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.

Order now.

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