Just a quick post to let you know my author website has been revamped.
Check it out if you get a chance:
http://www.lanceweller.net (you will have to cut and paste this due to WordPress issues)
I don’t often share work-in-progress with anyone other than my wife; and her only rarely (she’s a fierce, blunt critic with an excellent ear for terrible sentences so I need to be careful of my teacup ego in showing her pages) but, much like what happened with American Marchlands, I’ve gotten pretty excited about the shape my new book, The Age of Iron, is taking and wanted to share a page or so. I’m still feeling my way through the story but the characters are starting to pop. With that in mind, the following takes places in the first dozen or so pages of the book where we have a group of old men gathered in the morning at their favorite diner reminiscing about a famous, local killer of men.
“I remember Orson Storey,” said Otho. His one eye was pale and the scar where the other had been was pale as well. “I saw him once but I never talked to him. I saw that bear skin Ole Andersen had hung up in his store. I saw that. But Orson Storey wasn’t born wrong like some folks think. He was born sick and small and kept getting sicker. Then he got a fever while he was still just a little chap. Boiled his brains, they say. And, of course, his mama was already a crazy woman, so that didn’t help him none. Folks still like to talk about how crazy that woman was.” He shrugged and cut his eye toward Bill Loveless. “But he was a wild man. Orson Storey. The Wild Man. People like to tell about him swinging through the trees like an ape. Loggers would tell about him peeping in bunkhouse windows at night and scaring them half to death. He did kill some people, sure.” Otho took a sip of coffee and made a satisfied sound. “Killed moren we probably know about and, whenever they tried to catch him, he just went deeper into the woods. Sent them that went in after him back out again with their asses full of buckshot. Shit. But you can’t go back like that. Back into them woods. Not to stay. You can’t go back to wildness like Orson Storey tried to. He tried and they finally killed him for it.” The one eye was far away and the shucked-out one was a folded, cinched-up looking thing rimmed with fine black hair. “Shit,” he said, “you can’t go back anywhere to anything ever. It’s all got to go forward. One foot after another until you’re done. Until you get to wherever it is you’re supposed to be. And that’s how it’s been ever since man first put his plow into the dirt.”
They looked at him. “Jesus,” said Ed Ray. “You all right, Otho?”
“What?” said Otho.
“I don’t believe I have ever heard you string so many words together at once,” said Runacres.
Otho scowled and rubbed his old, empty socket with the side of his thumb. He looked across the table at Trevor. “You knew him, didn’t you?”
“No, I never did meet the man,” said Trevor Wilson. He sighed and his facemask moved with his breath. Coffee stains had blossomed on the rough cloth and he hung his head a moment as though he’d collect his thoughts and then he hunched his shoulders. The could hear the air moving out of him and thick, wet throat sounds and they looked away. Trevor gripped the table. His eyes watered. Something spattered against the inside of the mask. He took the paper napkin out from under his knife and fork and wet it in his water glass then leaned so they could not see him as he dabbed clean the mask and the remains of his mouth. After a few moments, he leaned back in his chair and sighed as though exhausted. The damp mask moved defiantly. “But I did know the man who finally killed him,” he went on. “I knew Steelink.”
With my new novel, American Marchlands, finished (well, as finished as these things ever are; which only means, really, that I’ve surrendered it to the Powers That Be and am now, anxiously, awaiting Word from On High—hopefully I’ll have some official news I can release soon but, for the time being, I will say my love affair with France continues. And deepens!), I’ve begun work on something new.
Right up front, this entails a lot of inactivity. This means wool-gathering, staring out the window, reading and then reading some more and it means breaking in a new notebook. This step is important because everything goes into it. The notebook. THE Notebook. Noodlings and doodlings and interesting factoids that probably won’t ever get used but have to be put on paper so they seep into my brain. Bits of pertinent slang and chunks of scenes and dialogue and full blown characters and plot lines that won’t make the final cut. Scraps of paper get shoved in there with notes or single words whose relevance to the work at hand, when I return to them later, will be deep mysteries. Internet effluvia gets printed out and scotch-taped into the Notebook along with bits of things copied out of library books that actually turn out to be useful. The perfect dream-form of the novel, which is never, ever attainable, goes into the Notebook and fills it and fills it until it becomes something more, until it earns its capital “N.” And, finally, the Notebook is important because, if I follow my own history, I’ll be carrying it around for three years or so as I work on whatever this new book finally becomes.
My American Marchlands notebook was a 200 page Norcom Composition with stiff, marbled covers. Odds are you’ve seen its like poking out of student backpacks or tossed onto tables at Starbucks. And it was fine, it held together well and did its job no matter how much I abused it. My system was: fiction up front, history in the back. Like a mullet in reverse. So, my ideas for various scenes and character backgrounds and plot ideas started at the beginning, then, for all the historical detail I didn’t want to forget and needed to keep straight, I’d flip the Notebook over and record back-to-front. So, contrary to my nature, I had an organized system to keep things straight.
But a new book demands a new Notebook and, this time around, I’ve upgraded a bit. My The Age of Iron (as I’m calling my new novel-in-progress) Notebook is a hardcover Moleskine 5×8 ¼“ with an elastic cord to hold it shut (something that became an issue in the last Notebook). A hipster notebook, yes, but it’s black so you know I’m serious. So far, there’s no organizational scheme whatsoever and, so far, I’ve made a LOT of notes for this new book. So far, I’m okay with that.
The Age of Iron, as I see the dream-form of it, is a look at the logging camps and towns of my beloved Washington State in the early 1900s. It’s a look at timber violence and cold machinery and the First World War in France and northern Russia. It will mix logging with local politics, war weariness, cowardice, serial killers, life-long friendships, tenderness, mercy, and hate. So, it will encompass the world.
Of course, I’ll fail. Abjectly, spectacularly. Of course, there’ll be a period where I’ll think I’m writing the Great American Novel and a much longer, more profound, period where I know I’m writing the worst piece of crap it’s possible to write. But, after trying for so many years to be able to think of myself as a writer, the chance to make the attempt is worth it in more ways than I can tell. By the end—in three years or however long it takes me—the novel probably won’t resemble anything close to the dream of it I have now and that’s okay because I know the ending and whatever it takes to get there, to earn that ending, is what I signed-up for. Which is writing.
And that ending, that last sentence? It’s already written. In the Notebook.
I’ve said it before and it’s probably obvious yet still bears repeating: I love books. I love their weight and their heft, I love their smell and the sound their spines make when you open them and I love the promise inherent in their very being. So it was a special sort of torture for me to spend ten days in France, surrounding by books, and not be able to read a single one. Not even my own.
I only visited a handful of French bookstores but I was struck, at every one, by how bright they are. The spine of a French book—that is, a book produced by the French publishing industry–is, for the most part, a white thing, unadorned by the sort of graphic flourishes we in America are accustomed to. This makes the effect of walking into a French bookstore akin to walking into a cool room. Something Kubrickian, maybe, like the strange rooms Keir Dullea walks through before meeting the Star Child only without all the menace, or the Korova Milk Bar without any of that off-putting sexual weirdness. At any rate, I found the interiors of French bookstores welcoming enough though serious and, yes, a little intimidating.
But the French booksellers . . . Ah! The French booksellers were warm and vibrant, excited by books and pleased to see me and (rightfully) proud of their shelves. They were generous to a fault—each and every one—and the breadth of their knowledge and passion were apparent with every word. In France, booksellers take classes on how to sell books—special training and education—and the way they speak about literature was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I couldn’t really keep up—though I enjoyed trying to—and, more than once, I wondered who the hell I thought I was, making appearances in these cool, beautiful rooms and having so little to say that could add anything to anything at all.
But, even for all that, even for being functionally illiterate in their country, the French treated me like a visiting dignitary. In beautiful Aubenas, at Le Grand Café Français, the owner, Maxime, gave me a copy of the French edition of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (or, as the French have it, Méridien de sang)because I mentioned I collect them (now have three) while his partner, Alice, invited us into their home to show off her newborn kittens. In Aix-en-Provence, the owners of Librairie Goulard took me on a walking tour of the old city and pointed out the old advertising on the sides of the buildings, brass pigs, and the secret sexual symbology hidden in the wrought iron-grill work of long-closed brothels.
Christian, owner of La Librairie Nouvelle in Voiron, gifted me a cd of funky, French blues and one of some even better jazz and his co-presenter, Sophie, read a section from Wilderness that, even though I couldn’t understand a bit of it, sounded as lovely as music. And in Vienne, Alain, co-owner of Libraire Lucioles showed off the city’s ancient Roman ruins—temples, walls, and a little stretch of one of the Roman roads that once stitched together an empire—while his partner, Renaud, grinned appreciatively when I chose KISS’s “God of Thunder” during my radio interview then turned me on to Stanislaw Lem which I’m pretty sure I’ll be forever grateful for. Finally, in Lyon, Ivan, the owner of L’esprit Livre, treated me to not only a lovely tour of the city but some excellent conversation (and more good leads for future reading) on Napoleon, the Battle of Austerlitz, and the tactics of the times as well as an excellent meal which included a bowl of seasoned fat.
At every stop along the way, while I was fretting and nervous about what I was supposed to be doing and how not to come off like an ass, I was treated to kindnesses unlooked-for, excellent food, marvelous shelves of beautiful books, and kindred spirits who seemed to love books in the same ways I do . . . though, of course, they could actually read them.
So I just returned from touring France in support of Wilderness. A short, small tour that opened with a literary festival at St. Malo, which is in Brittany, and which, I’m told, is lovely. I saw very little of the physical landscape—the Atlantic, the old city walls, the last resting place of Chateaubriand on its little tidal island—because my time was spent engaged with readers. With speaking to and meeting people. With talking about Wilderness and why I wrote it and how it happened. I think, in the end, I got the better of the deal. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a bit about how I found things Over There but, for now, suffice to say I went and came back and some of these things may have happened:
First and foremost I overpacked—badly—and my bags became anchors round my neck that I schlepped through train stations and crammed into the backs of taxis. I ruined one pair of shoes, looked extremely fat on French television, met a famous French film director (who went on to buy a copy of my book!), and I ate warm noodles out of a cold carton on the Boulevard St. Michel in Paris. I did not see the Alps but I did see the clouds obscuring them and I saw vast fields of brilliantly yellow Colza from the windows of fast-moving trains.
I drank one skunky beer and almost got into a fistfight with a hooligan. I took to wearing scarves and may have eaten a prune yet still lived to tell the tale. I definitely ate foie gras and considered trying snails but settled for duck. I ate chocolate like a fiend and I drank small coffees at tiny tables with my legs crossed and the wind upon my face and I felt writerly. I felt fine.
In Voiron, in the shadow of the Alps I could not see, I got to read a page of Wilderness aloud to a French author. This was good. What was better was listening to a pretty girl read another section aloud in French. What was best was the meal afterwards.
I went to Notre Dame and stood in awe and touched old, worked stone and breathed the stillest, holiest air I’ve ever tasted. I saw my little book in the windows of shops all over the south of France and was humbled and privileged at every stop. I talked Napoleonics with a self-avowed communist who, even still, believed in the Great Man theory of history and I was overawed by the high-seriousness and the real, breathing humanity of French bookstores. I appeared on French radio and got them to play a KISS song and, in Lyons, I stepped from a cab and threw my back out so badly it may still be there, flopping around on the cobbles.
All these things and more—things I’ll write about and things I won’t—will stay with me, I think. They’ll stick. Because, on that trip, I had some of my very best days, sitting at tiny tables, sipping coffee, feeling fine.
With the paperback version of Wilderness coming to bookstores next month, and, hopefully, new readers coming to the book, I’d like to take a moment to talk about a concern with the story that I’ve heard more than once now. And that is, the fate of the dog.
This is prompted by some very nice comments by a Goodreads reader who set the book aside after the prologue because they already knew what happens with the dog. I can certainly understand and empathize with these sorts of worries because all too often, in any form of entertainment, pets are handled in ways cheap and sensationalistic.
At readings for Wilderness, I often tell folks I wanted, among other things, to write the very best dog story I could and, to that end, I tried to treat Buster not just as a dog but as another character all his own—perhaps the most important character besides Abel Truman—because it is the character of the dog that makes Abel’s redemptive path possible.
I have always had dogs. Have always fiercely loved them and felt honored to be able to share my life with them. As my father is fond of saying: they give so much and ask so little in return. And while their day-to-day existence teaches us how to be better people, the relative brevity of their lives reminds us to treasure them. It is with this spirit that I wrote Wilderness and with that in mind that I would hope the reader approaches it.
There are things in the world that can be considered absolutely good. Dogs come to mind immediately. Books and libraries are two others. So, here on the cusp of March, I’m mightily pleased have been asked to attend a pair of events in support of books and the houses that hold them.
Firstly, Seattle’s getting back a bookstore that it was a tragedy to have lost in the first place. Luckily, it wasn’t gone for long. The Queen Anne Book Company is having its Grand Opening Weekend from March 1 to March 3 and there’ll be lots of writers showing up over the weekend to help them celebrate. I’ll be there March 1 from 3 pm to 5 pm to stand around and talking about books and reading and try and not look like too much of a dope. Come see me, I’ll sign some Wilderness for you…
And, secondly, the King County Library System is holding its annual Literary Lions Gala on March 23, 2013. I’ve been invited to rub elbows there as well, and will be joined by a bright constellation of NW lit talent. As an added bonus, I’ve bought (and plan on wearing) a suit. So, if nothing else, come out to see how uncomfortable I’ll be! Dennis Lehane is the Keynote Author and the Gala proceeds go toward King County Library System programs.
I’ve been nervous for a year. Ever since my editor at BloomsburyUSA told me they were giving Wilderness the gift of making it their lead adult fiction offering for fall 2012 and that they hoped I’d help support the book with public appearances and readings. I managed to put aside my anxiety over public speaking while I worked on the manuscript, shaping it up into its final form but then, after a decade of fretting over the thing, it finally left my hands forever and I was left alone with the new book I’m working on. And my nerves over what the fall might bring.
Summer went by. I worked on American Marchlands. I worried about Wilderness. I tried not to think about standing up in front of people speaking and reading words I’d plucked out of the air to try and make something with. But it’s all I could think about all down the long summer because the idea of standing up at a podium before anyone at all, with the facial control I have left, was deeply, badly frightening.
Years ago, a decade ago, just as I was finishing up the first draft of what would become Wilderness, I got Bell’s Palsy and the left side of my face went away. Off somewhere beyond my control as though it had never been. The long, branching nerve that fed that side of my face died. My speech was affected and my ability to hold water in my mouth. I could not smile nor frown. For weeks I could not blink. Normally, this is, at worst, about a six-week inconvenience but, for whatever reason, my condition persisted. Antivirals and steroids were no help. I was laid up with every little cold and flu to come down the street, every cruddy little sickness knocked me off my feet and I hurt everywhere, all the time. But then, one Wednesday afternoon six months in, a little twitch visited the left corner of my mouth and then slowly, slowly, scattered patches of my face returned to me. But not all of it. To this day, not all of it. So a sort of body-fear crept in around my heart. I became hypochondriacal when I never had been before.
And all summer all I could think about was making a drooling idiot of myself while trying to read Wilderness. I was afraid of not being able to do the book justice.
But then September came and I was in Mississippi on the first stops of my reading tour and everything that happened happened quickly. I was nervous, yes; I was trembling with fear (sweating badly, if you want the truth) but I noticed something after my first reading and then my second and then all the others that followed. I noticed that, once I was up behind a podium or seated in front of a crowd, that I was not nervous in the slightest. I found myself enjoying reading. I enjoyed reading to people because I quickly learned to trust the work. This is old advice that I’d never understood until I could apply it to myself. But, as is the case with ‘old advice,’ it is solid and good and true.
In the end, I’ve had a fantastic time these past few months of my book tour. I’ve had the privilege of reading at a lot of great bookstores to a lot of even better people. A lot of pages filled with words that I hoped might mean something to other people. And, now that this first, small portion is over, I realize with chagrin just how badly I will miss it.
The time has come to confess to an enduring love of comic books. Superhero comic books. Capes and cowls, tights and Kirby-crackle. Four color, nine panel cave paintings of wonder. I’ve always loved these things and used to have quite a collection of individual issues in bags with boards and boxed carefully away. Still have a lot. All right: a LOT.
Why comics? Adolescent power fantasies of a short kid? Probably. Worlds of escape for a sometimes ill kid? That too. And, also, simply put: comic books and the stories they told were serious business that demanded not only my attention but my study. I learned vocabulary directly by keeping a dictionary close to hand as I read and, indirectly, learned more than a thing or two about narrative, plot and characterization. If somebody got Richard Ryder’s character wrong then, Blue Blazes!, I noticed it.
All that being confessed, what follows are seven of my personal most important single issues and one piece of art. Why eight? Why not, true-believer?
1) Conan the Barbarian #24 (Marvel)—“The Song of Red Sonja” This was the first comic I ever got in my grubby hands and it had just about everything a boy could want. Swords, sorcery, blood and gore. Giant snakes and Conan fighting them. Red Sonja in something other than a chainmail bikini (gasp!). I’m pretty sure it was written by Roy Thomas (based on RE Howard, of course) and drawn in all of Barry Windsor-Smith’s drippy-line glory. In my memory it’s fantastic and that’s probably where I should leave it.
2) The Defenders #50 (Marvel) –“Scorpio Must Die!” The finale to the three or four part “War Against Scorpio” storyline, this is the first time I noticed the use of space in a comic. Written by David Kraft and drawn by Keith Giffin (channeling Jack Kirby), the comic features a page with the archetypal nine-panel layout ruptured by the action breaking out of one panel and spilling over into another. Couple that with arch-villains, secret bases, conflicted androids and a last page suicide (!) and my twelve year-old mind was blown.
3) Warlock #11 (Marvel)—“The Strange Death of Adam Warlock” Written and drawn by Jim Starlin, this issues sees our titular gold-skinned hero confronting not just his future self but his future self’s past, the physical manifestation of his kismet and many other things WAY beyond my (this time) eleven year old self. Pretty sure Starlin dropped a LOT of acid coming up with this storyline. As an added bonus, it’s got Thanos the Mad Titan in it whose profile we saw in the last few second of the Avengers movie this past summer.
4) Nova the Human Rocket #1 (Marvel)—What’s this? The fabulous first issue of a new hero in the tradition of Spider-Man? Blue blazes! Sign me up. Not a good comic or (until recently) even a decent hero. Loved the hell out of this cheesy comic nonetheless…
5) Giant-Size Man-Thing #1 (Marvel)—“How Will We Keep Warm When the Last Flame Dies?” I maintain you cannot have a list of Bronze Age super hero comics (which, apparently, this has become) without at least one big ol’ Man-Thing in there. And this is a good one. Writer Steve Gerber (of Howard the Duck fame) gets his usual sideways political commentary into a story featuring the Glob (Striking! Again!) and a crazy cultist who looks an awful lot like Richard Nixon. And Mike Ploog’s art fits the subject matter perfectly.
6) Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts #18 (Marvel) “The Dream is Dead!” Holy Cats! Did the good Doctor’s slinky, sorcerous assistant, Clea just have a time-travelling hook-up with Benjamin Franklin in the middle of my comic book? By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, I believe she did. Mind=blown (I went around with my mind blown a LOT from ages ten to twelve…)
7) Captain America #200 (Marvel) “By Dawn’s Early Light!” Cap’s 200th issue came out in 1976 during the Bicentennial celebration. Conceived, drawn, and written by Jack “King” Kirby this comic is bananas. In fact, Kirby’s whole Cap run is crazy, dealing as it does with a 5th Column hoping to overthrow the United States by firing off insanity-inducing “mad-bombs” of escalating sizes—from the tiny “Peanut” to the “Dumpling” to the gigantic “Big Daddy.” Was Kirby dropping acid with Jim Starlin when he came up with all this? Hard to say…
8) Lastly, because everything on this list has been from Marvel Comics (hey, I know what I like) I offer this gorgeous piece of art by Jack Kirby. Titled “The Glory Boat,” it’s from issue #6 of a comic called New Gods. I’ve never read the issue, have no idea what’s going on but, for some reason, the image has stuck with me down the years…I mean, look at it:
‘Nuff said, true believers!
It didn’t feel right just posting first bit of the prologue for American Marchlands—like an incomplete thought—so here’s the balance of it along with a picture my wife thought was too creepy to go with it but that I really like. Because it’s creepy.
Wrapping the reins around the brake bar, the driver stepped down and put his arms over his head for an expansive stretch. Then, bobbing his head and grinning a grin that was somehow strange but not at all offputting, he held out a hand for your father and then Mr. Brown to take and gave his name as Spence.
Something in his manner, you remember, set your party at ease as though they’d stumbled from exile back into community and your father grinned back at him. “We were afraid you might be Cherokee,” he said.
Spence stuck out his lower lip thoughtfully and looked at the sky and then the horizon as though to better get his bearings in the wide, empty space of the barren plains. Then he shook his head. “Nah,” he said again. “I don’t reckon you got to worry about them.” He paused to follow with his eyes the way you’d come—the wheel-flattened grass and that pressed by boots and hooves—then turned squinting to extrapolate the way you’d take hence. “You’ll be going through Comanche country directly though,” he went on. “Them you’ll want to be careful of for they’re worst.”
To hear this, Mrs. Brown gave a little, sighing cry and here, you clearly remember, you stepped from behind your father’s legs to say: “Worse.”
Spence squinted at you as though he’d not noticed you before or was surprised to suddenly find a child out in that wasteland. “What’s that you say, little miss?”
“You mean to say ‘worse,’ not ‘worst.’” This, the second thing your ever remember saying aloud to another soul.
Another grin, lopsided and strange but still friendly. “Well now, I supposed you must be right,” he said. “I’m just an ignorant old cuss who never did learn proper diction.” He doffed his sweatblown hat—you remember it was a dusty brown color and that the brim looked gnawed upon—and gave a little bow from his waist before turning to introduce his companions.
The woman’s name he gave as Flora and she wore a dress even more faded than your mother’s traveling frock and no bonnet whatsoever. Her hair was cropped very short now you could see it clear—which forced another little sigh of shock from Mrs. Brown—and dark cowlicks swept up like tiny horns here and there as though she’d only recently cut it back herself and you could see the dust in it. Her dark eyes were hurt-looking and you could see plainly the shape of her skull behind the oval, fine-boned prettiness of her. She came down from the wagon to shake hands all around in the manner of an American man and, to this day, you remember her strong, brown fingers with their raggedy, chewed nails and the firm, warm juicelessness of her grip.
“And my old partner up there, that’s Tom,” said Spence, raising his chin to indicate the smaller man who still sat the wagon. Tom thumbed the brim of his hat by way of greeting then, seeming to think better of the sun upon his face, lowered it again so that his features stayed shadowed. “I will beg your forgiveness of him,” Spence went on. “He gets them headaches. Them powerful bad sick ones sometimes and this climate plays the very Devil with him. So don’t give his rough manners much mind, if you please, as he is in the mist of one right now.”
“If you please,” said Tom softly from the bench.
“Midst, you mean,” you told Spence.
“Well, aren’t you just the scholar?” he answered.
Tom spoke up again then to tell you you were right but, when his head got the way it was, it sure did feel like he was in a mist and a thick, red one at that. His voice when he spoke was soft and fine. And then he grinned and something seemed to light in places within you that had never seen light before that moment, as though, with that small smile, he’d woken something that had been long asleep. Nearby, Mrs. Brown sighed a little sigh and from the shadow of the wagon Dizzy shuffled her feet in the dust then spat and rubbed the spittle into the dirt with her heel and, seeing, her, Tom nodded and called her Auntie.
Tom got down from the wagon then, looking both pale and dark at the same time and, at some point after, you all lunched with the trio but you can’t now remember what was eaten or what was discussed. They said they were bound for Monterrey in old Mexico for Flora had family business there and had hired Spence and Tom to take her and your father said but don’t you know there’s a war on and Spence shrugged and put empty palms into the air as if to say what else could they do them having been paid then said he hoped that all would not trouble them much. Tom sat and ate silently and Spence told jokes while Flora watched the sky as though she feared rain.
Later, Spence called your father and Mr. Brown over to the back of his wagon to ask their opinion of some freight he hauled there. You remember him raising his chin at you and saying, “Now, little miss, this here ain’t a thing you ought to see,” so you crouched to one side to listen to the men talk. Spence drew back a tarp without any sort of flourish. There was a seething sound. You remember your father said Good Lord and Mr. Brown took a single, bodily step backward and then another forward to get a better look. You remember their hushed conversation at the wagonsback.
“Good God, don’t let Genevieve see this,” said Mr. Brown.
“Well, goodness, there’s no smell,” said your father.
“That’s the salt,” said Spence. “Some days, we pull the tarp back and let the sun in on him. I reckon he’s cured a bit on account of that. What I wanted to ask though: you reckon I got enough salt in on him to keep him and, if’n you don’t think so, do y’all have any you might spare or sell? This is a long trip we’re on.”
“Shoot. I can’t smell nothing but salt.”
“Lean in closer. That’d change your mind in a hurry, I reckon.”
“What happened to him?”
“It don’t matter none.”
“Well, sure it does.”
“Leave it be, Joe. Monterrey, you say?”
“That’s right? You reckon he’ll keep?”
“Hell no. Hell no, I don’t. You got to get this fellow in the ground. Goodness, but let me tell you, mister: this? This ain’t Christian. Not one bit.”
“That’s what I was afraid of. She’s got her heart set on Monterrey though.”
“Is that his home? Where his people are?”
“No sir. But that’s where his daddy is and where he took her from after his daddy bought her for him. And that’s where she’s paid us to take him back to. Says she wants the old man to see what’s become of his boy. Then I don’t know what. I don’t pretend to understand her.”
“Oh, then she’s a . . . oh. Well, goodness.”
“She don’t look like any nigger I ever seen. She ain’t really yella and she ain’t much dark. I’d be interested seeing her papers if she got any.”
“They ain’t all like your girl Dizzy there. I don’t know who it might’ve been. Her mother’s mother, maybe. Cuban she thinks but I don’t think even she knows for sure.”
“Shit. It only takes a drop.”
“Goodness. What does that make her, then?”
“Well, I reckon a woman is what that makes her. Wouldn’t you say?”
“All right, all right. Now, don’t get sensitive. I’m just trying to untangle this tale and figure out what you’re doing with this poor fellow. And, setting aside all this talk about curing, why I don’t see no lid for that box anywhere abouts.”
“‘Poor fellow.’ Shit. This ain’t, as you say, exactly Christian here but there’s right-by-law and by-religion and then there’s right by something else altogether. Other laws that ain’t ours, I suppose. So there’s no lid on account of she’s got it in her head to look in on him from time to time to be sure he’s still where he ought to be. Like I say, I don’t pretend to understand it but there it is and if it helps her through the night—and it does—then that’s the way it needs to be. We been paid.”
“Well, goodness, I’m not one to stand here and tell you your business, mister.”
“Spence . . .you’re Pigsmeat Spence, aren’t you?”
“Figured that out, did you?”
“Goodness. Would that make him Tom Hawkins, then?”
“Don’t you tell them women who this is. We don’t want no trouble from you two, mister.”
“You don’t start any you won’t get none.”
“Well, all right, all right. Just . . . just don’t go getting riled up or nothing, but I got to say . . .
“It’s just . . . I don’t reckon I’m at all comfortable with the idea of us camping-out together. Even for one night. On account of this here and on account of, well, that’s Tom Hawkins just settin over there. No sir. I don’t believe I care one pinch of owl dung for that idea. Considering all that and the fact there’s a child about. And Dizzy, too. What with your girl there. They can get riled-up over the smallest things and then where are we at? No good place, I can tell you.”
“It’s all right,” said Pigsmeat Spence. “We’ll move on, then. We’re used to it.”
Dizzy called to them. “Come on,” she called from the back of the wagon where one of the water barrels was. She stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Tom Hawkins who you later learned was known as a killer of men. The two of them in the shade as though they’d reached some accord, as though he’d somehow lit some dark place inside her as well. Where no light had ever been or was ever looked for. “Come,” she called again, lifting the shining dipper from the dark barrel, careful not to spill. “Come, come,” she said, now staring hard at Tom beside her with an expression you, yourself, would only recognize much, much later in your life as like a mother’s weary, sad resignation over a child gone far astray in their life. And you would recognize its shape, its hollow, hauntedness, by the look and feel of your own face when they came to tell you your Tristan was killed on a street in Tacoma over two quarts of whiskey and woman whose name no one seemed to know. “You got to drink,” said Dizzy, looking at Tom with that sad, motherhearted face as though she knew his path, saw it laid out behind him and before him and thought that maybe one unlooked-for kindness, one fine word from someone somewhere along that path might turn him from it, might set him right again if he’d ever been right before. “You have to drink,” she said softly, speaking that simple, small truth like a prophetess.
And then you remember them gone, disappearing back into the liquid distance where the world’s heat was drawn like pus from a wound. As though the restless energy of their southward movement coupled with your own ceaseless westering gave off another sort of heat that joined with the world’s, the sky’s and the stars’, to hasten the eventual extinction of everything that was. You never saw or heard of them again. You never saw any savages, Cherokee, Comanche or otherwise. And now, as that last shimmering image of them and their wagon gives way to darker places in your memory , you realize you will never remember being younger than you were on that day, at that moment, beneath that hot, white, endless sky.