"Girl from JakesCannon"
Semi-finalist in Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest
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Girl from JakesCannon
(first 35 pages -- Prologue, Chapters 1-4)
THIS BOOK WAS PUBLISHED BY RICHARD EUGENE STEWART
Richard Eugene Stewart
10526 W Tropicana Cir
Sun City, AZ 85351
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and the author/publisher has not received any payment for this “stripped book.”
Girl from JakesCannon copyright © 2007 by Richard Eugene Stewart
Cover art copyright © 2010 Richard Eugene Stewart. All rights reserved.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted on any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Author/Publisher, except where permitted by law. For information contact:
Anne Randall Stewart, 10526 W Tropicana Cir, Sun City, AZ 85351
623-933-6192, 602-318-0708, email@example.com
Hard copy information:
Library of Congress Control Number: pfh71391
Printed in the United States of AmericaPublished November 2010
To my wife, Anne, without whom “Girl from JakesCannon” would have remained an unwritten dream.
And to my daughter, Jennifer, whose encouragement and prodding got me off the dime to finish it.
Like a mouse hole in a wheat field, JakesCannon is hidden deep in the forests of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. For nearly half a century it had been known as Pine Gulley. Then, near the end of the Civil War, it was renamed in honor of Hubert Jakes, an ex-merchant seaman who, some years before, in order to cheat the gallows for grinding out his skipper's eyes with a broken rum bottle, had fled to the inland wilderness. A fiercely private man, Jakes ironically attained provincial fame in the autumn of 1864 when he positioned an abandoned rebel eight-pounder on the ridge behind what was to become the site of the Curry & Burrus Lumber Mill, and there with his wife, two sons and daughter, held back a force of Yankee infantry for nearly five hours. Although he was ultimately de-brained by a Bluecoat sniper, his resolute stand permitted the successful retreat of some 200 rag-tag Virginia Volunteers.
Jakes's neighbors knew that he was more pragmatist than hero and had only done what he did to keep his whiskey still from being overrun by outlanders. However, because his deed was so romanticized throughout the beleaguered South, sparks of chauvinism were struck from the flint-rock hearts of Pine Gulleyites. Folks who had despised one another for generations got together to ride the tail of their fast-burning little comet by changing the name of Pine Gulley to JakesCannon. Pine Gulley, after all, was but a homely description of the village's location; which is to say, it was a gulley in the pines. JakesCannon, on the other hand, seemed to possess the power to bestow upon its citizens the mantle of celebrity—an indulgence not unlike the collective esteem enjoyed today by towns whose teams win baseball pennants and such.
Of the Pine Gulleyites who met on that occasion, a temperate minority put forth the name "Jakes's STILL" as a Christian way of preserving the basic truth of the town's one historical moment. However, the intemperate majority insisted that any town named after a still would draw "revenooers" to it like flies to horseshit. So, JakesCannon it was. And is.
Isolation and hand-me-down ignorance locked it in a time warp; mule-farming, hunting, trapping, fishing and whiskey-making remained the whole of its industry. News of the outside world came only by way of an occasional Circuit Preacher, riding in to spread the fear of God. Whatever benefits Pine Gulleyites had hoped would result from the name-change never occurred. On the contrary, while the American Ship of Progress was steaming into bright new waters, the folks of JakesCannon weren't even looking for a pier.
Then, in 1930, two Boston College seniors whose trust funds had recently matured and who had, with awesome foresight, multiplied their fortunes by selling short on the Bear Market of Black November, opted to invest some of their chips acquiring (at less than a penny on the dollar) a large portion of the southwest quadrant of the state. The area comprised thousands of acres of top grade timber, coal, minerals and a forgotten Confederate Army railroad leg, which began at a junction of the main line and wound south through 26 miles of wooded mountains to its rotted turnaround at the once briefly celebrated town of JakesCannon. There, in the shadow of Hubert Jakes's hallowed ridge, the two fuzzy-cheeked millionaires erected the Curry & Burrus Lumber Mill.
Before the first saw arrived, there was an influx of job-seeking outlanders who threw up a tent city and within days were calling other newcomers outlanders. Burgeoning industry brought not only the indigent in search of employment and scoundrels in search of suckers, but also a dramatic updating of local culture. High-toned Curry & Burrus management personnel, being accustomed to more cosmopolitan law and order, were appalled by the rowdy nights that followed each payday. So they imported a former Marine Drill Sergeant—a gun-slinging head-knocker who had tamed an infamous oil town in Oklahoma—made him sheriff, and built him a jailhouse. The wives of the Curry & Burrus management personnel, having their own ideas of civic improvement, revolted in a pact to "withhold their favors" until their husbands agreed to build them a church ("Non-denominational Church of Christ") and the little schoolhouse.
About then, Dudley Rooke, stationmaster at the main line junction 26 miles to the north, began to notice the variety and quantity of store-bought goods being highballed south on the refurbished JakesCannon leg. After some careful probability-estimating, the old bachelor, who still had four cents of every nickel he'd ever earned, retired from the railroad and invested his life savings in the town's only general store.
Electric and telephone lines were strung in, although the latter were solely for the benefit of the mill managers and peace officers. JakesCannoneers, as they had come to call themselves, neither knew how to use a telephone nor had anyone to call.
Nearly everyone went to work at the mill or at one of its score of satellite jobs. Farmers quit their "can see to can't see" scrabbling in dirt and rushed to get a share of the cosmic twenty cents an hour wages being "throwed away by them dang fools at Curry & Burrus." Hunters, trappers, fishermen and finally even up-mountain whiskey makers succumbed to the lure of "easy money".
Once widespread and violent, rivalry in the booze business ended; only one man continued making distilled spirits on a full-time basis. He was small and wiry, with large thumbs and a physical strength that belied his size: He could pull a mule to its knees by hauling on its ears. His strength was matched by his ignorance and, like most ignorant men, found humor only in perversity. For example, recalling the dreadful details of his uncle's death provoked his laughter. The poor uncle had died of arsenic poisoning, writhing and jerking for hours until, in the final spasm, his back had arched so grotesquely it snapped like a dry stick. Because rigor mortis overtook his body in the death-posture, it had been necessary to bury him in a petroleum barrel as it was the only available container large enough to accommodate his hideously disarranged torso. Later, it was learned that a squirrel, stuffed with rat-killer, had been left in one of his coon traps. When the moonshiner married the deceased uncle's 13-year-old daughter and laid claim to his cabin and whiskey trade, a lot of up-mountain folks enthusiastically quit eating squirrel meat.
The young moonshiner and his cousin/bride worked the still for all it was worth, which wasn't much until the 1930 Curry & Burrus boom, when the local population swelled and competition shrank. The couple sold their "vegterball-drippins" to every tippler in town, including the sheriff. By then they had produced two sons and a daughter . . . just like Hubert Jakes.
1933 stumbled in wearing tattered diapers; America stood in the bread-line of a stultifying depression. The new President hauled out his "New Deal", which introduced an alphabet of administrative agencies—the NRA, FERA, WPA, PWA, CCC, CWA, etc. Moreover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) sought to curb the rampant ravaging of natural resources by reenacting some old conservation laws. The New Deal was a good deal to some but a bum deal to Curry & Burrus; for, while the minimum wage was hiked to twenty-five cents an hour, the hands of conservation simultaneously slowed the lumber mill to half speed. The twenty-percent pay raise coupled with a forced production drop of fifty percent inspired Curry & Burrus to pink-slip ninety percent of its employees.
By 1941, the population of JakesCannon had dwindled markedly, the moonshiner's cousin/wife was mercifully near death, and their children were all "growed-up and haired-over".
Of the moonshiner's three children, there was no doubt that the two half-wit boys were his. With small eyes and wide features, which were incipiently Mongoloid, they looked just like him and like each other. Both were bed-wetters and, until well past puberty, wore pads of torn cloth in their pants when they slept. They grew as tall and as simple as hollyhocks and, though their father worked them like mules, they flourished. Like their father, they were as illiterate as stones and never learned many words or names of things; they developed a way of communicating with each other through the issuance of grunts, rather like those made by wallowing swine. Their basic recreation consisted of chasing pell-mell through the forests after hounds-on-scent of some woodland animal over which they would then masturbate.
In a most primitive way, by means of practical interdependence, father and sons became bonded. Their long hours together eventually evoked in them a male elitism which inexorably reached the stage of familial separateness—a condition secretly welcomed by the mother. On the night the men moved into the barn because it was closer to the still and the outhouse and the smokehouse, she could barely suppress an open display of giddiness. Obsessed with saving her daughter from potential incestuous abuse, the move meant a respite, however temporary, from her exhausting vigil.
As her daughter grew, the mother's fear grew, fear that the father would see the miraculous difference in his brood, fear that he would awake to the fact that the Girl was not of his issue. Optionless, she could do little but pray that the dull perceptions that God had inflicted on her husband and sons would continue to divert their manifest baseness.
Just 43, her seamed face, rotting teeth and wasted body made her look ancient; and though she knew death was closing in, she was grateful that her husband no longer cared to mount her.
One morning, while gathering wood, a raven landed on a nearby branch; it seemed to be looking at her, into her. After a few moments, it blinked and fell dead at her feet. Recognizing the sign that her time was at hand, she sought a way to prepare her daughter to survive without her, to ready her for what she herself had never known: life in the outland.
June 1941 Saturday
June 1941: six and one half months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; the month and year the Nazis ceased their daily destruction of London and ordered their war eagles to Russia where the inevitable denouement of Hitler's insane drama was about to begin. Ironically, the slaughter in Europe placed America at the open end of a rearmament cornucopia; life was good and getting better. Tragic realities abroad were somehow modified in movies and popular music.
Hundreds of thousands of boys were pressed into military service by a third-term president who had been re-elected on a platform of "No War". The "one-year-only" draftees believed it when the Andrews Sisters sang, "I'll be seeing you in Apple Blossom time."
Mickey Mouse, Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Joe DiMaggio, Clark Gable, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Bette Davis, Mickey Rooney, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, were but a few of the phonebook of names known to nearly every American over the age of seven.
Of course, there were exceptions.
The JakesCannon schoolmarm stared at the stuttering minute hand on the pendulum clock. As soon as it reached the hour, she heard the door quietly open and bare feet tip-toe in. Abigail Thurmond was as sensible and frilless as the clothes she wore. Though her 35th birthday had come and gone, she did not think of herself as a spinster but merely as a woman who had not yet married. Twice in her life she had received ardent proposals but on both occasions her suitors had, through lack of carnal restraint, proven themselves too . . . worldly.
At the core of her orderly life was the discipline of Christian fundamentalism, a discipline which, in her view, nailed too many professed adherents to the cross of hypocrisy. Convinced that the scriptural promise of man's dominion over the earth could be fulfilled only through man's dominion over himself, she believed that all human feelings should be subordinated to the majesty of thought and strained through the sieve of the frontal lobes. Practical application of this exacting philosophy was as easy for her as the retention of her virginity, which she had never once been tempted to surrender. Furthermore, because she had not been so tempted, she saw no reason to treasure the condition as a source of puffering pride, but regarded it merely as the inevitable math of natural circumstance. Abigail Thurmond was sensible.
Before the stone of her entombed affections had been rolled away. Before she started teaching the mountain girl to read. Before she discovered within herself the presence of an alien beast: terrible, hungering . . . beguiling.
Now, as the Girl approached, Abigail Thurmond fought against panic by pretending to organize erasers in the blackboard tray. With The Beast pounding in her chest like a jailed lunatic, she fussed with the Confederate and American flags, dimly aware that they were symbols of a divided whole—a unit vanquished by itself—and she thought fleetingly of suicide. Maverick passion filled her with a loathsome desire to take the Girl's adorable face in her hands and draw it to hers until their lips met in smoldering kisses; to explore the velvet of her secret places, and to love her . . . as a man would.
Instead, she clenched her hands so tightly that her nails penetrated the meaty part of her thumbs. She closed her eyes and inhaled the comforting smell of her classroom, the aroma of pine and linseed oil: the perfume of sanity.
May Jesus Christ forgive me as he did the prostitute; for as I have sinned in my heart, so have I sinned in deed.
Blessedly, the sea of madness receded, carrying with it its destructive flotsam. Abigail Thurmond relaxed her hands and turned to face the Girl for whom the moment had passed as quickly as the shadow of a darting bird.
"You're still using the toothbrush I gave you?" the teacher asked abruptly, almost harshly. The muttered reply was barely audible. "Speak up, Girl."
"Yes ma'am," the Girl repeated, tossing back her golden mane and facing the teacher squarely.
The hungering thing inside Abigail Thurmond demanded an immediate inventory of the Girl, her flawless, sun-bronzed skin; eyes of Morning-Glory blue, guarded by thick, dark lashes; the straight, delicate nose; the serene, sensuous mouth where tiny dimples winked and danced at the corners; the supple body, bursting with unawakened sexuality and sheathed in a simple cotton dress which, though crudely made, was graced merely by the Girl's wearing of it. Perhaps, the beast mocked, because it reveals so much of what it is intended to conceal.
"Let's have a look then," the teacher said, keeping a safe distance. The Girl blushed but complied with an exaggerated, self-conscious smile, upper teeth in direct contact with the lower. "Hmmm," the teacher murmured, leaning forward. "Very nice. Gums, firm and pink. Enamel, clean and white. All as it should be. Quite an improvement. You do see the difference now, don't you . . . dear?"
"Oh, yes, ma'am!" The Girl was suddenly animated, as though a switch had been thrown. "I do jes' lak ye tol' me. I scour 'em ever' day with tooth soap. Up an' down. Up an' down."
"What will you do when the tooth paste is gone and the brush is no longer serviceable?"
"Why, ah'll jes' skeeter on down to Rooke's Emporium an' cash-buy me some new."
By crossing to the window, the teacher was able to thwart an impulse to reach out and touch the Girl's breast. "Where will you get cash, child?" she asked her own wretched reflection.
"Well! When Maw saw how m' mouth quit t' bleedin'—an' I tol' her whut yew said 'bout eatin' oranges an' vegterballs, an' all-whut-else yew said—Maw said she'd give me cash as-ever I needs it fer them things whut makes me, well, makes me . . . "
Miss Thurmond turned to see the Girl blush. "Pretty?" she coaxed, urgently repelling another rush of dangerous affection.
" . . . Yes'm. But then, a'course, she's m' Maw."
Sweet God! If only you knew? If you had a scintilla of an idea of what you are, what you could be—anywhere in the world but here. The thought of kidnapping capriced insanely in her mind until the voice of her Baptist conscience rose above the ranting Beast and begged her to stop . . . before she was hopelessly unable to.
"I'm going away," she blurted.
There! One sudden dagger-thrust. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. I'm going away. She had said her word and, having said it, would make it manifest. She would send the telegram which had lay on her dresser for days—the telegram addressed to faceless executives in Boston who manipulated the diverse empire of Curry & Burrus. "I have accepted a new position. In California."
The Girl's expression remained unchanged and could not have been more devoid of concern if she had just been informed that it was now ten minutes past nine. Disoriented by the Girl's passivity, Miss Thurmond felt the moment stretch awkwardly. Finally, she asked, "Do you remember where California is?" and strode purposefully to the wall map behind her desk. "Here is the Atlantic ocean. We are . . . here. And this is the Pacific ocean, with California . . . here. Three thousand miles away."
The Girl's eyes remained blindly fixed on where her teacher had stood before moving to the map.
"I regret to say that this will be our last Saturday morning together." Abigail Thurmond's heart shriveled. Where was the anticipated sharing of reciprocal sadness, the warm commiseration of mutual loss acknowledged? Hadn't she meant enough to this girl to warrant some visible sign of regret?
Then, she saw that the Girl was not being passive but stoic! She recognized in the Girl's trembling chin, a gift! An apple for the teacher. She would be missed by this wondrous creature!—even if the only reason was that she had taught her to read, and had given up her Saturday mornings to do so. That she longed to be missed for other reasons was the exact reason she had to leave JakesCannon.
"I am very proud of you, my dear. You did so well with Tom Sawyer, I want you to have this . . . " She shoved a book across the polished desk. "It's by the same author. It's called— But of course, you can read it yourself. Can't you?"
The Girl swiped at a tear, which had escaped to her cheek, and stepped forward, staring at the book. She picked it up reverently—a fragile, precious egg—and with her fingertips, touched each word of the title, silently forming them with her lips. When she was ready, she looked up at the teacher and confidently announced, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Beneath the desk, Abigail Thurmond's hands convulsed again into a torturing fist, restraining the awful need to say I love you, and to sweep the Girl into her arms. Instead, she vigorously pushed her chair back with a scraping sound and stood: The JakesCannon Schoolmarm, in charge of her class. "I must ask you now to take the book and go. I have much to prepare, many things to do before I depart. Fortunately, the spring semester ended yesterday and summer hiatus has arrived. I strongly recommend that when school opens in the fall . . . " She babbled on, shuffling papers, performing a charade of detached pedantry. She didn't hear the Girl's tearfully whispered words of gratitude and affection. When she finally looked, the Girl was gone.
For some time she stared at a mote-filled pillar of sunlight, which slanted onto the floor where the Girl had stood, while the clock tick-tick-ticked its relentless subtraction of life's seconds. Empty desks, empty room, empty-ness. Sensible Abigail Thurmond was alone. Again.
Private Walter "The Pork" Smedley stuck the last of the morning's three Baby Ruth bars between his lips and left it dangling there like a dog turd while he adjusted the focus ring on the Captain's binoculars. After a couple of turns, the blurry image merged into a clear, remarkably close view of the schoolhouse below and some two hundred yards away.
Smedley was sure that the Girl would be in there. He had seen her on each of the two preceding Saturday mornings and concluded that her movements on these days were routine. Because he needed to be absolutely certain that what he had seen was not merely the result of his own fantasies projected to the degree of hallucinatory wish-fulfillment, he had asked the Corporal to get him the Captain's field glasses.
Hah! Smedley thought. The Corporal went right into the CC's tent and said he needed the field glasses. No explanation, nothin. Jeez! If we wasn't movin out today—if we had to spend one more week up here in the boonies, the Corporal would flat own the fuckin’ outfit.
The Captain was a young career soldier who had recently suffered a near-tragic miscalculation: He had considered himself a man who merely "drank a little". But, after a week on maneuvers—seven spartan days and nights away from the Post Exchange and Officer's Club—he had begun to manifest the nightmarish symptoms of a withdrawing alcoholic. Sudden, inordinate sweating, hollow darting eyes and uncontrollably fluttering hands were the unmistakable harbingers of disgrace.
Fortunately, the Corporal—alert to any opportunity that might net him extra privileges—had been the first to recognize the Captain's struggle with cold turkey and had discreetly contacted a nearby farmer with whom he bartered Government Issue for good, up-mountain whiskey. The going rate was six 20-gauge shotgun shells and one pair of canvas-top, gum-soled U.S. Keds in exchange for three canteens full of prime, aged-in-the-jug "Corn". The drop spot was a big boulder in the steep woods above the train trestle where, on Saturday mornings while the army was at chow, Smedley was sent to fetch.
It was on the first of these mornings that Smedley had seen the barefoot girl walk across the grass by the swings in front of the little schoolhouse. The sun, cresting the mountain on the other side of the gulley, had sent down vaults of light to fire her golden hair and burn through the perimeters of her thin cotton dress, outlining her body in a radiant halo. Occupied with transferring the contents of the farmer's jugs to canteens, Smedley had been slow to consciously register the dreamlike vision and by the time he gathered some presence of mind, the Girl had disappeared inside the building. Then on the following Saturday, having overslept, he arrived at the rock as the Girl came out, crossed the lawn, and disappeared in the forest. He had wanted to follow her right then, to see her up close. But, as always, when one-on-one confrontation with a girl was possible, fear bullied his desire.
Smedley had never had a real girlfriend. Until the Army rearranged it a little, his body had resembled a ruined pear. During prep school he'd been plagued with oily facial pores, which regularly erupted in humiliating volcanoes of puss. Female rejection was as familiar to him as his penis. Aside from pertinacious masturbation, his only sexual experience had occurred on Prom Night when seven members of the football varsity magnanimously permitted "The Pork" to pungle up the entire cost of gang-banging the town hooker.
Smedley had been last in line and was finished in less than twenty seconds, having given up his goods to the whore's masterly hand as she checked him for signs of "funereal disease". Smedley demanded his money's worth; the whore demanded another five bucks. When Smedley started a whining irksome argument, the hooker ordered him to leave and threatened to call in her protector from the next room. Just then, Pee Wee Scomer, the 240-pound All-State body wrecker and perennial senior, stepped out of the bathroom.
Scomer, who had been first in the saddle, had been waiting for his pals to leave in order to enjoy a private, more extended ride. In answer to the whore's threat, he said in a voice just loud enough to penetrate the paper-thin walls of her flea-trap hotel room that he hoped she would call in her boyfriend as it had been at least three days since he'd torn anyone's lips off.
The boyfriend didn't show; the hooker didn't charge; Scomer got what he wanted—and so did Smedley. It was then that Smedley became aware of the peculiar power resident in the very weakness that motivated him to curry favor with the strong.
Now, he lowered the binoculars, pinched the bridge of his nose and, shifting from one rump to the other, rearranged his position on the rock. He would have preferred a closer vantage point, but just above the train trestle was as close to town as he dared go. Only Military Police and officers were permitted on the rutted streets of JakesCannon. The strictly enforced edict was accompanied by an anonymous threat of "severe penalty". Unable to withstand prolonged physical discomfort, Smedley was not one to be singled out for the rigors of punitive duty. Having survived basic training and six weeks on mountain maneuvers was, he vaguely recognized, a tribute to his adept toadying.
He sucked in the bit of chocolate drool that had run down the outside of his candy bar and decided not to delay the gratification of consuming it, even though eating his last candy bar always left him faintly depressed. He hauled his knees up under his already tiring arms to steady his gaze through the binoculars and saw the schoolhouse door open.
Less than a mile away, where the army was bivouacked on the field at Wheeler Gap, preparations to evacuate were underway. The vast encampment was being systematically dismantled. Tents were being flattened, folded and stacked for loading onto trucks. Engineers and quartermaster personnel were everywhere toting up tent pegs, toilet paper, field phones, boxes of bandoliers, officer's cots and bedding, and countless items, which had to be accounted for in quadruplicate. Profanities rose on the clear morning air as mess men hurried lagging soldiers through the final chow line.
Most men wore 1918 Campaign hats and 1941 fatigues, which were tucked into khaki leggings still green with newness. Near the base of a rock-fall at the southeast end of the field, MPs with .45s hanging from duty belts, chivied about a detail of men with shaved heads and a white letter P stenciled on the backs of their fatigue blouses. These were camp fuck-ups who had earned the task of raking, burying and burning the stinking fly-blown mountain of garbage jettisoned by a thousand men. When the army pulled out that afternoon, they would be among the last. By then, except for felled trees, bomb-blasted craters, crushed vegetation and innumerable shit-holes, the field would appear almost as it had been.
The Corporal was one of few men without an assignment; thanks to the Captain, he was "Off Duty." He glanced at his 17-jewel "curved-to-fit-the-wrist" Gruen Curvex and wondered what was keeping Hollywood.
Hollywood was PFC Edward Pauley, an ex-dockwalloper from California who, before receiving his "Greetings" from the President of the United States, had fought three four-round curtain-raisers at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Hence the nickname. The Corporal had chosen Hollywood to be the collector for his ad hoc loan company, rightly perceiving that the ex-pug's size and strength would inspire prompt remittance.
He was in a tent at the far end of Brigade Street. This was the last area to be dismantled because it housed the company commanders and muster roll clerks, most of whom would be engaged in administrative duties right up to departure time.
"Morning, Corporal," the Captain said, sticking his head through the tent flap. He had an anxious, watery-eyed look and hadn't shaved yet. "Uh, that is, I ahh . . . "
"Won't be long now," the Corporal replied, not bothering to stand. "I'll send it over soon as it gets here."
"Yes. Well. That'll be fine. Thank you." The Captain let the tent flap close and backed into Hollywood who arrived at that moment with two metal trays full of steak and eggs.
"How 'bout some breakfast, Cap'n? Got a real feast here."
The Captain shook his head and departed hurriedly.
Hollywood had "collected" breakfast from the Officer's Mess. The Warrant Officer in charge, like so many others in camp, owed the Corporal several "favors".
Hollywood entered the tent and set the trays on a table beside the teletype machine. "Name yer poison."
"That's the right name for it."
"Donut or bear claw?"
Hollywood unhooked three canteens from his duty belt. "Lessee . . . orange juice, milk . . . coffee."
Smedley burst in, excited, breathing hard. "JeeZUS!" he wheezed. "I SEEN her!
"Did you get the Captain's medicine?"
"Yes, Corporal," the Corporal instructed.
"Yes, Corporal," Smedley echoed. " . . . An' I SEEN her! Through the GLASSES! . . . Like I could reach out and touch her. God-all-fuckin'-mighty. She's, she's . . . "
The little meadow was awash in sunlight. Above, like a cork on quiet water, a lone hawk made tiny adjustments of his tail feathers to float almost motionlessly on invisible thermals of crystal air. Larks and blue jays and squirrels and honeybees sang and chattered and hummed a gentle symphony of summer, taking a shy caesura when the Girl emerged from the forest, then resuming again—like they knew her. She turned completely around to be certain she was the only human present, and when she sat in the parched knee-high grass, her golden hair became a part of it, invisible to anyone who might wander by. Like the mountain cave where she sometimes hid from her half-wit brothers, and the mossy glen beside the brook, this was a special place; this was her sun place. Though no one ever came to her sun place, modesty bid her to look again before letting the dress slip from her bare shoulders . . . and breasts. She closed her eyes and, like a blossom, turned her face sunward, basking it for a full minute before opening the book Miss Thurmond had given her. Then, haltingly, phonetically forming each word, she began to read aloud:
"You don't ku, kunn KNOW ay-bout me with-out you have reed read a book by thee name of . . . The Ad-ven-tures of Tom Sawyer . . . "
A quarter of a mile away, on the dirt road that wound through the forest, three soldiers walked warily, speaking in hushed tones. Smedley took a pull on his canteen, shuddered, and wheezed, "Smooooth."
"Gimme some," Hollywood growled, reaching for it.
"I gave ya some already!" Smedley protested, sequestering the canteen behind his back.
"So? Gimme some MORE, fuckhead!"
"Stop bickering," the Corporal hissed, snatching the canteen. "What've you got in here?"
"Just some a the corn what you been givin' the CC."
The Corporal sampled it and spat. "Tastes like it leaked from the wing tank of a P-40." He turned the canteen upside-down and let the hootch bubble into the dust, eliminating it as an object of contention. He wanted no complications. Not today. He probably should have stayed in camp but, by agreeing to this sojourn, he'd thrown a bit of nourishment to two needy egos. Executive grace, he reasoned. Besides, if Smedley wasn't lying, it might provide a diverting conclusion to several weeks of ennui. He looked at his watch and said, "You and Hollywood better be damn right about this, Pork."
"Hey!" Hollywood protested, "I ain't got nothin' to do with it. The Pork's probably been floggin' his gooney again."
"Twirl on it!" Smedley said, just loud enough to draw a look from the Corporal.
Hollywood grinned; he'd hooked his fish. "After lights-out, ol' Walter's cot gits t'shakin' like tits on a belly-dancer."
"You LIE!" Smedley's voice sirened. "He's LYIN—"
"Lower your voice!" The Corporal growled, pleased to see Smedley wince as though to ward off a blow. A renowned lack of physical prowess was Smedley's best defense: Beating up Smedley was no accomplishment, a fact that enabled him to talk back to men like Hollywood. Mouthing off to the Corporal, however, never crossed his mind. Not that the Corporal ever openly threatened anyone, he never did; though at times he exuded a contempt which implied a most sinister power to punish.
"Honest t'God, you guys," Smedley whispered, managing to make it sound like whining. "When she leaves the schoolhouse she heads for—out here somewheres. Swear to God."
"Let's leave God out of this and take five," the Corporal said, leading them across the road where he plopped on a mat of rotting pine needles and leaned his back against a fallen tree. He pulled the brim of his campaign hat over his eyes and folded his arms across his chest. It was his way of hanging up a "CLOSED" sign.
"Butt me, Pork," Hollywood said, after a minute.
"Don't you ever buy nothin' of yer own?"
Hollywood reached over and plucked the pack of Luckies from Smedley's pocket, put a cigarette in his mouth and one behind his ear, then flipped the pack into the middle of the road.
"You piss-suckin'-shit-ass-fuck-fart!" Smedley sputtered under his breath, scrambling to retrieve the pack.
The Corporal pushed his hat back from his eyes and growled, "Listen up. As deprived as I am, and as much as I'd like to delight this little cupcake Walter's discovered, we gotta be back in camp by sixteen hundred. Capeesh? We don't want to be A-wall the very day we're pullin' outta hillbilly heaven."
"Somethin' else we don't want," Hollywood added, looking at Smedley, "is to stumble onto some good-ol'-boy's whiskey boiler and get our asses shot off."
"You wait," Smedley said, still selling. "You'd trade a pound a yer ass for a pinch a hers,"
"From the size a YOUR ass, I'd say you ain't done much pinchin', Pork."
"Fag! Hollywood Faaaggot!"
"Good Christ," the Corporal hissed through clenched teeth. "Will you morons knock it off? And don't smoke that." He read in Smedley's face an impulse to implore him to restrain Hollywood's niggling and saw it thwarted by the realization that to complain would only inspire more. These two men were precisely the disenfranchised cattle the Corporal had been taught to cut from the herd: Followers in need of someone to follow; men who, by their serving, proved the superiority of the one they served. "Hollywood's right," he whispered, twisting around to gaze out over the fallen tree. "These people aren't like us."
"Fuckin' animals, man," Hollywood went on. "They marry their kin and come out nuttier than squirrel turds."
The Corporal silenced him with a gesture, cocked his head like a robin listening for a worm, then silently bellied over the log and into the ferns. Gazing out from the forest's shadows, he had to squint against the piercing brightness of the meadow. The other two men exchanged glances then snaked over the log beside him. After thirty interminable seconds of silence, Smedley desperately wanted to speak; loathing tension of any kind, he had to bite the back of his own hand to keep from yelling out.
Then they heard it:
" . . . You could easy see that something had been dragged over the ground . . . "
Barely perceptible at first, the Girl's voice had gradually separated itself from the swarming sounds of nature. In her sun place, her nest in the center of the meadow where no one ever went, the Girl had decided to read two more pages before starting up-trail. She knew, by the creeping of her own shadow on the book, how much time had passed, and that she should be getting on—but just two more pages . . . An insect crawled onto her hand; she watched it for a moment then gently nudged it onto the buttery petals of a dandelion. "Lady bug, Lady bug, fly away home—"
A footfall, a displacement of air, sudden quiet—something registered on her wilderness-acquired sonar. She lifted her head and peered over the grass . . .
Nothing. Not a breath disturbed the shimmering peace.
Mister Squirrel chasin' Missus Squirrel, she thought happily and resumed reading: "I did wish Tom Sawyer was there. I know he would take an in-ter-est in this kind of buzzi BIZNESS and throw in thee fancy tuh fancy touches."
A shadow fell over her. She looked up. The sun was directly overhead, rendering the man's features indiscernible in the shade of his hat brim.
"I got your 'fancy touches' babe," he said, grabbing a handful of his own crotch, thrusting it at her face. "You don't need to wish for no Tom Sawyer; Wonder Wand is here."
Two more faceless men loomed, their khaki leggings formed prison bars around her.
"Good-God-a-mighty!" the fat one said, reaching for her breast with his pudgy hand. "Was I right? Or was I right—" She slammed Huck Finn into his crotch, doubling him over.
"BITCH!" he squealed, snatching her book, hurling it away.
She twisted desperately wanting to free herself but the tall man held her easily. "Lordy, lordy," the fat one purred, pulling up her dress, tearing off her pathetic underwear. "Look at that pritty little yellow beaver."
In New York, where spring was giving way to an early summer, a man using the name "Mandel" herky-jerked his old Ford through the teeming, blaring, obscenity-spewing traffic. He watched kids swipe melting daggers from the backs of horse-drawn ice wagons and knew that later, when temperatures soared, they'd cavort under geysers of police-opened fire hydrants.
Mandel's stomach roiled loudly; with one hand he squeezed a chalky pill out of its cellophane wrapper into his mouth. He had not taken the subway today; today was a rare day, a special day, the day.
He parked as planned by the empty lot where Parenccio's grocery store used to be, just a few doors from the alley behind Woo Lin's Laundry, and realized that he'd never once been on this back street. One street over from where he knew everyone and everyone knew him, he knew no one. Though it would have saved time and steps to go directly to the alley, he walked all the way around the block as though he'd come off the subway: Just like every other day. At Duke-the-Dwarf's news stand, he made his usual stop for a morning paper, opened it and scanned the ads. Small talk, he coached himself. Normal, everyday, small talk.
"Where is it all going to end, Duke?" he clucked into the pages.
"Howzzat, Mr. Mandel?" the diminutive vendor asked from atop his perch of boxes behind the counter.
"Prices, Duke. Prices. They're going through the roof! Look at this: A new Chevrolet is nearly eight hundred dollars! And here! Macy's has a two-piece suit on sale—on sale mind you—for over twenty dollars! It's shocking."
"That it is, Mr. Mandel. That it is."
"Still, I suppose things are better than they were. Employment is up. The President promises to keep us out of that awful business in Europe. Though I can't imagine how, what with England suffering so. I see the Yankees are hot . . . and the Giants are not. And—my, my! What's happened to your Dodgers, Duke?"
"Them Bums! A few more stinkers like that an' they'll have t' get outta Brooklyn."
"Fortunately, my friend, that will never happen."
The Corporal stood where he had retreated to the road, only a yard from where the Girl's book lay face down in the dirt. This was wrong, terribly wrong. It was something one read about in novels about the South; something typed on a police complaint form.
He remembered standing over the Girl as she lifted her face—that face!—so unafraid, so innocent, so unutterably beautiful. His first impulse had been to send the men away, to protect her—or take her to himself. He could have ordered it so. Then, when he saw her surrender—or, more properly—cease to resist, her eyes begged him to . . . Oh, God! They begged me to SAVE her! And when he didn't, when she saw that he wouldn't, there came through those gentle windows, a severe look of dark condemnation.
Why him and not the others?
Because she knows that I know the wrong of it, that I am accountable.
Bullshit! I oughta go out there an fuck that little cookie's brains out!
But he didn't. He remained in the sanctuary of the trees, occasionally glancing at the meadow, relieved that what was happening there was screened from him by tall grass. While birds flitted and twitted in the humming heat, he shuddered against a foreboding chill.
In a teeming neighborhood of emaciated stores and arthritic tenements, cabbage, garlic and garbage wrestled for odor-space on a mat of unseasonable heat, which clung to the pavement in shimmering layers. Two weeks of hot days and cold nights had produced a fortnight of dis-ease for the very old, the very young, and the destitute.
A long black Cadillac rolled past Duke-the-Dwarf's news stand and stopped in front of Woo Lin's Laundry where, an hour earlier, two "N.Y.P.D. No Parking" barriers had been placed at the curb. Three men, each with a hand inside his coat like Napoleon, piled out of the car and scanned the street in all directions. After a moment, one of the men—apparently unable to bend his right leg—limped to the car and rapped his knuckles on the roof. The rear door opened and Nino Vitale, a fifty-year-old mountain, got out. His face was avuncular, affable, despite its unmistakable marks of past violence. The man who limped watched it intently, ready to act on any signal that issued from it; he wanted to make a good impression because this was the first time his troop had been tapped to serve the legendary Nino Vitale Il Regulatore.
The awaited command came as a small head gesture.
At once, the man who limped waved his two men into the laundry. Moments later they emerged, nodded solemnly, and stationed themselves on either side of the entrance. After one more look around, Nino leaned into the sedan's open back door and said, "All clear, Ben."
Beniamino Bufano got out. Impeccably attired in a double-breasted suit, Homburg hat and gloves, he bore little resemblance to "Bloody Bumper Benny" who, twenty years before, had earned his tag by masterminding audacious insurance scams. Carrying an expensive pigskin satchel, he strode briskly into the laundry. A glance from Nino commanded the man who limped to precede him, following Bufano. The other two men—punks who tried to look older by wearing fedoras—relaxed visibly and returned to the car. "Check the paper," one said, clicking on the radio. "See if there's a ball game." The other one reached back and snatched his boss's newspaper off the rear seat. Having no interest in the front page, which headlined, "NAZIS INVADE RUSSIA!", he turned directly to the sports section.
Inside the laundry, Woo Lin, a former coolie-organizer from California's Sacramento Delta, locked the front door and put a "Closed" sign in the window. Nino Vitale kept his hand on the butt of a snub-nosed .38 as he followed the man who limped and his boss through the busy laundry room. His eyes roamed the half dozen or so sweating Orientals who were bent to the tasks of washing, ironing, pressing and folding. This was an area that always worried him, the area he'd hit if he were an enemy. One Chink with a Tommy-Gun could take us out before we had time to fart.
The trio passed through a curtained portal into a windowless hall at the end of which was a door with a director's chair beside it. The man who limped unfolded the chair, reached into his trousers and, from his pant leg, extracted the cause of his infirmity: a truncated 10-gauge shotgun. Nino stepped forward, knocked on the door twice, three times, then twice again. A small eye-level port opened and quickly shut. There followed a hissing sound, like a vacuum seal being broken, and the heavy door swung in. Immediately, the scent of forced air brought Bufano a familiar wave of depression.
"Mr. Bufano and Mr. Vitale. Precisely on time," Mandel said, as he put his back against the heavy door, and pushed it shut.
Half an hour later, for the fifth time, Bufano took out his pocket watch; it was as if by checking the time he might hurry its passing. He was at Mandel's desk, shrouded in shadow; only his gloved hands were visible in the soft light of a Tiffany lamp. Earlier, as always, he'd ordered the overhead fluorescent tubes turned off. Their even whiteness reminded him too much of that place where darkness was not permitted, where quiet didn't exist, the place that smelled of men and disinfectant and despair. He nervously fiddled with pencils and paper clips, ledgers and other bookkeeping tools which lay before him. Although this private repository/counting house existed only by dint of his own extraordinary foresight, he hated being in it. Windowless rooms had a way of closing in on him.
Mandel was hunched over a long table, counting bundled stacks of money. Seeing him in the oblique light of the open walk-in safe, reminded Bufano of a feasting carrion bird. Though he knew it was unfounded, Bufano had an instinctual aversion to the gray man. "How long now, Mr. Mandel?" he asked, fidgeting his watch from one side of the desk blotter to the other.
"Not long," Mandel answered, without looking up.
"You're slower'n an owl crappin' bottle caps," Nino growled, from deep shadows on the other side of the room.
"Nino, Nino . . . " Bufano scolded, grateful for a reason to get up and go to the counting table. "The Bookkeeper has his reputation to consider. Isn't that right, Mr. Mandel?"
"Five years, Mr. Bufano," Mandel replied, clutched by a gut-spasm, wishing this posturing ape would shut up.
"Five years!" Bufano echoed. "And not one blemish. Tanto diligenza! It is not enough to say, 'Here is a million dollars'. It must be verified. Yes?" He idly picked up a bundle of bills. " . . . It is the proper way to do things."
Mandel paused, held out his hand and cautioned, "If I lose count I'll have to start again."
Inexplicably annoyed, anxious to be gone, Bufano slapped the money into Mandel's hand. "I'd go stir-nuts in here!"
"Really," Mandel muttered, as he resumed counting. "I find solitude a most trustworthy companion."
"You would! You never go nowhere! You live in a dump. You dress like a fuckin' flood victim—!" Bufano caught himself; what was there about the Jew's equanimity that riled him, so?
"My needs are met," Mandel replied.
Suppressing a real impulse to rabbit-punch Mandel, Bufano smiled and said, "You see Nino? His needs are met. Not like other men, this bookkeeper."
"Tutti gusti son gusti," Nino said, immensely bored.
Bufano translated. "Nino says there's no accounting for taste." Centered again, he clapped a fraternal hand on Mandel's back. "Come on, bookkeeper—just between you an' me an' the gate post. Sometimes you are a little tempted, yes? A small loan maybe—for the nose of a good horse."
Mandel stopped counting and looked directly at Bufano. "Numbers," he said, holding up a stack of bills. "To an accountant, it's all merely numbers. And these numbers are in error."
Bufano smiled dangerously. "Error?" he asked easily.
"Error," Mandel certified. "One million . . . "He peeled off a bill. " . . . and one hundred dollars. Rather careless, you might say."
Bufano took the bill. "Yeah, I might say that. I might say somethin' else if it was a hundred the other way." He stuffed the money in Mandel's shirt pocket. "Keep it. Buy a broad. Get drunk. BE somebody." He threw down a piece of paper and said, "Now sign this so we can get outta here."
"You're not waiting to see it's secured in the vault?"
"Five years without a blemish. Right?"
"Acquista buona fama e mettiti a dormire."
"Which means . . . ?"
"Get a good reputation and one can sleep."
"Ah, yes. Well said, sir."
"Those greens gotta be on the noon plane to Havana, so don't be late Monday Morning. Capeesh?"
"I do indeed capeesh," Mandel said, signing the receipt. "There you are. And thanks for the, uh, bonus."
As soon as the great door opened, the man who limped was out of his chair, shotgun at the ready. Bufano paused in the doorway and said, "One million dollars cash—clean, untraceable—all to yourself for a whole weekend. That's gotta be more than just numbers, Mr. Mandel."
"Perhaps," the bookkeeper answered, evenly. "But where would one hide? There is, after all, 'Bufano's Law'."
Both men smiled charmingly, as if they liked one another.
"Giust'appunto! Where would one hide? One would find that the whole fuckin' world ain't big enough." Bufano's smile disappeared. "Monday morning!" he concluded.
When the door shut, Mandel heard the electric bolts slide and strike. "One million dollars in untraceable bills . . . for a whole weekend." A dull pain throbbed through his left arm. He took a deep breath and leaned against the wall. Don't blow it, now. Let your brain race, not your ticker!
He began stacking the money in a pasteboard box—the same box that Woo Lin had packed his laundry in that morning. He had a giddy picture of Bufano and his hoods discovering clean underwear (Surprise!) in place of clean money. When he finished, there was still room for the fifty thousand "grease" money Bufano kept squirreled in a lock box in the desk. He filled the space on top with folded pillow slips, put the lid on and retied the string, being careful to duplicate Woo Lin's double bow. Hefting it, he noted that it was heavier now and reminded himself to treat it like laundry. Yes. He'd set it on the counter when he bought his regular Friday chance at Woo Lin's punch board. He'd start to leave as though he'd forgotten it, then go back and say, I'd lose my head if it wasn't nailed on. He'd walk to Duke-the-Dwarf's, buy a cigar, hear the latest scores, then proceed as though he were going to the subway. He'd been over it a hundred times. A thousand times. Had he forgotten anything? Was everything in the car? Once he did it, there was no going back.
No going back—His left arm ached, again. Slow down. Take it easy. It's all done. And yet something, some small unrecognized urge nagged him. He took one last look at the silent cell, the fertile filth in which the seeds of his future had been sown and cultivated. "The crop is in," he murmured. "It's harvest time."
He keyed the door's automatic timer, which allowed him five seconds to switch off the lights, slip out and shut it before the bolts slammed. Manny Mandel, top banker for the New York syndicate's policy and loan collections, was about to drop off the face of the earth. We'll see if the fuckin' world isn't big enough. He hit the light switch and, in the nano-second before darkness, caught a glint of something shiny on his desk.
An M.P. outrider straddle-balanced his motorcycle in the middle of JakesCannon's only intersection, waving trucks through. Up the street, on the wood-plank sidewalk in front of Rooke's Emporium, several men sat, sullenly watching the noisy caravan.
Pruitt Goodmark, the Blacksmith, spat a brown glob of tobacco juice into his spit-jar. "Good riddance!" he yelled above the clamor. When the last truck had rumbled past, its diminishing sound echoing through the mountains, he faced his cronies and said, "This calls fer beer, Dudley."
Dudley, who had stopped his incessant whittling, didn't answer; like the others on the bench, he was craning to see around the Blacksmith . . .
The Girl, hair matted, dress disheveled and soiled, had been there for some time; she had arrived at the intersection too late to get around the long parade in either direction, so was forced to wait. Men in the troop carriers had whistled at her and shouted vulgar words—words which, until today, had held little meaning for her.
She looked up Hill Street and saw the Smithy and the others idling in front of Rooke's Emporium, gawking. To reach her destination, she'd have to pass them and they'd ogle every inch of her and whisper and laugh. Dirty ol' coots! But, like a proud horse, she tossed her head and marched purposefully toward them.
The JakesCannon Sheriff Station had a room with two desks behind a low partition. Its brick walls held F.D.R.'s official photograph, an N.R.A. sign, curled "Wanted" posters, a rack of rifles, and a calendar that featured a buxom girl whose abbreviated overalls were snagged on a barbed-wire fence. An interior door led to a four-cell lockup and toilet.
Sheriff Whattly, a fifty-year-old professional with sledge-hammer arms and a hang-over belly, sat at his desk jiggling the holder of a stand-up telephone. "Margaret?" he yelled into the black funnel, " . . . Sheriff Whattly. Ring the Highway Patrol Office in the valley . . . I'll wait."
Alvin Cooper, the younger of three deputies, had been lounging in the open door, sipping an Orange Crush. He suddenly squinted at something down the street, straightened up, and said, "Will you look at whut's a-headin' our way? Great gobs o' goose grease! There oughta be a law. Ought to BE a LAW!"
"Most likely is, Alvin," Sheriff Whattly said, still waiting on the phone.
Alvin vaulted the little barrier, scurried to his desk, took out a mirror, spit on his hands, and pasted down an unruly cowlick. "It's that little yaller-haired mountain girl!" he jabbered. "Headin' right fer US! Ye gods an' little fishes!"
"If y'all talkin' 'bout the moonshiner's girl," Whattly said, "y'best keep yer pecker in yer pocket, Alvin. Else her ma'd like to shoot it offa yuh." His party came on the line.
"That you Ed? . . . Sheriff Whattly, over t' JakesCannon. Thought you'd like to know the Army's cleared out. Convoy oughta hit the highway in about two hours. What? . . . Longest damn month I ever—Howzat? . . . No, we pretty much kept 'em outta town 'cept fer yer majors an' such. No. It's what they call 'War Games'. An' just as noisy as the real thing. Cows went dry; hens wouldn't lay—" He looked toward the door as Alvin gushed, "Well, howdy DOODY, Miss. An' whut kin we do fer YEW?"
"Gotta ring off, Ed . . . Don't mention it." Sheriff Whattly cradled the receiver and got up.
At the front door, amorous Alvin got his mind together and noticed the Girl's appearance. Trying for something that sounded both sympathetic and amusing, he said, "Why, yer all flubbered up! Yer ol' man's STILL explode?" His donkey-snort died abruptly, skewered on a look, sharp enough to draw blood.
The doorway filled with Sheriff Whattly's bulk. "Go muck out the jail, Alvin," he commanded.
"I done mucked it out ALREADY!"
"Do it again, boy. Now."
Fidgeting his knobby hands and muttering, Alvin shuffled out like a lovesick stork. Neither the Sheriff nor the Girl noticed because they were staring at each other. After a moment, mute understanding having passed between them, the lawman asked, "Who done it, girl?"
For the first time, her poise faltered; to hide a trembling chin, she lowered her face and softly replied, "Hit war three o' them outlanders."
"Come inside." Whattly got Alvin's chair and waited for the Girl to sit before asking, "What're the boy's names?"
She lifted her face and tossed her hair back, proud again. "They warn't obliged t'tell, an' I warn't obliged t'ask."
"But they were soldiers. Army boys."
The Girl looked at the floor and nodded.
"Damn! Nothin' we can do, now. They GAWN!"
"But . . . yew c'd TALK to somebody!" she protested. "Yew c'd talk into the electric TELEPHONE an' make 'em come BACK!"
"Girl," he said gently, leaning closer to her. "I'd have to bring back the whole damned Army. Then you'd have to look at 'em all to find the ones what done it an' they'd say you was lyin' an' there ain't no way I could prove you ain't an all as would happen is I'd prob'ly lose my job. I ask you: What good would come a that?" He hated the sound of his own logic—so puny in the face of this magnificently obdurate victim. He felt oddly bested. God knows, he thought, I'd like nothing more than to drag the bastards back here and fix 'em so's they'd spend the rest of their lives havin' to sit to piss.
"Look," he said, unfortunately giving voice to the very next thing that occurred to him. "You don't want yer shame broadcast all over JakesCannon—"
"SHAME!?" The Girl shot to her feet. "MY shame?"
"Hold on, now," Whattly said. "I didn't mean it like that. What I mean is it'd be a SHAME t'set folks' TONGUES t'waggin'!" He undid his shirt collar, and wished the Girl would quit looking at him. "You got to realize," he continued, miserably. "Yer growed now an—an too danged pretty to be struttin' 'round JakesCannon in them dresses yer maw makes. Why, you c'n all but see—I mean, you might as well be—SOME men just naturally get wrong-headed when they—"
The Girl turned and headed for the street.
"Aw, now, girl," the Sheriff said, wretchedly, getting up to follow her. "Looky here, it's near dark. I'll have my deputy get the Hudson an' drive you safely up to, well, yer trail."
"No, thank ye," she said on her way out, not looking back. "In the dark, I'm safer by m'self."
The wino, as fragile as a wren and badly in need of "medicine", shuddered so violently that he had to grab the lamp post to keep from falling into the gutter. It made him forget why he was there—Waiting for someone? Dully, he decided to move on before the owner of the liquor store came out and ordered him to. As he turned to go, the street light directly over his head came on with startling suddenness; he looked up and had to shield his eyes. The two nearly simultaneous reflexes made him dizzy. He regained a balancing sense of horizon by gazing west where, at the earth's edge, a narrow ribbon of pink was wrapping up the day. Across the river, silhouetted by twilight, Manhattan's skyscrapers rose like jagged teeth on a rusted saw. The wino's few unpickled brain cells bestowed on him a single realization: The days were growing longer. This clear thought, once in residence, elbowed out of his consciousness its only other tenant: the reason he'd been told to wait. He let go of the lamp post and ambled off in search of medicine and an empty doorway.
Inside the liquor store, Mandel was told, "Put the money on the counter. I don't let you liced-up bums touch me."
Mandel shakily counted out thirty cents for a brown-bagged bottle of Muscatel. His hands and face were dirty, he wore a ragged overcoat, frayed-cuff trousers, vented canvas sneakers, and a sweat-stained hat. Clutching the package to him as though it held the Sacred Scrolls of Bumdom, he weaved out to the street—What? His man was gone! After ten minutes of searching shadowy doorways where derelicts were settling down for the night, he found his man in an alley, gathering newspapers to sleep under.
Half an hour later, at the Bus Depot, Mandel purchased a ribbon of perforated tickets, then shoved and caromed and stumbled across the room, through a milling throng of civilians and servicemen, to the lavatory, which was apparently occupied by only one man. He was at a sink, using an electric razor, his sales kit protectively viced between his feet and legs; a Val-Pak and suit coat were draped over the door to a closed toilet-stall. Under that same door, Mandel could see the ragged shoes and trouser legs of the wino he'd so carefully selected.
He had to get rid of the salesman.
"Hey!" he yelled, lurching drunkenly into the room. "Jus' the man I'm lookin' for!"
"Bug off, dick-head," the salesman growled into the mirror.
"Bugoff? Din' I get that bug off?" Mandel shook himself like a dog out of water and sidled closer to the salesman. "Lissen, lissen. I c'n git a deal. Good stuff for on'y a buck. All I need is one more quarter. Whaddya say? Two bits? Real deal."
"I wouldn't give you the shit-stripe outta my shorts."
" . . . How 'bout a dime?"
The salesman laughed until Mandel retched and elaborately hawked up some genuinely sick-sounding mucoflocculance.
"JeeZUSS!" the salesman cried, retreating, nearly gagging. "Get away from me, yuh fuckin' flea-bag! There!" He tossed some coins into the urinal. "DIVE for it, putz!" He yanked the plug on his razor, grabbed up his stuff and hurried out.
Mandel peeked through the door crack to see if anyone else was coming. No one was, so he opened the toilet stall where the wino sat sipping Muscatel; a small suitcase rested on the floor beside him. Mandel hauled the wino to his feet and quickly got the old overcoat and oily hat on him. He'd chosen well: The wino was of the same height and build as he, making the small transformation effective. He thrust the bus tickets into the wino's hand, repeated the instructions he'd given him twenty times before, gave him some money, and sent him on his way.
"Your attention, please." The voice booming out of the lavatory loudspeaker made Mandel jump. " . . . Bus for Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Niagara Falls and Buffalo with connections to Ontario, Canada . . . now loading."
Heedless of protests, the wino shuffled past a queue at the back door and went directly to the bus driver, who detained him only long enough to tear off the appropriate tickets.
Ten minutes later, hardly anyone in the depot noticed the dark-haired merchant seaman come out of the men's room. Clean now, wearing a navy pea coat, black watch cap and eye patch, Mandel strode briskly to the front entrance and, at a chromium receptacle, put out the hand-rolled cigarette he'd been smoking. He tarried until the bus pulled away, then went to where his old Ford was parked, opened the trunk, took out a canvas sea bag, hoisted it to his shoulder, and hailed a cab.
In mid-town Manhattan, he switched to a different cab, which took him to Grand Central Station where he bought a one-way train ticket to Baltimore and gave it to the first sailor he saw wearing a pea coat. From there he hoofed uptown. After tossing his eye-patch and wig into a sewer drain, he turned down a side street where a new, 1941 Buick station wagon was parked. He got in, put the sea bag on the floor of the passenger side, dug into the clothes on top of the sea bag, pulled out a Colt .45 automatic, jacked a round into its chamber, notched the hammer to its ready-safety position, folded his wool cap around the barrel and wedged it between the seat and his crotch.
As he drove off into the night, he quietly sang, "Mister Maxwell had a farm . . . ee-aye ee-aye ohh."
The Girl stood at the wood sink, washing berries under the hand pump. Freshly bathed, hair still damp, she had put on clean overalls. Burning logs snapped and crackled in the stone fireplace and, out on the barn roof, an owl hooted. Down in the valley, a dog yowled at dark clouds scudding across a misty moon. A soft breeze set the old rocking chair on the porch to squeaking and puffed in the flour-sack curtains at the window. A tubercular rumble from across the room made the Girl stop what she was doing and look at the woman in the pine bed.
A hand, like twigs on a spindly branch, rose from the patch-work quilt, beckoned and fell. "Neva'mind that," the old woman rasped, fighting the need to cough. "Come. Let me see ye." The Girl let the berries fall into the sink, dampened a rag, and went to kneel beside the bed. "Y'got t'eat, maw," she murmured, placing the rag on the woman's brow. "The broth-pot's simmerin' an' I plucked a passel o' yer fav'rit berries."
The quivering twigs touched the Girl's hair, and in a feeble voice, between quick shallow breaths, the woman said, "Yer soppin', girl. It be gotten to a late hour. Where wuz ye?"
Except for steadfastly insisting that her mother's life was worth living, this would be the Girl's first deliberate lie: "I studied on m'book til my eye-bones was near ruint, an' reckon I fell t'slumber. Then, when I woke, I set t'pickin them berries an' t'warn't til I was clear up on the trail that I recollected leavin' m'book down below. I got m'self dog-dirty with all that traipsyin, so I dunkered in the crick."
"Did ye retrieve yer book?"
"Yes, ma'am. Would it pleasure ye t'have me read on it?"
The woman was wracked by another spasm of coughing.
"You need some soup—"
"Git the sewin' basket." The woman let her eyes close as the riptide of death pulled her back, back to . . .
The mossy glen, that fern-filled nook, no more than an owl's hoot from where her husband practiced his vulgar alchemy. The mossy glen, where two young lovers . . .
"Maw?! I thought you was—Here's the sewin' basket."
"Whu? Oh. Open the needle-tin . . . That's it. Now, take out the yarn . . . "
The Girl removed a wad of blue yarn from the old taffy tin and gasped. She turned the tin over and dumped out several one-dollar bills and a handful of coins. "Why, it's a God-lovin' treasure! Jus' like in my readin' books!"
"Photo . . . ," the woman rasped, pointing a bony finger.
The Girl felt inside the tin; something smooth was wedged along its curved sides. She pulled out a photo of an attractive young couple who were cheek-to-cheek, smiling into a camera held at arm's length by the man. His shirt sleeves were rolled to the elbows, and he wore no hat. The Girl felt an almost painful tingling in her scalp and arms; these two faces held the very essence of her own. "It's yew," she murmured. "So beautiful. The man—I mean—Who is he, maw?"
The woman took the photo and held it to her as though it might keep her from falling off the earth. "Lay my head down."
"It makes the coughin' worse when yer all the way down, maw."
The Girl gently removed two pillows. "I'll fetch yer soup." She started to get up, but the twigs restrained her.
Her breath coming in rattling spasms, the woman fought the need to cough. The twigs, which had remained on the Girl's exquisite forearm, now bid the Girl to bend. When the young ear was nearly touching the old mouth, the old mouth whispered: "Take the money. Go away. Tonight."
"It's my time, child. . . . Past time."
The Girl pulled away, but not before a tear rolled from her cheek onto the woman's lips.
"Don't grieve me, girl. I been dead a long time."
"I'll run an fetch the healer!"
"Harken to me, child. I'm goin'. An when I'm gone, there won't be no body t'keep him away from you—him an' the boys. They don't know no better. They'll kill one another over you."
" . . . Ain't yer paw."
The Girl had to stifle a cry of jubilation. As long as she could remember, she'd felt guilty for loathing him.
"Hear me," the woman pleaded. "They jugged today. They'll stay the night at the still like a pack a dogs guardin' a bone . . . Don't be here when they git back!"
"But, but where—?"
The woman rose up. "In the name of GOD: PROMISE me!"
"I DO," the Girl sobbed, afraid for her mother—and for herself. "I promise!"
The woman fell back and folded up like a burned butterfly. Thank ye, Jesus. She was ready. The Girl would be safe. The Girl—the seraphic manifestation of her life's only treasured episode; the secret, which would now remain forever sequestered in her soul. She felt herself drift out again, on that mortal tide . . . out, toward the mossy glen. Sometimes, in the sadness of Love's Promise Broken, she wondered if she'd ever really been there and shared those few tender caresses and soft utterings with the young man whose eyes were the color of morning glories; or if the memory of it was merely the invention of her lonely heart, seeking to expel her, however briefly, from the grip of endless drudgery. Such doubts were abruptly squandered in the presence of the Girl, whose exquisite beauty was immutable verification of one exalted moment when the universe exploded, and heaven's promise had been fulfilled. "Victorrr." The beloved name floated softly on her final breath and, for a beat, the dim light in her eyes flared. Then went out.
Dawn hauled up night's dampness, through the trees, into a congealing sky; it would rain today. A finger of sunlight speared a gap in the gray billows and down, through the cabin window, to a dusty foot. The Girl had finally fallen to sleep, kneeling beside her mother. What? She bolted up. A sound, unclear yet frightening, had presaged her sudden awakening. Then, the remembering—which came like a sickness and brought with it the realization that today would be different from all the days that had ever been. She started to pull the quilt back from her mother's face for one last look and heard again what had awakened her: From down-mountain, the bugling of hounds rose on the crystal mist like an approaching specter.
Don't be here when they git back!
She picked up her small bundle, tied it to the end of a stick, and backed out of the only world she'd ever known.
“ . . . the story starts with a bang . . . how and where and who will die remain tantalizing mysteries as the pursuit takes the players to the west coast, and the story branches out to include some stellar war scenes and some sleazy Hollywood doings. . . . the narrative voice crackles with personality, and the pacing accelerates like a runaway train.” —
“Girl from JakesCannon is extremely well-written. The historic sweep of years is informative and sets up the characters with a great background, giving the reader a foundation upon which the author can easily weave a convincing story. The descriptions are lovingly, honestly detailed even to the unsavory habits and aspects of mountain life, yet an essential charm remains. . . . A tantalizing introduction!” —
“The writing is terse. The ideas flow very rapidly, almost machine gun style.” —
Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards Semi-finalist 2009 @ top 100 out of 10,000 entrants worldwide!