“The narrative builds an atmosphere of impending doom in the lives of a group of blithely unsuspecting denizens during the four days preceding the 1900 Galveston hurricane, considered by many as the most devastating North American natural disaster of the 20th century…. Despite the bare-knuckle prose, there is a heavy sense of karma lurking here. Lansdale’s fans will snap it up.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Joe Lansdale’s The Big Blow offers indelible rip-roaring characterization and cinematic imagery based in boxing, human prejudice and desperation, as well as the overwhelming natural force of a hurricane.”
—Paula Guran, DarkEcho
“One hell of a read. Joe Lansdale is more than a master stylist, though his use of language is unrivaled. Lansdale is flat out a great storyteller.”
—Joe Sherry, Adventures in Reading
“Just may be a perfect story. Set during the Galveston hurricane of 1900, it offers action, sex, violence, cleansing, redemption, and a small dose of history, peopled with typically Lansdalean characters.”
—Craig Clarke, Somebody Dies
“Joe is one of the best living writers of the Southwest.”
—Bill Paxton, Oprah.com
SEPTEMBER 4, 1900
Telegraphed message from WASHINGTON, D.C. Weather Bureau, to Isaac Cline, GALVESTON, TEXAS Weather Bureau:
tropical storm disturbance moving northward over cuba.
On an afternoon hotter than two rats fucking in a wool sock, John McBride, six-foot-one-and-a-half inches, two-hundred and twenty pounds, ham-handed, built like a wild boar, and of similar disposition, arrived by ferry from mainland Texas to Galveston Island, a six-gun under his coat, and a razor in his shoe.
As the ferry docked, McBride set his suitcase down, removed the bowler, took a crisp white handkerchief from inside his coat, wiped the bowler’s sweat band with it, used it to mop his forehead, ran it over his thinning black hair, and put his hat back on.
An old Chinese guy in San Francisco told him he was losing his hair because he always wore hats, and McBride decided maybe he was right, but now he wore the hats to hide his baldness. At thirty, he felt he was too young to lose his hair.
The Chinaman had given him a sweet smelling tonic for his problem at a considerable sum. McBride used it religiously, rubbed it into his scalp. So far, all he could see it had done was shine his bald spot. He ever got back to Frisco, he was gonna look that Chinaman up, maybe knock a few knots on his head.
As McBride picked up his suitcase and stepped off the ferry with the others, he observed the sky. It appeared green as a pool table cloth. The sun, scarlet as a whore’s lips, dipped down from the sky to drink from the Gulf; McBride almost expected to see steam rise up from beyond the island. He took in a deep breath of sea air and thought it tasted all right. It made him hungry. That was why he was here. He was hungry. First on the menu was a woman, then a steak, then some rest before the final course— the thing he had come for. A good solid basic nigger whipping.
He hired a mule drawn buggy to take him to a poke house he had been told about by his employers, the fellows who had paid his way from Chicago. According to what they said, there was a redhead there so good and tight she’d make you sing soprano. Way he felt, if she was redheaded, female and ready, he’d be all right, and to hell with the song. And if she wasn’t tight, he’d tie a board to his ass so he wouldn’t fall in.
Whatever the result, it was on The Sporting Club’s tab anyway.
As the buggy trotted along, McBride took in Galveston. It was a Southerner’s version of New York, with a touch of the tropics. Houses were upraised on stilts—thick support posts, actually— against the washing of storm waters, and the Beach Hotel was as magnificent and garish as anything McBride had seen anywhere. It was mauve colored with bright green eaves and its great dome was striped garishly in red and white. In McBride’s mind, the color scheme brought to mind what he would think the king of all circus clowns would choose for his own home. Out front a fountain gurgled a steady supply of fresh water in a magnificently wasteful manner.
McBride could see a number of men dressed out in their finest coats and top hats wandering in and out of the hotel. Scandalously un-chaperoned women in brightly colored dresses were visible as well. McBride smiled at that. He had heard that nude bathing was popular on the beach at late hours, and from the looks of some of these women, he hoped they were partakers of the habit.
In the city proper the houses looked to be fresh off deep south plantations. City Hall had apparently been constructed by an architect with a Moorish background. It was ripe with domes and spirals. The style collided with a magnificent clock housed in the building’s highest point, a peaked tower. The clock was like a miniature Big Ben. England meets the Middle East.
Electric street cars hissed along the streets, and there were a large number of bicycles, carriages, buggies, and pedestrians. McBride even saw one automobile.
The streets themselves were made of buried wooden blocks that McBride recognized as ship ballast. Some of the streets were made of white shell, and some were hardened sand. He liked what he saw, thought: Maybe, after I do in the nigger, I’ll stick around a while. Take in the sun at the beach. Find a way to get my fingers in a little solid graft of some sort. Gambling. Sell some pussy.
When McBride got to the whorehouse behind The Sporting Club, it was almost full dark. He gave the colored driver a big tip, cocked his bowler, grabbed his suitcase, went through the ornate iron gate, and up the steps, on inside to get his tumblers clicked.
After giving his name to the plump madam, who looked as if she could still grind a customer or two out herself, perhaps two at a time, he was given the royalty treatment. The madam herself took him upstairs, undressed him, folded his clothes, put his gun, matches, cigars and razor on the night stand, then bathed his hammer in a wash basin of water with a white cloth and a lump of sweet soap. In the basin water gardenia petals floated.
When he was clean, she dried him off, nestled him in a clean bed that smelled slightly of cheap disinfectant soap, fluffed his pillow and put it beneath his head, kissed him on the forehead, as if he were her little boy, then toddled off.
The moment she left, McBride climbed out of bed, got in front of the mirror on the dresser and combed his hair, trying to push
as much as possible over the bald spot. He had just gotten it arranged and gone back to bed when the redhead entered. She was carrying a small box of strong smelling rose petals. She smiled
and tossed them on the sheets. She undressed while McBride watched.
She was green-eyed and a little thick-waisted, but not bad to look at. She had fire-red hair on her head and a darker fire between her legs, which were white as the sheets he was lying on and smooth as a newborn pig’s ass.
He reached up and pulled her into bed, started off by hurting her a little, tweaking her nipples, just to show her who was boss. She pretended to like it. Kind of money his employers were paying, he figured she’d have dipped a turd in gravel and rolled it around the floor with her nose and pretended to like it if he had asked her to do it.
McBride roughed her bottom some with his ham hands, then got in the saddle and bucked a few. Later on, when she got a little slow about doing what he wanted, he blacked one of her eyes. She whimpered briefly, went silent, curled up next to him, waiting for whatever he might deliver, a punch, a dick, a word.
When the representatives of The Galveston Sporting Club showed up, he was lying in bed with the redhead, uncovered, letting a hot wind blow through the open windows to dry his and the redhead’s juices.
The madam let the club members in and went away. There were four of them, all dressed in evening wear with top hats in their hands. Two were grey-haired and grey-whiskered. The other two were younger men. One was large, had a face that looked as if it regularly stopped cannon balls. Both eyes were black from a recent encounter. His nose was flat and strayed to the left of his face as if looking for a new place to lie down. He did his breathing through his mouth. He didn’t have any top front teeth.
The other young man was slight and a dandy. This, McBride assumed, would be Ronald Beems, the man who had written him on behalf of the Sporting Club.
Everything about Beems annoyed McBride. His suit, unlike the wrinkled and drooping suits of the others, looked fresh-pressed, unresponsive to the afternoon’s humidity. He smelled faintly of mothballs and naphtha, and some sort of hair tonic that had ginger as a base. He wore a thin little mustache and the sort of hair McBride wished he had, black, full and longish, with mutton chop sideburns. He had perfect features. No fist had ever touched those. He stood as stiff as if he had a hoe handle up his ass.
Beems, like the others, looked at McBride and the redhead with more than a little astonishment. McBride lay with his legs spread and his back propped against a pillow. He looked very big there. His legs and shoulders and arms were thick and twisted with muscle and glazed in sweat. His stomach protruded a bit, but it was hard looking.
The whore, sweaty, eye blacked, legs spread, breasts drooping from the heat, looked more embarrassed than McBride. She wanted to cover, but she didn’t move. Fresh in her memory was that punch to the eye.
“For heaven’s sake, man,” Beems said. “Cover yourself.”
“What the hell you think we’ve been doin’ in here?” McBride said. “Playin’ checkers?”
“There’s no need to be open about it. A man’s pleasure is taken in private.”
“Certainly you’ve seen balls before,” McBride said, reaching for a cigar that lay on the table next to his revolver and a box of matches. Then he smiled and studied Beems. “Then maybe you ain’t…And then again, maybe, well, you’ve seen plenty and close up.”
“You disgusting sonofabitch,” Beems said.
“That’s telling me,” McBride said. “I’m cut to the goddamn core.” McBride patted the redhead’s inner thigh. “You recognize this business, don’t you? You don’t, I got to tell you about it. We men call it a woman, and that thing between her legs is the ole red snapper.”
“We’ll not conduct our affairs in this fashion,” Beems said.
McBride smiled, took a match from the box, and lit the cigar. He puffed, said, “You dressed up pieces of shit brought me all the way down here from Chicago. I didn’t ask to come. You offered me a job, and I took it, and I can untake it, it suits me. I got round trip money from you already. You sent for me and I came, and you set me up with a paid hair hole, and you’re here for a meeting at a whore house, and now you’re gonna tell me you’re too special to look at my balls. Too prudish to look at pussy. Go on out, let me finish what I really want to finish. I’ll be out of here come tomorrow, and you can whip your own nigger.”
There was a moment of foot shuffling, and one of the elderly men leaned over and whispered to Beems. Beems breathed once, like a fish out of water, said, “Very well. There’s not that much needs to be said. We want this nigger whipped, and we want him whipped bad. We understand in your last bout, the man died.”
“Yeah,” McBride said. “I killed him and fucked his old lady. Same night.”
This was a lie, but McBride liked the sound of it. He liked the way their faces looked when he told it. The woman had actually been the man’s half-sister, and the man had died three days later from the beating. His half-sister hadn’t cared for him.
“And this was a white man?” Beems said.
“White as snow, and dead as a stone. Talk money.”
“We’ve explained our financial offer.”
“Talk it again. I like the sound of money.”
“Three hundred dollars before you get in the ring with the nigger. Two hundred more if you beat him. A bonus of five hundred if you kill him. No prize fighter makes money like that. Not even John L. Sullivan.”
“This must be one hated nigger. Why? He banging your dog?”
“That’s our business.”
“All right. But I’ll take half of that three hundred now.”
“That wasn’t our deal.”
“Now it is. And I’ll be runnin’ me a tab while I’m here too, and you assholes will pick it up.”
More foot shuffling. Finally, the two elderly men got their heads together, then pulled out their wallets. They pooled their money, gave it to Beems. “These gentleman are our backers,” Beems said. “This is Mr.—”
“I don’t give a shit who they are,” McBride said. “Give me the money.”
Beems tossed it on the foot of the bed.
“Pick it up and bring it here,” McBride said to Beems.
“I will not.”
“Yes you will, cause you want me to beat this nigger. You want me to do it bad. And another reason is this: You don’t, I’ll get up and whip your dainty little ass all over this room.”
Beems shook a little. “But why?”
“Because I can.”
Beems, his face red as infection, gathered the bills from the bed, carried them around to McBride. He thrust them at McBride. McBride, fast as a duck on a June bug, grabbed Beems’ wrist and pulled him forward, causing him to let go of the money and drop it onto McBride’s chest. McBride pulled the cigar from his mouth with his free hand, stuck it against the back of Beems’ thumb. Beems let out a squeal, said, “Forrest!”
The big man with no teeth and black eyes, started around the bed toward McBride. McBride said, “Step back, Charlie, or you’ll have to hire you someone to yank this fella out of your ass.”
Forrest hesitated, looked as if he might keep coming, then stepped back and hung his head.
McBride pulled Beems’ captured hand between his legs and rubbed it over his sweaty balls a few times, then pushed him away. Beems stood with his mouth open, stared at his hand.
“I’m bull of the woods here,” McBride said, “and it stays that way from here on out. You treat me with respect. I say, hold my rope while I pee, you hold it. I say, hold my balls off the sheet while I get a piece, you hold ‘em. Otherwise, I just made one hundred and fifty and can start home.”
Beems said, “You bastard. I could have you killed.”
“Then do it. I hate your type. I hate someone I think’s your type. I hate someone who likes your type or wants to be your type. I’d kill a dog liked to be with you. I hate all of you expensive bastards with money and no guts. I hate you cause you can’t whip your own nigger, and I’m glad you can’t, cause I can. And you’ll pay me. And go ahead, send your killers around. See where it gets them. Where it gets you. And I hate your goddamn shitty hair, Beems.”
“When this is over,” Beems said, “you leave immediately!”
“I will, but not because of you, but because I can’t stand you or your little pack of turds.”
The big man with missing teeth raised his head, glared at McBride. McBride said, “Nigger whipped your ass, didn’t he, Forrest?”
Forrest didn’t say anything, but his face said a lot. McBride said. “You can’t whip the nigger, so your boss sent for me, and I can whip him, so don’t think for a moment you can whip me.”
“Come on,” Beems said. “Let’s leave. The man makes me sick.”
Beems joined the others, his hand held out to his side. The elderly gentlemen looked as if they had just realized they were lost in the forest. They organized themselves enough to start out the door. Beems followed, turned before exiting, glared at McBride.
McBride said, “Don’t wash that hand, Beems. You can say, ‘Shake the hand of the man who shook the balls of Jim McBride.’”
“You go to hell,” Beems said.
“Keep me posted,” McBride said.
Beems left. McBride yelled after him and his crowd, “And gentlemen, I’ve enjoyed doing business with you.”
Later in the night, the redhead displeased him, and McBride popped her other eye, stretched her out, laid across her. Somewhere in the distance, perhaps caught on the wind and carried from the Beach Hotel, he could hear drunken singing, but he could neither make out the tune nor the words. He found the sound of it neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It just was.
Eventually the singing stopped. For an instant he thought of his mother and how she might be, then he fell asleep and dreamed he had a head of hair like Beems and that he was sitting in front of the mirror combing it, and when he turned he could see his suitcase lying open on a chair, and in it he could see the bloody head of the Chinaman who had sold him the hair tonic. Beside it was the nigger’s head, but since he had never seen the man, the face was just a face, and then again he figured it really didn’t matter. Chinamen all looked alike. And so did niggers.
The whore tried not to shift too much, lest she disturb McBride and get another punch. When she finally slept, she dreamed she was in the Philistine temple with a blind Samson after his hair had grown out, and that Samson had pulled the temple down on her and her ilk, and that a great pillar of stone lay across her body, slowly crushing the life from her.
Outside, the wind picked up slightly, blew hot brine-scented air down Galveston’s streets and through the whorehouse window, and periodically it brought with it reinspired snatches of drunken song, until finally there was none of that left and there was only the wind. The wind.