gathered on the landing to stare, and all doors were closed.

The Mustang had just pulled into traffic when Early heard the first distant siren.



Damned:

Here's two sections of the novel, with a third section on two other characters named Billy and Ginger missing. Billy and Ginger are lovestruck couple of teenagers who end up at the boarding house with everyone else. I'm still hashing out their backstory. Originally, Ginger was gonna be pregnant, but now, with Arliss James' granddaughter, I don't know. Is two pregnant women one too many in a novel?

Andy

5 Comments:

Blogger The Damned said...

Andy,

All I have are minor suggestions, and some questions.

Section 3:
Awkward sentence: “What he had grew in gray patches atop his pate.”—add to previous sentence, “…less hair, growing in gray patches…”

I’d omit the sentence, “Now, it was James who was speechless.” Have James say, “Ada?” and the preacher reply “She’s with child.”

Should the preacher be capitalized (The Preacher) every time we see his name?

I’m not sure if this is a valid suggestion or not, but what if instead of being pregnant, Ginger has recently had an abortion?

4.

When the girl freezes, I imagine her looking up at Early, staring. Maybe we don’t need the sentence, “She stared.”

Should Sections 1 and 4 be located North of Big Moon, since they take place in Memphis?

Who is about to say “I promise” before we hear the gun click? Is it Early or Lucy? Or does it matter?

I’m a little confused about the moment when Early turns, lifts the coffee table, and throws it at the lover. Would he have time to do this before the lover could fire? How big is this coffee table, is it small and round, long and rectangular? I don’t know if it’s really a problem, but that description seemed a bit unbelievable. Part of the problem may be that when I hear the gun click, I imagine the lover in the room with them already, even though we see him emerge a couple sentences later.

Besides these minor comments, I don’t really have much to say. Here’s what I was thinking as I read section 3:

What year does this take place? Is it the same as the other sections (is the narrative linear), or are we jumping around in time with these different characters and settings? I ask partly because the imagery here seems antiquated in a way, (the preacher’s shoulder blades are like plows; they’re at a boarding house, a kind of out-of-date location). I realize each section takes place on the same month and day, but are they the same year? Are we going to find out down the road that this boarding house they’re all nearing is a place where different times (or characters from different times) converge—or is that too Dark Tower? Even if it is, I think you’re handling it differently, and well. Whether that’s what you’re doing or not, I think this is working.

I think I've said this before, but I also think you’re doing a great job of giving us interesting situations that introduce the characters and (with section 4) satisfy the curiosity inspired by previous sections by deepening the mystery. You’re building suspense, keeping us in the dark with just enough light at the end of the tunnel to pull us through. First it’s the girl, then the turtle and the broke-down car, James’ pregnant daughter, and then Elmo Carter and the buried suitcase.

Adam

8:13 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

you can never have too many pregnant women!
--joy

1:19 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

andy
i'll post again before Wed. but here's an initial reaction: i don't buy two things (and they're not really related because altering one will change the other i think): Luke coming in, guns blazing...it's just so...i don't know, is Hollywood the right term for writing? i would much rather it me an errant bullet from the lover than kills her while Early's stabbing him with the screwdriver; the second thing is i don't buy Lucy jumping early...i'd much rather see a calmer reaction from her once Early stabs her lover...since her initial reaction when he breaks in is one of fear and silence, this outburst doesn't gel well

also, when luke does come in, the tone changes a bit...maybe that's what i'm not agreeing with

more later
--joy

1:48 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Actually, both of those things I completely agree with: the guns blazing, Lucy-jumping bits. I like your idea of fixing it with a stray bullet.

My thoughts were that Luke had to somehow botch things or, at least, be implicated in things so that, when Early leaves Memphis for Big Moon, he takes the kid with him (something he would normally not do, but feels he HAS to do, given the situation, if only to dump his body in a lake somewhere in the Delta).

I think the tonal problem is due mostly to that injection of Hollywood violence, along with the sudden need to flee. It's not really the narrative's style, to hype the violence?

1:17 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

andy
after reading the piece again i agree with adam about the need for a coffee table clarification (size description?)

and i'm just a bit confused about the screwdriver scene (it's a la faulkner and popeye's corn cob)...how is it suddenly at her ear? should we see that movement more clearly?

i too am confused about who starts to say "i promise"

time period here is not an issue for me...i could see the 2 men in section 3 today in the delta (showing how not much has changed in the last 70 years there, sadly) so i don't think that needs to be cleared up

as usual, you've captured a group of people very well...i feel as if i know these characters already and in my mind i can keep them all separated...which is good for a novel, i suppose ha ha

i am envious of you and adam and you abilities to write dialogue so well

--joy

11:03 AM  

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