This month we are re-publishing Daniel Woodrell’s three Rene Shade novels, Under the Bright Lights, Muscle for the Wing, The Ones You Do in one beautiful package called THE BAYOU TRILOGY. We will be excerpting the first chapter of each of the 3 novels here over the next few weeks. We begin with Under the Bright Lights, a novel which Washington Post Book World praised for its “Poetic prose and raw dialogue” and which the San Francisco Examiner called “a flawless novel.”
JEWEL COBB had long been a legendary killer in his midnight reveries and now he’d come to the big town to prove that his upright version knew the same techniques and was just as cold. He sat on the lumpy green couch tapping his feet in time with a guitar he scratched at with sullen incompetence.
It was hard to play music in this room, he felt. There was a roof but it leaked, and great rusty stains spread down the corners of the apartment. The walls were hefty with a century’s accumulation of layered wallpaper bubbled into large humps in their centers. The pipe from the stove wobbled up to and through a rip in the ceiling where some industrious derelict had tried to do a patch job by nailing flattened beer cans over the gaps. It was altogether the sort of place that a man with serious money would not even enter, a man with pin money would not linger in, but a man with no money would have to call home. For a while.
“Suze,” Jewel called. “Bring me a cup of coffee, will ya?”
“What?” Suze yelled. “I can’t hear you, I’m in the john.”
After a few more slashing strums Jewel gave up on trying to bully a song from the flattop box. He shoved the guitar under the couch. He wore a stag-cut red shirt, shiny black slacks, and sharp-toed cowboy boots. His bare left bicep exposed the wet-ink blur of a cross with starlike points jail-tattooed into his pale skin. His long blond hair was combed up and greasy, sculpted into a style that had been the fashion at about the time of his birth. Jewel, however, had divined an image of himself in his nocturnal wonderings and the atavistic comb work was the key flourish in it.
He called to Suze again. “Well, get out of the john! And bring me a cup of coffee, hear?”
“Yeah! A cup of coffee, damn it.”
Maybe he should have left her back home, Jewel speculated. Let her dodge grease splatters at the Pork Tender Stand for the rest of her life. Give joy to pig farmers at drive-ins on Saturday night and wonder why she’d ever let Jewel Cobb slip away. That would be fitting. He was bringing her along in the world, taking her to Saint Bruno, a city where things can change, but was she grateful?
Not by a long sight. She’d rather paint each of her toenails a different color, or count the pigeons under the bridge, than learn how to cook him a decent meal. Lots of women knew things that she didn’t and he might not put up with just a whole lot more of her laziness before he picked up his walking cane and strolled out to pluck some daisies.
Ah, but he couldn’t leave her now. He’d come to Saint Bruno to change his life, dip a great big spoon into the fabled gravy train of the city, and if cousin Duncan hadn’t been greening him, then tonight could be the first little taste of how sweet that new life could be.
Jewel stood up and looked out the window onto Voltaire Street, a street of front-room appliance repair businesses, discount clothing shops, a pool hall called the Chalk & Stroke, a bail bondsman’s office, and two hair salons that promised summer cuts and granite perms.
“I let it cool for you, Jewel.” Suze’s voice entered the room before her loose-jointed shuffle that advertised her dissatisfaction with mundane physical processes. This body was meant for finer things, she seemed to mime, and fine things could happen with a body like that. She was still prey for pimples, and several smears of pink makeup marked the scenes of the latest attacks. Her hair was black and fell in a tangle past her shoulders, front and back, the longer strands flirting with the deep neckline of her floral-print, showtime summer dress.
She sat the cup on the arm of the couch. “Most like it hot. You must’ve bit a nerve in your mouth when you was drunk or something. It’s just the other way about with you.”
“I like to drink it, darlin’ girl, not sip it. Not slurp around at it like my teeth was loose and I can’t wander too far from the front porch rocker no more.”
“Some folks put ice in it. Like a Coke.”
“No kiddin’,” Jewel said. “I think I’ve heard of that. Must’ve saw it on Walter Cronkite.”
Suze’s shoulders slumped beyond their normal depth. “You shouldn’t make fun of me,” she said. “Everybody makes fun of me.”
“Hmm,” Jewel grunted, raising the cup of coffee and draining it in one long pull. But then he remembered Duncan.
“You got the time?” he asked.
Suze smirked at him, her hands on her hips in the pose of a barn-dance coquette. “You got the nerve, hillbilly?”
“You got to ask that?” Jewel said with a smile. He patted his hair, still smiling. “Nobody’s got to ask that. But could be I ain’t got the time.”
“It’s about quarter past eight.”
Jewel glanced out to the street where the buildings blocked what was left of the sun, giving an extra dose of gloom to the scene.
“That about makes it time,” he said as he walked to the dresser that buttressed the far wall. He opened the top drawer and raised a short, evil-looking knife with a bumble-bee-striped handle and stuck it, sheath and all, into his rear pocket. “You know my business?”
“It’s got to do with Duncan, I would guess.”
“Well, you can’t know that. Forget you do. It’s not something you can know.”
He started dealing through the few rags in the drawer until he came to a red towel that was wadded in a ball. When the towel was unwadded he lifted a .32 Beretta from it and holstered it inside his waistband. He pulled the tails of his shirt out and let them dangle.
“Oh, fudge,” Suze said. “I see it’s still going to be
kind of business.”
Jewel shrugged, then started toward the door.
kind of life, darlin’ girl.”
Jewel was to wait for Duncan on the corner of Napoleon and Voltaire, so he stepped into the Chalk & Stroke and bought a couple of bags of Kitty Clover potato chips and a six-pack of tall-boys. He would, given the choice, rather eat potato chips than steak, and since there was rarely such a choice to ponder, he pretty well lived on Kitty Clover.
He stood inside a phone booth and opened a beer, then began to eat the chips. The street was now awake, busy with people going toward taverns and others staggering home, all of whom avoided the younger denizens, bare-chested in satin jackets, who kicked down the streets waiting for something funny to happen at which they could snort and guffaw, or for something mean to pop up so they could prove meaner and stomp it down. If boredom gave way only to more boredom then, perhaps, they would take it upon themselves to borrow something shiny and custom upholstered in which to escape that chronic state.
No one paid any attention to Jewel Cobb.
Duncan was just on time. He pulled up in a long blue Mercury that was past its prime but still flashy enough for a Willow Creek boy to take horn-honking pride in.
Jewel slid in on the passenger’s side.
“Hey, cousin Dunc,” Jewel said with a nod. “Nice wheels.”
Duncan regarded his younger cousin with some disdain. The boy was country tough, but hillbilly tacky. That shirt was an open admission to cops, citizens, and marks—watch out, I’m trouble.
“You settled right in the middle of it,” Duncan said as he pulled into traffic, heading north on the cobblestone street. “Frogtown.”
“The price is right.”
Duncan was in his late twenties with a neatly molded pot belly and thick, strong arms. There was a placid quality about his pale, sagging features that the ambitious glint of his green eyes served to counterpoint. His clothes were simple: open-necked blue knit shirt, a cream sports jacket, and gray slacks. His wheat-straw hair was cut short but not freakishly so. By careful design there was very little that would cause him to be remembered in a crowd of three or more.
“It’s called Frogtown,” Duncan said, “because it was French folks who settled it. Run into lots of Frogs hereabouts.”
Jewel had gorged on the chips and swallowed most of the beer. He finished it, stuffed the empty under the seat, and opened another.
“Frogs, huh? Why do they call ’em Frogs?”
“I can’t say I know. They seem to like water, swamps, and such like. I don’t know. It’s a saying, like coon, you see? Maybe like redneck.” He caught Jewel’s eye. “You don’t call ’em Frogs to their face, though. If you ain’t one, too. You see, it’s not as bad as nigger, but it’s not good.”
“Huh,” Jewel said. “I’m always learnin’.”
As they traveled, they left the close-in, crowded jumble of buildings and entered an area that was more spacious but no less grim. The river was in sight, a huge presence to the east, and trailers and wooden houses on stilts were flopped as near to the water as possible. They had come only four blocks but it could have been miles.
“This looks like Willow Creek, only with water instead of rocks,” Jewel said.
“Only it ain’t. And the people in them places ain’t Willow Creek kind of folks.”
They passed under a railroad bridge as the light faded into dark. Once beyond the bridge Duncan began to count the slim dirt lanes. At the third he turned toward the water. On either side of the lane was a tangled, belching, smelly swamp. Soon a yellow light was seen, then another light that bounced on the water from a dock.
“That’s it,” Duncan said. He turned off the car and headlights, then faced Jewel. “Now leave the beer here. Pete Ledoux, he’s a grown man and won’t go for that joyriding style of yours. If I had to bet, that’s what I’d bet, anyway.”
“Fuck ’im, then.”
“I’d rather camp under the outhouse than fuck with Pete Ledoux, boy. You keep that attitude, Jewel. You keep it.” Duncan sighed, a troubled man. “If you wasn’t kin I’d deal you out right now.”
“I need the dough, that’s all.”
“Then act like you deserve the chance to get it. Opportunity’s knockin’ on your thick skull, boy. This ain’t the annual Willow Creek–Mountain Grove dustup, Jewel. We’re fixin’ to tree a fella and tack his hide on the side of the barn. There’s folks that won’t like that, don’t you know? You can’t be lousin’ it up.”
“Yeah,” Jewel said. His jaw jutted defiantly, as if this were a commonplace enterprise for him. “Don’t be tellin’ me what’s wrong with me, Dunc. You know and I know why I’m in on this.”
“Run that by me again.”
“ ’Cause I shoot to hurt and I come to shoot, that’s why.”
Duncan stared at Jewel, then smiled proudly.
“You ain’t smart, Jewel, but I can’t say as you’re dumb, neither.” He opened the car door. “Let’s go.”
Ledoux’s house was a sturdy, winterized weekender’s cottage bordered by screened-in porches. From the rear door a planked walkway curved down to the dock about fifty feet away.
Duncan knocked on the door.
A woman with a pretty face that had begun to bloat and tousled blond hair swung the door open, revealing a porch overrun by fishing poles, milk cartons, and sporting magazines. She had the expression of one who is intent on being constantly disappointed, and held a can of beer in her hand. She looked at Duncan, then Jewel.
“My word,” she said. “We don’t often get encyclopedia salesmen out here.”
“I expect not,” Duncan said. “I’ve come to see Pete.”
“I wouldn’t’ve bought none anyway, just cut out a few of the pictures.” The woman gestured with her head, snapping it toward the light that shone on the water. “Saint Francis of the Marais du Croche is down there rappin’ with the fishes.”
Duncan smiled at her. She was a drinker with good looks picking up speed downhill, which was his usual game, but she was Pete’s woman.
“You fellas want a beer, or anything?”
“That’s good, ’cause we ain’t got enough to share, anyhow,” she said as she closed the door.
The walkway swayed underfoot as they crossed it to the dock. The needle of light was playing on the water, illuminating a great bog of murk and brackish water.
“Say, Pete,” Duncan called. “I got my cousin, Jewel, here to meet you.”
“Hiya,” Pete said, then stuck the beam of light in Jewel’s face.
Jewel tried to screen his eyes, then turned his face away.
“Say, hey, man! You learn that trick in the cops, or what?”
Pete aimed the light between himself and Duncan.
“Nasty lookin’ pup, ain’t he?” Pete said.
These fellas aren’t handing me much respect, Jewel thought. He’d whipped two men at a time who were bigger than them before. That time in Memphis there’d been three bargemen on a spree and he’d come out of that one pretty good, too, once his tongue had been stitched back together.
“I ain’t a pup,” Jewel said. He raised his shirttails and exposed the handle of the pistol. “See that there? That’s what says I ain’t. It can say it six times, too.”
Ledoux exchanged glum glances with Duncan. He then walked to a pillar of the dock and flipped an unseen switch. Lights lit up the dock and the men. Ledoux motioned for the others to follow him as he ambled to the edge of the dock.
“I got some catfish to tend to,” Ledoux said. He was a short man, well into middle age but still supple and quick. His skin was tanned to match mud, and his brown hair had fingers of gray running through it. He bent to one knee and reached over the edge of the dock to the water. When he stood he pulled a stringer of channel cat and bullhead up. The fish made a weighty, wet splat when he tossed them onto a wooden bench beneath the brightest light.
Without looking away from the fish, he asked Jewel, “You know what you’re supposed to do?”
“Sort of. I’m gonna cool out some kind of a porn king.”
Ledoux slowly swiveled to face Duncan. When their eyes met he nodded once, then grinned snidely, as if some little-believed prediction of his had come true.
Duncan lowered his eyes, inspecting the toe of his shoe. “He ain’t king of his own cock, Jewel. He just owns a theater.”
Ledoux spat on the dock near Duncan’s feet. “What you’re supposed to do, which you ‘sort of’ know, is kill a nigger and get away with it. ‘Sort of’ gettin’ away with it used to be good enough, back in ’37 or so, but the Kennedys and ol’ Johnson done shit in that bowl of soup. So, you see, mon ami, ‘sort of’ wasn’t the way I’d planned it to be.”
“I went over it with him,” Duncan said. “He’s game. More than game, ain’t you, Jewel?”
“I’m a Cobb, ain’t I?” Jewel replied with tremulous bravado.
Ledoux had taken the fish off the stringer and now, one by one, he began to drive nails through their heads, tacking them to the bench. There were a few odd grunts from the fish, which Ledoux seemed to echo. He then raised a knife and inserted the tip beneath the tail fin of each, and, with short, gentle strokes, gutted them. The guts drooped over the side of the bench and hung toward the deck.
Ledoux looked up from his work. “I like fish,” he said.
Jewel’s head bobbed. “No shit,” he said.
Duncan gave Jewel a rough shove. “Tell him what you’re going to do, boy! You can come up tough on your own time, but now you’re making
look bad, hear?”
After straightening himself, as if considering revolt, Jewel relaxed slightly.
“Right,” he said. Reality seemed to hug his thoughts and he smiled at the comfort of the embrace. “Sure. This is business. I’m
Ledoux was bent over the fish, sticking his hands into their body cavities and ripping out the clinging organs.
“Now you’re talkin’, mon ami,” he said as he flipped a handful that splashed in the darkness beyond the arc of light.
“Duncan told me everything. About twenty-seven times, at least. I got it down, man.”
“It really ain’t all that involved,” Duncan said. “Point it and go boom. He ought to have it down.”
“That’s very comforting,” Ledoux said. “That is very comforting. I’ll have that to cherish, for about a quarter-to-life over in Jeff City, there. ‘Point it and go boom.’ It’s good to know we got us such a simple murder, ’cause I can name eight or ten other fellas I know who must’ve drew tougher jobs. Mon Dieu, if they only saw it as clear as you do, they wouldn’t be pressin’ boxer shorts for the state.”
“Geez, Pete,” Duncan said, his voice flat, with only his lips moving. “You don’t have to make a speech out of it. You got concerns, then you mention ’em.”
“Why, thank you,” Ledoux replied, as if honored by some rare privilege. “I do believe I have a concern or two, there, Judge Cobb.” He pointed a finger at Jewel. “For instance, does he know this deal cold?”
“No,” Jewel said, and swaggered forward. “Look at my ears, buddy. They’re too small to be on a dog, see? That means I can talk for myself. And now you bring it up, there is one important thing I don’t know cold.” He jabbed a finger at Ledoux’s chest. “What’m I gettin’ exactly? Duncan here, cousin Dunc, he’s been a little confusin’ with the numbers.”
“Well,” Ledoux said, “this is beginnin’ to make some sense. You’re just getting started with us. Fifteen hundred bucks is what you get. That’s about ten times what I got when I decided to grow up. It’ll all be hidden on the Micheaux Construction payroll.”
“I won’t do any of that kind of work, though,” Jewel said. “I didn’t bus up here to strain and sweat for no paycheck.”
” Ledoux said, tapping a finger to his temple, “he’s really ready for a step up from stealin’ eggs from chickens?”
Duncan shrugged, impassive and bored. Ledoux turned back to Jewel.
“You. You’re a tough kid, right, mon ami? I’m just curious about the generation gap, you know, that sort of thing. I was wonderin’—what’ve you ever
“Nothin’ that ain’t strictly my own business, that’s what. Mainly.”
After nodding, Ledoux returned to the task of cleaning the fish.
Duncan walked over and stood next to Jewel, then began to jab him in the short ribs with his finger. Jewel walked away.
“Okay,” Ledoux said. “I’ve got instincts that it don’t pay to fight. You could be right for us, Cobb. Everybody deserves a chance, you know.” Ledoux sat on a bloodless section of the bench. “Now the reason you get a payroll check is so we can all run fakes on the taxman, see? He’s worse than any cop you ever saw. Any
cops you ever saw. I ever get got, it’s goin’ to be some Kraut with an addin’ machine, not some Mick with a badge who does it to me.”
Slowly, Jewel nodded. He’d seen that on TV. IRS. Capone, seems like they did it to him. And most of the other big boys went up when their math became criminally inaccurate.
“That’s smart,” Jewel said, finally. The sophistication of such financial transactions increased his attraction to this line of work.
“I want to tell you one thing first,” Ledoux said. He picked up a squat flashlight and began to shine it across the water. The outlines of trees, tips of floating logs, undulations of green scum that roiled on the water’s surface, and phantom eye reflections were caught in the beam. “That there—you know what it is?”
“I just hit town,” Jewel said. “I ain’t learned every backwater.”
“That’s a hell of a backwater, mon ami. It’s the Marais du Croche. That means ‘Crooked Swamp’ in the tongue. It’s a big, endless black bugger, too. Full of sinkholes and slitherin’ things and sloughs that go in circles, and every part of it looks so much like every other part of it that most folks, they can’t remember which is which, or which way is out, or nothin’. So they get confused. Many times they get confused unto death, mon ami, then in the spring they wash down and land at the dam, bone by bone.”
“I been in woods before, with big trees and hooty owls and all that shit, man.”
“Not like that.” Ledoux flashed the light high and low, slowly displaying a great meanness of which he had somehow grown fond. “You know who knows their way around over there, Cobb?”
Jewel looked at Duncan, then at Ledoux’s weathered face.
“I’m goin’ to guess you.”
“Très bien.” Ledoux shone the light on Jewel once more. “Me and two or three other old Frogtown boys. That’s it. You get in there, no one else can help you but them and me, and they don’t know you.”
Jewel folded his arms across his chest, then rocked back on his heels and squinted into the light.
“I ain’t got no plans to go in there.”
“I know. And as long as you do right, I won’t ever have to put you in there, either. Understand what I’m sayin’?”
Jewel nodded solemnly but did not reply.
“So you’re goin’ to cool that coon, Crane, on Seventh outside of his theater. Tomorrow afternoon, am I right?”
“As rain and mother-love,” Jewel replied.
“This is our special secret, right, Jewel?” Duncan said. “That juggy gal of yours ain’t clued in, is she?”
“Are you kiddin’? You got to be kiddin’.”
Duncan stepped up and heartily slapped Jewel on the back.
“Oh, yeah, now we’re in business. What say you run up to the car and break out that beer you been savin’, cuz? We’ll cement this deal.”
“That’s a hell of a notion,” Jewel said, and started up the wooden walkway to the car.
Duncan and Ledoux watched him. When the overhead light in the Mercury went on, Ledoux nudged Duncan.
“Him bein’ your cousin—that a problem for you?”
“No,” Duncan replied, shaking his head. “He’s an asshole.”
Ledoux began to pile the skinned fish in order to carry them to the house.
“Wonderful,” he said. “We’ve got to be on time and I think he might be one peckerwood who’s just barely dumb enough to pull the trigger when we want him to.”
“When it comes to dumb, bet on him,” Duncan said, as he watched Jewel coming back down the walkway. “If you had a Sears catalogue of dummies you couldn’t order a better one. I mean, the punk’s just perfect for us.”
© 1986 Daniel Woodrell
Five of Daniel Woodrell’s eight novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. A recipient of the PEN West Award, Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.