A Fine Dark Line – Chapter One

A Fine Dark Line“Joe R. Lansdale has a folklorist’s eye for telling detail and a frontporch raconteur’s sense of pace.” — The New York Times Book Review

“One of the greatest yarn spinners of his generation: fearless, earthy, original, manic and dreadfully funny.” — The Dallas Morning News

“Funny, scary, heartwarming, heart-pounding, Tom Sawyer–ish, Huck Finn–ish, provocative, evocative, sometimes actually wise: the best ever from talented Lansdale—a genre-crossing tour de force to spark the most jaded appetites.” — Kirkus Reviews


Chapter One, The Big Blow

My name is Stanley Mitchel, Jr., and I’ll write down what I recall.

This took place in a town named Dewmont, and it’s a true story. It all happened during a short period of time, and it happened to me.

Dewmont got its name from an early settler named Hamm Dewmont. Little else is known about him. He came, gave his name to the place, then disappeared from history.

Dewmont, during its early days, was a ratty collection of wooden huts perched on the edge of the Sabine River in the deep heart of East Texas, a place of red clay and white sand, huge pines and snake-infested wetlands.

There are faded photographs in the Dewmont library of a scattering of pioneer hovels on the river’s edge as viewed through the lens of a primitive camera. You wouldn’t think much would come of this beginning, besides maybe a hard rain and a slide into the river, but through the years, and into the twentieth century, these shacks gradually inflated into a town as the great trees went down and were turned to lumber.

Later the town swelled into a small city of about one hundred thousand, but these events happened earlier, when my family, the Mitchels, moved there at the tag end of the 1950s.

Before we moved to Dewmont my daddy had been a mechanic in a small town of three hundred, appropriately named No Enterprise. One day he came home sick of working beneath cars, lying on cold cement and creaking creepers. He made an announcement that surprised us all. Including Mom.

Daddy loved movies, and somehow he heard about the Dewmont drive-in being for sale. The original owner, not long after opening the theater, had died of a stroke. His family was anxious to move some place west, as debt was clinging to their butts like feathers to tar.

So, Daddy collected our life savings, and using it as a down payment, hauled my mother, who he called Gal, me, my older sister, Caldonia, and my dog, Nub, on over to Dewmont.

Dewmont was mostly a long street with brick buildings on either side of Main Street, including our competition in the form of the Palace Theater, an indoor place.

I remember when we first arrived it was a hot clear day and above was a blue sky dotted with clouds, and you could look down Main Street and see cars parked at the curb and people moving about, and way and beyond, tall trees.

Our drive-in, the Dew Drop, was set just inside of town across from a ritzy residential area.

I’m sure adults in the ritzy section frowned on the nearby drive-in and its catering to the town’s great unwashed, or for that matter, their own children who came to us at a dollar a carload.

The Dew Drop was one of those drive-ins where the screen was a residence. These were rare structures, the screens usually being nothing more than a sheet of wood or metal fastened between a large frame, but the builders of the Dew Drop had been progressive and had gone all out.

The Dew Drop’s screen was actually a thick building designed to look on the outside like a Western fort. Painted across it was a mural of well-feathered Indians on horseback being pursued by cavalry in sharp blue uniforms and crisp white hats. There were snowy puffs of smoke to show gunfire coming from the pistols and rifles of the soldiers, and one Indian was obviously hit and falling from his horse, to neither ride or scalp again.

Hanging inexplicably above all this on the roof, fastened to a metal frame, was a huge, ocean-blue dew drop, looking as if it were about to drip and explode against the roof, drenching the world.

On the other side, where the cars faced the screen, the wall was white and served as the screen. Above it, this side of the dew drop was painted green, and not a pretty green, but a color that made me think of a puss-filled blister. I wondered why it had been painted at all. At night, when the movie showed, it was lost in the darkness above the reflected light on the screen.

Inside the movie screen, our home, it was pretty normal. Downstairs was a kitchen, living room, bath, and Callie’s bedroom. Connected to our living quarters was a concession stand that served hot dogs, popcorn, candy, and soft drinks. Shortly after taking over, we added fried chicken and sausage on a stick to the menu.

On the second floor were two bedrooms, one for me, one for Mom and Dad. I was ecstatic about that. Our old house in No Enterprise had one legitimate bedroom, and me and Callie slept in the living room at night on pallets. Here at the Dewdrop we had our own beds, our own privacy, which was great since I had recently discovered the joys of masturbation. Though I hadn’t exactly figured out what it was all about, it beat playing checkers against myself.

Above all this was yet another floor, a kind of attic with stairs that led to the roof of the drive-in where the great dew drop resided.

Up there on the roof, you could see the cars coming in, and if you walked to the other side of the roof, you could see what made up our backyard: speakers on posts in tidy rows, and at night, cars and lots of people.

Next to the drive-in structure was a padlocked toolshed, and to the side of that was a playground with a teeter-totter, swings, and a slide for when the kids got bored with the movie. All of this was surrounded by a fence. Mostly tin, with some chain link near the swings and seesaws.

I worked at our drive-in during that summer with Caldonia. A black man named Buster Abbot Lighthorse Smith, who had worked for the previous owner, ran the projector. He was old, sullen, strong-looking, said very little. Mostly did his job. He was so quiet you forgot he was around. He came walking in an hour before the show, did his work, put the film away when it was over, and left.

My mother and father opened the drive-in Monday through Saturday, except during rainstorms or the dead of winter. Even in East Texas, it sometimes got too cold for drive-in patrons.

For that reason we closed a week before Christmas, didn’t open again until the first of March. During that time Daddy did repairs on speakers, hauled in fresh gravel, painted and carpentered.

When he wasn’t doing that, if he needed the money, he did mechanic work on the lawn of the drive-in. He hated that, longed for the day when he would no longer turn wrenches and listen for air blowing through a leaky manifold.

Daddy loved the drive-in as much as he hated mechanic work. He liked to sit out front sometimes on Sundays, when it wasn’t open, in a metal lawn chair, and I’d sit on the ground beside him, usually tormenting ants with a blade of grass. He’d stare at those cowboys and Indians on the front side of the screen as if he were actually watching a movie.

I think in his mind’s eye they moved. And maybe it was just the idea of owning his own business that fascinated him. Daddy hadn’t come from much, had about a third-grade education. He’d scraped and scrapped for everything he had, and was proud of it. For him, owning that drive-in was as good as being a doctor or a lawyer.

And, for the times, for his background, he felt he was making pretty good money.

At thirteen years old, I was the youngest of the Mitchel clan, and not a sophisticated thirteen at that. I was as unaware of the ways of the world as a pig is of cutlery and table manners. I thought sex came after the number five and before the number seven.

Sad to say, I had only recently gotten over believing in Santa Claus and was mad about it. I had been told the truth by kids at school six months before we moved to Dewmont, and had fought a hell of a fight with Ricky Vanderdeer over the matter. I came home with a battered cheek, a black eye, a limp, and a general ass whipping.

My mother, upset over the beating, and a little embarrassed that a child my age still believed in Santa Claus, sat me down and gave me a speech about how Santa may not be real but lived in the hearts of those who believed in him. I was stunned. You could have knocked me over with a wet dog hair. I didn’t want a Santa in my heart. I wanted a fat, bearded man in a red suit that brought presents at Christmas and could squeeze through a chimney or a keyhole, which was how Mother told me Santa came into our home, not some nothing living in my heart.

This realization led me to the immediate conclusion that if there was no fat, jolly old elf in a red suit that came by magical sleigh, then there was no Easter Bunny hopping about with colored eggs either, not to mention the Tooth Fairy, one of the few mythical creatures I had honest suspicions about, having found one of the teeth she was supposed to have claimed for a quarter lying under my bed, probably where my mother, the real Tooth Fairy, had dropped it.

I had been set wise and I didn’t like it. I felt like a big donkey’s ass.

My ignorance did not end with Santa and assorted mythological creatures. I was no whiz at school either. Though I was smarter and better read than most kids, I was so bad at mathematics, it was a firing squad offense.

Having come from No Enterprise, a three-street town with two stores, two alleyways, a filling station, a six-table cafe, and a town drunk we knew by name, and who in a strange way was respected for his dedication to his profession, Dewmont seemed like a metropolis.

Yet, in time Dewmont actually began to feel sleepy. At least on the surface. Especially during the long hot summers.

The turmoil of the 1960s was yet to come, and Dewmont was way behind anyway. People dressed and conducted themselves like it was the 1930s, or at the latest, the 1940s. On Sunday men wore thin black ties and heavy black suits and hot wool hats. They always removed their hats when they were inside and they still tipped them at ladies.

Because air-conditioning was rare, even in stores, it was sticky-hot then, indoors and out, as if you had been coated in a thin film of warm molasses. In the summer, those men’s suits rested heavy on their victims, like outfits designed for torture. The thin ties lay dead on sweat-stained shirts and the cotton in the shoulders of the suits shifted easily, making lumps; the material held sweat like a sponge holds water; the brims on the wool hats sagged.

In the late afternoons people stripped down to shirtsleeves or even undershirts and sat outside on porches or in metal lawn chairs and talked well after the fireflies came out. Inside, they sat in front of fans.

It didn’t get dark during the summer till way late, and the sun, not blocked by tall buildings or housing developments, dipped into the East Texas trees like a fireball. As it died, it looked as if it were setting the woods on fire.

Certain kinds of language now spoken as a matter of course were rarely heard then in polite company. Even the words damn and hell, if women were present, could stun a conversation as surely as a slaughterhouse hammer could stun a cow.

The Depression was long gone, if not forgotten by those who had gone through it. World War Two was over and we had saved the world from the bad guys, but the boom times that had hit the rest of the country had not quite made it to East Texas. Or if they had, they hadn’t stayed long. Came in with the oil field wildcatter for a financial quickie, then played out so fast it was hard to remember there had ever been good times.

There was rockabilly, or rock and roll as it became known, on the radio, but there was no abundance of rock and roll feel in the air where we lived. Just a clutch of kids who hung out at the Dairy Queen afternoons and evenings, especially thick on Friday and Saturday nights.

A few of the guys, like Chester White, had ducktails and hotrods. Most guys had pretty short hair with a pompadour rise in front and plenty of hair oil on it. Wore sharp-creased slacks, starched white shirts, and polished brown shoes, drove their daddy’s car when they could get it.

The girls wore poodle skirts and ponytails, but the most radical thing they did was play the same tune over and over on the jukebox, mostly Elvis, and some of the Baptist kids danced in spite of the lurking threat of hell and damnation.

The colored knew their place. Women knew their place. Gay was still a word for “happy.” Children were still thought by many best seen and not heard. Stores closed on Sunday. Our bomb was bigger than their bomb and the United States Army couldn’t be beat by anyone. Including Martians. The President of the United States was a jolly, grandfatherly, fat, bald man who liked to play golf and was a war hero.

Being blissfully ignorant, I thought all was right with the world.

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The Big Blow – Chapter One

the-big-blow-thumb-091115“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


4:00 p.m.

Telegraphed message from WASHINGTON, D.C. Weather Bureau, to Isaac Cline, GALVESTON, TEXAS Weather Bureau:


tropical storm disturbance moving northward over cuba.

Chapter One:

6:30 p.m.

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.

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Freezer Burn – Chapter One



Chapter One:

Bill Roberts decided to rob the firecracker stand on account he didn’t have a job and not a nickel’s worth of money and his mother was dead and kind of freeze-dried in her bedroom.

Well, not completely freeze-dried. Actually, she stunk, but she seemed to be holding her own, having only partially melted into the mattress, and if he kept the door closed and pointed a fan that way to blow back the smell, it wasn’t so bad.

The firecracker stand was out on the highway, and it was the week of the Fourth of July, and the stand stayed open reasonably late every night, so after a couple nights watching, seeing lots of people out there buying firecrackers, Bill decided it was a good place to heist.

He figured he ought to hit it kind of late in the night so there’d be plenty of money. He thought he might steal a few firecrackers too. He liked the teepee-shaped kind that spewed sparkles of colors all over the place, then finished by blowing up. Those were his favorites by far, and he thought if the stand had any, he might just take some, and if they didn’t have any, he thought some Black Cats and some Roman candles would do.

The stand was almost directly across the highway from where he lived with his mother’s body, so he didn’t want to just walk over and rob it, and he didn’t want to drive his car over there either, ’cause he figured someone sitting there all day in the stand looking across the highway might have noticed it parked under the sweet gum tree next to the house, and if they did, and he drove over there and robbed the stand, sure as shit, someone would remember his car. It didn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that one.

Bill began to consider the angles.

One angle he was sure of was, now that his mother had died at the age of about ten million, there wouldn’t be any more checks signed by her for cashing. He had practiced writing her name until he had worn out about a half dozen ballpoint pens, but never could feel confident about the way he put it down. The checks had started to stack up now, all the way to seven, and he didn’t think he could get away with forgery. His mother had relished a distinct style in penmanship that only a chicken scratching in cow shit might duplicate with authenticity.

The old gal had been right enough and mean enough six months earlier, but one night, after watching Championship Wrestling, perhaps due to excitement over a particularly heated contest, or an overly vigorous inhalement of gummy bears, which she stuffed into her bony body as if they were the fruit of life, she had gone to bed and hadn’t gotten up again.

Bill thought at first he ought to report it. Then it came to him that if he did he’d lose the house and wouldn’t have any place to live. His mother owned everything, and except for a bit she doled out to him on check-cashing day, providing him with a roof and food to eat, there was nothing else. She hadn’t left anything to him in her will. She had donated it all to some kind of veterinarian research thing so cats could be saved from bad livers or some such shit.

Frankly, Bill didn’t give a flying damn about a bunch of cat livers or any part of a cat. The little bastards could die for all he cared. He’d certainly taken care of all his mother’s cats after her death. Unless the fuckers had sprouted gills, or had scissors to get out of those rock-weighted tow sacks he put them in, he figured they were resting pleasantly at the bottom of the Sabine River. No liver trouble, no problems whatsoever.

No, he didn’t think he ought to call the authorities and tell them his mother was dead. It seemed wiser to turn up the air conditioner in her room and keep that fan blowing and be quiet. Only thing was, now the electricity bill had come twice, then a notice, and then it had been cut off, and with no juice Mama began to stink something furious. He put a big black trash bag over her feet, up to her waist, and pulled one over her head, tied them together where they met at the waist with one of her robe belts. But that didn’t hold the stink in worth a damn. He poured a whole bottle of Brut cologne over her, and that helped some. She smelled like a sixteen-year-old boy on the way to his first date.

Finally the cologne fermented with Mama and gave off an even more intense aroma. But eventually that passed. Between all the air-conditioning, the Baggies, the heat, and the stale air, the old gal semi-mummified. Not so much she didn’t still smell dead, but enough it didn’t run him out of the house anymore. It was now like a dog had died under the porch and was almost rotted away.

Worse than the odor was the lack of electricity. All the food in the refrigerator had spoiled and he had to sit in the dark at night and smoke his mother’s cigarettes and look at a dead TV set and eat vegetables out of cans. There were plenty of cans, but he didn’t really want any of it. There were goddamn beets, and goddamn green beans, and goddamn corn, and goddamn new potatoes. Not a shred of meat, except for some Beenie-Weenies, and he’d jumped on those scamps two days after the old lady bit the big one. So now it was nothing but canned vegetables, and they were running low and he’d foolishly pushed the beets back until the last, so now that’s all he had to eat. Beets. He wished he’d doled those boogers out.

Sometimes he sat on the front porch with his can of vegetables and watched bugs fly across the light of the moon, and sometimes he just sat and watched people pull up at the stand across the highway and buy firecrackers. He started counting the people and figuring from the size of their sacks about how much they were spending, and that got him thinking about how much was back there in the stand each night before they closed and took it home.

Each day, as it got closer to the Fourth of July, the traffic increased. He thought if he waited until the Fourth to hit the place that would be the biggest night, and he might clean up good. He thought maybe he did, he could pay the electric bill, phone, all the rest, and manage to pay the water bill before it got turned off. It was the one thing that he’d had enough cash to pay, and he’d kept it up, but he couldn’t afford it again. He was down to his last few dollars and he knew he’d miss that water. He liked to take baths, even if they were cold, and drink lots of water to keep from thinking about eating. He had paid the post office box bill for a year so he wouldn’t have to worry about the mailman coming around. Not that he did any more than stuff mail in the box out by the highway, but he figured the less people he could have near the house the better, just in case he was so used to Mama that others might be able to get a sniff of her all the way out to the mailbox.

Since his mother didn’t have any family other than him that would have anything to do with her, and she didn’t have any friends, he figured he might could go on indefinitely, provided he learned to sign her checks or found someone willing to do it for a little cut of the money.

‘Course, that plan had limits. After a bit, Social Security might figure out his Mama wasn’t over a hundred years old and still living. But since she was in her eighties when she died, he thought he might could get ten years out of her checks before anyone got wise and came around to throw her an Oldest Person In America birthday party. By then, he’d have plans. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he might go off to Bolivia.

The whole thing, trying to figure out what to do, made Bill’s head hurt. But one thing he was certain of, a good place to start was knocking over that firecracker stand.

He thought of a couple fellas he knew might be up for the job, and though he wasn’t big on cutting them in, the idea of doing it alone didn’t appeal to him. Besides, they needed a getaway car, and Chaplin, one of the fellas he was thinking about, could hot-wire a waffle iron he took a mind to. And Fat Boy Wilson could drive a waffle iron if that’s all they had to drive.

A few days later after all this considering, Bill drove into town on the last of his gas and found Chaplin and Fat Boy working on a car in Fat Boy’s garage. Chaplin was under it and having Fat Boy pass down wrenches.

“How’s the boy?” Fat Boy asked Bill.

“I’m fine. That Chaplin under there?”

“Naw, I’m Raquel Welch,” Chaplin called from beneath the car, “and I’m givin’ the car a blow job. How you doin’?”


“How’s your mom, Bill?”

“Fine. Who’s Raquel Welch?”

“One of the big-tittie actresses. She’s a little long in the tooth now, I reckon. Hell, she might be dead.”

“That don’t matter none to Chaplin,” Fat Boy said. “Long as her titties ain’t rotted off and there’s some kind of hole in her.”

They laughed. Bill said, “You boys want to do a little somethin’? You know, a little job.”

“You don’t mean illegal, do you?” Fat Boy said. “I mean, I don’t do nothing illegal.”

All three laughed, and Chaplin, who had been lying on a wheeled board, a creeper he called it, slid out from under the car and got a rag and wiped his hands.

“Well,” Chaplin said, “it illegal?”

“Yeah,” Bill said, “it’s some illegal.”

“Long as it ain’t killin’ nobody,” Fat Boy said.

“We’re gonna have to have guns, but that’s just for show.”

“Man, I don’t know,” Fat Boy said. “I did that filling station over in Center with you, and you’re kind of nervous when there’s guns. Chaplin, he likes guns too much. I thought we might end up shootin’ someone. I don’t want to shoot no one. I mean, they’re gonna shoot me, I might shoot ’em, but I don’t want to shoot nobody I don’t have to.”

“You don’t got to shoot anybody,” Bill said. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt. It’s just for show.”

“I might shoot somebody, it’s worth the money,” Chaplin said.

“It’s a firecracker stand,” Bill said. “I figure they take in several thousand a day. I’m sayin’ we split it three ways.”

“How many guys run the stand?” Fat Boy asked.

“One most of the time. Sometimes two. We hit it at closing time, take the money and run. Piece of cake. We’ll need to heist a car to do the job, ditch it somewhere, have our own waitin’. We wear masks. We don’t say much. We wave a pistol around. We get the money and we’re gone.”

“Them firecracker stands,” Fat Boy said, “they’re out of the city, easy targets.”

“It’d be a whole lot easier than a convenience store,” Chaplin said.

“That’s right,” Bill said. “This one is across from my house. Easy pickin’s.”