Excerpt from Edge of Dark Water
That summer, Daddy went from telephoning and dynamiting fish to poisoning them with green walnuts. The dynamite was messy, and a couple years before he’d somehow got two fingers blown off, and the side of his face had a burn spot that at first glance looked like a lipstick kiss and at second glance looked like some kind of rash.
Telephoning for fish worked all right, though not as good as dynamite, but Daddy didn’t like cranking that telephone to hot up the wire that went into the water to ’lectrocute the fish. He said he was always afraid one of the little colored boys that lived up from us might be out there swimming and get a dose of ’lectricity that would kill him deader than a cypress stump, or at best do something to his brain and make him retarded as his cousin Ronnie, who didn’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain and might hesitate in a hailstorm.
My grandma, the nasty old bag, who, fortunately, is dead now, claimed Daddy has what she called the Sight. She said he was gifted and could see the future some. I reckon if that was so, he’d have thought ahead enough not to get drunk when he was handling explosives and got his fingers blown off.
And I hadn’t ever seen that much sympathy from him concerning colored folk, so I didn’t buy his excuse for not cranking the phone. He didn’t like my friend Jinx Smith, who was colored, and he tried to make out we was better than her and her family, even though they had a small but clean house, and we had a large dirty house with a sagging porch and the chimney propped up on one side with a two-by-four and there were a couple of hogs wallowing out holes in the yard. As for his cousin Ronnie, I don’t think Daddy cared for him one way or the other, and often made fun of him and imitated him by pretending to bang into walls and slobber about. Of course, when he was good and drunk, this wasn’t an imitation, just a similarity.
Then again, maybe Daddy could see the future, but was just too stupid to do anything about it.
Anyway, Daddy had these tow sacks—about ten of them—and he and Uncle Gene had them full of green walnuts and some rocks to heavy them up, and they had them fastened on ropes and thrown out in the water, the ropes tied off to roots and trees on the shore.
Me and my friend Terry Thomas had gone down there to watch and help, because we didn’t have nothing else we wanted to do. Terry didn’t want to go when I told him what I wanted to do and where we were going and that I wanted him there with me, but he broke down finally and went and helped me toss bags and pull up fish. He was real nervous about the whole thing because he didn’t like either my daddy or my uncle. I didn’t like them, either, but I liked being outside and doing things that men do, though I think I would have been more happy with a line and a hook than bags of walnut poison. Still, I liked the river and the outdoors better than I liked being at the house with a mop in my hand.
My grandma on Daddy’s side always said I didn’t act like a girl at all, and I ought to stay home learning how to keep a garden and shell peas and do women’s work. Grandma would lean forward in her rocker, look at me with no love in her gooey eyes, and say, “Sue Ellen, how you gonna get a husband you can’t cook or clean worth a flip and don’t never do your hair up?”
Course, she wasn’t being fair. I’d already been doing woman’s work for long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers. Most of that bragging took place after he got liquored up good. I’d had me a taste of liquor once, and I didn’t like it. I can say the same for chewing tobacco and cigarettes and anything that’s got lettuce in it.
As for putting my hair up, she was really talking about certain religious ways, and I couldn’t figure that God, with all he had to worry about, would be all that concerned with hairdos.
This day I’m telling you about, Daddy and Uncle Gene was drinking a little and tossing those sacks, and the water was turning dark brown where the walnuts went in. After a while, sure enough, a bunch of brim and sun perch come floating belly up.
Me and Terry stood on the shore and watched while Daddy and Uncle Gene got in the rowboat and pushed off and went out there with nets and gathered them fish like pecans that had fell on the ground. There was so many I knew we’d be eating fried fish not only tonight, but tomorrow night, and after that we’d be eating dried fish, which is another thing I forgot to put on my list of stuff I don’t like. Jinx says dried fish tastes like stained shorts smell, and she won’t get an argument from me. If they were smoked proper, that was all right, but dried fish are a lot like trying to chew on a dead dog’s tit.
Walnuts didn’t really poison the fish to death, but it stunned them up a mite and made them float to the surface, white bellies showing, working their gills. Daddy and Gene gathered them up with nets on a stick and put them in a wet tow sack for gutting and cleaning.
The sacks was tied to the shore with ropes, and me and Terry went down there to start pulling them in. The walnuts still had enough green in them they could be used downriver to stun more fish, so we was supposed to save them. We got hold of a rope and started pulling, but it was real heavy and we couldn’t do it.
“We’ll be there d’rectly to help out,” Daddy called from the boat.
“I think we should cut this one loose,” Terry said to me. “No use straining our guts out.”
“I don’t quit that easy,” I said, and looked up to see what was going on with the boat. It had a hole in the bottom, so Daddy and Uncle Gene couldn’t stay out long. Uncle Gene had to bail it out with a coffee can while Daddy paddled the boat back to the bank. When they had it pulled out of the water, they came over to help us.
“Damn,” Daddy said, “either them walnuts has got heavy as a Ford or I’ve gotten weak.”
“You’ve gotten weak,” Uncle Gene said. “You ain’t the man you once was. You ain’t the strapping example of prime manhood I am.”
Daddy grinned at him. “Hell, you’re older than me.”
“Yeah,” said Uncle Gene, “but I’ve took care of myself.”
Daddy let out with a hooting sound, said, “Ha!”
Uncle Gene was fat as a hog, but without the personality. Still, he was a big man in height and had broad shoulders and arms about the size of a horse’s neck. Daddy didn’t even look kin to him. He was a skinny peckerwood with a potbelly, and if you ever saw him without a cap it was cause it had rotted off his head. He and Uncle Gene had about eighteen teeth between them, and Daddy had most of them. Mama said it was because they didn’t brush their teeth enough and they chewed tobacco. There were times when I looked at their sunken faces and was reminded of an old pumpkin rotting in the field. I know it’s a sad thing to be so repulsed by your own kin, but there you have it, straight out and in the open.
We all pulled on the rope, and finally, just about the time I thought I was going to strain my guts out, up come that bag. Only it wasn’t just the bag. There was something caught up in it, all swole up and white, and dangling long strands of wet grass.
“Now, wait a minute here,” Daddy said, and kept pulling.
Then I seen it wasn’t grass at all. It was hair. And under that hair was a face big around as the moon and white as a sheet and puffy-looking as a feather pillow. I didn’t know who it was right off, till I seen the dress. It was the only dress I’d ever seen May Lynn Baxter wear. A dress spotted with blue flowers and so faded you could barely tell what color the flowers had been in the first place, and it had gone a might short on her as she had grown tall.
Only time I’d seen her not wearing it that I could remember was when me and her and Terry and Jinx slipped out one night and went to the swimming hole for a dip. I had thought she was so pretty there in the moonlight. Not a stitch on, well formed, with moon-blond hair to her waist, and that dress hanging on a limb next to the river. She moved like she was hearing music we couldn’t. I knew then she was gonna be the kind of girl that made single men turn their heads and take a deep breath and married men wish their wives would catch on fire. Fact was, she already was that kind of girl.
Terry didn’t pay her no mind, and I think it’s because he might be a sissy. There’s a rumor he is, and part of the rumor has to do with a boy from the far end of the river that come up one summer to visit relatives. I don’t know if it’s true, but I don’t care one way or the other. I’ve known Terry since we was babies, and from what I’ve seen of man-and-woman love, it mostly has to do with Daddy lying around and not doing much, getting drunk, and hitting Mama in the eye. One time, after he’d beat her up pretty good and went out fishing, a rainstorm come up, and I lay on my bed hoping a bolt of lightning would shoot out of the sky and hit him in the top of the head, knock them few teeth out of his skull and kill him, leaving nothing behind but his cap. I know that’s mean, but that’s how I was thinking.
I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.
So there lay May Lynn, partway on the shore, that dress having grown smaller on her over the years, and smaller yet on account of how she had puffed up.
“Her eyes is swole shut,” Uncle Gene said. “She’s been in the water a bit.”
“It don’t take no time at all to look like that,” Daddy said. “You get drowned and don’t float up overnight, that’s how you get.”
All of a sudden May Lynn started to flutter and leak. Gas coming out of her, and it smelled real bad, like a giant fart. Her hands was tied behind her, twisted up in rusty wire, and so were her feet, which was pulled up to meet her hands. Her skin had swelled around the wire—the wire that had gotten tangled up in our bag.
When we pulled her completely up and laid her out, we seen there was a Singer sewing machine fastened around her feet with more wire, several pieces of it twisted together to make it strong. The wire had gone deep into her wet flesh, all the way to the bone. The weight of that Singer was why all four of us was needed to pull her up.
“Ain’t that May Lynn Baxter?” Daddy said.
He had just figured who it was, his ability to see into the future dragging its feet until the future had arrived. He turned to me for an answer.
I could hardly get the words out of my mouth. “I reckon that’s her.”
“She was only a girl,” Terry said. “She was our age.”
“Age ain’t got nothing to do with living or dying,” Uncle Gene said. “But no doubt about it, she’s twisted her hips for the last time.”
“I reckon we ought to do something,” Daddy said.
“I think we ought to cut our rope free and push her back in,” Uncle Gene said. “She ain’t gonna get no deader if she ain’t found, and her daddy won’t have to know she’s dead. He can think she run off to Hollywood or something. Wasn’t that what she was always saying she was gonna do? I mean, it’s like a dog dies and you don’t tell the kid, and they think the dog is living with someone else, or something like that.”
“She doesn’t have any real family,” Terry said, not looking at her, but looking out at the river. “We were her only friends, me and Sue Ellen and Jinx. She isn’t a dog.”
Daddy and Uncle Gene didn’t look at him. It was like he hadn’t said a thing.
“We could do that,” Daddy said. “We could push her back. She wasn’t known to be of much account anyhow. And they’re right. She ain’t got no real family, with her mama and brother dead, and her daddy in love with the bottle. It wouldn’t do no harm to just let her sink. Hell, he didn’t miss her much when she was alive, and with her dead, he still won’t miss her.”
“You ain’t pushing her back,” I said.
Daddy took note of that. He turned and looked at me. “Who you talking to, little girl? You ain’t talking to your elders like that, are you?”
I knew it might mean I was going to get a thrashing, but I stood by my guns.
“You ain’t pushing her back in.”
“She was our friend,” Terry said, and I saw tears in his eyes.
Daddy reached out and slapped me on top of the head with the palm of his hand. It hurt. It made me a little dizzy.
“I’ll make the decisions around here,” Daddy said, and leaned his face close to me. I could smell the tobacco and onions on his breath.
“You didn’t have any reason to strike her,” Terry said.
Daddy glared at Terry. “Don’t be talking above your raising.”
“You aren’t my daddy,” Terry said, stepping out of range, “and if you push May Lynn back in the water, I’ll tell about it.”
Daddy studied Terry for a moment. Probably judging distance, wondering how fast he could reach him. It would have required too much work, I reckon, because the tension drained out of him. Daddy Don Wilson wasn’t one for expending energy if he didn’t have to, and sometimes even if he had to.
Daddy twisted his withered mouth a little, said, “We was just funning. We ain’t going put her back, are we, Gene?”
Uncle Gene looked Terry over, then me.
“I suppose not,” he said, but the words sounded to me as if they had been burned real good and were mostly charred.
Daddy sent Terry into town to get the constable, but didn’t let him take the truck. He made him walk. It would have been easy enough to have loaded the body in the back of the truck and driven us all into town, but that would have been too damn convenient, and that wasn’t Daddy’s way. And he didn’t like Terry on account of he figured he wasn’t the way he thought a man ought to be. Uncle Gene had a truck, too, but he didn’t offer it, either. I think he just didn’t want a dead gal in the back of it.
I sat on the shore and looked at May Lynn’s body. It was gathering flies and starting to smell and all I could think of was how she was always clean and pretty, and this wasn’t a thing that should have happened to her. It wasn’t like in the books I had read, and the times I had been to the picture show and people died. They always looked pretty much like they were when they were alive, except sleepy. I saw now that’s not how things were. It wasn’t any different for a dead person than a shot-dead squirrel or a hog with a cut throat hanging over the scalding pot.
Shadows came tumbling through the trees and over the water and you could see a bit of the moon shining on the river; it looked like a huge face floating up from the bottom. The crickets had started to saw at their legs pretty seriously, and there was a louder gathering of frogs that came with the dark. If I hadn’t been staring mostly at a dead body, it would have been kind of pleasant. As it was, I felt numb, the way your arm will get if you sleep on it, but I felt like that all over.
Daddy built a fire a ways from the body to sit by while we waited on Terry and the law, and Uncle Gene gathered up the fish and carried them up to his truck. He took them to be split up with us, and to take the rest over to his house and his wife. Since he and Daddy had gone to pulling at a jug before he left, he was lit up good, and I figured if he didn’t wrap the pickup around a tree in the dark, when he got home he’d make his wife, Evy, clean the fish, and then he’d give her a beating. Uncle Gene said he liked to give her one a day when he could, and one a week when he was busy, just to let her know her place. He had even offered to give me one a couple of times, and Daddy thought it might be a good idea. But either Mama was there stop it, and ended up getting beat on by Daddy instead of him beating on me, or he eventually played out on the idea because it got in the way of his drinking.
Anyway, Uncle Gene decided it was best to go home, and left Daddy to his business.
Daddy tried to get me to come over and sit by him near the fire, but I stayed where I was. In dark places he liked to touch, and it made me feel strange and uncomfortable. He said it was a thing fathers did with daughters. Jinx told me that wasn’t true, but I didn’t need her to explain it to me, because I could tell inside of me it wasn’t good. I sat away from the fire, and though it was a warm enough night, the fire did look inviting. But all I could think about was how Daddy was. How his breath smelled of whiskey and tobacco most of the time. How when he was really drunk, the whites of his eyes would roll up from the bottom like a frightened horse. How if he tried to touch me he’d start breathing faster, so I just kept my place in the shadows, even when the mosquitoes started to show up.
“You and that sissy boy going to stir things up don’t need stirring,” Daddy said. “We’d pushed her back in the water, we’d be home by now. Most things you decide to deal with you could skip.”
I didn’t say anything to that.
“We should have kept a fish or two to fry on the fire,” he said, like maybe it was my fault Uncle Gene had packed them all up and toted them off. There were still a few that had washed up to the bank, but he wasn’t willing to leave the fire and go get one to clean and cook. And I wasn’t about to do it. All I could do was think about May Lynn and feel sick, and I had to keep my eye on Daddy cause the drunker he got the bolder he got, and the harder he talked. You never knew when he might do something stupid or scary. That’s how he was. He could be laughing and having a good time, and the next thing you knew he’d pull a pocketknife and threaten to cut you. He didn’t look like much, but he was a known hothead and knife fighter, and was supposed to be good with his fist, and not just when he was hitting women and children. He was also known to tire out quick and start looking for a place to nest.
“You think you got it hard, don’t you, baby girl?”
“Hard enough,” I said.
“I tell you what hard is, that’s when your own father sets you out the door and locks it and won’t let you come back for a night or two. And when he does, it’s just because cows needed milking and eggs needed gathering, and he wanted someone to hit.”
“Well, now,” I said. “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did it?”
“You ain’t never milked a cow in your life,” he said.
“We ain’t never had one.”
“I’m going to get one, and when I do, you’ll milk it. You’ll do same as I did.”
“It’s a thing to look forward to,” I said, and then I shut up. The way he twisted his head and turned the jug of hooch in his hand told me it was time to be quiet. Next thing I knew that jug would be flying through the air, and he’d be on me, his fist swinging. I just sat there and kept watch and let him suck his liquor.
The moon was high and the night was settled in heavy as stone by the time we seen a light coming over the hill on the trail that split down between the thick woods that led to the river. Along with the light came the rumble of a truck, the crackling of tires over a pocked road, and the swish of close-hanging limbs dragging alongside of it.
When the truck was down the hill and still a good ways from the water, it stopped, and I could hear Constable Sy Higgins pulling on the parking brake. He left the motor running and the lights on. He got out of the truck like a man climbing down from a tall tree with a fear he might fall. Terry got out of the other door and came down quickly. When he was close to me, he said so no one else could hear, “He’s drunk. I had to get him out of bed, and he didn’t want to come. He said it wouldn’t have hurt to just push her back in the water.”
“That’s the law for you,” I said. “Now if we could get the clergy here and the mayor, we’d have the perfect pile to smell.”
Constable Sy sauntered down the hill with a flashlight shining in front of him, even though the headlights on the truck were bright enough to see how to thread a needle. He made toward the fire, his belly bouncing before him like a dog leaping up to greet him. Daddy got to his feet, staggering a little. They were drunks together.
“Where is she?” Higgins said, pushing his fedora up on his head. When he did, I could see his hard face and the patch over his eye. Way the shadows fell, it made that eye look like a black tunnel. Rumor was he’d had it scratched out by a black woman he raped. The holster that held his gun was said to be made out of an Indian’s hide, and had been passed on to him by Indian-fighter relatives. It was probably just a story.
Constable Sy hadn’t even bothered to look around and find May Lynn. It wasn’t like she was hidden in the woods under a tarpaulin. All you needed was one good eye to find her. A blind man would have noticed her right off.
Daddy led him over to the body while me and Terry watched. Constable Sy shined the light around on her and the sewing machine lying nearby. He said, “She’s squatted to pee for the last time, but I think maybe the sewing machine can be salvaged.”
Daddy and Constable Sy snickered together.
“Wasn’t nothing wrong with her,” I said. “She’s the one murdered. She’s the one that’s had something done to her. There ain’t a thing funny about it.”
The constable shined his flashlight on my face. “Girl, you ought to know children ain’t supposed to speak unless spoken to.”
“That’s what I tell her,” Daddy said.
“I ain’t a child,” I said, dipping my head and squinting my eyes against the light. “I’m sixteen.”
“Yeah, well,” the constable said, moving the light from my head to my toes. “I can see you ain’t as much a kid as I remember.”
I don’t know how to explain it, but that light running up and down me wasn’t any different than a hot yellow tongue; it made me feel kind of sick.
“Why don’t you and your girlfriend there go sit down out of the way?” Daddy said.
That made Constable Sy snicker, and Daddy liked that. I could tell the way he stood a little straighter and his chest went out. There wasn’t nothing made him feel better than belittling somebody, unless it was hitting somebody upside the head that didn’t expect it.
Terry sighed, and me and him went over and sat down on the ground by the fire. Constable Sy went to his truck and got an old blanket out of the bed, and then he and Daddy, using the toes of their boots, sort of kicked poor May Lynn onto it, wrapped her up, carried her, and put her in the constable’s truck bed. When they dropped her back there, it sounded like someone tossing a big dead fish on a smooth flat rock.
“You could have done this yourself,” Constable Sy said. “You could have brung her in and we could have looked at her in the morning.”
“I’d rather your truck stank than mine,” Daddy said.
May Lynn didn’t have a mama anymore, cause her mama had drowned herself in the Sabine River. She had gone down with some laundry to soak, and instead wrapped a shirt around her head and walked in until the water went over her. When she came up, she wasn’t alive anymore, but she still had that shirt around her noggin.
May Lynn’s daddy was someone who only came home when he got tired of being any other place. We didn’t even know if he knew his daughter was missing. May Lynn used to say after her mama drowned herself her daddy was never the same. Said she figured it was because the laundry around her mother’s head had been his favorite snap-pocket shirt. That’s true love for you. Worse, her brother, Jake, who she was close to, was dead as of a short time back, and there wasn’t even a family dog to miss her.
The day after we found her, May Lynn was boxed up in a cheap coffin and buried on a warm morning in the pauper section of the Marvel Creek Cemetery next to a dried patch of weeds with seed ticks clinging to them, and I suspect some chiggers too small to see. Her mother and brother were buried in the same graveyard, but they hadn’t ended up next to one another. Up the hill was where the people with money lay. Down here was the free dirt, and even if you was kin to someone, you got scattered—you went in anyplace where there was room to dig a hole. I’d heard there was many a grave on top of another, for need of space.
There were oaks and elms to shade the rest of the graveyard, but May Lynn’s section was a hot stretch of dirt with a bunch of washed-down mounds, a few with markers. Some of the markers were little sticks. Names had once been written on them, but they had been washed white by the sun and rain.
The constable ruled on matters by saying she had been killed by a person or persons unknown, which was something I could have figured out for him. He said it was most likely a drifter or drifters who had come upon her by the river. I guess they had been carrying a sewing machine under their arm.
He didn’t make any effort to search out her murderer or find out why she was down there. For that matter, there wasn’t even a doctor or nobody that looked at her to be sure exactly how she was killed or if she had been fooled with. Nobody cared but me and Terry and Jinx.
The service was conducted by a local preacher. He said a few words that might have sounded just as insincere if they had they been spoken over the body of a distant cousin’s pet mouse that had died of old age.
When he was through talking, a couple of colored men put the plain box down in the ground using ropes, then started shoveling dirt in the hole. Outside of the colored men, and the preacher and the seed ticks, we had been the only ones at the funeral, if you could call it that.
“You’d think they was just taking out the trash, way that preacher hurried up,” Jinx said, after they left.
“Way they saw it,” I said, “that was exactly what they was doing. Taking out the trash.”
Jinx was my age. She had her hair tied in pigtails that stood out from her head like plaited ropes of wire. She had a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid. She wore a dyed blue flour-sack dress that had some of the old print faintly poking through, and she was barefoot. Terry had on some new shoes, and he had gotten from somewhere a man’s black tie. It was tied in a big knot and pulled up tight to his neck, making him look like a bag that had been knotted near the top. He had enough oil in his black hair to grease a truck axle, and it still wasn’t quite enough to hold his wild mane down. His face was dark from the sun, and his blue eyes were shiny as chunks of the sky. None of us was happy with what had happened, but he was taking it especially hard; his eyes were red from crying.
“No one will make a concerted effort to discover what happened to her,” Terry said. “I think a search for the truth is out of the question.”
I loved to hear Terry talk, because he didn’t sound like no one else I knew. He hadn’t dropped out of school like me, as I was having problems with it being so far and no way to get there and I didn’t like it much anyhow. My mother, who was pretty good educated, didn’t like that I had quit, but she didn’t get out of bed to make much of a complaint against it; that might have required her putting on her shoes.
Terry liked school. Even the math part. His mother had been a schoolteacher and gave him extra learning. His father had died when he was young, and as of recent his mother had taken up with and married an oilman named Harold Webber. Terry didn’t get along with him even a little bit. Webber made Terry’s mother quit teaching school to be home with the kids, and then she started a seamstress business, but he made her kill that, too, and toss out all her goods, because he believed a husband took care of his wife and she shouldn’t work, even if she liked the work she did. In the end it was all about the same anyhow, as jobs, especially for women, had become as rare as baptized rattlesnakes.
Since that marriage, Terry had a look in his eye like a rabbit that was about to run fast and far.
Jinx could read and write and cipher some, same as me, but she hadn’t learned it in school. Coloreds didn’t have a school in our parts, and she had been taught by her daddy, who had gone up north to work for a while and learned to read there. He said it was better in the north for coloreds in some ways because people acted like they liked you, even if they didn’t. But he come back because he missed his family and being in the South, since he knew right off who the sons of bitches was; there wasn’t as much guesswork involved in figuring who was who.
But when times got bad, that didn’t keep him from heading north again. He hated to do it, he told Jinx, and meant it, but he had to go up there and make some money and mail it back to her and her mother.
None of us was happy in East Texas. We all wanted out, but seemed stuck to our spots like rooted trees. When I thought about getting out I couldn’t imagine much beyond the wetlands and the woods. Except for Hollywood. I could imagine that on account of May Lynn talking about it all the time. She made it sound pretty good, even though she had never been there. Still, that’s where I wished to be. But as I had learned from Jinx, shit in one hand and wish in the other and see which one fills up first. She said the same thing about prayer, but I had never taken it on myself to test the notion.
We decided to go to May Lynn’s house and see if her daddy was there so we could let him know the bad news, tell him he missed the funeral. Our guess was if he was home, he would know by now, but it was something to do, and to tell it true, if he wasn’t home, we wanted to take a look around. I can’t explain it, but I guess we didn’t want to let go of May Lynn just yet, and going where she lived seemed a way to keep her memory warm.
With her dead, a lot of hopes I had were gone. I always figured May Lynn just might go off to Hollywood and be a movie star, and then she’d come home and take us back with her. I never could figure why she would do that, or what we might do out there, but it beat thinking I was just gonna grow up and marry some fellow with tobacco in his cheek and whiskey on his breath who would beat me at least once a week and maybe make me keep my hair up.
None of this kind of thinking mattered, though, because May Lynn didn’t become a star. Truth was, as of late, we hadn’t known her very well ourselves. By the time she showed up in the water wired to that Singer sewing machine, I reckon I hadn’t seen her for a month. I figured it was similar for Terry and Jinx.
Jinx said she thought May Lynn had come of the age to think hanging with colored kids might not lead to stardom. Jinx said she didn’t hold it against her, but I had doubts about that. Jinx could hold a grudge.
As to what happened to May Lynn, I had ideas about that. Nobody loved a picture show the way she did, and she’d hitch a ride with anyone if they’d get her into town on Saturdays to catch a show. Men were always quick to pick her up. Me, I’d have had to lay down in the middle of the road and play dead to have them stop, and even then they might have run over me, same as they would a dead possum. Could be May Lynn got a ride with the wrong person; an angry Singer sewing machine salesman. It was a stretch, but I figured it was better detective work than Constable Higgins had done.
To get to May Lynn’s house from our side, you either had to walk ten miles up to the bridge and cross over and walk about ten more on the other side along the edge of the river, or you could cross by boat to the far bank and walk right up to her house. It would save you hours.
We used Daddy’s boat, the one with the little hole in the bottom, and while me and Terry rowed, Jinx used a coffee can to bail the water out. After a while, I took a turn and she rowed.
Trees leaned way out over the river and there were long vines and dangles of moss hanging near the surface of the water. There was the usual turtles and water snakes swimming about, long-legged birds diving down to take fish out of the water, and those little bugs that flittered along the water’s surface like dancers.
We had been going along for a ways when Jinx said, “You hear that?”
“Hear what?” Terry said. He was still wearing his knotted tie, but he had slid the knot down so that it was no longer tight against his neck.
“That knocking sound,” Jinx said.
We stopped rowing and listened. I faintly heard it.
“That’s trees striking and rubbing together in the wind,” Terry said. “They’ve grown up too close to one another, and that’s the sound they make. See how brisk the wind is?”
I looked at the trees, and they were blowing right smart. The water was wind–rippled, too.
“It might be the wind doing it,” Jinx said, “but that ain’t trees knocking together. Them’s bones.”
“Bones?” I said.
Jinx pointed toward the riverbank, where briars and brambles twisted tight around the trees. “Somewhere back in the thicket there is where Skunk lives. He hangs out bones on strings, and when the wind blows, they bang together. Human bones. That’s that sound you hear, them bones.”
“There isn’t any Skunk,” Terry said. “That’s an old wives’ tale. Like the goat man that’s supposed to live in the woods. It’s just a tale to scare children.”
Jinx shook her head. “Skunk is real. He’s a big old colored man that’s more red than black, with twisty red hair; he wears it wild, like it’s a bush. They say he keeps a dried-up bluebird hanging in it. He’s got dark eyes as dead and flat as coat buttons. They say he can walk softer than a breeze and can go for days without sleeping. That he can live for weeks sipping water from mud holes and eating roots and such, and that since the only baths he ever had was when he fell in the river, or when he got caught out in the rain, he stinks like a skunk and you can smell him coming a long ways off.”
Terry let out a laugh. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“He’s part Indian—Seminole or Cherokee or something—and that’s why he’s red-touched. He’s a tracker used to live in the Everglades over in Florida. He’s a stone killer. Ain’t nobody bothers Skunk unless they want someone caught, or dead is more likely. He chops off hands and takes them back to prove he’s done the business he was hired to do.”
“Even if there is a fella with a bird in his hair, and his name is Skunk,” I said, “I don’t think that’s bones from his place rattling. Terry’s right; that’s treetops knocking together. I’ve heard that sound before, and not just in this place.”
“Well,” Jinx said, “he moves his place around. And if that is trees, not bones, it don’t mean Skunk ain’t out there. I know people that have seen him. I know one man told me he hired Skunk because his wife run off and he wanted Skunk to find her. He said Skunk must have misunderstood or didn’t care. All he brought back was her hands, chopped off right at the wrist with a hatchet. Old man told me the story said he didn’t ask where the rest of her was, and he paid up, too. What Skunk wanted from him wasn’t money. He wanted all the man’s blankets and the food he canned for the winter, and his biggest, fattest hunting dog. Old man gave it to him, too. Skunk carried that stuff off in a wheelbarrow, the dog tied to a rope, walking alongside him. Old man said Skunk didn’t use no hunting dogs because he was better than any of them. He figured the dog was for dinner.”
“And he’s got a big blue ox named Babe,” Terry said. “And he can rope a tornado and ride it like a horse.”
Jinx was so mad she almost stood up in the boat.
“He ain’t like no Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill,” she said. “You’re making me mad. He ain’t no story. He’s real. And you better watch out for him.”
“It wasn’t my intention to make you angry, Jinx,” Terry said.
“Well, you done made me angry,” Jinx said. “Big angry.”
“Sorry,” Terry said.
“Go on, Jinx,” I said, soothing her ruffled feathers. “Finish telling about him.”
“He don’t talk much, unless it’s to who he’s gonna kill. They say then he can’t talk, just makes funny sounds. I know cause Daddy told me he knew a fella had got away from Skunk, just by accident. That Skunk had been hired to get him, found him, tied him to a tree, and was gonna cut his throat and chop off his hands. The tree this fella was tied to was up against the bank next to the river. It was an old tree, and though this fella wasn’t thinking about it on purpose, he was pushing with his feet to get away from Skunk. The tree was more rotten than it looked, because there was ants at the base, and they had gnawed it up. This fella told Daddy he could feel them ants on him, biting, but he didn’t hate them none, because they had made that old tree rotten, and with him pushing with his feet, pressing his back into the trunk, it broke off. He went backward into the water. When he hit, the log floated, spinning him around and around, him snapping breaths every time he was on top of the river. Finally the log come apart altogether, and that loosened the ropes and he swam out to a sandbar and rested, and then he swam across to the other side. Course, none of it done him any good. Daddy said that later, after he told him about it, he wasn’t seen no more. Daddy said it was because he didn’t have sense enough to go up north or out west, but had stuck around. He figured Skunk finally got him. Skunk ain’t no quitter, though he can wander off from a trail for a while if he gets bored. He gets interested again, he comes back. He always comes back, and there ain’t no end to it until he’s got whoever he’s after.”
“Why was Skunk supposed to be after this man?” Terry asked.
“I don’t know,” Jinx said. “Someone hired Skunk to get him, and Skunk got him. Reckon he chopped off his hands and gave them to whoever hired him, or maybe he kept them himself. I don’t know. As for what was left of the fella, I bet he rotted away in the woods somewhere, never to be seen again.”
The boat was drifting lazily toward the bank. We started paddling again.
“He’s in them woods,” Jinx said, not through with her Skunk business. “In the dark shadows. He don’t do nothing but wait till someone wants to hire him. He’s out there somewhere, in his tent made of skins, all them bones hanging around it, rattling in the breeze. He wraps all those bones in that tent and straps it to his back and moves about, sets up camp again. He’s waiting till someone wants him. They got to talk to one of his cousins to go up in there and find him, because he won’t let no one else come close, and they say even his cousins are afraid of him.”
“How did he get the way he is?” I asked her.
“They say his mama couldn’t stand him no more cause he was crazy, and so when he was ten, for his birthday, she took him out in the river and threw him out of the boat and hit him in the head with a paddle. He didn’t die. He just got knocked out good and floated up on shore. He took to living ’long the riverbank, and in the woods. Later, his mama was found with her hands chopped off and her head had been stove in with a boat paddle.”
“How perfect,” Terry said, and he laughed.
“You laugh, you want,” Jinx said. “But you better believe it. Skunk’s out there. And you run up on him, it’s the last running you gonna do.”
Finally we come up on the spot by the river where May Lynn had lived, paddled the boat up there, and leaped out on the bank. Terry had hold of the rope that was tied to the front of the boat, and he looped it around a stump by the water. Then for insurance we all dragged the front end of the boat out of the water so the hole in the bottom was on dirt.
Just before we started up to the house, Jinx looked out over the river and pointed. Jinx was a big pointer. She was always pointing out this and pointing out that. Every time we were there Jinx would point out that spot. It’s where May Lynn’s mother went into the river with a shirt wrapped around her head.
“It was right there,” she said, as if we didn’t know.
We walked up a hill, which was slick with pine needles. The house was on top of the hill and it was raised on a bunch of leaning creosote posts; it was up high like that so that when the river rose it wouldn’t float away. With the way it leaned, I reckoned it wouldn’t be long before the whole shebang was shoved off and went tumbling downhill and into the river, about where May Lynn’s mama had gone down.
When we got to the top of the hill, just so we wouldn’t surprise May Lynn’s daddy and get our teeth filled with shotgun pellets, I called out, “Hallo the house.”
No one answered, but we waited a minute anyhow. Just in case he might be napping off a drunk. There was an outhouse farther up the hill, and there was a ditch that ran off from it out into the water, which was the plumbing. What went in the hole in the outhouse went down the hill through that open ditch, and into the water. Terry studied the toilet for a while, then said, “That isn’t very sanitary. You should keep your body leavings away from water. It’s standard knowledge. You dig a pit, not a runoff. That’s lazy.”
“Her old man is lazy,” I said. “What else can you say?”
We had been standing below and near the house, waiting to see if anyone came out. When they didn’t, we called out again, all three of us calling at the same time. Still no one answered.
There were some steps going up the ten-foot rise to the weathered, sagging porch, and we walked up them. They shook as we climbed. The sides of the steps were fixed onto the platform by wooden rails, and where there should have been a step at the top there wasn’t one. You had to stretch your leg out and climb carefully onto the landing, which wobbled when we climbed up on it.
We called out one more time, but still no one answered. Except for Cletus Baxter, there wasn’t anyone left to answer. There had been May Lynn’s brother, Jake, but he came to an end about a year back. Word was he robbed banks, but according to most he knocked off filling stations. He hid out down in the Sabine bottoms between station jobs and nobody would tell the cops on him. It wasn’t that he was all that well liked, but he was one of the river people, and he had a gun and bad temper and at any moment either one of them could go off.
Course, Constable Sy Higgins knew he was there, but he didn’t care because Jake kept him paid up. Constable Sy, according to folks I heard talk, was always glad to hear Jake was about a new job of stealing, cause it meant the constable was going to have a fresh supply of whiskey, or a new eye patch.
As for Jake, before the real law could close in on him, if they were ever going to, he come down with a cold and got pneumonia and died right in the house.
When no one came to our knock at the door, Terry said, “What in the world are we doing here? May Lynn is back at the graveyard.”
I was the only one that had ever actually met Cletus Baxter. All of us had been in the house a few times to see May Lynn, but when Terry and Jinx were with me, Cletus was never there. When I had seen him, he hadn’t so much as acknowledged me with a fart or a nod. Her mama we had all known; a quiet, thin woman with hair the color of damp wheat, a face like all the sadness in the world.
Even Jake we had all seen, a dark-eyed man with a handsome face marred by a scar across his right cheek where an old shotgun had blown apart on him when he was about our age. He was friendly enough, but always eyed us like we might be young feds out to gun him down for stealing twenty-five bucks from a filling station.
“It is funny,” I said. “Here we are, and I don’t know what for.”
“We is just plain nosey, that’s what for,” Jinx said.
I knocked on the door again, and this time it moved. We all stood there looking at the crack that was made when it did, then I reached out and pushed at it, and went inside just like I had been invited.
Terry and Jinx followed.
“This isn’t right,” Terry said.
“It sure ain’t,” Jinx said.
Neither of them turned around, though. They kept coming after me.
The house was just one big slanting room that was sectioned off by blankets hung up on ropes so the blankets could slide back and forth. The biggest section was for May Lynn’s daddy, and there were several blankets stretched across the house for his part. One of his blankets was pulled back and I could see a cot in there and a little table with a Bible on it that was stuffed full of papers. When I looked more closely, I saw they were cigarette papers for rolling. There was a tin of Prince Albert on the stand, too, and all over the place—the table, the bed, the floor, and even on the one wooden chair—there was specks of tobacco, like dirty dandruff flakes. I remembered I had watched him roll a cigarette once, and his hands shook so bad from being on the end of a weeklong drunk, he scattered tobacco everywhere.
Part of the room had been divided for a cooking place, which was a woodstove with a pipe that ran out a hole cut into the wall by a window. Over the window was curtains made of the same blue flowers that had been on May Lynn’s dress.
May Lynn’s part was sectioned off by blankets, and it wasn’t much. If Jake had ever had a section, it had been taken over by his old man. It was hard to believe four people had ever lived there.
We moved May Lynn’s blankets aside and took a peek. She had a little feather mattress on the floor, and it was stained by water and sweat. There were two near-flat pillows on the mattress. One of them had a pillowcase made of the same material as her dress and the kitchen curtains. The other didn’t have a case. There was a dresser with a cracked mirror up against the wall. It had belonged to May Lynn’s mother, and it was the only piece of real furniture in the house.
On top of the dresser was a huge stack of movie magazines. There was a chair by the dresser and one at the end of the bed. May Lynn used to sit in one chair and I would sit in the other, and she would show me the magazines and the people in them. They seemed like people from a dream, like angels descended from heaven. They didn’t look like anyone I knew except May Lynn, even if she didn’t have the clothes for it.
Jinx touched the magazines, lifted them, said, “These here all put together is heavy enough to sink a boat.”
“She certainly loved them,” Terry said.
“I figured she’d go off someday and become a movie star,” I said. “I figured anyone could do it, it was her.”
Terry sat down in the chair at the end of the bed and picked up one of her pillows. He said, “It smells like her. That drugstore perfume she wore.” He put the pillow down and looked at us. “You know, May Lynn really ought to go to Hollywood.”
“She’s a whole lot dead,” Jinx said, sitting down on the mattress.
“She should still make the journey,” Terry said, and crossed his legs. “It’s all she ever wanted, and now she’s ended up buried in a hole like a dead pet. I don’t think that’s how it ought to end for her.”
“And I don’t think I ought to stink when I’m straining in the outhouse,” Jinx said, “but so far it don’t work no other way.”
“We could take her to Hollywood,” Terry said.
“Say what?” I said.
“We could take her.”
“You mean dig her up?” Jinx said.
“Yes,” Terry said. “She won’t dig herself up.”
“That’s certainly true,” I said.
“I mean it,” Terry said.
Me and Jinx looked at one another.
Jinx said, “So we dig her up and carry her and the coffin all the way to Hollywood on our backs, and when we get there, we go over to see the movie people and tell them we got their next star, a dead body that don’t look nothing like May Lynn used to look and has a smell about her that could knock a bird out of a tree and kill it stone dead?”
“Of course not,” Terry said. “I’m merely stating the obvious fact that we haven’t got so many friends that we should not care about a dead one. I think we have to dig her up, give her a funeral like they used to give heroes in ancient Greece. You know, burn her on a funeral pyre and gather up her ashes; the ashes can go to Hollywood.”
“She ain’t a Greek,” Jinx said.
“But she was a kind of goddess, don’t you think?” Terry said.
“What she was was a river-bottoms kid that was very pretty that came up dead with a sewing machine tied to her feet,” I said. “You’re crazy, Terry. We can’t dig her up and set her on fire, take her ashes to Hollywood.”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” Terry said.
“How’s that?” Jinx said.
“It won’t mean anything to her, you’re right,” Terry said. “Being dead takes the fun out of things. I know. I once had a dog that died and I prayed that he’d come back to life, but he didn’t. And I finally decided God had brought him back, but hadn’t let him out of the hole. I went out and dug him up to help him out, only he was still dead and not looking very good.”
“I could have told you how that was going to turn out,” Jinx said.
“It isn’t like any of us want to remain here,” Terry said.
“That’s true,” Jinx said. “I do, I’m gonna end up wiping white baby asses and doing laundry and cooking meals for peckerwoods the rest of my life. And if that’s what I got coming, I might do like Mrs. Baxter and wrap a shirt around my head and go in the river.”
“Don’t even say that,” I said.
“I just did.”
“Well, don’t say it again.”
“There isn’t anything for us here,” Terry said. “You can’t really grow here. Not the way we should. We stay here, there will always be some kind of weight on our heads, holding us down. I like the idea of taking May Lynn’s ashes to Hollywood and sprinkling them around where she’ll always be a part of it. May Lynn had an adventurous spirit about her, and I think she was no more than a few months shy of departing from this place.”
“She should have hurried up,” Jinx said.
“We have a chance to leave,” Terry said. “All we have to do is reach out and embrace it. Together we can make it work. We can help each other achieve that goal.”
“What you need is a good meal and some sleep,” I said, looking at Terry.
Terry shook his head. “No. What I need is a shovel and some friends to help me dig her up. Then we burn her and the magazines together. It’s symbolic that way.”
“Symbolic?” Jinx said.
“Then we put the combined ashes in a jar—”
“A jar?” Jinx said.
“Or some kind of container,” Terry said. “Then we float down the river to a good-sized town, catch a bus, and head for Hollywood.”
“A bus?” Jinx said.
“Stop being a mockingbird,” Terry said, frowning at Jinx.
“That sounds crazy,” I said.
“I like crazy better than I like being around here,” Terry said.
“That’s two of us,” Jinx said.
They both stared at me, waiting for agreement, I suppose.
“Let me think about it,” I said.
“I know you,” Terry said. “You aren’t really going to consider it. You’re just saying that so I’ll shut up.”
“While you think about it,” Jinx said, “me and Terry are gonna be setting May Lynn on fire with them magazines, and by the time you’ve decided one way or the other, we’ll be in a boat, maybe one without a hole in the bottom, on our way to Hollywood with that gal in a jar.”
“I know this much,” I said. “The Sabine River don’t go to Hollywood.”
“Yeah, but we’ll arrive there somehow,” Terry said.
I could almost see the wheels in his head turning.
He lifted his head and his lips curled at the edges. “There’s the barge. We could take the barge. It’s big enough to live on.”
“It’s too big for some of the narrow spots,” Jinx said. “We might go better by patching up the boat, or getting some other one.”
“I bet we can get it through those spots if we put our backs into it,” Terry said.
“The barge, as you call it, ain’t nothing more than a raft,” I said.
“You could actually dock it against the bank at night and sleep on it,” Terry said.
“I want to think about it,” I said, feeling the pressure, hoping the whole thing would go out of his and Jinx’s head by the time we got back across the river.
“What’s to think on?” Jinx said. “You told us you can’t even sleep good for watching for your daddy coming into your room.”
I nodded, thinking about how I usually slept with a piece of stove wood in the bed next to me, my door locked, one eye open and an ear cocked. “That’s true.”
“Well, then,” Terry said.
“I got some things to do at home first,” I said, still thinking it was all going to be forgotten in a short time, but actually beginning to warm to the idea.
“All right, then,” Terry said. “We can all go home and prepare, and if either of you have any money, now would be a good time to bring it.”
“I have a quarter,” I said. “That’s it.”
“I got the teeth in my head,” Jinx said.
“I have a few dollars,” Terry said. “But what we really need is a plan.”
We gathered up the magazines, and decided it was okay because May Lynn told us her daddy always thought her wanting to be in the movies was silly, told her wanting to be on a screen dressed up like a hussy in tight clothes and wearing makeup like war paint wasn’t any plan for a grown woman. That meant those magazines would soon be burned up for fire starter or tossed out to rot when he came back and found out she was dead. I figured that portion of the house would become his, too, littered with cigarette papers and tobacco crumbs.
Anyway, we took them, and as we was stuffing them into a couple of pillowcases, a writing tablet with a red cardboard cover fell out and hit the floor. Jinx picked it up and said, “Look here.”
Scrawled on the front of it in May Lynn’s handwriting was the word . The writing was in pencil, and it was so rubbed over, and the cover so dark to begin with, you could hardly see the word.
“You think we should peek inside?” Jinx said.
“We shouldn’t,” I said, “but I know we will.”
“If we’re going to steal her body and set her on fire and take her ashes to Hollywood,” Jinx said, “I think we must go in for the whole hog, including the squeal.”
“Not here, though,” I said, switching my viewpoint instantly. “We can go somewhere, sit, and read it. I don’t want her daddy showing up, and us having been housebreakers and thieves right out here in the open. Criminals, I think, should act in privacy or the dark.”
“Perhaps we ought to burn it with the magazines,” Terry said, taking the diary from Jinx’s hands so deftly I figured it was a full minute before she realized she wasn’t holding it no more. “She isn’t here to say we can look at it.”
“That’s the proper thing to do,” I said. “Burn it. But is that what we’re gonna do?”
Jinx said, “We all know we’re gonna look at it, so we should get on with it.”
“I thought it might be good manners to at least act like we wasn’t,” I said.
Going home right then went out of my mind like a bird that had been let loose from a cage. We decided to go someplace private and read the diary. But when we went out of the house, Terry, still clutching the diary, left me holding the pillowcase full of magazines and went to the outhouse.
“Don’t you read none of it in there,” Jinx said.
“I won’t,” Terry said.
“Leave it,” I said.
“Nope, cause I trust me not to read it,” he said. “But you two, I don’t.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” Jinx said, as Terry went into the outhouse and closed the door.
Not too far down river there’s the barge, the one Terry said we ought to steal. It’s staked out like a Judas goat to an old cypress stump in the middle of the water. It’s really just a big raft, but everyone calls it a barge. There’s a tree branch that has spouted off the stump and it grows tall and green and puts out shade at one end of the barge. Midday and dead summer, the shade looks green because of the way the sun shines through the leaves and lays on the rough planks nailed over the logs. The barge is tied to the stump with thick twists of weathered rope, replaced from time to time by someone with fresh rope and the desire to do it. Where the barge sits, the water is wide. The barge can hold a fair number of people on it, and it was put there by someone long ago that’s been forgotten. Whoever built it made it solid, and the wood has held and hasn’t rotted. The bottoms of the logs and boards used to make it are coated in creosote. Everyone uses it, and no one has moved it for at least ten years. Storms and high water have been unable to tear it up, even if on occasion the water has risen higher than the rope that binds it. Sometimes when the water is way up, the roped end of the barge stays down, and the loose end floats to the top and you can see that end sticking out of the water. When the water settles, it’s like nothing ever happened. Sometimes when I walk along the river and look out at it, I can see frogs on it, or long yellow-bellied water snakes and sometimes water moccasins, looking thick and stumpy and evil and ready to bite.
Whoever gets there first uses it as a place to picnic, fish, and swim. At night, kids skip the shorts and skinny-dip there. It’s said there’s been a few babies made there on blankets when the night is deep and the water is smooth and the moon is shining a silvery love light. And I don’t doubt it.
There have been a lot of drownings around the barge, and there’s been talk about setting fire to it so folks won’t go out on it. But the thing is, people will always go in the water, and they’ll always drown, and they don’t need a barge to do it. Some even do it on purpose, something May Lynn’s mother proved without a barge. As for wearing a shirt over your head, you can do it or not—it’s not expected.
We paddled and bailed our boat on down the river until we came to the barge. There was no one there, only the shade.
We climbed out of the boat onto the barge and pulled the boat up behind us. It was tough work, but we did it. Under the shade of the leafy limb we sat down, and Terry opened the diary. There were a number of pages torn out of it, and doodles in the margins. Terry started reading it aloud. It wasn’t written the way she talked, but instead she had tried to make it proper. It made me sad. It had some truth to it, but it also had a lot of things that might not have happened—things that May Lynn felt certain would occur someday. Like going to Hollywood and being discovered in some soda shop or such, and then becoming a big star. She told how this had happened, when I knew it hadn’t. She hadn’t never got out of East Texas, let alone to Hollywood.
She talked about us in passing, like you might point out you seen a redbird the other day. I won’t kid you, that bothered me a little. I figured we was worth more than a spotty mention. Here we was going to her funeral and planning on burning her up and taking her out to Hollywood, and we didn’t get no more consideration than that. I felt the story of her life, even with lies, might have given us a bigger role.
The shadow was spreading wider by the time Terry came to the part in the diary that made our plans, everything we had talked about, real. It was a part that caused me to cry inside and made me scared a little, though I can’t tell you exactly why. It was the part that sealed the deal about us going to Hollywood. It was the part that would change our lives and make it so nothing would ever be the same again.
It was a page or two about her brother, and there was a photograph of her stuffed inside the diary. It was a good one, but she had ways about her a photograph couldn’t hold; even in that old faded flower dress she looked like a million bucks. And there was another thing inside of the diary, a little map put down on thin paper. This map, along with things we read in the diary, let us know that her brother, who we knew to be a thief, was a bigger thief than we thought; though I guess she could have made the whole thing up, like some of the other stuff she had written down.
May Lynn wrote about her brother: “This isn’t something I should put down, because it is a scandal to the family.” But she was doing it anyway, because it was her diary, she said, and she could write what she wanted. There was no one to see it but her and the lamplight.
Her take on Jake’s theft wasn’t what I expected. She said Jake gave her some of the money he stole. Her daddy got some of it, too, and that she was always glad to see Jake coming, not only because she loved her brother, but she liked that he had money. She thought soon he’d give her more than just enough for perfume and a picture show; maybe enough for some new clothes and a bus ticket to Hollywood.
The diary said Jake had mostly centered his attentions on service stations and little stores until he took in a partner named Warren Cain, and because of that he got his courage up. They came to a little town that had a bank, and he and Cain went in there and robbed it at pistol point, jumped in the car and drove off, and came here to the river bottoms to hide away. There wasn’t any more mention of Warren Cain, but a few pages later, May Lynn wrote how before Jake got the chest sickness and died, he buried all the money he stole cause her daddy kept sniffing around, trying to lay his hands on it, and Jake knew he’d drink it up, quicker than a cat can jump.
“Jake gave me a map,” she wrote,
so I could find the money. He may just be out of his head and none of what he says is true, and the money may be all gone. And what he says about how I need to be careful may not be anything to worry about. I asked what it was I should be careful of, and he said getting killed. When I asked by what, or who, he began to roll his eyes up in his head, as if something might be standing on the ceiling. I guess it was. I guess it was the Angel of Death that he saw, because it wasn’t more than a minute after he done that, that his eyes glazed over and I realized he had quit breathing and was gone on.
If the money really is there, I’m going to try and find it and go off to Hollywood to get my start. I think God must want me to have this money, or he would not have let my brother rob banks and bury it and then die. I thank God left this money for me.
When Terry quit reading, he said, “That is an interesting conclusion.”
“Sounds to me like stealing,” I said. “And if God left her the money, then he’s a thief, too.”
“It sounds to me like a way to get out of this hellhole,” Jinx said. “And though I ain’t no thief under normal situations, I knew where that money was, I’d be on it like stink on a dead possum.”
“We can follow the map,” Terry said.
“What if it’s just one of her tales?” I said. “The diary is full of them. And it’s even missing pages, for some reason.”
“I presume that was her way of editing it,” Terry said. “Writing things about yourself and putting them in a diary can even be difficult. There’s always some part of you, I suppose, that fears someone will see it.”
“Like three friends who stole it from her house,” Jinx said.
“Like that,” Terry said. “I think a lot of this is more like a novel, or a long short story. Maybe she started out to write a diary and there just wasn’t enough to talk about that was interesting.”
It certainly had in it all manner of nonsense about how she had been writing big movie stars and they had been writing her back, and how she had sent a picture of herself in and a producer liked the way she looked and wanted her to come on out. All of that was just foolishness, and nothing else, but some of it I knew to be true. Some of it was about things I knew had happened.
“Well, now,” Terry said, “we know Jake was a robber, isn’t that correct? And she has written down a detailed map that she said she got from her brother on his deathbed, so—”
“All we got to do,” said Jinx, “is take that map and follow it, see if it leads somewhere, and then split up the money and run like bastards.”
“Not exactly what I had in mind,” Terry said. “But it has occurred to me that with Sue Ellen’s quarter, and your ‘nothing but teeth,’ Jinx, and me having a few dollars, we might not get far, or however far we manage to go there might be very little comfort to it. But once we get downriver, to a town, money can make things a lot better. So if we go and see if the stolen money is there, and if it is, we take it. Then we do what I said about the body. Burn it up and carry her ashes out to Hollywood. It’s what she wanted.”
“It’s stolen money,” I said.
“We don’t even know what bank it came from if we wanted to give it back,” Terry said.
“See there?” Jinx said, nodding quickly several times. “We ain’t really got no other choice.”
“We could give it to the authorities,” I said.
“Constable Sy?” Terry asked.
“There’s bound to be someone else,” I said.
“There might be,” Jinx said, “but I don’t want to find them suckers. Constable Sy would just take it for his own self. I want to do what Terry wants to do, and I say we do it on the cheap, and if there’s money left over we split it. And if you’re all that bothered about it, Sue Ellen, I’ll take your cut.”
“Say there was bank money,” I said. “Why didn’t May Lynn take it and go off on her own?”
“Maybe she wasn’t ready,” Jinx said. “Maybe she couldn’t figure out the map. That don’t mean the money ain’t there and that she didn’t plan to take it. Now that I think on it, we ought to take a bus. I don’t like water all that much. I can swim, but not so good, and there’s snakes and such. On a bus, I have to ride in the back in the colored part, like dirty laundry, but at least I’m a whole lot less likely to drowned or get snakebit.”
“And where do we catch that bus?” Terry said.
“Gladewater,” Jinx said. “That’s how Daddy goes. He walks across the Sabine River bridge, catches a ride to Gladewater, then gets the bus there, takes it up north to Yankee land. We’d take our bus out west.”
“Your daddy has a car,” I said.
“Now he does,” Jinx said. “But that’s how he went the first time. By bus.”
“Best way for us to arrive in Gladewater is to take the river,” Terry said. “It’s quicker than walking, and more certain than a ride, and we don’t have to wonder who it is we’re riding with. Catching a ride might be why May Lynn’s dead. She may have caught it with the wrong kind of person. I say we take the money and steal her body and burn it up, and jar it up, and then float down near Gladewater, walk in and buy tickets at the bus station, and proceed to Hollywood.”
“There’s some sense in that,” Jinx said. “And when we get to Gladewater and take the bus, we can use some of the money to buy lunches to tote with us. I’ve always wanted to buy a lunch. Though you’ll have to buy it for me. There’s that whole colored thing about going into cafés and such.”
“Don’t worry,” Terry said. “It’ll be taken care of.” He looked at me. “You aren’t saying much.”
“I’m sitting here considering on my life of crime and how it could help me buy a lunch for a bus trip.”
“It’s money that has already been stolen,” Terry said. “It’s not like you stole it.”
“If I take it, it would be like stealing, because that’s exactly what I’d be doing. Stealing from a thief wouldn’t make me any less a thief.”
“The thief is dead, and so are his heirs,” Terry said.
“There’s the father,” I said.
“He doesn’t count,” Terry said.
“Why’s that?” I said.
“Because I don’t like him, and if you get right down to it, you can’t be an heir to stolen money. Not legally, anyway.”
“I’m glad that puts us on such solid legal ground,” I said.
We pushed our boat off the barge—or what I call a raft—back into the river, and paddled it to land. After we got on ground, we pulled the boat up under a tree and found some dried brush to lean on it. It wasn’t much of a hideaway, but it’s what we had.
Before we left out of there, we sat down under a tree and got out the map and turned it ever which way trying to figure out what it meant. It might as well have been written in Greek. We could make out what must have been May Lynn’s house and the river drawn on it in a squiggly line, and above it a rise in the land that was familiar. Finally there was a couple of thick lines with little lines drawn between them. We figured that had to be railroad tracks. Beyond the tracks, there were some humps, and there was a line written out that said . Neither the humps or the name meant anything to us.
We walked away from the river and the bottom land, made our way back to where May Lynn’s house stood. We went wide of it toward the woods.
The woods were thick and it took us a while to thread through them and climb up a big hill. We finally got on the trail that went out of the bottoms, ending us up on a field where cane grew. It was highland cane and it wasn’t as good as bottom cane, but it was still good enough. It was a big patch that covered a lot of acres, and the stalks were thick and tall. The cane had turned slightly purple, and I knew once it was stripped the sugar inside of it would be sweet.
I had a pocketknife, and I cut down a stalk next to where the field started, then cut it into three pieces. It took some work, but we all got our pieces frayed and that gave us the pulp to chew on. It was sugary, and it was something to keep us happy and busy while we walked. I figure when you got right down to it, we weren’t fresh thieves after all, but had had plenty of practice in the cane fields and watermelon patches. Heck, I had started my life of crime sometime back, but had just then realized it. The natural move forward would be to take stolen bank money and spend it on a trip to Hollywood with a dead girl burnt up in jar.
We followed the map and came to a low cut of pines, and on the other side of the pines was the train tracks. On the far side of the tracks was more trees. Most of them was pecan and hickory nut and might have once been part of an orchard, but were now wild and unpruned. There was a nice breeze blowing, and we could smell the scent of the trees on the wind, and there were birds in the trees, mostly red-winged blackbirds; they were as thick there as leaves.
There was a rumble and the train rails began to vibrate. We stepped back in the pines, in the shadow, and waited. A train came chugging by, screeching on top of the rails. I thought maybe that ought to be the way we should get out of there, by hopping a train. But it was traveling fast as it went by, and none of the boxcar doors was open; it was an idea that passed from my mind quickly. I figured if I grabbed at the train my arms would get jerked off.
Still, it was mighty pleasant watching the train go by, all those boxcars clacking along, and while it rolled I thought of May Lynn. I guess it was the train moving away from us, heading anywhere but where we was, that made me think of her. That and our plans, of course.
I remember once sitting in her house on her mattress on the floor, and she had been talking about the movies and her plans to star in them, and then she said something to me that dove out of the air like a rock and felt like it hit me in the back of the head.
“Sue Ellen,” she said, “what is it you want to do with your life?”
Until she asked that, I didn’t even know I had the chance to think about anything different than what I was doing at the moment, but with her telling me all her plans, and then asking me that question, certain feelings I had started rising up to the surface like a dead carp. I knew then I wanted out of what I was in, and I wanted something else other than what I had, but the miserable thing was, I didn’t know where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do.
We laughed and talked about this and that, about some boys we knew, none of them particularly interesting, and May Lynn said she sure thought Terry was cute, but there was that whole sissy problem. We combed each other’s hair, and her mama, a few months short of her dip in the river and moving like she was some kind of animal dying slowly, cooked us some grits, and we had them with no butter and no milk. I remember thinking then that May Lynn was the most wonderful person in the world, and certainly the most beautiful. But what made me feel really good while eating grits with no butter and no milk was that she had spoken to me like I could have plans and ought to have plans, and that my life could be better. Right then and there I believed it myself a little. Not so much you could write a song about it, but some. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew it would be something. I can’t say that stealing money and going by raft down the dirty Sabine with May Lynn’s ashes in a jar had been any part of those plans, but I knew then that I wasn’t going to be settled with life as I knew it; wasn’t going to end up like Mama, drinking cure-all and taking a whacking from her husband and thinking it was as natural as the course of the river.
I looked up from thinking about all this, and saw the train moving on down the line and out of sight. We stood there looking where it had gone, and then we looked at the map again and determined that we at least knew where the tracks were. Beyond that it was all mighty confusing. The little humps—and there was bunches of them in several rows on the paper—and the name Malcolm Cuzins didn’t make no sense whatsoever.
As we crossed the tracks and went under the trees, the red-winged blackbirds took flight. They looked bloodied as they rose in a whoosh, and they filled the sky like a cloud, then they was gone.
“Well,” Terry said, looking at the map. “I fail to make sense of it. I can’t determine what these humps mean. And the name written on the map is a mystery to me.”
Jinx and I were equally baffled, and we kept looking at the map like it would all come to us eventually, but it didn’t. Fact was, I was getting a bit of a headache.
“There’s nothing out here but a few trees,” I said. “I think there’s an old graveyard over there, and beyond that there’s a road.”
“I remember that ole graveyard,” Jinx said. She nodded at me. “We was up here once, when we was little kids. We seen some of them graves then.”
“I barely remember,” I said.
“I told you there was haints there and that they’d grab you up and pull you down in the ground,” Jinx said. “I thought you was gonna pee your pants.”
“That wasn’t very nice,” I said.
“That’s what made it funny,” she said.
We looked around for a while, then gave up and went back down to the cane field and cut us another piece of cane.
As we ate the pulp from the cane and walked, I said, “I think our Hollywood plans would be on the too-early side without that money. So I think we don’t burn May Lynn up and put her in a jar and head out just yet. My guess is we might make Gladewater, but beyond that we’d be hard-pressed to go on.”
No one said anything for a long while, but I’m pretty sure, like me, they could hear our plans crackling away like dry paper on fire.
By the time we worked our way back to the boat, the sun was starting to drop out of sight behind the trees, and the shadows were long and dark across the ground and on the water. Frogs was getting louder and so were the crickets. We paddled our way across the water current, and by the time we got to the other side, the water was high in the leaky boat, in spite of me and Jinx taking turns bailing.
As we got out of the boat, pulled it on shore, and pushed it under some trees, Jinx said, “One thing we gonna have to say for sure. This boat ain’t no damn good. We go downriver, we’ll have to take the barge, otherwise we’ll be tuckered out in a couple hours. The boat will fill up and sink to the bottom of the river. Catfish will be living in our skulls before a week passes.”
This statement went uncontested. Everything we talked about seemed like so much wind now. Talk is cheap and exciting, but when you get right down to doing something, money is usually needed. Planning is often better than going through with the actual plan. Expectations, I once heard an old man say, were a little like fat birds: you might as well kill them before they fly away.
We split up and headed our own ways. As I walked, the shadows stretched. I realized it would be dead dark long before I got home. Even though I had grown up in the bottoms, there was lots of tales about things down in them that gave me a case of the nerves. Mostly they was stories about things that came out at night and was angry and hungry and carried you off and sucked the centers out of your bones. Ever hoot of an owl or crack of a limb or the scratching of brush moved by the wind made me jump a little. To top things off nicely, it began to lightning in the east, stitching up the pit-black sky like a drunk seamstress with bright yellow thread. The wind rose and made the trees sigh and whip even more, and before long, drops of rain were falling on me. By the time I got near enough to our house to see a light in the window, the rain was coming down hard as tossed gravel, and the wind was whipping the willows along the riverbank like a teacher smacking a rowdy student’s butt with a switch.
In the yard, I was startled by one of the free-ranging hogs that came around the side of the house and grunted at me, perhaps hoping I had an apple or something. It was the big black-and-white one. I started to reach out and pet it, but since it was gonna be eaten in the fall, I hesitated. It never set well with me to get friendly with something I planned to have on a plate with a side of new potatoes and collard greens. I felt it was proper to have a solid understanding between person and hog that no friendship was involved, though if the hog had known the true nature of its arrangement, I’m sure it would have found reason to depart for parts unknown, maybe taking the other hog and chickens with him. Besides, petting a wet hog, be it friend or supper, is stinky business.
Daddy was home. I could see his banged-up pickup parked in the yard. I walked up on the porch and it creaked, and that made me nervous. It wasn’t that Daddy cared when I came in, and much of the time he might not know I was gone. But to wake him could set him in a bad temper, and then the razor strop would come out. I wasn’t up for dodging his blows, or, for that matter, dodging his grabbing hands.
On the porch there was a stack of firewood piled close to the house. I picked me up a good stout piece that fit my clenched fist, opened the door, and stepped inside. Our house wasn’t no kind of showplace, but it was big. It had been built long before the river changed course. Daddy had it handed down to him when his father died—who, according to word I had heard, was no better a person than he was. But Daddy’s grandfather was a solid gentleman with money he had brought down from the North back in the eighteen hundreds. Word was he had earned it in shipping somehow, and then decided he’d had enough and had gone down south. He had built a sturdy house and barn and sheds that his son, and now grandson, had let go to ruin by neglect.
Some years back the river changed and it had taken away a lot of the outbuildings. I had heard about the flood of 1900, and how it had killed families, and how back then our house sat high on a hill. Then the river rampaged through like a pack of wild Indians. It stole the soil and carried it off, and the water had climbed up to where there was once high ground. Where solid earth had stood, there was a bend in the river now, rising high on the bank, maybe a hundred feet from our two-story house. I liked to imagine that the water that had carried those outbuildings away had put them back together at the bottom of the river with the help of the catfish, and that the barn I had never seen had mermaids living in it; and that the outhouse was being used by water monsters with lots of long, sticky legs and whip-like tongues that was forked at the tips.
It was a shame, really, what Daddy and his daddy had let happen to the place. Now the big house squeaked when you went up stairs, and you had to watch your step where it had rotten spots. In the main room, which was large, it was too cold to be there in winter. The fireplace leaned away from the wall, and outside it was held up by a big stick that looked ready to break at any moment. Around the cracks in the bricks the wind came through like a burglar, and in the summer, so did the snakes and frogs and all manner of vermin.
There was only three of us in the house, and Daddy and Mama mostly avoided one another. They had little to say except simple stuff about chicken and hogs, and as of late, there was less of that. Daddy spent a lot of his time somewhere else, and Mama didn’t care. She took to bed often, lay propped against cotton-stuffed pillows drinking cheap cure-all she bought from a man that traveled the country in a dusty black car. He always wore a big black hat and had black clothes and boots, and his shirt was the color of flour paste. He had been around for years and looked the same. Some said for twenty years, but others said a son had taken over the father’s position. There were even those who said he was the devil. I had seen him, a tall, whip-lean man in a black hat and a smooth black suit. His face looked like it had been cut out of wood, and his chin was long and pointed.
“Devil don’t need no car that runs on gas,” Jinx had said. “So he ain’t no devil. And there ain’t no devils or angels anyhow.”
Jinx was certain on the matter. Me, it depended on if it was Tuesday or not. I had a tendency to believe all manner of things on a Tuesday. I know this: what the salesman sold to Mama was certainly devilish. It was a mixture of alcohol and most likely laudanum. It went for a quarter, and may have cost him a dime. It was money we couldn’t afford, but she bought the stuff by the box and sucked it like a baby will suck a bottle.
Daddy had his whiskey. Mama had her cure-all. It made her deep dream, she said, and the dreams were fine and bright and there was no river near the door. In those deep-down dreams, she said, me and her lived in a good way in a clean white house on high, dry land. Daddy was shaved and dirt-free and upright, wasn’t missing so many teeth, and lived the way he should. When she woke, she said, it was like she was in a nightmare, and everything that mattered was stepped on and messed with or mistreated, but a few long swigs of the cure-all took her back to where she liked to live. It hurt to think I was losing Mama to twenty-five cents a bottle and a lying dream.
The light in the house was a lantern burning on a nightstand near the window. Mama had lit it and left it for me. I was glad for the light, but thought it was damn dangerous to let it burn like that, being near the curtains. Then again, Mama’s judgment was missing a step these days. I blew out the lantern and looked out the window. The rain had gone away as swift as it had come, and the clouds had parted, and the apple-slice moon was giving out shiny light that looked greasy through the glass; it made the yard shimmer like a wet nickel.
I started upstairs with my stove wood, feeling my way along the rail by experience. Daddy didn’t leap out on me. I watched the bad boards, and made it to the top of the stairs without one of the steps breaking and dropping me through like a gallows. Upstairs, it was musty where the old carpet had rotted. Rain came through a hole at the end of the hall, and sometimes so did pigeons. Daddy was always planning to fix it, but when it came time to buy boards, he bought whiskey instead.
The thing I did like was having a room of my own with a lock on the door. Most river people didn’t have such a thing, and even Terry, who had come from better circumstances, slept on a pallet in their living room, along with four other kids, who had come as a package with his mama’s new husband.
I started to go in my room, but stopped and went down the hall, where Mama stayed. The door was cracked. When I looked in, I could see her shape on the bed, and I was surprised to see another. Even in the dark, I could tell it was Daddy. The moonlight, though thin, lay on his face and made it look as if he was wearing a mask. He was halfway under the covers and had his head turned toward me.
Mama had had far too much laudanum, and that was a fact. Otherwise she would never have let him in to sleep with her, even if it was only to lie at the foot of the bed as a foot warmer.
As I stood there looking, Daddy opened his eyes and saw me. He didn’t move. He just kept looking at me. After a while, he smiled, and the few teeth he had held the moonlight.
I frowned, smacked the stove wood against my open hand until his smile went away, and then I closed the door and walked off.
I dug in my overalls for my key, unlocked my door, pushed it shut, and locked it. I took off my clothes, pulled on my nightgown, shoved back the covers, and crawled in bed with the stove wood beside me. I lay there with the moonlight poking through the thin curtains over my window. I patted the stove wood like it was a bark-covered cat. I thought about Mama and Daddy together, something that ought to have been right, but wasn’t. They had been as distant from one another in recent months as the moon is from the earth, and now this.
I came to the conclusion that on this night, in Mama’s laudanum dreams, he may have been a white knight on a white charger, and she had, so to speak, opened the castle doors and let him in. Bless her heart, the laudanum lied. Yet who was I to judge? Even a root hog has its needs, and I suspect even a root hog has its dreams.
The bed was soft and I was tired. I lay there half awake, half in dream. I dreamed of me and Jinx and Terry, sailing down the Sabine River until we came to Hollywood, sailing right out of darkness and into light, gliding down a wide, wet street of water. On either side of us, standing on golden bricks, were handsome men and beautiful women, all movie stars, people we had seen in films. They waved at us as we drifted by and we waved back, sailing along on our stolen raft with a big white bag of stolen money with a black dollar sign on it. Next to the bag was May Lynn’s ashes in a golden urn.
Along the street, on either side, all the people—knowing who May Lynn was and what she might have been, knowing all the movies she didn’t make, the life she didn’t live—stopped waving and started to cry. We sailed quietly down the street, out of their sight, into shadows black as crows.
"Excerpt from Edge of Dark Water" is just that: an excerpt from Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, Edge of Dark Water, published by Mulholland Books. If you want to find out what happens to Sue Ellen, Terry, and Jinx (and their dead friend May Lynn, for that matter), you can order your copy of the book here. Excerpt from Edge of Dark Water © 2012 Joe R. Lansdale.
If you’re not back here Thursday, December 14, for another dose of fiction by Joe R. Lansdale, we’ll go looking down by the Sabine for you.
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