17 January 2006

1. August 7: 114 miles northwest of Big Moon.


Early Dodd walked out of Memphis International and lit a cigarette. He dropped his leather carry-on at his boots and stood at the curb near the Northwest kiosk. It was only five past eight but already the air above the idling Red Cabs was full of the sun. Early smoked while he eyed a young girl in a purple tube top and jeans wheeling a black nylon suitcase. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She wore flip-flops and a silver ring in the pale flesh of her navel, a stud in her nose. She cut her eyes at Early as she passed—and quickly looked away. He watched her disappear into the tinted terminal glass, caught a glimpse of his reflection there. He was not a handsome man. His face was clean-shaven but craggy, his eyes deep-set. He was tall and wore a pair of faded Lee jeans and a blue button-up shirt beneath a denim coat. He kept a battered Montana pulled low on his head. He stood, people flowing round him like water round a rock. No one noticed him. No one saw. He dropped his cigarette and ground it beneath the toe of his boot.

Across the street, a black Mustang convertible was parked between a stretch limo and a mini-van. The driver sat behind the wheel, one arm thrown across the beige leather seats. He had a big build, tattoos on his biceps, black spiked hair. He was young, maybe twenty. He saw Early, raised his hand, cocked an index-finger pistol, and shot a lopsided grin.


Early picked up his bag and crossed the street.


“Like Uncle Jack said,” the kid grinned, “You’ll know the man by his hat.” He wore a black, short-sleeve button-up embroidered with palm trees, jeans and Birkenstocks. There was gold on his fingers and wrists. He stuck out his hand. “Name’s Luke.”


Early tossed his bag in the backseat. He ignored the hand. “Let’s go,” he said.


They left the airport. FedEx jets and a white wisp of cloud moved in an otherwise empty sky. To the south, the horizon was dark.


The kid said, “Better hold onto that beauty or it’ll blow right off.”


Early took his hat by the brim.


They blasted along the freeway and shot off at the 78 exit. They passed a garage, a pawn shop, Jack Pirtle’s Chicken. Four cracked lanes, big rigs, fumes. Whores trolled the streets in skirts and tops bright as lures, angling for truckers at red lights. Some waved at traffic.


The Americana Club stood on the corner of 78 and Winchester, huge, red white and blue with a garish marquee and smoky glass. The kid parked in back, next to a red Cadillac De Ville. He led Early through the rear into a dim, cool corridor. Early carried his bag at his side. The air smelled close: sweat, dust, perfume. The walls were wood paneling and the floor blue shag. Somewhere up ahead, country music drifted, “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” the Kendalls.


At the end of the hall a woman shoved through a beaded curtain. She wore a purple thong, an orange wig, and silver glitter.


“Evie,” the kid said, spreading his arms. “How bout a squeeze?”


“Fuck off, Luke-ass,” Evie said and brushed past them.


The kid laughed and said to Early, “Given name’s Lucas. Don't know how she knows it.”


They came to a door marked Manager. The kid knocked twice, waited for the gruff “Come” that followed from inside, and entered. Early went after him, and the kid closed the door behind him.

The room was lit with fluorescents. A box fan hammered away from a window and a fat man in a brown blazer was bent over a scarred, walnut-finished desk, scribbling into a ledger. A cup of coffee steamed at his hand. Receipts were scattered across the desk, along with ink pens, pencil nubs, a Howard’s Donuts box. The fat man stopped writing. He put his pen in a plastic cup shaped like a boot and leaned back in his chair. It creaked with his weight. He had small, black eyes and a receding hairline. A black boar’s head hung on the wall above him, cobwebs in its snout. “You’re Dodd,” he said, and gestured at the imitation-leather chair opposite his desk.

Early nodded but did not sit.


The kid sat on a stool in the corner by the door, arms crossed at his chest to show off his muscles. He watched the left side of Early’s face.


“You’re Kitchens,” Early said.


“I am Kitchens.”


“Where’s the girl?”


The fat man pointed at a sideboard to the kid’s left. “Drink?”


“No. Is she here?”


The fat man chuckled. “Jack said you weren’t one for pleasantries. Said don’t be put off by it though. I ain’t yet.” The fat man pointed at the kid. “Luke here can take you to her. Today’s her day off. On Lucy’s day off, she stays home and watches TV.”


“Fine,” Early said, and unzipped his bag. “I’ll need some things later, when we get back. Here’s a list.”


The fat man took the twice-folded paper and read it. He grunted. “You don’t want much, do you.”


“You’ll be reimbursed.”


“How much later we talking?”


“When I get back.”


The fat man re-folded the paper and passed it to the kid. “Take this out to Mackie. Tell him get on it, have it all here by three o’clock. Everything.”


“Noon, at the latest,” Early said. “I’ve got a schedule.”


The fan in the window rattled.


The fat man shrugged. “Okay. Noon.”


“Lotta stuff here,” the kid said.


“Just tell him get to it or I’ll pitch his lazy ass in the goddamn river.”


The kid laughed, left the office.


“Mind if I smoke?” Early said, already reaching.


Kitchens shook his head. There were beads of sweat on his scalp.


Early tapped one out. “That your pig?”


The fat man turned in his chair and looked up at the head on the wall. “I killed that big bastard ten, must be twelve years ago. Don’t reckon I touched a gun since.”


“You don’t ever clean it?”


Kitchens pushed a black plastic ashtray across the desk. “Pride takes too much work to maintain. Just a lucky shot. What about you? You a hunter, Dodd?” The fat man laughed. “Animals, I mean.”


“I fish.”


“Now there’s a sport I never got the hang of. Man goes out to the middle of a lake, sits in the burning sun all day, watches a little Styrofoam cork bob in the water. May catch something, may not. Don’t make a lick of sense.”


Early blew smoke. “That’s a point of view.”


The door opened. From the hallway the kid said, “All set, boss.”


“Right.” Kitchens stood. “Take the man to see a lady. Have him back by noon.” Kitchens winked at

Early. “He’s got a schedule.”


Early stubbed his cigarette in the ashtray.


The kid followed him out.



2. August 7: 194 miles northwest of Big Moon.


The only turtle in the wire pen was big and old, its shell scored and cracked. The boy watched it shuffle across the hardpan toward a puddle, its neck stretched. It slipped half into the water and turned around. The boy stood with his hands on the wire pen and stared at the turtle and the turtle stared back from two black eyes on either side of its flat head. Not far away, the boy’s mother was peering under the hood of their car with the station attendant, a bare-shouldered teenager in grease-stained overalls.

The boy had never seen a station like this before. It was someone’s house. The front porch sagged. Dull gray wood showed through the yellow paint like bone. The hardpan was scattered with car parts and uprooted tree stumps and between the windows there were hides stretched on nails.


“Will it get me far as Mississippi?” he heard his mother say. “Vicksburg?”


The attendant said, “Might, might not. Like I say, it could be one of three things. Could be…”


There were lettuce leaves and rotting tomatoes strewn on the dirt floor of the pen.


A hand-lettered sign fixed to a post out by the highway read: “Turtle Meat 4 Sell.”

The turtle opened its mouth. Its tongue was pink. The boy imagined what touching it would feel like. He had touched a parrot’s tongue once and it had felt like rubber and sand.

“How long?”


“Well, either way, have to order a part special…”


The turtle closed its mouth, blinked.


The boy looked around the yard. Old tires filled with rainwater, a rusted swing set. Near the back corner of the house, just before the dirt gave way to a soybean field that stretched green to the horizon, there was a table made of plywood and two sawhorses. Atop the plywood, there were three empty turtle shells, set on their backs and drying in the sun. Flies crawled on the table.


Suddenly his mother spoke at his side: “We’re good and fudged, kiddo.”


The boy glanced up. She stood next to him, hands on her hips, staring in the direction of the turtle. Her shirtsleeves were rolled to the elbows, her long straw-colored hair trussed up in a blue handkerchief. She was sweating. There was a black smudge on the left thigh of her jeans where she’d leaned over the engine with the attendant.


“Like him,” the boy said.


She shifted her eyes, seeing the turtle.


“Only he doesn’t know it.”


“He says the car’ll get us to Vicksburg. Once we get there, we’ll have to order a part, find a place to stay. I’ll have to get a job. Goddamn, I knew I shouldn’t have trusted that son of a bitch in Texarkana. ’88 Oldsmobile, last you forever. At that price. Jesus.”


The boy said, “It’s not right.”


“Tell me about it.”


“No. Him.” He pointed. “He’s like the bears.”


“Bears?”


“The black bears Dad took us to see at the Indian village in the mountains. The ones that lived in the pits. They…”

He paused, searching for the word. “…defecated right where they lived.”


The boy’s father had led him through strange stone chambers as the low moans of the bears drifted with them. There had been a sign on the road, much like here. “Come See the Bears!” He had imagined circus bears riding wheels, balancing balls on their noses, but the air in the enclosure was dank and smelled of feces. The bears lay on wet concrete. Their eyes were empty.


“Yeah.” She touched the boy’s hair, ran her fingers through it. It was oily, needed washing. “Yeah, I remember the bears.”


“We should buy him,” the boy said.


“Buy the turtle? Honey. Weren’t you listening? We don’t have any dough as it is. We’ve got maybe just enough for gas and food for three more days. Four if we eat mustard sandwiches. We’d have more if I hadn’t traded your daddy’s truck in for that goddamn shoebox…”


There were dark circles under her eyes. A few gray hairs above her ears. Tiny wrinkles at the base of her neck, where her grandmother’s opal necklace fell in the middle of her collar bone. She was beautiful.


“Trade,” the boy said. “Like the Indians.” And turned to look at the attendant, who was leaning against the right fender of the Oldsmobile, one hand on the trigger of the pump, the other in his nose. When he saw the boy turn, in no particular hurry, he slipped his finger out of his nose and wiped it on the seat of his overalls.


“Trade what?”


The boy left his mother standing at the wire pen.


“Andrew,” she called after him.


The boy walked up to the attendant, who pretended not to see him. “How old are you?” the boy asked.


The attendant glanced down, then back in the direction of the mother, who watched them from a distance.


“Seventeen,” the attendant said and spat in the dirt. “How old are you?”


“Ten. What’s your name?”


“Bud.”


“My name’s Andrew. You like comic books?”


“No comics. Sorry, kid.”


The boy shook his head. “No, do you like them? Do you read them?”


The attendant’s answer came slowly: “Can’t say I do.”


“Would you like to?”


The pump clicked full. The attendant drew out the nozzle and replaced it in the stirrup. He screwed the gas cap back into place and shrugged.


“I’ve got a box full in the trunk, and I’ll trade you the whole thing for your turtle.”


“My turtle.”


“Yes, sir.”


The attendant glanced at the boy’s mother. She stood with her arms folded, head cocked to the side.


“What you want that old turtle for?”


The boy shrugged. “I never had a turtle.”


The attendant pulled a rag from his back pocket and wiped the sweat from his forearms and used the moisture on the rag to wipe the grime from his hands. He tucked the rag away. “Yeah, but you can’t eat comic books,” he said.


The boy waited.


“Let’s see what you got,” the attendant said.


The trunk was huge, nearly empty but for his mother’s white Samsonite and the comics in a cardboard tomato box. He drew the box out and set it on the ground and the two hunkered over it. The attendant leafed through the books, each bagged and taped with single, neat strips of clear tape.


“Who’s this one here?”


“The Punisher.”


“I like the looks of him.”


“The one behind him’s Batman.”


“I know who Batman is.” The attendant stood up, put his hands on his hips.


The boy could see his armpits, the thin brown hair that grew there.


“How much you figure that whole box is worth?”


The boy thought. “Maybe forty, fifty dollars.”


The attendant spat. “It ain’t done it.”


“Twenty, thirty books, almost two bucks each.”


“Turtle meat’s $2.99 a pound. You gone be taking a loss.”


Again, the boy shrugged.


The attendant shook his head. “All right. You the customer. I’ll go round back, get you a crate for him. Meantime you set those books on the porch. And tell your ma that’s twenty even for the gas.”


“Ma,” the boy said, after he’d set the box on the porch, “that’s twenty even for the gas.”


“Yeah. Well. Maybe we’ll meet a mechanic in Vicksburg who trades car parts for turtles.”


The attendant set a red plastic milk crate in the backseat and lined the bottom with newspaper. He set the turtle in the crate, along with half a head of fresh lettuce and a plastic butter dish of water.

The turtle kept its head and legs inside its shell.


The attendant shut the door and took the woman’s twenty. He leaned into the passenger’s side window and rested his elbows on the sill. The boy sat there, his mother rounding the car to get in. “You know,” the attendant said, “I’ll just go out tomorrow, get more turtles. And you’ll still be out forty, fifty bucks.”


The boy was close enough to smell the attendant’s breath. It was sour, like old cereal milk.


His mother got in, started the car.


“I’ve read them all,” the boy said.


The attendant considered this, then drew away from the car. He gave the right fender a friendly thump. “Y’all have a safe trip now,” he said, and took out his rag to wipe the turtle from his hands.

They pulled out onto the highway.

After a while, the boy’s mother asked him to roll his window up, and he did. She turned on the radio and they drove through the rice and cotton fields in the stifling heat, strains of classical music not quite drowning the dull roar under the hood that grew louder with each passing mile.

In the backseat, in the milk crate, the turtle hid inside its shell.


3. August 7: 4 miles northwest 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 white 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. 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 ancient 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 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.”


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.”


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 white 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: “Arliss, your granddaughter’s pregnant.”


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.

“Ada?” he finally said.

“Ada. She’s with child.”


From inside the house came the faint scratch of a record, the soft lilt of a Glen Miller tune: “Begin the Beguine.” Widow Applewhite and her old Victrola.


“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. “And tell me straight.”


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



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


They lay together on the bed, holding one another in the dark, Mr. and Mrs. William McElroy, Billy and Ginger Forever. She’d stopped crying and her pillow was wet with what few tears Billy hadn’t kissed away before he’d fallen asleep beside her. He was snoring softly against her neck. The room flickered with pink neon light from outside the window. It stole between the gaps of the curtain and shone in the blank, vacant eye of the television.

Ginger liked his bare skin against hers, his smell of Ivory soap and Brut. His right, rough hand cupping the swell of her breast. “I love you, Billy,” she said aloud. “Billy, my love.” She rested her forearm against his so that their tattoos aligned: Billy and Ginger Forever. Billy and. Ginger Forever. Two halves of one heart, made whole.


This way, she dozed.


Eventually, Billy moaned and rolled away and Ginger was left naked and exposed and only half a person. At first, she moved in close to him and traced his features with her fingers: the hard line of his jaw, the rough stubble of his cheek, the tiny scar above his eye hidden by a lock of oil-black hair. He moaned again, drew away. She tucked herself under the sheet and tried to sleep but it was hot and the window-unit AC was busted—which had gotten them ten bucks off the room, praise Jesus and pass the ketchup—and she was sweating between her legs and down her back and she kept turning and turning and shifting and sighing until finally she threw back the sheet, got out of bed, felt her way to the bathroom, and switched on the light.


She closed the door so not to wake Billy. The cracked vanity was spotted with toothpaste and streaked from its last cleaning. The girl staring back at Ginger was not the same girl who’d appeared in the ladies’ room mirror of Big Dan’s Diner in Kingman, Arizona, barely a year ago. For one thing, this girl—this new Ginger—was twenty pounds heavier. Her cheeks were fuller, her breasts heavier. Her upper arms jiggled where they hadn’t before. Her skin, once sallow, had taken on a vibrant, almost translucent glow. Ginger could see blue veins running like ribbons in her breasts.


The Ginger in the mirror was very, very pregnant.


She cradled her distended belly in her right arm, ran her left hand over its surface. She hadn’t felt the baby move since Tucumcari. Two days ago. They had parked the van at an RV campground and Billy had built a fire with sticks and cordwood left by the site’s last campers. He got out his guitar and sang to the. He sang about how he met Ginger in a desert diner serving truckers, how she opened her heart like a rose. How life for these two lovers would never be the same. She’d felt the baby kick on that line, a nudge against the wall of her uterus. No more since. But Billy wasn’t worried. He said this happened sometimes. He knew because he was reading a book by that guy from Star Trek. That’s how he put it. “That guy from Star Trek. You know, the dude with the ears.”


Ginger trusted Billy.


She had always trusted Billy.


She turned on the hot water in the bath and sat down to urinate as the tub filled.


They had checked into the motel—the Sleep Happy Inn, on Poplar—shortly after six o’clock, and Ginger had hated it right away. She’d waited in the van as Billy registered in the lobby. She watched him through glass doors that read in black and gold reflector-sticker letters: “Clerk has less than $50 on premises.” The motel was one-story stucco, lit by pink and blue neon. Three cars—all old and missing hubcaps, fenders, radio antennae—were parked in the cracked-asphalt lot. A man in threadbare chinos and an argyle sweater-vest sat in a rusted metal patio chair outside number 6, reading a newspaper.


“It ain’t the Peabody,” Billy said, once they were in number 4, the door shut and bolted behind them. “But it beats a sleeping bag and a stack of hospital pillows, now don’t it.”


There were water-stains on the ceiling, cigarette burns in the bedcovers. The remote control was stolen—the only trace of it a single AA battery on the nightstand—and someone had pulled the knobs off the TV.


Billy suggested pizza and beer for dinner.


“Do we have enough left for beer?” Ginger asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.


He kissed the top of her head. “For you, babe, anything. In fact—” He smiled. “In fact, Joe’s is right around the block, and I saw a pizza place bout a mile back up the street. So why don’t you stay here, take a bath, slip into something ain’t got the road all over it, and I’ll be back in a jiff.”


But she was shaking her head before he’d even finished. “I don’t want to stay here by myself.”

He squatted before her, his leather motorcycle jacket creaking as he placed both hands on her thighs. “Baby scared?” he said, and folded back the hem of her skirt. He kissed her knees.

“Billy—”


He moved his lips up her thighs, kissing left then right, left then right. Folded her dress once more.


“Billy.”


He stopped, looked up through a mischievous grin. “Hmmm?”


“I want to go with you.”


“Why?”


“I don’t know, I just…do.”


He stared at her for a moment, then hung his head.


“What?” she said.


He took a step back, leaned against the wall, and rested one arm on the TV.


“Billy, what?”


He pointed a finger at her and said, “You don’t trust me.”


She pushed the hem of her skirt down. “Of course I do, you know I do, it’s just, this place—”


“Ain’t no worse than any other place we’ve stayed since we left Arizona, G. We’ve slept in rest areas, truck stop parking lots. Hell, you used to live in a damn trailer in the middle of the desert. How’s this worse than that?”


“It’s just…I don’t know, it’s different. Please.”


He ran one hand through his mane of hair and stared at the floor. “You think,” he finally said, voice low, “I’m going to buy more than beer. When I said I saw a Joe’s up the street, you thought: he’s going to buy more than beer.”


She was shaking her head again.


“He’s going to blow our money. Just like he did back home. That’s what you were thinking.”


“No. Billy, no, I wasn’t….” She got up from the bed—getting up from sitting down had become, in the last few months, a special movement—and reached for him.


He jerked away. “It’s just like the other day, at that coffee shop, or the other night, at the movies. I buy popcorn for my girl and she rags me for wasting four lousy bucks!”


Suddenly the blood rose in her cheeks and her hands clenched into fists at her sides. “What the fuck do you expect me to say? We’re broke! We’re living hand-to-mouth here, and you’re buying popcorn and movie tickets and fucking gourmet coffee!”


“I knew it,” he said. “This ain’t about what’s out there.” He put his fingers to her temple like a pistol.

“It’s about what’s in here.”


When he pushed her head she slapped his hand.


He whirled, snatched up his keys, and grabbed the doorknob. But the door wouldn’t open. He stood jerking it like a fool until he realized the deadbolt was engaged, along with the chain.

Ginger wanted to laugh at him, did, in fact, grin, but bit the laughter back. He slammed the door behind him.

Her grin faded as she sat back on the bed and the van chugged to life outside.


The tears began.


She was still crying forty minutes later when he returned with a large pepperoni and a six-pack of Blue Ribbon.


Now, she paddled the water with her hand before easing herself into the tub. She let the bath swallow her, held her breath and submerged her head. Her belly rose out of the water like a breaching whale. A whale, she thought. Definitely a whale. She bobbed for a while, drifted, let the warm water ease her into a light doze. She stuck her big toe in the faucet to stem the steady drips, as she’d done when she was a little girl living with her grandparents. Part of what had Ginger so scared, she knew, was a lack of faith in herself. Her own mother had abandoned her when she was still a baby, leaving her in the care of her already elderly grandmother and grandfather. Raised by old people, she had little knowledge of what it meant to be a young mother, active and healthy and head-over-heels in love. She had never expected to be any of these things. She knew, of course, that Billy was right. The problem was “in here,” not “out there.” She lifted her right hand out of the water and placed it flat on her belly, rubbing gently.


Something tickled the top of her hand.


Ginger opened her eyes.


A fat brown spider pin-wheeled above the surface of the water, hanging from a web attached to the ceiling. Its forelegs whirled for purchase on her belly.


Ginger screamed, twisted her belly away, and smacked the spider with the back of her left hand, which had been resting comfortably beneath her buttocks only a second before. Water sloughed out of the tub as the spider struck the mirror and tumbled into the lavatory. Unable to stop herself, she screamed again, her entire body broke out in gooseflesh.


The bathroom door—she hadn’t locked it—burst open and Billy filled the frame, stark naked and squinting against the sudden, bright light. He must have been operating on pure instinct, Ginger later thought, because he held by the laces, high over his shoulder like a sling to slay a giant, one of his motorcycle boots.


“Spider!” she yelled and pointed at the sink.


He took one look, dropped the boot, stopped the sink, and blasted a stream of hot water into the bowl. The sudden burst of water sent the spider washing over the lip of the sink and it scurried along the side and underneath, down a pipe.


“Shit,” Billy said.


“There it goes!” Ginger cried. “Get it! Kill it!”


He dropped to all fours, snatched up his boot, and began smacking the tile. The spider fled behind the toilet. There Billy trapped it in the corner, where he brought the toe of his boot down hard, twice.

Ginger, by now, had sat up in the tub and was leaning over the side.

“He’s a big fugger,” Billy said, ass thrust in the air as he examined the kill.


Ginger saw an opportunity and couldn’t resist. She reached out.


Billy yelped and banged his head on the toilet tank.


“Oh!” Ginger’s hand flew to her mouth.


He fell backward against the wall and sat upright on the floor, legs splayed on the mildewed motel tile, penis flat and shriveled against his leg, not an arm’s length from the tub. “Jesus,” he said, rubbing the crown of his head.


Ginger sat in the lukewarm water, hand over her mouth, eyes big, trying to stifle the giggles that had wanted to come earlier when the time wasn’t right and now couldn’t, wouldn’t, be contained. She began to laugh.


“You think this is funny?” he said, and set his untied boot on the lid of the toilet. A bit of spider still clung to the toe.


“My knight in shining armor,” she said and threw back her head and laughed so hard she snorted.


He grinned. “I’ll teach you to pinch my ass.” He reached into the tub and grabbed her knee. “This is how a horse eats an apple,” he said, and squeezed.


She cried out through her laughter, wet hair clinging to her neck and shoulders. He worked her knee until she threw herself at him and pummeled his back with her fists. Water splashed over the side and wet him. And suddenly her laughter ceased. She was clinging to him still, kissing him now, his shoulders, his chest, his neck, and his hand had moved away from her knees and up to the place his lips had sought earlier that evening.


She moaned against his neck.


“I love you, G,” he whispered.


“I love you, too, Billy, I love you, too.”


“I’ll never leave you, you know that, right?”


“I know that. I know.”


“Never. Never. Nev—”


Her lips covered his, and she stopped his breath.



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



The kid drove Early to an apartment complex in Whitehaven called Rainbow’s End. The “o” was missing from the sign. They parked near a dumpster 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 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 air conditioner he heard the faint drone of a television. 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 the kid, “Ten minutes.”

“You sure you don’t need—”


“You wait.”


The kid held up both hands, palm out. “You the boss, boss.”


Early let his 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. He closed his eyes, listening. Moved the pick. Listened. Moved. Seconds later, the door clicked open.


The old black man down the way leaned out of his doorway 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 the living room a couch and coffee table, the table covered 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, 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 old 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 length of steel.


“Lucy.”


She looked up. Her eyes were wet.


“Where is Elmo Carter?”


Lucy said, “Elmo?”


Early nodded.


“He—he ran me off.”


“Where?”


“This, 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. Early rose up from the table, 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, applying 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. He 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 clutched together. Her head drooped and her hair hung down on either side of her face. “He got a cousin there,” she managed, “Hector. He was staying—we both was staying with him.”


“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.


“What was the cousin’s last name, Lucy? Hector what?”


Her eyes shifted focus, to something behind Early, and he forced the screwdriver back between her legs even as he heard the unmistakable click of a gun cocking.


“WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS?”


Early didn’t move. He said, “You hang on a second and listen to me, Romeo. I got a screwdriver within an inch of this gal’s cunt. You shoot me it might just slip—”


That was as far as he got before the first shot rang out.


Early threw himself to the floor, knowing full well he couldn’t dodge a bullet.


Two more shots rang out. A third.


The girl was screaming.


He wasn’t hit. He rolled from where he lay on the floor and saw the lover—who had emerged from
the bedroom naked—reeling against the wall, his gun dangling from his index finger by the trigger guard. The lover sat down in the floor, against the baseboard. Slowly, he reached up and touched one of the ragged holes that had blossomed on his skin.


He heard the girl screaming from the couch.


Another shot rang out.


Early ducked.


And suddenly Lucy wasn’t screaming anymore.


Early looked up.


The kid stood in the doorway, a 9mm Beretta in hand.


Lucy sprawled on the couch, a quarter-size hole above her left eye. The back of the lime-green couch dripped red.


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.


Luke went out the door and down the stairs, and Early followed. The landing was empty, and all the complex doors were closed.


Early drove.



6. August 7: 16 miles northwest of Big Moon.


They were seventy, eighty miles southeast of Memphis, headed for Vicksburg on 61, when his mother said: “Do you smell that?”

“Like something’s burning.” Andy, turtle in his lap, glanced at the temperature gauge on the dash,
but the orange needle read cool. He held the turtle up to his ear, listened, and said: “Mom, the turtle thinks we should stop now.”


“What?”


“The turtle says we should stop.”


“Jesus, Andy, give it a rest, will you?”


When they had crossed the Mississippi, Memphis shining on the far bank, the boy had held the turtle up. To both his surprise and his mother’s, it had stuck its head out for the first time and seemed to regard with wet, thoughtful eyes the muddy river snaking into the sunset.


His mother steered the car to the gravel shoulder. They stopped on a slight incline, kudzu creeping up the embankment to their right.


She killed the engine.


A thin, acrid cloud of smoke drifted from the left front wheel.


“What is it?” the boy said.


His mother shrugged.


The boy looked down at the turtle in his lap, its scored, cracked shell.


His mother put her head in her hand, elbow propped on the window sill. “I’d hoped we’d get further,” she said. “Damn.” She sighed and reached for her purse on the seat beside her. She fumbled over compact, tissues, lipstick.


“What are you doing?” the boy asked.


“Nevermind,” she said.


“Mom, no.”


She stopped rummaging. “Why not.”


“Because you can’t.”


“Says who.”


“Says me.”


She shook her head and was about to rummage some more when she saw, peering up at her from a nest of tissue, the barrel of her husband’s .38 snub-nose revolver. She had not forgotten it was there, of course, but she hadn’t thought of it in almost four hundred miles. She quickly shoved it aside and drew out her smokes and a cheap Bic lighter, zipped her purse. To the boy she said:

“Okay. Now tell me why again.”


“Because cigarettes only look cool in movies. Because secondhand smoke kills. Because eventually I, your only son, will become addicted, too, and I’ll smoke until I die at twenty-five, and I won’t have written any great poems or books and they’ll have to bury me in a pauper’s grave because my mother spent all her welfare checks to support her nasty habit.”


His mother smiled and touched the boy’s cheek with the back of her hand. “I love you, Andrew Mitchum O’Zan.”


The boy held the turtle up to his ear. “What’s that? Oh, oh yeah. I know.”


She smiled, despite herself. “What is it?”


“Turtle says when you say it like that, my full name is longer than his lifespan.”


“Oh yeah, what’s his lifespan?”


“Those were his last words.”


“You kill me.”


“No, I kill the turtle, apparently.”


His mother wedged the cigarettes in the crack of the seat, stuck the lighter in her shirt pocket. “For later then.”


The boy ignored this and stared out the window at the kudzu-draped hills.


There was a long silence. Cars whirred by.


Finally, his mother said, “Honey, I’m tired, my head is pounding, and if I have to make one more decision on behalf of our mutual well-being, I’m going to walk right into traffic. You and the goddamn turtle wanna field this one?”


The boy shifted in his seat to face his mother and said, “Well, we could flag down another car, use someone’s cell phone.”


“No way. Lone male drivers.”


“Not everyone’s Dad, you know.”


“We don’t talk to strangers, kiddo.”


“Well, obviously, we can’t drive anywhere.”


“Negative.”


“Which I guess leaves walking.”


“Hmm. I was kinda hoping we could just sit here and wait on someone official to drive by.”


The boy said, “You mean like a cop?”


His mother glanced in the rearview at the empty blacktop behind them, the crest of the hill before them. “Good point. But we’d just as well be spotted walking on the shoulder of the road.”


“Out of our hands. Besides, it’s getting dark. Less likely to be spotted in the dark.”


“You mind hoofing it till we find a gas station or a tow-truck or, best-case scenario, some harmless old bean-farmer giving away a free convertible?”


“Can we take the turtle?”


“Maybe we should let him go.”


“No,” the boy said. Then added: “Not yet. Not by the road.”


“Then get his crate, and let’s hop to it.”


She grabbed her purse and keys, locked the car, and the two started up the side of the road. The purse swung heavy against her right hip. They topped the hill and saw only more highway, no driveways, no mailboxes. At the bottom of the hill the land leveled out and became flat, even flatter than east Arkansas with its plowed rice fields. Here, the crop was cotton, and the fields stretched clear to the horizon. Behind them, the sun was sinking fast.


“I’m a terrible mother,” she said.


“Sure are. Last chance to flag a car.” The boy held the milk crate with both hands. “Everyone these days has a phone.”


“Not everyone.”


“No. Guess not.”


She glanced over her shoulder at the Oldsmobile. It peered at her from behind the crest of the hill like a curious, benign sea beast that had surfaced, wondering what strange new creatures were treading its waters. It occurred to her that she somehow knew she would never see the car again.
She took a deep breath, let it out, and said, “Okay. We walk.”


They set out.



6 Comments:

Blogger The Damned said...

A and J:

This is everything (well, almost everything) I've posted to the boards revised and touched up, along with a new section on my kids, Billy and Ginger.

All principal characters have now been introduced.

Thoughts, further suggestions, comments, etc. are appreciated.

Structure-wise, I'm calling the first part of the book "Check In." Here we alternate character by character, section by section. Part Two, "Four Nights' Stay," will deal with each major character's story in depth in four longish chapters. In part three, "Check Out," everything comes together, climaxes, etc.

Andy

1:40 PM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Adam, Joy,

I'm already thinking on a major revision. Instead of the preacher talking to Arliss about his granddaughter, I'm thinking of making Elmo Carter Arliss's grandson, have him be the subject of conversation. This way, we get rid of the pregnancy redundancy problem.

Also, would it be better to OPEN with the boarding house scene, so that its setting doesn't feel quite so much a violation of what's already been established as present day? (I remember, Joy, you said this was a problem before, and I didn't correct it because I wasn't sure how without changing stuff I didn't want to change.)

Andy

10:41 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Here are my initial reactions, apologies for the brackets and caps, didn't want to retype:

1.
[GREAT IMAGE, COBWEBS IN THE MOUTH]

[I LIKE THAT EARLY’S HOBBY IS FISHING; IT MAKES ME HOPE HE’S GOING TO BE ‘FISHING’ WITH SOMEONE IN THE NOVEL, MAYBE KITCHENS OR ELMO, BY BAITING THEM AND LETTING THEM RUN, THEN SETTING THE HOOK AND REELING THEM IN]

2.
[I think you did just enough with the father to suggest he’s a bad dude, that they’re running away from him, that he took Andrew to see the bears. I thought those revisions were really well done. You gave us just enough to get a sense of what they’re leaving behind, which is great.]

3.
No comments. I think it works. And I still think the imagery in this section is well-done, plow blades and flour sacks, etc.

4.
“He got out his guitar and sang to the.” Comine with next sentence

My only question about this section was whether Ginger would actually come out and say she wants to go with Billy. I wonder if it would take a while for her to actually say what she wants to do. Joy’s going to read this, so I have to be careful, but despite the stereotype, we know it’s often the case that women don’t immediately say what they want or mean. Or maybe I’m reading this wrong. Maybe she really doesn’t care about him going out, what she cares about is him spending the money—if that’s what you intended, it works and I’m an idiot. Disregard this comment.

“He’s going to blow our money. Just like he did back home. [ADD SINGLE QUOTES AROUND FIRST TWO SENTENCES] That’s what you were thinking.”

“She was clinging to him still, kissing him now, his shoulders, his chest, his neck, and his hand had moved away from her knees and up to the place his lips had sought earlier that evening.” [CUT ‘THAT EVENING’ just for rhythm?]

5.
“He smelled frying chicken and marijuana from an open door” [MAYBE AVOID ANY CHARGES OF STEREOTYPING BY HAVING THIS OLD BLACK DUDE READING SOME PHILOSOPHY?—WHO, NIETZSCHE, SPINOZA, LOCKE, HEGEL, KANT, EDWARD SAID?].





6.
“To both his surprise and his mother’s, it had stuck its head out for the first time and seemed to regard with wet, thoughtful eyes the muddy river snaking into the sunset.” [NICE IMAGE]

“At the bottom of the hill the land leveled out and became flat, even flatter than east Arkansas with its plowed rice fields. Here, the crop was cotton, and the fields stretched clear to the horizon. Behind them, the sun was sinking fast” [ME AND MY NEED FOR GEOGRAPHICAL VERISIMILITUDE—DID THEY CROSS AT W.HELENA?—ARE THEY NEAR THE ISLE OF CAPRI CASINO? COULD THAT BE IMPORTANT, IF THEY ARE, WOULD SHE STOP IN, MAKE A WAGER, IS SHE THE WAGERING KIND].

Adam

11:03 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Regarding the question of opening with the boarding house scene, I don't think it's necessary unless it works for other reasons. If you want to establish early on that the Preacher and Arliss occupy the same time as the other sections, you can just have a car go by out on the road--or some other one-phrase contemporary detail if a car would ruin the sense of isolation hovering around this scene.

Would something like that work?

Adam

11:10 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Or maybe you've already done enough, and I'm just being goofy about the time-thing. They're listening to Glen Miller (40s) and they're old, right? That should be enough, unless old preachers in Mississippi listened to Glenn Miller on their Victrolas in the 40s.

I done up and confused my own self.
Adam

11:13 AM  
Blogger The Damned said...

Andy
I was totally with this the entire way, reading it like I would something in a bookstore…I found some minor spelling errors that another read through on your part will solve. You might be right about moving the boardinghouse scene to establish the geography up front but I don’t remember saying (not that I didn’t) anything about tempora of the entire thing. Unless what I said was it might be a good thing to start 4 miles from Big Moon and move outward (110, 114, 194) but that wouldn’t really allow you to break up the narrative the way you want to, and would force you to put the Ginger and Billy scene after the boardinghouse (not a good idea). So I recant saying that because I like the way it is. The only thing I would say about part 3 so that we know it is still in present day is making the chess board/pieces some modern substance like plastic and maybe they’ve got a stereo and not a Victrola?

I think your idea about Ada’s pregnancy is a good one; Elmo as the grandson makes more sense, then we’d know how he’s connected to someone other than Early.

In part 4 I disagree with Adam about Ginger. She seems to be a woman who is not afraid of what she wants, or at least isn’t afraid to share those wants with Billy (continuing to grab him in his sleep until SHE can’t take the heat establishes this fact well). Just because “some women” don’t come out and say what they want doesn’t mean Ginger wouldn’t.

Also about part 4, could a pregnant woman and her skinny boyfriend really fit into a cheap hotel bathtub? Or did I just read this wrong and she’s hanging over the side of the tub? Still, this isn’t exactly right physically—maybe I want to see some mention of her belly one last time, especially since she’s so worried about not feeling the baby kick.

In #5 the quotation marks disappear from the dialogue and I wasn’t sure if that was intentional—like these guys are communicating with their minds—or just an honest blog mistake.

In #6 I’m wondering if Andy would really say the “Out of our hands” bit of dialogue. Or is this his mother, still, talking out loud? I was a little confused at that because I’m not sure about the tags.

Things I really like include your ear for dialogue and the way you’ve toned down the violent “movie-like” qualities of previous drafts. This is really good, Andy. I think your ideas for the progression are really cool. How many pages do you have? Have you thought about shopping this around with a prospectus?

Rock on,
--joy

11:26 AM  

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