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Lone Star Noir
Includes brand-new stories by: James Crumley, Joe R. Lansdale, Claudia Smith, Ito Romo, Luis Alberto Urrea, David Corbett, George Weir, Sarah Cortez, Jesse Sublett, Dean James, Tim Tingle, Milton Burton, Lisa Sandlin, Jessica Powers, and Bobby Byrd.
Bobby Byrd is the co-publisher of Cinco Puntos Press in El Paso, Texas. As a poet, Byrd is the recipient of an NEA Fellowship, the D.H. Lawrence Fellowship awarded by the University of New Mexico, and an International Residency Fellowship.
John Byrd, co-publisher of Cinco Puntos Press, is co-editor (with Bobby Byrd) of the anthology Puro Border: Dispatches, Snapshots Graffiti from La Frontera. He is also a Spanish-to-English translator and a freelance essayist.
Fiction Book Designer
Bobby Byrd, Johnny Byrd, Lisa Sandlin, Claudia Smith, David Corbet, Luis Alberto Urrea, Tim Tingle, James Crumley, Jessica Powers, Joe R. Lansdale, George Wier, Milton T. Burton, Sarah Cortez, Jesse Sublett, Dean James, Ito Romo
Lone Star Noir
WHAT THE HELL IS TEXAS, ANYWAY ?
I dearly love the state of Texas,
but I consider that a harmless perversion on my part,
and discuss it only with consenting adults.
– Molly Ivins
Forgive me, but I am a poet by trade. I don’t come to noir fiction on the morning train in the bright sunlight.
I come obliquely through the back roads of my poetics and love for the American idiom. I’m a member of the second generation of those notorious “New American Poets” anthologized by Donald Allen in 1960. Folks like Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Philip Whalen, Jack Spicer, Ed Dorn, Gary Snyder, and, yes, Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac-radical workers of the language back in their day. Because of these roots, and like so many of my fellow travelers, I have always been drawn to noir fiction. Especially as it’s practiced in America. My heroes from the beginning were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and later in the 1990s Elmore Leonard came along to feed my imagination when my writing needed an injection of hard-boiled storytelling and cutthroat dialogue.
But Texas? That was another journey. Growing up in Memphis and living for years in Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico, I never would have guessed that I would move to Texas. Yet, here I am, a longtime Texan.
When my family and I moved south from Albuquerque thirty-something years ago, we asked our friends (the worse sort-writers, intellectuals, ex-hippies) from the so-called “land of enchantment” where we should move: Las Cruces, New Mexico, or El Paso. “Las Cruces,” they all said without blinking. They sneered at anything Texas. That’s common in New Mexico. Colorado too. Texans are the Ugly Americans of the American Southwest. That’s the stereotype. Loud and arrogant. They buy a piece of land in the mountains, wanting to flee the flatlands and horrendous weather of Texas, and they bring Texas along with them.
So, taking our friends’ advice, we moved to Las Cruces. It was a mistake of the first order. After a couple of years we got bored. We started sniffing around El Paso forty-five miles down the road. Life was different there, somehow weird, a taste of dark mystery even in the bright Chihuahuan desert sunlight-Spanish in the streets, goddamned real-life cowboys, Mennonites and Mormons from Mexico, a whole herd of Lebanese immigrants, the red-light district of Juárez a stone’s throw from downtown, regular people who transformed themselves into strange gory tales in the newspaper, the hot dog vendor on the street with his little stash of cheap dope to pay the bills, the bloody smell of the 1910 Mexican Revolution still hanging in the air. The place actually echoes loudly in the American psyche. It pops up all over American literature-Ambrose Bierce, Jack Kerouac, Oscar Zeta Acosta, Carlos Fuentes, Dagoberto Gilb, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, James Crumley, Abraham Verghese, Cormac McCarthy, and so many more. The place felt like home.
So I got my feet Texas wet in El Paso. Why we didn’t move here in the first place, I’ll never know. But people in El Paso will tell you they don’t live in Texas anyway. They live in El Paso.
Seems like everybody who lives in Texas has a snotty attitude about the place where they live. Even if they hate it. Like the bumper sticker from the 1980s, Lucky me, I’m from Lubbock. That was popular the year after Lubbock almost got wiped off the map by a series of God’s worst tornados. But what you learn from living in this state is that most of Texas is not Texas. It’s not the stereotype that the rest of the nation carries around in the collective consciousness. During the 2008 Obama-versus-Hillary Democratic primary madness, the national press complained that Texas did not fit into the Red State cookie cutter they expected. Beaumont was nothing like Austin which was nothing like Odessa which was nothing like Houston. And Marfa, how did that happen? The talking heads were confused. One guy I saw on TV said, “Texas is not like any other state. It’s huge, it’s insanely diverse, it’s more like a country.”
I got a hunch the talking heads never got close to Chicken Shit Bingo. In Austin you can go play Chicken Shit Bingo. The rooster walks around a big board with all the numbers on it. And wherever the rooster takes a shit, that’s the number that gets called out. That’s Texas.
Chicken Shit Bingo is the Texas of Lone Star Noir.
But really, for the world at large, Texas is not so much a state or a country. It’s popular legend pumped up on steroids to become mythos.
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, the American media gave us two hunks of the Texas legend. One was the prime-time soap opera Dallas. Millions of men and women from around the country-indeed, from around the world-scheduled their lives so they wouldn’t miss Dallas. At its center was J.R. Ewing, the epitome of Texas cynicism and greed played ever so shrewdly by Larry Hagman. He wore his $5,000 suits, his topdollar Stetson, and his elegant chocolate crocodile-hide cowboy boots. When was J.R. ever going to have to pay up for his sins and his silk underwear? The guy had enough money and power to buy Houston, but he’d screw his best friend to get more. And after lunch he’d screw the guy’s wife. J.R. enjoyed those sins of his, and he very much enjoyed being a Texan. Indeed, he flaunted Texas. Big and rich Texas. And his public hated him and loved him at the same time.
The cowboy side of that Texas coin was embodied in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. The novel became a hugely popular television miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as ex-Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Gus Mc-Crae. The story is simple. Those old boys get tired of living the ranching life down on the Rio Grande so they go steal a herd of longhorns from the “Meskins,” killing a few in the bargain. The series follows the heroes and their herd up through Texas to Wyoming with enough adventures and fights and evil to satisfy Ulysses fresh from the killing fields of Troy. McMurtry is a scholar about cowboy life and the great cattle drives of the nineteenth century, and so the book and the miniseries are rich with the lifestyle and paraphernalia of cowboy legend. The stuff of Texas lore. Neither the book nor the TV series, it should be noted, was kind to Mexicans, blacks, Indians, or women. But, as a matter of fact, the Texas Rangers and the state of Texas weren’t exactly kind to these citizens either. It’s like a Texas disease.
Still, you can drive around Texas for a long time and never meet J.R. Ewing or Woodrow Call. The real Texas hides out in towns and cities like you’ll find in Lone Star Noir, and in that very Texas reality, among the everyday good folks of Texas, you’ll find the hard-boiled understanding of guns and dope and blood money and greed and hatred and delusion that makes these fourteen stories come alive on the page. Sure, you might catch a glimpse of J.R. and old Woodrow Call, like a shadow at the edge of your sight, feel their heat at your back, catch a whiff of the dead flowers which are their Texas dreams. This is basic foodstuff for a Texas writer telling a story, but the story must always stay true to its place and the people who live there. That’s the strength of these stories in Lone Star Noir-the particular place they come from, the language that the characters speak. Yes, they are pieces of the larger puzzle that is Texas, but they are more true to the pieces of ground they reveal.
Texas, in all its many places, bleeds noir fiction.
In putting together the collection, we had to decide how to group the stories. Texas is not easily divided. It’s not a pie chart. But like most things literary, the stories themselves told us how to do the job. People think of Texas, they think cowboys and dirt farming. They think “Back Roads Texas.” But Texas has changed. Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby made sure we got that message. “Big City Texas”-Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin, El Paso-is now the face of the state. But we also had these strange and dark stories from the Gulf Coast, so different than tales from the cities and back roads. Those stories made a place for themselves. And luckily for us, the only two carpetbaggers in the collection-Luis Alberto Urrea and David Corbett-collaborated on a road journey across Texas. That story’s heart is in the Cajun world of the Gulf Coast, but it wanders upstream on Interstate 10 through San Antonio and careens toward El Paso, finally to disappear in the darkness that is now Juárez, 2010. It reminds us that all these stories are tied together by the Texas that is right now.
Speaking of luck, nothing could have been better karma than having an unpublished story from James Crumley (1939-2008). Jim’s widow Martha Elizabeth in Missoula, a wonderful lady and a true keeper of Jim’s flame, was delighted to work with us and she found nestled in one of his files the story “Luck.” Now being hailed as “the patron saint of the post-Vietnam private eye novel,” Jim was born in Three Rivers and raised in South Texas. He was one of those writers who could hate Texas and love Texas in the same sentence. He understood Texas, his own piece of Texas-its language, its machismo, its fears and loves-even if he fled the place. His busted-up heroes Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue don’t exist without Texas.
Many people have aided and abetted this anthology, and Johnny Byrd and I thank them, especially David Thompson of Murder by the Book in Houston, Clay Smith of the Texas Book Festival, Susan Post of BookWoman in Austin, Milton T. Burton, and Bill Cunningham. Props go out to publisher Johnny Temple (a.k.a. Johnny Akashic)-friend and colleague. The guy has patience, the guy has smarts. Thanks and kudos especially to the writers, all of whom came up with such excellent stories, some like Joe R. Lansdale and Jessica Powers at very short notice.
And finally, on a very personal note, I want to say that it’s been an honor to work with my coeditor and son Johnny Byrd. He brings a wise and steady hand to the sometimes erratic whims of his old man.
It’s been such a pleasure.
And now it’s done. I hope there will be more. One Lone Star Noir won’t do the job.
El Paso, TX
PART I. GULF COAST TEXAS
Well, you better walk right, you better not stagger, and you better not fight…
PHELAN’S FIRST CASE by LISA SANDLIN
Five past eight. Phelan sat tipped back in his desk chair, appreciating the power of the Beaumont Enterprise. They’d centered the ad announcing his new business, boxed it in black, and spelled his name right. The other ad in the classifieds had brought in two girls yesterday. He figured to choose the brunette with the coral nails and the middle-C voice. But just then he got a call from his old high school bud Joe Ford, now a parole officer, and Joe was hard-selling.
“Typing, dictation, whatcha need? She learned it in the big house. Paid her debt to society. What say you talk to her?”
“Find some other sucker. Since when are you Acme Employment?”
“Since when are you a private eye?”
“Since workers’ comp paid me enough bread to swing a lease.”
“For a measly finger? Thought you liked the rigs.”
“Still got nine fingers left. Aim to keep ’em.”
“Just see this girl, Tommy. She knows her stuff.”
“Why you pushing her?”
“Hell, phones don’t answer themselves, do they?”
“Didn’t they invent a machine that-”
Joe blew scorn through the phone. “Communist rumor. Lemme send her over. She can get down there in two shakes.”
“I’m gonna say this one time. Who had your back the night you stepped outside with Narlan Pugh and all his cousins stepped outside behind him?”
“One time, shit. I heard it three. Time you realized gratitude comes to a natural end, same as a sack of donuts.”
“Goddamnit, no promises.”
“Naw! Course not. Make it or break it on her own. Thanks for the chance, it’ll buck her up.”
Phelan asked about the girl’s rap sheet but the dial tone was noncommittal.
Drumming his fingers, he glanced out his window toward the Mobil refinery’s methane flare, Beaumont’s own Star of Bethlehem. Far below ran a pewter channel of the Neches, sunlight coating the dimples of the water. Black-hulled tankers were anchored in the port, white topsides, striped flags riffling against the drift of spring clouds.
Or that’s the view he’d have once his business took off-San Jacinto Building, seventh floor. Mahogany paneling, brasstrimmed elevator. Now he looked out on the New Rosemont, $1 and Up, where a ceiling fan once fell on the proprietress. The secretary’s office had a window too, where sunlight and humidity pried off the paint on the Rosemont’s fire escape.
8:32. Footsteps were sounding on the stairs to his second-story walk-up.
Wasn’t skipping up here, was she? Measured tread. The knock on the door lately lettered Thomas Phelan, Investigations wasn’t fast, wasn’t slow. Not loud, not soft.
Phelan opened up. Well. Not a girl. Couple crows had stepped lightly at the corners of her eyes; a faint crease of bitter slanted from the left side of her barely tinted lips. Ash-brown hair, jaw-length, roomy white blouse, navy skirt. Jailhouse tan. Eyes gray-blue, a little clouded, distant, like a storm rolling in from out in the gulf. This one wouldn’t sit behind the desk blowing on her polish. The hand he was shaking had naked nails cut to the quick.
“Delpha Wade.” Her voice was low and dry.
Delpha Wade. His brain ratcheted a picture toward him but not far enough, like when a Mars bar gets hung up partway out the vending machine.
They sat down in his office, him in a gimpy swivel behind a large metal desk, both included in the rent. Her in one of the proud new clients’ chairs, padded leather with regally tall backs.
“Gotta be honest with you, Miss Wade. Think I already found a secretary.”
No disappointment in those blue eyes, no hope either. She just passed a certificate with a gold seal across the desk. The paper said she typed seventy words a minute, spoke shorthand, could do double entry. The brunette with the coral nails claimed all that too, but she’d backed it up with a giggle, not a diploma from Gatesville.
“Your first choice of a job a P.I.’s office?”
“My first choice is a job.”
Touché. “What number interview would this be for you?”
“I’m flattered. Get off the bus, you come here.”
The blue eyes let in a smidgen of light. “Course that doesn’t count the dozen applications I wrote out ’fore they showed me the door.”
No wonder Joe was pushing her. “Had your druthers… where’d you work, Miss Wade?”
“Library. I like libraries. It’s what I did there.”
There being Gatesville. Now that she’d brought it up.
“How many you do?”
Phelan quelled the whistle welling up. That let out checkkiting, forgery, embezzling from the till, and probably dope. He was about to ask her the delicate when she handed it to him on a foil tray. “Voluntary manslaughter.”
“And you did fourteen?”
“He was very dead, Mr. Phelan.”
His brain shoved: the picture fell into the slot. Phelan’d been a teenager, jazzed by blood-slinging, and reporters had loved the story. Waitress in a bayou dive, waiting for the owner to collect the take. Alone. Two guys thrown out earlier came back-beat her, raped her, cut her. Father and son, that was the kicker. That, and they went for the girl before the cash register. But surprise. Somehow the knife had changed hands. The father’d got punctured and son sliced. When the owner’s headlights showed, dear old Dad ran for their heap and peeled. Delpha Wade had not let nature take its course. She finished off Junior in the oyster-shell parking lot.
The Gatesville certificate was being fit into a faded black leather clutch, years out of date. She gathered her feet under her. But didn’t stand up. Those eyes got to him. No hope, no despair. Just a storm cloud back on the blue horizon.
The outer door tapped. A hesitant tap, like a mouse was out there. “’Scuse me,” Phelan said and stood. His chair flopped its wooden seat upward like its next occupant would arrive in it via the ceiling. He wrenched it up; the seat surrendered again. “Gotta fix that,” he muttered.
When he looked up, he saw Delpha Wade’s straight back, walking out. Funny, he’d had the impression she wouldn’t fold so easy.
“Forgot your purse, Miss Wade.”
“No, I didn’t.” She shut the door between their offices-or rather, the door between his office and whoever got the secretary job’s office-soundlessly. He heard, “Good morning, ma’am. Do you have an appointment to see Mr. Phelan?” Her dry voice was smooth as a Yale lock.
Phelan smiled. I’ll be damned. He tipped the chair’s seat into loading position and sat in it, like the boss should.
“May I ask what your visit is in reference to?”
More mumbling, a lot of it. Then-Phelan hated this sound-sobbing. Not that he hadn’t prepared for it. He’d bought a box of Kleenex at the dime store for the brokenhearted wives. Stashed it in the desk’s bottom drawer next to the husbands’ fifth of Kentucky. Had his.38 license in his wallet, P.I. license on the wall, newly minted business cards on the desk. An ex-con impersonating a secretary.
Delpha Wade entered, closing the door behind her. “Can you see a client now, Mr. Phelan?”
“Bring her on.” He was rooting for a cheated-on society matron in crocodile pumps, her very own checkbook snapped inside a croc bag.
“You can go in now, Mrs. Toups.”
A bone-thin woman in yesterday’s makeup and rumpled shirtwaist took the doorway. Leatherette purse in her fists, little gold nameplate like a cashier’s pinned over her left breast. The two slashes between her eyebrows tightened. “You’re kinda young. I was looking for-”
“An old retired cop?” Delpha Wade said. On cop her neutral voice bunched. “Mr. Phelan has a fresh point of view.”
What Mr. Phelan had was a fresh legal pad. He wielded a ballpoint over it. “Please, sit down, Mrs. Toups. Tell me what I can do for you.”
Delpha Wade scooped an elbow, tucked her into the client chair, at the same time saying, “Can I get you some coffee? Cream and sugar?”
Phelan furrowed his own brow, trying to grow some wrinkles. Coffee, he thought. What coffee?
“Take a Coke, if you got one.”
The inner door closed behind Delpha Wade, and he heard the outer door shut too. His first client stammered into her story; Phelan’s ballpoint despoiled the virginal legal pad. The Kleenex stayed in their drawer. Caroleen Toups had her own hankie.
By the time his nonsecretary returned with a dewy bottle of Coke, Phelan had the story. The Toups’s lived over on the north side, not far off Concord, nothing that could be called a neighborhood, more like one of a string of old wooden houses individually hacked out of the woods. Her boy Richard was into something and she didn’t like it. He’d been skipping school. Running around all hours. Then last night Richard had not come home.
Gently, Phelan asked, “Report that to the police?”
“Seven o’clock this morning. They said boys run off all the time. Said been a bunch of boys running off lately. Four or five. Like it’s a club.”
Phelan silently agreed, having once woken up with two or three friends on a New Orleans sidewalk, littered, lacquered, and convinced somebody’d driven rebar through his forehead. “What does your husband think?”
“He passed last fall. Took a virus in his heart.” Her reddened eyes offered to share that grief with him, but Phelan bowed his head and went on.
“Does Richard have a favorite item of clothing?”
“Some silly shoes that make him taller. And a Johnny Winter T-shirt he bought at a concert over in Port Arthur.”
“Would you know if those are gone from his room?”
“I would… Mr. Phelan.” Having managed to bestow on T. Phelan’s callow mug that title of respect, Mrs. Toups looked at him hopefully. “They’re not.”
“Have a piggy bank?”
She snapped the purse open and took out a roll, Andrew Jackson on top. “Till about midnight,” she said, “I read the Enterprise. That’s where I saw your ad. After midnight I searched my son’s room with a fine-tooth comb. This was in a cigar box under his bed. Along with some baseball cards and twisty cigarettes. There’s $410 here. Ricky’s in tenth grade, Mr. Phelan. He don’t have a job.”
The phone rang in the outer office, followed by the light click of the reconditioned Selectric. “You wouldn’t a brought a picture of him?”
Mrs. Toups dug into the leatherette, handed over a school photo. Fair and baby-faced, long-haired like a lot of kids these days. Grinning like he was saddled on a Christmas pony. Ricky Toups when he still had a daddy.
The mother’s tired eyes held a rising rim of water. “Why I wanted you to look old and tough-you find Ricky, scare him good. I cain’t take any more a this.”
Phelan was jolted by a gut feeling, a pact connecting him to that haggard mother. He hadn’t expected it. “Okay,” he said quickly. While Mrs. Toups sipped her Coke, he scrawled her address and phone number, then jotted an inventory of Ricky’s friends. Make that friend, a neighbor girl, Georgia Watson. School? French High, Phelan’s own alma mater, an orange-brick sprawl with a patchy football field. The legal pad was broken in now.
He wrote her name on a standard contract and slid it toward her. He’d practiced the next part so he could spit it out without blinking. “Fee is seventy-five a day. Plus expenses.”
Nobody was blinking here. Mrs. Toups peeled off five Jacksons. “Could you start now?”
“First day’s crucial on a missing-child case,” Phelan said, like he knew. “You’re at the top of the schedule.”
He guided Mrs. Toups through the outer office to the door. To his right, Delpha Wade sat behind the secretary’s desk, receiver tucked into her neck, typing. Typing what? And where had she got the paper?
“A Mrs. Lloyd Elliott would like to speak with you about a confidential matter. Says her husband’s an attorney.” Delpha Wade’s dry voice was hushed, and she rubbed her thumb and fingers together in the universal sign for money.
She got that right. According to the Enterprise, Lloyd Elliott had just won some court case that paid him 30 percent of yippee-I-never-have-to-work-again.
Mrs. Toups stuck her reddened face back in the door, a last plea on it. But at the sight of Phelan taking the phone, she ducked her head and left.
“Tom Phelan,” he said. Crisply, without one um or you know, the woman on the phone told him she wanted her husband followed, where to, and why. She’d bring by a retainer. Cash.
“That’ll work. Get back to you soon. Please leave any relevant details with my… with Miss Wade. You can trust her.”
And don’t I hope that’s true, he thought, clattering down the stairs.
The band was playing when Phelan pulled up to French High School. God, did he remember this parking lot: clubhouse, theater, and smoking lounge. He lit up for nostalgia’s sake.
A little shitkicker perched on the trunk of a Mustang pushed back his Resistol. He had his boots on the bumper, one knee jackhammering hard enough to shiver the car. Phelan offered him a smoke.
Haughtily, the kid produced some Bull and rolled his own. “Take a light.”
Phelan obliged. “You know Georgia Watson?”
“Out there. Georgia’s in Belles.” The boy lofted his chin toward the field that joined the parking lot.
“What about Ricky Toups?”
The kid tugged down the hat, blew out smoke. “Kinda old to be into weed, ain’t ya?”
“That why people come looking for Ricky?”
Marlboro-Man-in-training doused the homemade, stashed it behind his ear. Slid off the trunk and booked.
Phelan turned toward the field, where the band played a lazy version of “Grazing in the Grass.” The Buffalo Belles were high-kicking, locked shoulder to shoulder. Line of smiling faces, white, black, and café au lait, bouncing hair and breasts, 120 teenage legs, kicked up high. Fondly remembering a pair of those white boots hooked over his shoulders postgame, he strolled toward the rousing sight.
After their routine, the girls milled sideline while the band marched patterns. Phelan asked for Georgia and found her, said he wanted to talk.
This is who Ricky Toups thought hung the moon? Georgia Watson had an overloaded bra, all right, and cutoffs so short the hems of white pockets poked out like underwear. But she was a dish-faced girl with frizzled hair and cagey brown eyes. Braided gold chain tucked into the neck of a white T-shirt washed thin.
She steered him away from the knots of babbling girls. Her smile threw a murky light into the brown eyes. Black smudges beneath them from her gobbed eyelashes.
He introduced himself with a business card. “Ricky Toups’s mother asked me to check up on him. He got any new friends you know about?”
She jettisoned the smile, shrugged.
“C’mon, Georgia. Ricky thinks you’re his friend.”
She made a production of whispering, “Ricky was helping this guy with something, but I think that’s all over.”
“Something,” she hissed. She angled toward some girls staring frankly at them and fluttered her fingers in a wave. Nobody waved back.
“This guy. Why’s Ricky not helping him anymore?”
Georgia shook her head, looking over Phelan’s shoulder like she was refusing somebody who wasn’t there. “Fun at first, then he turned scary. Ricky’s gonna quit hanging out with him, even though that means-” Her trap shut.
“Giving up the green,” Phelan finished. His little finger flicked out the braided chain around the girl’s neck. Fancy G in twenty-four carat. “How long y’all had this scary friend?”
The head shaking continued, like a tic now.
Phelan violated her personal space. “Name. And where the guy lives.”
The girl backed up. “I don’t know, some D name, Don or Darrell or something. Gotta go now.”
Phelan caught her arm. “Ricky didn’t come home last night.”
White showed around the brown eyes. She spit out a sentence, included her phone number when pressed, then jerked her arm away and ran back to the other girls on the sideline. They practiced dance steps in bunches, laughed, horsed around. Georgia stood apart biting her bottom lip, the little white square of his business card pinched in her fingers.
11:22. He drove back to the office, took the stairs two at a time. Delpha handed him Mrs. Lloyd Elliott’s details neatly typed on the back of a sheet of paper. Phelan read it and whistled. “Soon’s she brings that retainer, Lloyd better dig himself a foxhole.”
He flipped the sheet over. Delpha Wade’s discharge from Gatesville: April 7, 1973. Five foot six, 120 pounds. Hair brown, eyes blue. Thirty-four. Voluntary manslaughter.
“Only paper around,” she said.
Phelan laid a ten on the desk. “Get some. Then see what’s up in the Toups’s neighborhood, say, the last three months. Thought this was a kid pushing weed for pocket money, but could be dirtier water.” He told her what Georgia Watson had given him: the D name, Don or Darrell, and that Ricky brought other boys over to the guy’s house to party. “I’m guessing Georgia might’ve pitched in with that.”
Delpha met his eyes for a second. Then, without comment, she flipped through the phone book while he went to his office, got the.38 out of a drawer, and loaded it. Glanced out the window. New Rosemont’s ancient proprietress, the one the fan had gonged, rag in hand, smearing dirty circles on a window.
When he came out, Delpha had the phone book open to the city map section. “Got a cross directory?” she asked.
Phelan went back and got it from his office. “Run through the-”
“Newspaper’s police blotter.”
“Right. Down at the-”
“Library,” she said. She left, both books hugged to her chest.
Just another girl off to school.
The parole office nudged up to the courthouse. His buddy Joe Ford was in, but busy. Phelan helped himself to a couple donuts from an open box. Early lunch. Joe read from a manila file to two guys Phelan knew. One took notes on a little spiral pad. Phelan, toting the long legal pad, realized he should have one of those. Neater, slipped in a jacket pocket. More professional. Joe closed the folder and kept on talking. One guy gave a low whistle; the other laughed.
Joe stood up, did a double take. “Hey, speak of the devil. Tommy, come on down.”
Phelan shook hands with Fred Abels, detective. Stuck his hand out to the other, but the man bear-hugged him. “Hey, Uncle Louie,” Phelan said. Louie Reaud, a jowly olive-skinned man with silvered temples, married to Phelan’s aunt. Louie boomed, “Bougre, t’es fou ouais toi! T’as engage un prisonnier.” Which meant Phelan was crazy for hiring himself a convict.
Who said he’d hired anybody?
Abels, sporting a Burt Reynolds ’stache and burns, only not sexy, studied Phelan like he was a mud tire track lifted from a scene.
Phelan zeroed in on Joe, who raised his eyebrows, pulled down his lips, shook his head to indicate the purity permeating his soul.
“Okay.” Phelan set hands on his hips and broadened his stance. “All right. So my friend here appeals to my famous heart of gold. So I interview his girl. So she stuck some baddoer. So what.”
“Minced that one, yeah. I worked that case.” Louie wagged a finger. “I’m gonna tell you, cher, lock up the letter opener.” He punched his nephew’s arm, nodded at Joe, and he and Abels ambled off, chortling.
“Loudmouth bastard,” Phelan said to Joe. “Give me the dopers and perverts north side of town.” Commandeering Joe’s chair, Phelan reeled off some street names.
“Could have my secretary call you.”
“Hand full a ‘Gimme’ and a mouth full a ‘Much obliged’-that’s you.” Joe squinted, put-upon. “Not my territory, but old Parker lives in the can.” Joe stalked over to his coworker Parker’s vacant desk, the one next to his, and rambled through its file drawers.
Phelan phoned Tyrrell Public Library. Formerly a church-thus the arches and stained glass-it was a downtown standout, a sand castle dripped from medieval gray stone. He asked the librarian to get a Miss Wade, who’d be in the reference section, going through newspapers.
“This is not the bus station, sir. We don’t page people.”
Seems like, Phelan thought while locating his desperately-polite-but-hurting voice, one bad crab always jumps in the gumbo.
“I’m just as sorry as I can be, ma’am. But couldn’t you find my sister? We’re down at the funeral home, and our daddy’s lost his mind.”
Clunk. Receiver on desk. Joe was still pulling files.
Footsteps, then Delpha came on. “Hey, Bubba,” she said.
She told him she’d call him back from a pay phone. “Call Joe’s,” he said.
In three minutes Joe’s phone rang, and Delpha read out what she had so far. “Check this one from last night.” A Marvin Carter, eighteen, wandering down Delaware Street, apparent assault victim, transported to a hospital. Then, outside of husband-wife slugfests, thefts, one complaint of tap-dancing on the roof of a Dodge Duster, she’d found seven dope busts and two missing-boy reports. She gave him names and addresses, phone numbers from the cross directory.
Joe dumped files on his desk, said, “Vacate my chair, son.” Phelan ignored him, boring in on each mug shot as he scribbled names on his unprofessional legal pad.
One of the names was a Don Henry. Liberated from Huntsville two months back.
Some D name, Don or Darrell.
There you go. Cake.
No mud, no grease, no 500-pound pipe, no lost body parts. Man, he should have split the rigs while he still had ten fingers.
2:01. He drove back to the office and hit the phone. Got a child at the Henry number, asked for its mother.
“She went the store. Git away, Dwight, I’m on the phone.” A wail from the background.
“Honey, your daddy there?”
The child scolded Dwight. Dwight was supposed to shut up while the child had dibs on the telephone. But little Dwight wasn’t lying down; he was pitching a fit.
“Honey? Hey, kid!” Phelan hollered into the phone.
“Shut up, Dwight! I cain’t hear myself talk. They took Daddy back Satiddy.”
“Saturday? Back where, honey?”
“Where he was. Is this Uncle Merle?” The child yelped. Now two wails mingled on the other end of the line.
A woman’s harsh voice barked into the phone, “Lowdown, Merle, pumping the kids. They pulled Don’s paper, okay? You happy now? Gonna say ‘I told you so’? You and Ma can kiss my ass.” The phone crashed down.
Saturday was six days ago. Frowning, Phelan X’d Don Henry. Next, mindful of the gray-haired volunteers in pink smocks on the end of the line, he called Baptist Hospital and inquired feelingly for his cousin Marvin Carter. Strike one. Next was Saint Elizabeth, long wait, transfer, and strike two. Finally Hotel Dieu and a single to first.
He parked in a doctor’s space in front of the redbrick hospital by the port. Eau de Pinesol and polished tile. A nun gave him the room number.
The face on the pillow was white-whiskered, toothless, and snoring. A pyramid of a woman in a red-flowered muumuu sat bedside. Phelan checked the room number. “Marvin Carter?”
The woman sighed. “My husband’s name is Mar-tin. Cain’t y’all get nothing right?”
Phelan loped back to the desk and stood in line behind a sturdy black woman and a teenage boy with a transistor radio broadcasting the day’s body count in a jungle on the other side of the globe. The boy’s face was lopsided, the wide bottom out of kilter with a narrow forehead. He nudged the dial and a song blared out. “Kung Fu Fighting.” The woman slapped shut a checkbook, snatched the transistor, and dialed back to the tinny announcer spewing numbers and Asian place names.
“Jus’ keep listenin’. ’Cause you keep runnin’ nights, thas where you gonna be, in that war don’t never end, you hear me, Marvin? What you lookin at?” She scowled at Phelan.
The boy turned so that Phelan verified the lopsidedness as swelling. He ventured, “Marvin Carter?”
The woman’s eyes slitted as she asked who he was. Phelan told her, emphasizing that he was not a policeman. He told her that he was looking for Ricky Toups, kept his eyes on the boy.
The boy flinched. Bingo.
“Les’ go.” The woman pushed the teenager toward the glass doors.
Phelan dogged them. “Did that to you, Marvin, what’s he gonna do to Ricky, huh? Want that on your slate? Could be a lot worse than the dope.”
The boy tried the deadeye on Phelan. Couldn’t hold it.
“We talking dope now?” The woman’s voice dropped below freezing. “You done lied to me, Marvin Carter.” Her slapping hand stopped short of the swollen jaw.
Marvin grunted something that was probably “Don’t, Mama,” enough so Phelan understood his jaw was wired.
“Ricky got you there promising dope,” Phelan said, “but that wasn’t all you got, was it?”
The boy squeezed his eyes shut.
“Wasn’t white kids did this to you? Was some grown man?” Marvin’s mother took hold of his skinny waist.
“Listen,” Phelan leaned in, “if he said he’d hurt your mama here, I’ll take care of that. It’s just a line. But Ricky’s real. You know him, and he’s wherever you were last night. Help me find him, Marvin.”
“Avy,” the boy said.
“Avie? The street near the LNVA canal?”
Shake from Marvin said no. And he mumbled again, “Avy.”
“Davy? That’s his name?”
A shudder ran through the teenager.
Phelan scanned his list of parolees. Didn’t have to be one of them, but he had a feeling. “Dave Deeterman? Concord Street?”
Shake from Marvin said yes. “Kakerd.” Marvin muttered directions, minus lots of consonants. The mother glared Phelan away, and Marvin bent down and shook against her neck.
Phelan dashed back to the hospital’s two pay phones, called Delpha, told her where he was heading, and if she didn’t hear from him within the hour, to call Louis Reaud down at the station. “That’s R-E-”
“Know how to spell it,” she said. “Guess your second client brought over your retainer. Somebody left a wrapped-up box at the door.”
“Hot damn. Why didn’t she hand it to you?”
“Don’t know. Just heard her on the stairs. Want me to unwrap the box?”
“No time. ’Less it’s ticking, just hold on to it.”
“Got time for one question, Mr. Phelan?”
Throat clearing. “You think you might hire me?”
“Miss Wade, you were hired when you called me Bubba.” He hung up the silent phone and jogged for the doors.
3:15. The house with the orange mailbox, painfully described by Marvin, was a dingy white ranch. It was set deep in the lot, backed up to tall pines and oak and magnolia, pockets of brush. Rusty-brown pine needles and dried magnolia leaves, big brown tongues, littered the ground. With oil shot up to twelve dollars a barrel, somebody’d be out here soon, hammering up pasteboard apartments, but for now wildlife was renting this leftover patch of the Big Thicket.
No car, but ruts in the grass where one had parked.
Phelan knocked on the door. Waited. Tried the knob, no dice. He went around the back to a screen porch that looked to be an add-on. Or it had been a screen porch before plywood was nailed over its large windows. A two-by-four had been pounded across the door; the hammer lying there in the dirt suggested that Dave Deeterman might be recently away from his desk. Maybe. Phelan could hear something. He beat on the door. “Ricky. Ricky Toups, you in there?”
He put his ear to the door. Something. Phelan pounded again, louder. “I’m looking for Ricky Toups.”
A low creaking. Rhythmic. What was that sound? Like a rocking chair with serious rust.
He jogged back to his car, shoved a flashlight into his pocket, and snagged a pry bar. Ripped off the two-by-four. Opened the door. Directly across the porch was the door that led into the house. Phelan stepped over there,.38 drawn, and rattled it: locked. Already he was smelling piss in the hot, dead air. Then herb and cigarettes and some kind of dead-fish bayou stink. That creaky noise came from the far left, high up. He found a switch by the locked door and flipped it. Not a gleam.
He’d got the creaks figured now, and he shined the white circle up and left, to their source.
Phelan’s jaw sagged. On the top of metal shelves was a naked gargoyle, perched there. No, clinging. Haunches with a smooth, sheened back folded over them, fingers clawed around the metal, head cut sharply toward Phelan. Blinking eyes protruded from sunken holes; the downturned mouth wheezed.
An indrawn, “Yeah.”
“Deeterman coming back?”
Ricky Toups’s head bobbed loosely, flapping sweat-dark hair that had been dishwater-blond in last year’s school photo.
“How long’s he been gone?”
“Hour or-” The kid flung out a hand, pointing.
Phelan zigzagged the light downward over matted orange shag littered with marijuana debris, the arm of a bamboo couch, beer cans. He pivoted. The shaft of light from the door revealed the round edge of a black pile that blended into the darkness. What? Shit? Most of him failed to make sense of what he saw. But not his skin-it was crawling off his belly, his nuts squeezing north of nutsack.
The pile of shit shifted until only a tip remained. Then the tip disappeared into blackness.
That it was heading toward him told Phelan enough. Most snakes light out for the hills; cottonmouths come at you.
Phelan strode to the shelves and hauled Ricky down, shined the light till it hit the bamboo couch, and dumped the boy on it. “Keep your feet off the floor.”
He scanned with the flashlight. Where the fuck was it?
Shag. Spilt ashtray. More shag.
Then the beam caught a section of sinuous black. He moved the light. There it was. Pouring toward him, triangular head outthrust.
The black snake convulsed but kept coming, tongue darting.
He fired again. Still the black form writhed in the orange grass. He blew its head off with the third round.
Phelan stepped wide of the quivering snake; wasn’t dead enough yet to keep the head from biting. Ears ringing, he tossed the flashlight, looped the boy’s arm around his neck, dragged him out of that room.
He saw the blue thumb-sized bruises on the boy’s shoulders, a streak of blood on the back of his thigh, as he draped him in his own jacket and a blanket from his trunk. “It’s the hospital, Ricky, ’less you got a full inhaler at home.”
“Home,” the kid panted, then turned the black tunnel of his eyes onto Phelan. “Book.”
But the kid folded, struggling for air.
Phelan laid on the horn when they gunned into the Toups’s driveway. In two seconds, Caroleen Toups busted out of the house, face lit up like stadium lights.
Phelan smoked in the Toups’s pine-paneled living room that opened onto a pine-paneled kitchen. Except for the mention of a book, he had hold of the thing: Deeterman slipped Ricky cash and dope, Ricky steered him boys. Too stupid to know the son of a bitch would turn on him. How many ran in a loop through Phelan’s brain. How many you bring him, Ricky?
After a while, wearing jeans and breathing, Ricky Toups stumbled out into the living room, trailed by his bewildered mother, her hands clasped at chest level. “There’s a book,” he said. “Told him I didn’t have it. He didn’t care, said he’d be back for me.”
“What kinda book?”
“Like a diary. You gotta help Georgia.” He hit his inhaler, and his jaw jittered sideways like his head was trying to screw off.
“She’s got the book. Her idea to take it?”
Ricky’s bluish chapped lips parted, like he was going to deny this point, but that was back when he had all the answers, before today. “She said we could get big money from him. That’s where he went. To her house.”
Phelan leapt up. “Call her.”
Ricky mumbled into a phone on the kitchen wall then hung his head listening. The receiver fell to his side. “It’s okay. He came to her house but she’d already took it to your office.”
Phelan’s stomach lurched.
Ricky slid down the wall, hunkered. Georgia’d told Deeterman he could go get the book where she’d left it, wrapped up outside this private eye’s office. The guy wouldn’t be there; he was out looking for Ricky. She’d talked fast, peeking through a latched screen door with Phelan’s card taped to the outside of it.
4:55. Phelan burned up I-10’s fast lane, swerving around truckers balling for New Orleans, cursing himself for wasting three rounds on a cottonmouth he could have outrun.
He took the stairs soft. Worked the doorknob soundlessly, hoping Deeterman was somewhere ahead of the truckers on I-10, not sitting in Delpha’s chair watching the knob turn. Phelan eased into the still office,.38 out.
Delpha Wade’s chair snugged to her desk. On top of it, the sheet with info on Client #2, typed on her release form. The door to his office stood ajar. Pressed against the jamb, Phelan pushed, swinging it open.
He stepped into a curtain of bourbon fume and quiet in the air, waves of it, wave on wave, quiet.
Until glass crunched under his shoe.
The client chair drifted around. Delpha said, “I put it away in your bottom drawer. Under the whiskey bottle.”
Phelan slid the gun on his desk next to a wad of brown paper, sank down to her.
Her right hand hung behind the chair arm but her left lay on a small, worn ledger in the middle of a shiny darkness on her skirt. Different-sized spots stained her white blouse, spray and spatter, one red channel.
“’Fore I could get that box for him, he pushed me out of the way and grabbed it. He coulda left. I thought he would. But he had to do one of those things they do. Those extras.” Her head lowered, shook once. “They just cain’t resist.”
He’d seen the legs on the floor by now, the rest of the body blocked from view by the big metal desk, and he needed to get Louie here, get an ambulance first, but he couldn’t pick up the phone, couldn’t get that motion going because he was listening to her, hearing it in the waves of quiet that rolled over him, quiet riding on waves of quiet, waves widening out from a center-the bayou, singing with insects and frogs, the surge-and-retreat, keening whir of it, the stir in muddy water, and her voice low as that chorus, he heard how she was still holding the bottle when the man licked the knife and cut her, and after he licked it again, she broke the bottle on the edge of the desk and shoved it up through his throat. Then she took the book and she sat down.
“You gonna find some boys.”
“Delpha,” Phelan whispered. The half of her face he could see wore a sheen of sweat. He laced his fingers through the brown hair, soothed it back.
Not a cloud in the gray-blue eyes that met his. The horizon inside them was clear.
CATGIRL by CLAUDIA SMITH
The girls are waiting for the ferry, dangling their legs out the side of the van, popsicle juice dripping down their chins. Four girls: Trina, Tricia, Grace, and Allie. Tricia and Trina, the blond twins. Grace Hobel, the quiet one, their best friend. And Allie, kicking Grace in the shins gleefully. She wants the twins for her very own. They are beautiful, those two, and Allie wants to enter their twin world, to learn their twinspeak, to braid their matching white-blond hair. The twins’ mother is from Sweden. Allie loves her icewater eyes, her high cheekbones. She wears sunglasses and drinks throughout the day, but in a way that makes her seem slightly mussed, and not soused. Allie wants those twins for sleepovers. They smell like Ivory soap, those two. Even on the beach, after days of swimming in the ocean, they smell sweetly of summer. Not Grace. Grace is getting breasts and has already started her period. She has a body odor problem.
So these girls, setting off on their weekend with a mother the other mothers like because she is pretty and rich, know they will run on the beach, build sand castles, and stand around a bonfire with boys. They lick sticky fingers and sing a song about a smashed bumblebee.
At first, they don’t notice the man who is behind them, watching, although if they did it would give them a kick; they like it when people watch them, especially together.
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back.
She cannot read, read, read
She cannot write, write, write
But she can smoke, smoke, smoke
Her father’s pipe, pipe, pipe.
Then Grace sees the man and covers her mouth. She jabs Tricia’s ribs.
“He likes your creamy thighs,” Allie says, just to see if Grace will hide behind her fingers. She does.
“He looks like Kenny Rogers,” Trina says, and he does.
“Maybe he is Kenny Rogers,” Allie says. It’s possible. His snow-white beard is very well groomed. His nose is red and a little bulbous.
They sing “The Gambler” and point and laugh. He squints his eyes. They slam the door. The ferry has arrived.
Melanie, the twins’ mother, puts out her cigarette. They are listening to Neil Diamond. Even Neil Diamond has a kind of soulful glamour when Melanie Parks listens to him.
This all happened years ago, in the summer of 1982.
The girls stand on the ferry, throwing day-old bread at the seagulls. Grace stands at the prow, looking down, waiting to be splashed. She turns green yet will not back away. She is prone to seasickness. But she never backs out of a dare. The girls have to admire her for that.
They feed the gulls, then run to the back of the boat when the birds dive down. Grace tells a story about mean boys who throw Pop Rocks at the gulls.
“That is just so sad,” the twins say.
“Did you think of that together?” Allie asks.
“What?” they say together.
“When you talk together like that. Like you have the same thoughts. It’s cool,” Allie says.
“We are nothing alike,” Tricia says.
Grace smiles, a close-lipped smile. Allie wonders if she does that because of her overbite. It’s a cute overbite. Allie likes her again. She has velvety hair and she is good at anything school-related, as long as it doesn’t involve athletics. Grace and Allie are the A students; the twins, they are B-plus with an occasional A.
“I’m going inside,” Tricia says, and this disappoints Allie. She likes it out on the boat. She sniffs the air; it smells briney, with a hint of dirty bathroom. She would like to stay to see if any dolphins follow the ferry, but she won’t be separated from her twins. Once inside, they play Go Fish until the boat docks.
The house is on Crystal Beach. The twins have spent their summers here since they were tots, running up and down the stairs in matching T-shirts. There are only a few rules at the beach: take off your flip-flops on the balcony before you go inside, so that you don’t track sand in everywhere; and be sure to check in before sundown with Melanie.
Inside, the house is all one big room, with a little harvestgold kitchenette and a claw-footed bathtub behind the sink. The house is furnished with rattan and wicker, and there are four big beds. But the girls will sleep out on the balcony on cots, facing the sea.
Maybe on Saturday Melanie will take them back on the ferry to Galveston, where they can eat shrimp in little glass bowls with red cocktail sauce and bottomless glasses of Coke. Melanie is prone to sudden bursts of happiness, and the girls love her for it. Sometimes on these trips she takes them all to get their toenails painted. Or she’ll take them to Murdoch’s to buy matching sunglasses and netted bags of shells.
At Crystal Beach they can run as far as they want. At night the girls will find older boys. One boy, Murph, drives a Jeep and they all pile in and scream and he speeds through the water, splashing. “Ah, naw,” he says, when Tricia kisses the back of his neck. “He tasted like man-sweat,” she whispers to them later. They sing him songs. Say Say my playmate, come out and play with me. And then the rhymes get dirtier. But it’s Grace that whispers the spookiest:
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
She has a knife, knife, knife
Stuck in her back, back, back.
She cannot breathe, breathe, breathe
She cannot cry, cry, cry…
There’s a teenager at the beach when they get there. Her name is Sylvia, and she is some distant relation to the twins and Melanie. She and Melanie make daiquiris and sleep on the balcony, slathered in coconut oil. The girls agree that Sylvia is not nearly so beautiful as Melanie, although she is sixteen, the age of beauty. The girls-it was Tricia or Trina who came to this conclusion, Allie can’t remember which-all agree. Sixteen is the age; the age that it is appropriate to lose your virginity, to have a boyfriend, to wear a miniskirt.
More interesting than the teenager, there is a girl across the dunes. This girl introduces herself on the second day. Her name is Brandy. Her voice is rich and throaty, like a smoker’s.
“It’s sort of beautiful,” Grace says.
“But too old for her body,” Allie declares.
She is a pleasant combination of warm golden hues, honey skin and hair, light amber eyes, jeans cut off before her buttocks end. She lives there. She’s a townie. Her house is lit up at night, every night, all night. One of the windows is busted.
“Is that her room? How does she sleep at night?” But once Allie thinks about it, she decides she would like to sleep in a room with the ocean right outside, every night, whistling into the hole in her windowpane.
“It’s a bullet hole,” Grace says.
“Oh, don’t be stupid,” Allie tells her. “Whoever lives there, her single mom or whatever, can’t afford to fix it. That’s all.”
Tricia glances over at Grace, casting her pale lashes down. She agrees, she agrees with Allie. Grace can be such a child.
Allie’s mom is a single mom. She can afford to fix broken windows, but she can’t afford add-a-bead necklaces or adoptive Cabbage Patch dolls. Allie’s mother often reminds her that there are children who don’t have enough money for band instruments or three square meals. There are children who run wild and don’t know their times tables because there is nobody looking out for them, aiming for a better quality of life. Allie isn’t sure what she means by better quality of life. When Allie visits the twins, Melanie isn’t around much. She imagines it would be very lonely to live that way without a twin. The twins have each other though. And there is little doubt, when she watches them in their matching bunny-fur coats and freshly curled wings, singing the winter holiday program or twirling their batons in unison at the football game, that those two have achieved a finer quality of life. Last winter, when the other girls in the program snuck makeup on in the bathroom, Trina and Tricia wore nothing more than Vaseline on their brow bones and bow-shaped lips. When they throw the batons up high, they spin in unison, and there is never any question that they will catch the batons at the exact same moment. Every time they spin down. Every time.
Many years later, one of the girls will be a woman.
She comes here with her husband and her daughter, they take the ferry out to Crystal Beach.
There isn’t any parking, and the husband says, “Goddamnit, why didn’t you tell me?” when the state trooper tickets them for expired registration.
“Forgot about that,” Tricia says. When their child falls asleep in the back, she reaches over. This trip is about him, how he says he feels no love for her anymore. She climbs over the seat, in the daylight, thinking, This will do it, this has to do it. Her long pale hair in his face, her mother’s blue eyes, the lashes darkened now. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” she says, and when his arm fumbles and he pushes her off, she’ll think, Fuck it. You fucker.
He doesn’t push her off, he is soft there, holding his head back from her face.
“There are worse things in life than a job you don’t like and a wife who leaves you cold,” she says. “You could have a knife in your back.”
“I don’t want to talk about that. You aren’t thinking about it anyway,” he says.
And he is right, until she seats herself again and looks back at her daughter.
“Don’t make yourself cry for my benefit,” he says.
“Man, it’s really changed,” she says aloud on the drive back. She’d imagined walking along the beach, their girl on his shoulders, her hand inside his. She would point to the dunes, And there it is, that’s it, that’s where… and he would put his hand on the small of her back, guiding her away. Or no, he would rest it on the nape of her neck, cradling.
There is a coffee shop with free wi-fi, and they pass gift shops, even a couple of hotels. “It wasn’t like this back then. It was just houses and a corner store. We used to go crabbing, did I tell you that? Mom would cook them for us, if we cleaned them and pulled them apart. We did it when they were alive. It didn’t bother us. Grace said they had no nerves. One time, I was about to gut one of them and it started eating its brains out. Autocannibalism, Allie said. She was the smart one. We thought it was funny. And we ate mussels too. Trina and I, we brought the traps in every morning, We woke up at the same time. Trina said the same sound woke us, but I don’t remember. I don’t know. Maybe I never heard the sound.”
He is smoking, window down. She would like to think that he is afraid of his own love for her, but the way he’s looking at the windshield, she’s thinking maybe not. They’ve been married for eleven years. When she met him, he was a skinny studio art major at a state college. Now he’s grown more handsome. And glib.
In the backseat, her baby girl gurgles. Two years old, fingers in her mouth. Her hair is black like her daddy’s, cut straight across her cheeks. Her eyes are blue like her mother’s, like her grandmother’s, like Trina’s.
The girls sleep out on the balcony, listening to Judy Collins tapes. She sounds so otherworldly. There is a song with whales calling, and a song about eyes like isinglass windows. The girls don’t know what isinglass is, but it sounds like something from old ships or lighthouses. Then Allie puts in Stevie Nicks. Sylvia and Melanie are dancing in the field. They wear black bathing suits and sarongs. Melanie unties her sarong, letting it float up, up, and away. It’s a warm and breezy night. Across the way, at that girl’s house, men whoop and holler.
“I want to call my mom,” Grace says. “Your mom drinks too much.”
“Oh, go inside and call her then,” Trina says. Allie and Tricia smile.
Grace falls asleep with her glasses on, her arm thrown over her face.
Allie, Tricia, and Trina watch as Melanie and Sylvia walk off past the dunes.
“She’ll find a bonfire,” Trina says.
“Will she come back?” Allie says, then thinks about how that sounds.
“She always does,” the twins say.
Allie whispers, making her voice low, husky. Like the girl’s. “I don’t think she’s a girl,” Allie says. “She’s a spook. She’s a ghost. She’s a demon inside a girl’s body.”
And then she hisses:
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
With silver buttons, buttons, buttons
All down her back, back, back.
She cannot read, read, read
She cannot write, write, write
But she can smoke, smoke, smoke
Her father’s pipe, pipe, pipe.
She asked her mother, mother, mother
For fifty cents, cents, cents
To see the elephants, elephants, elephants
Jump over the fence, fence, fence.
They jumped so high, high, high
They reached the sky, sky, sky
And they didn’t come back, back, back
Till the Fourth of July, ly, ly!
July can’t walk, walk, walk
July can’t talk, talk, talk
July can’t eat, eat, eat
With a knife and fork, fork, fork!
She went upstairs, stairs, stairs
To say her prayers, prayers, prayers
And bumped her head, head, head
And now she’s dead, dead, dead!
In the mornings the twins carry in the crab traps. They wake up at the same moment, and leave Grace and Allie asleep on the balcony. They walk in their pajamas, and wear flip-flops to protect their calloused feet from the sticker burrs.
July Fourth, firecrackers and watermelon. Melanie sips a mint julep from a tall blue glass. The girls sip from the bottom of the tumblers. Their father is there, for this celebration, an arm thrown over his wife’s shoulders. They are surprisingly broad for such a petite woman. Allie approves of the exposed freckles, the blood-red stone dipping in between her breasts. The only makeup she wears is dark lipstick, and her toenails match. Her skin is dead-girl white. Tricia and Trina are wearing batiked sarongs like their mother’s. Allie would have said, On the beach a woman should be golden, but Melanie’s skin is right, it’s unexpected. Her husband has the kind of muted, rumpled handsomeness that complements a great beauty. Everyone wants to touch her, just for a moment. Tricia and Trina watch her from a distance, that woman they might become. She is drunk, but not slurry drunk. Women lean in toward her; men brush her arm as they walk by. The girls run up to her with plates of oysters and shrimp, offerings. She rests her hand on Allie’s shoulder for a moment and says, “This is my girl. These are all my girls.”
The girls stay downstairs in the junk room, sipping lukewarm Lone Stars. That’s when they see the neighbor girl across the field, dancing with a sparkler. She moves in waves, making ribbons with the sparks. Allie is the one who stands up and calls to her.
“Brandy, Brandy! Come here. We have beer!”
Brandy motions for them to come to her, waving that sparkler around and around.
The way Melanie taught them in the car, it goes like this:
Miss Mary Mack, Mack, Mack
All dressed in black, black, black
She has a knife, knife, knife
Stuck in her back, back, back.
She cannot breathe, breathe, breathe
She cannot cry, cry, cry
That’s why she begs, begs, begs
She begs to die, die, die.
They are clapping, laughing. Tricia loves the way her mother takes to the freeways, speeding, passing, changing lanes with ease. She never curses at the other drivers, and she talks her way out of tickets. One trip, she’d blinked her eyes and said, “My little girl is sick.” Trina leaned over the seat and shivered. That officer wanted to give them a police escort to the hospital. Later, they’d laughed, and Melanie bought them all-what were they called back then? Blizzards?-at the DQ. She’d dared Grace to finish it, knowing full well she would. The things they got her to do, just to see if she would. It seems wrong, now, looking back on that, a grown woman getting a little girl to guzzle down something so big and sweet it made her puke.
The two weeks they spent on Crystal Beach in the summer of 1982 are broken bits in Tricia’s head.
When they get to Galveston, David asks, “Why are there all these motels without windows?”
“Oh,” Tricia answers, happy he is talking, “it’s because of the storms. It’s cheaper.”
“Why would you come to a beach and stay in a motel without windows?”
“Well, but you could spend a lot of time outside. And like I said, it’s cheaper.”
Murdoch’s is still there. Audrey is awake, and her father carries her on his shoulders out to the pier and back. They build a castle; well, Audrey and Tricia build it. They search for shells and bits of broken glass. It isn’t safe for a three-year-old to carry broken beer bottles but Tricia wants to show her how to make a castle sparkle. “Don’t pick up the glass yourself. Just show Mommy when you find one.” Tricia’s lost track of the years it’s been since she’s seen a beach, any beach. Everything feels high and bright and washed out. Audrey grows bored with the castles and wants to swim. “Not today,” Tricia tells her. She thought that the ocean might frighten Audrey, but as soon as she saw it, her girl wanted to cross it. The ships, bigger than castles, the way the sky seems so much higher than it does at home-it’s Tricia that feels small and afraid.
Allie Saenz was a tall, leggy girl. Her neck seemed long for her body, but she might have grown up to become a great beauty. It was always women who had something unexpected-Audrey Hepburn’s long neck, for example, or Angelina Jolie’s big, soft lips-that were so beautiful they unnerved. Allie would have been an imposing woman. Not like Melanie, who was soft and white, and she could wear anything and seem naked. There was nothing predatory about Melanie’s prettiness.
The strange new girl, Brandy, takes them behind the dunes and whispers stories. “Your mother likes to fuck,” she says. The way she says fuck, it sounds really bad, like something luscious but wrong. “Fuck,” she says. Grace gets up and walks away. “You want to see her do it? Wait till her man leaves. That your daddy?”
“Yes,” the twins answer together.
“She’ll do anything.”
“It’s a lie,” Allie says. Trina is crying. But Grace is very still, alert. When they walk back, Allie whispers, “She’s like a cat in the dark, your mother.”
And they listen to the Fleetwood Mac song on the boom box, out on the balcony.
She is like a cat in the dark
And then she is the darkness
She rules her life like a fine skylark
And when the sky is starless
All your life you’ve never seen
A woman taken by the wind…
The adults are going to be up all night, out by the bonfire, drinking, dancing. People spill over from the broken house and the girls watch them. These are guys who get their muscles from working, not working out. Brandy is with them, and the way she stands in the firelight, she seems older. Maybe she’s a teenager like Sylvia. She is wearing cutoffs and cowgirl boots, her long hair gathered up at her neck in a banana clip.
“Look at her,” Grace whispers, “I think she’s sixteen.”
Brandy and Melanie dance together in the firelight, one shimmery and white, the other all golden, glinting lights. Melanie’s small hand rests gently in the curve of the younger woman’s-girl’s-waist, and for a few moments the laughter is muffled. Everyone is watching.
It’s their father who ends it, laughing, calling them all to come inside.
Sunday, the men go back to their jobs, and Sylvia leaves. Melanie makes daiquiris and lies out on the balcony, sleeping, while the girls dig a hole behind the dunes. “Just one thing, girls,” she says. “Stay away from that girl.”
“You mean Brandy?”
“Yes, that one.”
“Why?” Trina asks.
“Well, she’s kind of trashy. I know that’s not a nice thing to say. But I don’t think she even goes to school.”
“You were dancing with her,” Allie says, and catches her eye.
“Oh, that…” Melanie’s voice trails off. “Well, I’m a grown-up. You girls have fun.”
A few minutes later, the girls all sit with Brandy beneath her shanty house, looking out at the bright water. It’s noon, and the sand is a bright white, bright enough to make Allie close her eyes against it. Brandy’s house is right up on the beach.
“Don’t you worry it’ll get destroyed in one of the storms?” Trina asks.
Brandy shrugs. She’s back to looking like one of them, a girl.
“Our mother says we shouldn’t play with you,” Tricia says.
“That don’t make sense. She brought Allie here, and Allie’s a Mexican, right Alejandra?” She says the j with a puff.
“She thinks you’re trash,” Allie says.
“She don’t want to get caught, that’s all,” Brandy says.
The girls lie on their backs, looking up at the broken beams under the stilts.
“Where’s your family?” Tricia asks.
“Oh, my Uncle Cody? He’s gone on his errands.”
“Was he out there last night?” the girls want to know.
“Cody? I have a lot of uncles. They all like Melanie. Everyone likes Melanie.”
Tricia’s father died a few summers later. Or was he their father? He worked a lot. When he was home, his soft eyes were on Melanie, always. He was a tall man, gray hair, gray eyes, cuff links. His heart gave out, and when he was gone, the summer after, her mother brought them to Corpus Christi, to a different beach, and her skin was tanned this time, her hair in blond cornrows. There was a different man and a different party.
“Husband?” Tricia says, thinking he will not answer to anything now. Their daughter is sleeping on the king bed beside them, bottom up in the air, legs tucked under.
“I don’t want to talk.”
“But I want to know. What made you love me? Something, right? Maybe you can just remember that moment and it will help.” But he is already turned away. There is sand in the bed. The sheets smell funky, as if they’ve been sprayed with air freshener but left unwashed. She won’t sleep. She walks out onto the balcony. The hotel doesn’t face the ocean; it faces a water park. Beyond the water park is the ocean, but she can’t see it, not from here.
When it started, maybe the fourth day? Or the fifth. She remembers her mother’s warm breath on their faces.
Melanie, they call her, when they are at the beach. “Girls,” she whispers, “my girls…” Trina turns around, grabbing Tricia’s elbow. Grace and Allie are fast asleep.
“Oh, don’t bother,” Melanie says. “They won’t wake up. I took care of that. This is just for you, for my kittens.”
And she takes them out to the sea, one pretty daughter on either side, and they seem to glide with her. She whispers to them, and sings, and she tells them what happens at night is different. “We don’t talk about what happens at night in the daytime.” They walk and walk until they find a bonfire. “Come on, my kittens.” Melanie smiles and everyone smiles back, men who aren’t teenagers but not really men, college boys mainly, and a few women in shorts and Rockets T-shirts. Trina takes her mother’s hand, and Tricia rolls her pajama bottoms up over her calves, walking into the water. She doesn’t know where to go, what to do. Her mother was kissing those men last night, and when she glanced over her shoulder, Trina was too. Tricia puts her head under the water, wishing it were colder. When she looks back everything gleams.
Were things really brighter then, or are they just more vivid in childhood?
She remembers moonlit foam, the waves splashing… The women were gone, it was only Melanie and Trina who remained, and Melanie was on top of one of the men, leaning back, digging her hands into the sand, smiling upside down. Tricia was too far to see her mother’s face, but she knew she was smiling like a little girl hanging from monkey bars. Melanie’s body was bobbing back and forth, all her pale hair spilling on the ground. Trina was on another man, kissing.
“You are both cats,” their mother tells them, giggling, as they walk back. “Like your momma. Meow, meow.”
Tricia is silent, and Trina runs ahead, her arms open wide. Once they’re on the cots out on the balcony, she whispers, “I could taste melted marshmallow on his tongue. It was sweet. He sucked on my tongue hard and then he let it go. It almost hurt, but it felt good.”
“I don’t want to hear. That’s slutty,” Tricia tells her.
“No. We’re cats. In the morning we’ll be different people. Like Melanie said.”
They wake at sunrise, and Trina touches her elbow, and they walk out into the ocean to bring in the traps, not speaking. Tricia thinks maybe it was something like a dream.
At home, they live in a long ranch house. Sometimes they turn off the hallway lights and play ghost. Their mother takes many naps during the day, but she is more like a mother there than she is on the beach. She pours them Count Chocula cereal in the morning, she talks about report cards, she makes them grilled cheese sandwiches. She even watches television with them sometimes. It’s entirely possible, when they come out here, Tricia thinks, that their mother is some sort of cat lady.
Audrey came out with a head full of dark hair. Then her dark hair fell out and was replaced by still darker, plumier hair. From the beginning, she latched without difficulty. Tricia held her whenever she cried. She remained toothless until she was a year old, and then they all came in at once. Audrey was up all night, feverish, and Tricia would stick her index finger over the sore gums as her baby clamped down. “Go ahead,” she’d whisper, “bite Mommy. It’s okay.” Audrey was colicky too; Tricia held her in the steamy bathroom and rubbed her back as her little one cried and gasped. Sometimes it was Tricia’s body Audrey wanted, and the baby would touch her mother’s face and turn it away as she took the nipple into her mouth. She twirled her fingers, closed her eyes. Tricia misses that sometimes. How just the breast could soothe her daughter into a trance. Nothing seems to have replaced that kind of content.
Tricia called her mother once, during a particularly difficult day of colick.
“Oh, I wouldn’t know, sweetheart,” Melanie said. “I didn’t nurse you two. Why don’t you get someone in to help? Where’s the little shit?” That’s what she calls David, Tricia’s husband.
Her mother is not so very far away now. She lives with another husband, in Dallas. But Tricia has not seen her in almost ten years. She hasn’t seen her sister either. It wasn’t a big deal, they said. They talk about it, about meeting for something, for a holiday. But there are always islands to visit, things to be done.
Her husband is gone; he is here but he is already gone. Tricia is a woman, not a cat. She can’t keep him, nor dispose of him. She loves him, or at least she wants him back so that she can try to love him.
There’s something, something that may have happened, or maybe didn’t. Not at the beach, but at the house on Albans Lane.
It was a late night, some night outside of time; she can’t remember her age. And she can’t remember if it was before, or after, the summer Allie and Grace disappeared. Tricia woke to a sound, a low hum. She walked into the living room. Candles flickered. The light was warm and bright, unlike any light she had seen before. The table was set with the green glass plates. Everything seemed burnished, as if someone had polished the air. Her mother was there, leaning back in her chair, white shirtsleeves rolled up to her elbows, a bloodstone dangling where the buttons began. And across from her was Trina. Her hair was brushed clean and pulled back off her neck with a black velvet ribbon. She wore a red dress, white lace tights, and patent leather Mary Janes. She nibbled a big slice of white cake and swung her stockinged legs under the table.
They were more beautiful than any two people Tricia had ever seen. She rubbed the crust from her eyes and watched. Melanie was laughing, and Trina kicked the table leg and looked right back at her.
Watching them together was almost like looking into one of those little plastic snow globes her mother put out at Christmastime. Another world, lovelier and smaller than this one. If it could come outside and into this world, it wouldn’t be so magical. But you wanted to get inside it just the same.
The night it happened, the moon was murderously bright.
That’s what Melanie says when she wakes them: “Wake up, wake up, my girls, The moon is murderously bright!” And this night, she wakes them all, Grace and Allie, Tricia and Trina. “Wipe the sleepy dirt from your eyes. This night is enchanted. It will last for a hundred years.”
The air itself feels charged. Allie and Grace stand up, wobbling, rubbing their eyes. They would follow Melanie anywhere.
The house flickers in the distance. That broken house seems to come alive at night and die every morning.
And Tricia remembers, yes-before that summer, it was an empty, abandoned shack, the stilts sinking into the sand, the windows boarded up. Tricia and Trina would go there, find things that had washed up. A glass disc full of colored blue water and pale sand. There were old shoes, baby bottles, fish skeletons. Once, a ring they thought was diamond, but when they brought it to Melanie, she told them it was cubic zirconia. Oh, and a coral necklace. That had been a treat, how they rinsed it and handed it to their mother. It was their greatest find.
But this night, there are men around and inside it. The women who are there are there for the men. There is a woman with stiff breasts and boots that go way up past her knees, walking toward the water. She looks painted onto the landscape. “It’s a stripper,” Grace whispers, and Trina says, “Be quiet.” The girls run beneath the house, looking for something. They whisper, wonder if they’ve walked into a ghost story. It’s very dark beneath, and there’s a sliver of light where the stilts rise to their highest, where the light from the windows and the moonlit ocean cut through.
“Do you think Brandy is here tonight?” one of the girls, probably Allie, whispers. Grace is scared. Allie takes her hand.
Upstairs, Melanie’s laughter, ice giggling inside a tumbler, war whoops.
A man jumps from the deck to the sand. When he sees them down there he squats, smiles. “Come out, come out, wherever you are.”
He’s reaching for Grace, and she begins to cry. She’s still in her pink pajamas, the ones with daisies all over them. Allie wraps an arm around her and so she feels the bottoms dampen. Grace has wet herself. It’s just a party. That’s when they hear Melanie say, “Come on, Grace, it’s all right. Come on out.”
“It’s okay,” the twins whisper. “It’s Melanie.”
It’s Mother’s Day. There are no Mother’s Day gifts; David didn’t come up with anything and Audrey’s too young to have done anything on her own. They sit in the lobby, eating their free continental breakfasts. Tricia peels a bruised orange for Audrey, and then they make waffles. Audrey is fascinated by the waffle maker. She sticks her fingers into the syrupy cherry sauce. “Oh, sorry, Mommy,” she says, “not sanitary.”
David looks awful. Like his eyes are just holes punched into his face. He hasn’t even bothered to shave. “Why would you, for this grand occasion?” she says, and too late she realizes she said it aloud. But he just nods.
And that’s when she squints, blurring his features a bit. Men, for her mother, were interchangeable. She liked to have sex with them, and she liked to look at them. She liked them to look at her. But beyond that, they didn’t interest her. And so, for Tricia, her father had been a scent, a cigar, cuff links, a nice leather chair. Those men on the beach, they were bar boys or college boys, or working men in soiled shirts and Stetsons. Her father wore boots with his suit. He liked to call them his girls.
She squints at David, and sees him… tries to make him flat. Isn’t that what he’s done to her? She is nothing, he says, it’s nothing, it’s never been any good, it’s no use… For a moment, he’s a loser with a five o’clock shadow. And then he gets up for more coffee and he’s back to being David again.
“Well,” she says when he comes back, “can we go out? For crab maybe? I’d like to do that.”
When David and Tricia were first married, they lived in Austin, down the street from UT. They walked their dog to the Crown and Anchor once a week for beer and soggy fries, and she liked to sit out on the lawn and listen to the football games. She liked the roar of the crowd, which carried like voices over water down Duval Street. The announcer’s voice was masculine, rich, slow and easy, like her father’s. After the game, if they’d won, kids would drive down the roads yehawing, whooping. She reminds herself that they were innocent whoops of joy. Or probably. Or most likely. But maybe there was a fine line. Something David said to her, tonelessly, once, as he was throwing out platitudes in that dim voice he used lately, was, “There’s a fine line between love and hate.”
That wasn’t it, though, for Melanie. She didn’t hate anyone, really. Some people were beneath her, that’s all. She liked fun.
David won’t go out, and so it’s Audrey and her mommy, facing the seawall. Audrey has pineapple juice and a sunfish bib. Tricia orders king crab, and then another. She can’t remember ever feeling so hungry.
“It’s all right, it’s Melanie,” they tell Grace. There’s that windchime laugh, and Melanie’s voice, saying sweetly, “That one’s the plain one.” Then the sounds settle, as if something thick has descended on them all. Upstairs there’s moaning and sighs, and something warm and rich, a cawing, a mewing. Tricia and Allie crawl under the floorboards of the deck and look up through the slats. Grace is whimpering, and those moans, they seem to come from a creature buried for centuries, but they’re coming from Melanie. She’s straddling one of the men. Her body moves up and down, riding waves. Brandy’s there too. She looks like a boy, standing in the doorway in a man’s shirt, a pipe in her mouth. Tricia and Trina climb from under the deck and their mother looks over the man’s shoulder and smiles.
Grace is in laps, hands around and inside her, the pink pajamas in a soiled heap, flung across the deck. Tricia chews the back of her hand, then bites her tongue and tries to taste. She turns away, crawls back under. And Trina stays.
Tricia and Allie lie there, thinking. Tricia holds Allie’s hand, then puts her head against her chest, listening. Allie is still, but for her heartbeat.
Even now that she’s grown, she believes in this, that Allie heard her thoughts.
They know you are here. You have to run.
I’m afraid. We have to do it together.
No. They won’t hurt me. I’m her kitten.
They took Allie down though. Tricia’s eyes were closed, her hands digging deep, deep into the sand, pushing deeper, to where the sand was damp. So she didn’t see it, but she knows Allie fought. She wasn’t even looking for Melanie, but Melanie was watching, Tricia knew she was watching. Allie screamed and flailed, fighting with her nails and teeth. The men were different than they were with Grace, they weren’t thick and private. They whooped and laughed. What must it have sounded like? There were still people out there, in their vacation homes. But later, in the morning, when the patrol cars came, people said they only heard a party.
Tricia never dreams of that night. Instead, she dreams of a dark room and sounds: a rooster crowing, wind chimes tinkling, men whooping, a woman moaning, giggling, tearing, screaming. Sometimes there are people there with her, in the black. Sometimes an alarm clock interrupts, and sometimes the other sounds overwhelm.
In the morning, her girls stood behind her. Melanie’s eyes were red-rimmed, and she pushed her sunglasses up her nose. The policeman spoke to them separately. “No, we were sleeping. They must have dared one another to go exploring,” Melanie told the men. “Those girls were always fascinated with that house.”
Allie’s mother, a nurse at Texas Children’s, moved away to somewhere in Virginia, and then to someplace in the Midwest, and then she moved again and again, from hospital to hospital. She felt no anger toward Melanie. She wrote letters, asking again and again what the girls did that day. And Melanie sang her the songs they sang, told her about the virgin daiquiris she made them. “I feel close to you, Melanie,” Allie’s mother said.
“I know. I do too. I know how lucky I am. I’m surprised you don’t hate me, with my two still here.”
“I don’t have many girlfriends,” Melanie said to her twins when she hung up. “I’m glad she feels she can talk to me.”
After a while the phone calls stopped. Allie’s mom never came back to Texas.
On that drive back, they returned early. The sky was damp and close. It was the kind of muggy Houston weather that felt as wet as rain, but the rain wouldn’t come.
“The clouds look like smashed brains,” Tricia said.
“It’s a hard day, I know, kittens,” Melanie said. She turned on the radio and rolled the windows down. She sniffled, wiping her nose with her wrist, and lit a cigarette. In that moment, Tricia believed her mother was as close to sad as she could ever be.
She and Trina weren’t really twins, after that.
Someday, when David is gone-and he will be gone, Tricia is sure of that now-she’ll bring Audrey back to the beach. They’ll buy matching skull shirts on the Strand and have their pictures taken together in a booth. They’ll come here in the winter and search for sand dollars, and dip their ankles into the surf. It’s not so crowded in the wintertime. Tricia will raise her hand up to the sky and sprinkle the shimmers all over the water, just as her mother used to do. She’ll laugh and tickle her black-haired daughter. “I come from a long line of witches,” she’ll say. “My grandmother was a witch, and her daughter was a witch, and I am a witch, and you!” She’ll jab Audrey in the ribs until she giggles. “But not for real. Just for pretend.”
“That’s right,” Tricia will cackle, “we’re good witches. And just for pretend.”
What she remembers that day as they drive back, David silent as she points out the freighters and the gulls to Audrey, what she remembers on that very bright day is how, after the men had gone away in their trucks, her mother carried the naked bodies out into the sea.
It wasn’t ceremonious; it wasn’t unkind either. The bodies looked like bodies, not Allie, not Grace. Legs and arms and necks in the moonlight. They were lovely the way a wet, dead fish shining in the dark is lustrous before it splits open and begins to rot.
WHO STOLE MY MONKEY? by DAVID CORBETT & LUIS ALBERTO URREA
Can you really make it stink?
– Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers
Looking back later, Chester could not convince himself he’d heard the sound at all, not at first, for what memory handed up to him was more sensation than sound, the tight sawtooth grind of a key in a lock, opening the door to hell.
They were midway through a cover of “Big Legs, Tight Skirt,” Chester caressing the custom Gabbanelli Cajun King he used for the night’s first sets. Saturday night at the old Diamond 21, some of the dancers in western getup, down to the Stetsons and hoopskirts, the rest in the usual Gulf Coast duds-muscle shirts, ass-crack jeans, shifts so cellophanetight a blind man would weep-the cowboy contingent arrayed in three rows for the line dance, the others rocking to their own inner need, women holding the hair off their necks, men combing back damp locks, the band double-clutching but bluesy too, John Lee Hooker meets Rockin’ Dopsie with a tip of the hat to Professor Longhair. Yeah-’fess, chile. Midnight in East Texas, the music savage and hip, the band hitting it good, the room steamy, the dance crowd punchy from the beat but craving more, always more.
But the sound. It came from outside, no denying it now, that distinctive growl, like the sulfurous thunder-chuckle of the devil himself-a rear-mounted diesel, rebuilt Red Diamond in-line six. Chester even caught a scent of the oil-black exhaust and the muffled scattershot of spewed gravel as the bus tore out of the parking lot.
No, he thought, blinking like a man emerging from a silly dream. Two-toned copper and black, a perfect match not just for the gear trailer but his ostrich-skin boots-100 percent personal style, that bus. Last gasp of the days when oil money ran flush, when Chester had a nice little stilt home in Cameron Parish (before the hurricane took it to Belize, that is), when the clubs were paying sweet money and Beau Jocque was still alive and touring the country and a good two-step chanky-chank band could make beaucoup cash dollars. That bus was just about it for the Chester Richard empire, the final signature on a bleak dotted line.
But that wasn’t what broke his heart.
Lorena, he thought.
His fingers stopped their flight across the mother-of-pearl buttons as a drop of sweat, fat as a bumblebee, splashed onto the accordion’s Honduras rosewood. He wore a tight leather apron-vest, cut and sized in Lafayette so the bellows didn’t pinch his nipples. Underneath, his chest was a swamp.
The rest of the band, oblivious, pushed on, the dancers unfazed too, a whirlwind thrall of spins and dips and shuffles. He glanced into the mold-speckled mirror above the stage as though the smile of some last hope might reveal itself. Fog hazed his reflection.
Turning his back to the dance floor, he waved the band to a stop. Geno, his frottoir man, lost the rhythm with his spoons. Skillet, the drummer, faltered when the rubboard did. The tune stumbled and fell apart.
“You didn’t hear that?” They stared at him gape-eyed. “Someone just stole the motherfucking Flyer.”
Two hours later he sat in a nearby diner, waiting for Geno and Skillet to return with a car, the night pitch-black beyond the screens. One fan hummed in the doorway to keep out the wasps and skeeters, another sat propped on the ancient counter to whip the soupy heat around, the air thick with the smell of sweet crude off the ship channel. The cook was in back puzzling out the walk-in’s condenser. A plain bare bulb swam overhead in the breeze, casting a dizzy light.
Chester, craving a pinch, leaned back in his chair, shirt clinging to his skin as he pretended to listen. The woman did go on. If he only had some Red Man. Hell, any chaw at all-he’d take gas station rubbish right now if it had some mint in it. All the other club patrons had trudged on home, demanding their cover charge back, getting half, everybody ripped off one way or the other. But this woman here, she’d elected to stay.
He remembered her from the first set, waltzing with the others in the grand counterclockwise circle, her partner a doodlebugger wearing throwback pomade. Small wonder they’d parted. Coppery freckles dusted her cleavage which, from time to time, she mopped with a white paper napkin. Her hair was the color of bayou amber and she wore it swirled messily atop her head, strands curling down like so many afterthoughts, a pair of chopsticks holding it so. Another time and place, he could imagine himself saying, I bet you taste just like rice pudding, sha.
Chester had suffered three marriages, survived as many divorces, more time spent with lawyers, it seemed, than in love. He had a wandering eye and a ravenous crotch and a Category 5 temper, his love life a tale of wreckage-one judge had nicknamed him Hurricane, given his knack for sheer, mean, indifferent destruction. No woman could endure him for long, but few could resist him, neither. Like fortune tellers staring into a glowing ball, they could sense within him a tragic, beautiful, lonesome soul. Hell, he was the crown prince of lonely; open his heart you’d find a howling wasteland, make West Texas look like Biloxi. And the ladies could not resist that-I’ll soothe you, sugar. Save you. But no bride, no groupie, no rice-pudding blonde with chopstick hair had ever honored his longing, or yielded to his touch, like Lorena.
“Mr. Richard,” she whispered, pronouncing it richered, like something that happened when money landed in your lap, “I have been a hopeless fan ever since that night at Slim’s Y-Ki-Ki Lounge in Opelousas, that first night I heard you, heard you and your band.” Her hand rushed across the table like a hawk toward his. “I’ve been on my share of tailrides and I’ve been not just to the Y-Ki-Ki but Harry’s Club over in Beaux Bridge and Richards Club in Lawtell, the Labor Day festival in Plaisance…”
Chester, cocking an ear for sounds of the car, shook himself from his thoughts. “Let me stop you, darlin’ dear.”
She clutched his hand as though afraid it might escape, her eyes a pair of low-hanging plums; their skin a telling contrast, hers creamy and white like egg custard, his the shade of caramel.
I must be hungry, he thought.
“I have never,” she intoned, “never heard a man play as wild, as free, as hard as you.”
He could no longer see her face. His mind’s eye conjured Lorena.
She was a custom Gabbanelli, not unlike the one he’d been playing onstage when the music stopped, but finer, older, one-of-a-kind. Handmade in Castelfidardo sixty-five years ago, during the war, she’d been bought by his granddad for twenty dollars and a pig.
Chester thought he’d seen one of the Cheniers play one just like her at the Acadiana music festival, and the prospect had coiled a skein of fear around his heart. But no, theirs lacked the purple heart accents, the buttons of polished bone, much more. And sure enough, Lorena proved her royalty that day. An accordion war, oh yes, him and Richard LeBoeff at the end, Chester taking the prize with a fiery rendition of an original he’d penned just the night before, titled “Muttfish Gumbo.” Next day, the local headlines screamed, The Jimi Hendrix of the Squeezebox, and there she was, in the picture with Chester: Lorena. Who else was worthy to share his crown? He grinned, in spite of himself. What would Granddad think of that?
He’d been a marksman in the 92nd Infantry, the fabled Buffalo Soldiers, moving up the Italian peninsula in ’44 while most white troops got shipped to Normandy for the push to Berlin. He hefted Lorena on his back like a long-lost child as the Mule Pack Battalion marched up alongside Italian blacksmiths and resistance volunteers, South Africans, Brazilians, trudging across minefields and treadway bridges, scaling manmade battlements and the Ligurian hills toward von Kesselring’s Gothic Line.
He endured the march up the Serchio Valley, survived the Christmas slaughter in Gallicano, suffered the withering German 88s and machine-gun fire as the 92nd crawled across the Cinquale Canal. Throughout his boyhood, Chester sat beside his granddad’s rocker and listened to his tales, enthralled, inspired, and each one circled back to guess who? The accordion became his granddad’s prize, his lucky talisman, his reason for fighting, and he named her Lorena, same as his girl back home, the one who refused to wait. In time, the beautiful box with all that luck inside became the real Lorena, the one who was true.
And she was a stone beauty-pearl inlays, seasoned mahogany lacquered to the color of pure cane syrup, the grille cut lath by lath from brass with a jeweler’s saw, double reeds made from Swedish blue steel for that distinctive tremolo, a deep mournful throbbing tone unmatched by any instrument Chester had ever heard. She had the voice of a sad and beautiful thrush, the tragic bride of a lost soldier. And yes, Granddad had come back from that war lost. The accordion became a kind of compass, guiding him back, at least halfway.
In time, Granddad passed her on to Papa Ray and he in turn handed her over to Chester, the prodigy, the instrument not so much a gift as a dare. Be unique and stunning and wise, she seemed to whisper, like me. And that was the full shape of the inheritance, not just an instrument but a sorrow wrapped in warrior loneliness. Chester treated her like the dark mystery she was, never bringing her out until the final set of the night, queen of the ball-which was why she’d been in the bus, not onstage, when the Western Flyer got jacked.
Chester glanced down at the table, saw the woman’s fingers lacing his own, felt the nagging heat of her touch. “Darlin’ dear,” he repeated, snapping to. “As I have told you at least twice now, and which should be obvious to a fan as devoted as you claim to be…” He lumbered to his feet as, at long last, the headlights of Geno’s Firebird appeared in the lot. “The name is pronounced Ree-shard.”
She cocked her eye, a dark glance, the rice pudding curdled. “Oh, boo.”
He tipped his hat and hustled into the night.
Inside the car, Chester collected a pearl-handled Colt.45 from an oilcloth held out to him by Skillet, who kept for himself a.44 Smithy and a buck knife big enough to gore a dray. Geno carried a.38 snub-nose and a length of pipe. You play enough bayou jump joints and oil-coast dives, you habituate your weapons.
Geno, sitting behind the wheel, glanced over his shoulder at Chester who straddled the hump in the backseat. “I’m guessin’ there ain’t no guesswork to who took the bus.”
“No.” Chester dropped the magazine on the Colt, checked to be sure it had all seven rounds, plus one in the pipe, slammed it home again, then tucked the pistol under his belt as Geno slipped the Firebird into gear and took off. “I think not.”
Skillet, true to his nature, remained quiet. Black as Houston crude and wiry with cavernous eyes, he’d been hit with a fry pan in ’77, still had the telltale dent in his skull. Geno, plump as a friar with slicked-back hair, kept up a low, tuneless hum as he drove. He was the band’s gadfly mystic, always wandering off on some oddball spirit craze, and he’d recently read somewhere that you ought to chant “Om” to get right with the cosmos. Apparently, though, he’d snagged some cross-signals, for the effort came out sounding like some rural Baptist dirge, hobbling along in waltz time. Chester almost asked for the radio, then reconsidered. Who knew what sort of ass-backward mojo you’d conjure, stopping a man midchant?
They pulled over for food at an all-night canteen on the Port Arthur outskirts: crawfish étouffée, hush puppies, grilled boudin sausage. Using his fingers to scoop the food from its white cardboard carton, Chester dug in, reminding himself that vengeance is but one of many hungers.
“Boudin,” he said. “Proof that God loves a Creole man.” To himself, he added: Let’s hope some of that love will hold.
They took Route 73 to catch I-10 near Winnie, figuring the thief was heading west. He’d mentioned home was El Paso, just across the border from Ciudad Juárez, murder capital of the planet.
His name was Emigdio Nava but he went by Feo, the Ugly One. The handle was not ironic. Small and hunched but muscular, arms sleeved with tats, he had a scrapper’s eyes, a mulish face, the complexion of a peach pit. He’d approached Chester about two weeks back, at a private party they were playing out on the levee road in East Jefferson Parish. He invited himself back into the greenroom between sets and sat himself down, a cagey introduction, smile like a paper cut. Everybody in the band figured him for a dealer-except for a few old locals too big to unseat, the Mexican gangs ran practically everything dopewise now-but he made no mention of such.
He did, though, have an offer.
“Want you to write me a song,” he said, whipping out a roll of bills. He licked his thumb, flicked past five hundreds, tugged them free, and handed them out for Chester to take. “For my girl.”
Chester glanced toward Skillet, by far the best judge of character in the band. He’d played up and down the coast for over thirty years, headliners to pickup bands, seen everything twice. It took awhile, but finally Skillet offered a nod.
“Tell me about your girl,” Chester said, taking the money.
Her name was Rosa Sánchez but everyone knew her as La Monita, Little Monkey. Again, Chester learned, irony was not at issue. Feo showed him snapshots. She was a tiny woman with unnaturally long arms. Her small round face was feathered with fine black hair. An upturned nose didn’t help, though the rest of the package was straight-up fine. And being clever and resourceful, or so Chester surmised from how Feo told it, she turned misfortune to her advantage. A hooker who worked near the ship channel, she gained the upper hand over the more attractive girls by, more or less, outfucking them.
Geno, catching a glance at the picture, muttered, “Ain’t we funky.”
Chester cut him with a look.
“We got this tradition in Mexico,” Feo said, ignoring them both. “Ballads. We call them corridos. It’s how we sing the praises of the outcasts, the unlucky ones, the tragic ones, but also the bandits, the narcotrafficantes, the pandilleros. Anyone who understands what it means to suffer, but also to fight.” The dude had picked up a bit of a Texas accent, and it was weird, hearing the Mexican and the Texican wrestling in his voice. Gave him a case of the mush-mouth.
Skillet watched him like a cat perched beneath the hummingbird feeder.
“You people,” Feo continued, “have such a tradition also, no?”
“Called raconteur.” Chester, too, could be a man of few words. You people, he thought. “When do you need this by?”
Feo rose from his chair, that slashing smile. “How hard can it be?”
Harder than Chester thought, as it turned out, but he’d taken the money and so was stuck. The problem was simple: how to pen something apt that wasn’t at the same time offensive. It proved the better of him-he put it off, scratched out a few sorry lines, cast them aside:
Only the homely
And the angels above
Know how to suffer
The pain called love
Mama would shoot me dead onstage, he thought, if I dared sing that out loud. She’d been a torch singer famous up and down the bayou country, Miss Angeline her stage name. She’d died when Chester was seven, the cancer setting a pattern for women he’d lose.
Seeing that Chester was suffering over the lyrics, and sensing in that the chance for some clowning, Geno tried his hand too, singing his version over lunch, a plate of fried chicken and string beans with bacon:
She is my monkey
I’ll make her my wife
Gonna be funky
For the rest of my life
Chester glanced up from his own plate, jambalaya with shrimp and andouille. “You looking to get me killed?”
Geno veiled his grin with a shrug. “Not before payday, no.”
Two nights later, Feo showed up unannounced at the club they were playing, gripping an Abita beer, working a path through the crowd to the bandstand. He offered no greeting, just gestured once with a cock of his head.
Desperate for an idea-something, anything, quick-and unnerved by the small man’s stare, Chester turned to the band and counted off the first thing that popped into his head:
My monkey got a cue-ball head
A good attitude and them long skinny legs
No sooner did the lyrics escape than he felt the sheer disastrous lunacy of what he’d done. And the band hadn’t played the tune since forever, execution falling somewhere between rusty and half-ass, a dash of salt in an already screaming wound. The gleam in Feo’s eye turned glacial. The bottle of beer dropped slowly from his mouth, and the mouth formed an O, then reverted to slit-mode as he vanished. Chester thought maybe that would be it, a feeble wish, but then he spotted him at the bar between sets, and at the end of the night, like a bad itch, he turned up again, drifting across the parking lot as they loaded up the Flyer.
Approaching Chester, “Got time for a word, cabrón?”
Chester led him off a little from the others, not sure why. “Nice night-no, mon ami?” Cringing. Lame.
“You were supposed to write me a song.”
The boys in the band sidled up, watching Chester’s back.
Chester worked up a pained look, phony to the bone. “I thought I did.”
“That thing you played?”
“It’s called ‘Who Stole My Monkey?’”
“Bartender tells me it’s an old tune, written by some dude named Zachary Richard. Not you. You’re Chester.”
“He’s my uncle,” Chester lied.
“Still ain’t you.”
Chester tried an ingratiating smile. “How’s about a few more days?”
“And you insult my girl too?” Feo held Skillet and Geno with his eyes, warning them that he could take all three. “You diss me twice? Know how much money you could make writing me love songs, güey?”
Got a fair idea, Chester thought, just as he knew how many grupero musicians had been murdered the past two years by cats just like this. The situation had snuggled up next to awful, but before he could conjure his next bad idea, the Mexican turned away. Chester saw a whole lot of luck heading off with him.
Over his shoulder, in that inimitable mush-mouth Texican-Mexican, Feo called out, “Fuck all, y’all!”
Inside the car, Geno broke off his solemn humming. “I’m also guessin’,” picking up his thread, “that we ain’t gonna call the law on this.”
“If we were-” Chester began.
“We’d a done it by now.”
You don’t call the law to help you fetch a stolen bus when there’s an ounce of coke on board, not to mention a half-pound of weed, a mayonnaise jar full of Oxycontin, and enough crank to whirl you across Texas a dozen times and back. Small wonder we’re broke, Chester thought. They’d stocked up for the road, a lot of away dates on the calendar. Sure, the stash was tucked beneath false panels, nothing in plain view, but all it took was one damn dog.
Getting back to Geno, he said, “Long as