Next week, 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 began with Under the Bright Lights and continued with Chapter 1 of Muscle for the Wing. We conclude with The Ones You Do, which the Chicago Tribune praised for its “Fine writing…. Deeply atmospheric and oozing with the mojo of the swamp… Woodrell’s work echoes that of William Kennedy, William Faulkner, and Walter Mosley.”
AFTER HIS wife stole the gangster’s money and split on him, she wanted to rub his nose in her deed, so she sent him a note. John X. Shade was sitting on a stool behind the bar in the main room of Enoch’s Ribs and Lounge, his gray head bowed, his lean shaky fingers massaging his temples. The safe gaped open and empty behind him, and a bottle of Maker’s Mark, sour mash salvation, sat sealed and full on the bar top before him.
The note that was meant to make him feel pitiful as well as endangered was delivered by his ten-year-old daughter, Etta. She came in the side door and through the sea shell and driftwood decor of the lounge where her mother had been the musical entertainment before taking up thievery, carrying a small pink vinyl suitcase that had a picture of Joan Jett embossed on the lid. The girl had thick black hair cut in a fashion her mother, Randi Tripp, considered hip, this being a feminine sort of flattop with long rat-tail tresses dangling down the back of her neck. She wore a green T-shirt that was pro-manatee and raggedy jeans that were hacked off just below the knees. A black plastic crucifix hung lightly from her right ear. Her actual name was Rosetta Tripp Shade, but she preferred to be called Etta.
“Mail call,” she said and tossed the envelope onto the bar beneath John X.’s chin. She climbed up onto a stool across the rail. “She said you should read it pronto.”
Enoch’s wasn’t a popular spot until late at night when last-call Lotharios from along the Redneck Riviera would fill it up, rooting around after pert and democratic Yankee tourists whose off-season dream vacations had yet to be consummated. It was not open at all this early in the day, so the two were alone. Hot Gulf Coast sun beat in through the smoked windows, warming the joint. On the walls there were community bulletins announcing upcoming fish frys, Gospel shows, ten-K runs for various Mobile charities, and several large, glamorous glossies of Randi Tripp, the ’Bama Butterfly.
John X. started to rip the envelope, then saw the sweat on his daughter’s face and felt a trickle stream down his own temples. He shoved the shiny beverage cooler open and said, “I ain’t King Farouk, kid, but I’ll spot you a bottle of RC.”
Etta grinned and grabbed the cold bottle of Royal Crown Cola that he slid to her.
“Well, I ain’t Madonna, neither,” she said, “but I could drink one.”
He opened the envelope and unfolded the letter. It was on yellow paper scented with lilac, and he spread it flat on the bar to read.
John X. (no dear for you),
You are not a clean fit with my future. I have made a choice and it was in favor of following my dream as you by now know. I leave special Etta with you on account of my dreams, for it is a lonely road I must travel to the top. Here I am always Enoch Tripp’s daughter and many say that’s why I am always featured singer here. I have talent! My voice fills a room to capacity with any advertizing at all. Motherhood is one thing but what is that compared to the many gifts of song! You know this too. The money I have borrowed for good to invest in my dreams was only a killer’s loot. What good fine thing would he ever do with it? Europe loves ballads of amore and shitty luck and am I ever the thrush for them! I realize Lunch will think the money is still his but having it is nine-tenths of the law and all of spending it. You have a silver tongue, shine it up and maybe Lunch will believe your tale of innocence. Many is the time I have. Enoch is on those sad last legs and I have told him ciao.
P.S. I have a sense of my own destiny now. My sense of my own destiny is that you’re not anywhere in it. I was young and married old, a classic story. But Etta will fit in with me down the road—I’ll have my Lear jet fetch her to me where the nights are sweeter than sweet and full of music and could be she’ll like it like me someday.
John X. wadded the letter into a ball and pitched it at a photo of the ’Bama Butterfly. Great lakes were being formed on his white shirt by flop sweat.
“Did I have this comin’?” he asked.
Etta retrieved the letter, then lit a match and set it afire. She dropped the flaming ball into an ashtray, and watched the flame rise before returning to her stool.
John X. looked at her sadly, then raised the bottle, cracked the red wax seal, and filled a juice glass with whisky.
“Criminentlies,” he said, “but your ma is some gal, kid.”
“I reckon,” Etta said. “She put me off at Shivers Street and told me to walk here. That gives her time to get gone, huh, Dad?” She held the soda bottle with both hands, her body hunched over the bar, eyes down, like a precociously forlorn honky-tonker. Cosmetics were not foreign to her young face, and turquoise was the lip color of the day. “Mom let me pack first, at the trailer.”
“What a gal,” John X. said.
He pulled the tumbler of whisky close and Etta watched the glass, then said, “She predicted you’d do that.”
“Pour a giant whisky and have at it.”
“Oh,” he said. “That didn’t call for no crystal ball.” He raised the glass and put the bourbon down in one constant swallow. “And after a drink what’m I goin’ to do?”
“She figured we’d go runnin’ to the hospital’n see Grampa Enoch.”
As he poured himself another dollop John X. nodded and said, “Then what?”
“Well, she wasn’t sure for sure, but her best guess was, flee. She figured we’d flee.”
Lunch Pumphrey was called Lunch because if he had a chance to he’d eat yours for you. The stolen money had originally been won down at Hialeah on a horse named Smile Please by two hunch-playing dentists from Baltimore and then tushhogged from them in The Flamingo Motel by Lunch, the thirtyish badass who was a silent partner in Enoch’s Ribs and Lounge. Lunch was a loud partner in a bunch of nasty this-and-that along the Gulf Coast between Biloxi and Tampa, but his home port was here in Mobile. It was said of him that he hurt people over business, or pleasure, depending on opportunity, and that his services as a pistolero were in some demand in distant parts of the nation where his face rang no bells. The loot Lunch had taken from the two hunch-playing dentists who’d briefly considered themselves lucky had been invested in the national pastime and doubled when the Cubs eked one out over Doc and the Mets, then doubled again when the Cubbies beat the Cards two straight. The money had spawned to the amount of forty-seven thousand dollars and was stored in the safe. Yesterday the word got around the lounge that as the season wound down all forty-seven K had been put behind the Cubs, the cable team of Lunch’s heart, and lost when the Atlanta Braves found some miracle broom and swept them three straight at Wrigley. Lunch had gotten this stunning series of losing bets down with Short Paul of Tampa, who was allegedly wired up asshole to belly button with Angelo Travelina, kingpin of the dangerous dudes in sunkissed country and an aggressive debt collector. When Lunch came in today for the cash to pay off Short Paul and found an empty safe, he could well decide that both business and pleasure dictated that he hurt a few folks in some marvelously painful manner.
“Criminentlies,” John X. said with a groan. He pulled a cigarette pack from the heart pocket of his shirt and lit one of the fifty or sixty Chesterfield Kings he inhaled daily. He lit the smoke with a gray flip-top Zippo lighter that had the outline of an eight ball etched into it. After exhaling, he said, “I’m not whelmed by this, kid. Don’t think I am.”
“Dad, I don’t think you’re whelmed.”
“Kid, I refuse to be whelmed by this.” John X. Shade had long believed that the key to life was cue ball control, but lately his stroke was so imperfect on cue balls and life alike that his existence had come to seem far too much like the stark moral to a cautionary homily he’d chosen to ignore. He was in his sixties, a decade of his life that suddenly had more miscues and comeuppances in it than he could construe as merely accidental. His hair was wavy and thick and partly gray but leaning more and more to pure white. The physical aspects of his life had taken wicked turns over the last few years, and now his blue eyes had weakened to the point where they watered over if he stared at an object ball for more than five seconds, a pitiful development for a career billiardist. He also had complaints from his liver, a creaky left knee, fallen arches, gummy sinuses, and, to finish off the organic revolt, his hands trembled almost constantly. The trembling hands meant he had to shakily swat at the cue ball in less than the five seconds it took his eyes to water over. This series of afflictions had led to his being victimized by other career billiardists down to the last copper cent, and thus to his becoming a bartender slash son-in-law mooch six nights a week in Enoch’s Ribs and Lounge.
“Oh, kid,” he said, “it’s bum luck you’re stuck in this mess with me.”
With her thonged feet on the rung of her barstool, Etta leaned out across the bar and patted the old sport who was her father on the head.
“You’re not totally responsible, Dad.”
John X. sat up straight and lifted his chin and stared into Etta’s big ’Bama browns.
“Hell, I know that,” he said. He scooted away and shook open a Winn-Dixie grocery sack. He bent below the bar to the reserve stock and began to set bottles of booze into the sack. He showed his loyalty to the Maker’s Mark brand up to four bottles, then impetuously included one bottle each of gin and rum so that in the weird event he should want a change from bourbon, he’d have it right there with him. “People fall out,” he said as he lifted the sack to the counter, “and life rolls on down the road even after the tread is gone.”
Etta jumped from the barstool and went to the wall by the side door, and there she carefully took down a photo of her mother. In the photo Randi Tripp was darkly lit and wreathed in artsy webs of smoke, her eyes cocked in the manner of a self-aware cutie who had just thrown out an especially provocative gambit, and her magnificent cleavage and full lips seemed to promise a bounty of luscious succor for the man with the winning response. Her hair was black as a crow wing and aloft in a timeless bouffant.
Back at the bar Etta opened her Joan Jett suitcase and put the photo on top of her clean underthings and the precious trove of bass lures Grampa Enoch had given her over the course of several holidays.
John X. reached deep into the floor cabinet for the stiff leather case that held his Balabushka cue, a cue he’d lived with for thirty years, and pulled it out. Dust coated the case, and old pawnshop tags were still stuck to the leather. John X. was studying the tags and the dust when he heard a key going into the front door lock.
“Uh-oh,” he said, then spun around and shoved the safe door closed. There was a Budweiser mirror that concealed the safe, but it was on the floor and the front door was opening. John X. looked that way and said, “Hey, Lunch, how’re you hangin’?”
“ ’Bout a quart too full,” Lunch Pumphrey said. His speech was hardy and roughly stylized, with a tangle of Appalachian underbrush in it. He was about five and a half feet of condensed malevolence, wearing a snap-brim hat of black straw, black half-boots, black pants, and one of the long-sleeved black shirts he favored in any weather because they covered the mess of ridiculous tattoos he doodled on his arms when drunk. “Why for’s the safe uncovered, Paw-Paw?”
As Lunch came around the bar John X. said, “Flyshit, Lunch. Christ, there was flyshit all over the mirror and gals kept lookin’ in it and runnin’ out of here thinkin’ their lips had sprouted chancre sores. Bad for business. I had to wash it.”
Lunch paused with one hand on the bar. His skin was pale and clear of worry lines, his face angular and bony, with dark, sepulchral eyes.
“Still hot,” he said, then looked at Etta. “Whew! I bet that there dog won’t hunt.”
“She don’t want to hunt, Lunch,” John X. said.
“Just teasin’ the child,” Lunch said. “My sis used to always pick on me by callin’ me bad things, up ’til one day when she stopped callin’ me anything at all. What she done was good for me, really, over the long haul.” Lunch fanned his face with his hat, then set the hat on the bar. “I got to get somethin’ from the safe, Paw-Paw, so back away from there.”
John X. looked at Etta, then looked at the whisky bottle on the bar, then looked at the tiny bald spot amid Lunch’s burr-cut red hair as Lunch bent to the safe.
“Tonight ought to be quiet here,” John X. said as Lunch twirled the combination. Then he grabbed the Maker’s Mark bottle with his right hand and smacked it briskly against Lunch’s jaw from behind, just below the ear.
Etta screamed as Lunch sagged sideways, his hands clutching at the bottles behind the bar, sending them tumbling to the floor.
The air was soaked with scent from the shattered liquor bottles and Lunch was on all fours, grunting in the eighty-six-proof mire.
“Be human, for cryin’ out loud,” John X. said, then stepped up and smacked Lunch again. Lunch went out this time, and landed on his chin. John X. spun to face Etta.
Etta’s hands squeezed the RC bottle, her eyes shocked circles.
“Get your stuff,” John X. said, and she nodded slowly. “We gotta go to the hospital and see if Grampa Enoch knows a way out of this.”
He tapped the cash register for the seventy dollars that were in it and added them to the nine bucks in his wallet. Beneath the cash register, on a handy hook, there was a Bulldog .38, and he slipped it off the hook and into a pocket of his light blue shorts. He found a box of shells and took them too. He stuck his pool cue into the sack of liquor and hoisted the load. He came around the bar, opened the front door, and checked the parking lot.
“I hope to God Enoch has some magic in his pocket. Let’s get our heinies hoofin’ over there and see, huh?”
“I don’t have any idea where she run to,” Enoch Tripp said. Enoch was a widower, father, father-in-law, grampa, and scoundrel, but he’d been whittled down to a moot point by cancer. His face was bearded, his white hair was matted, and, low in weight as he was, his eyes seemed huge in his thin face. A Bible was clutched in his hands for the first time since Iwo Jima. “Far away I hope.”
John X. stood by the window looking out over other wings of the hospital to Mobile Bay. He had a cigarette going.
“We can rule out Europe, I’m pretty damned sure of that,” he said.
“She ain’t but twenty-eight,” Enoch said in a weak voice. “It’s good she caught a break.”
Etta sat on a chair, pink suitcase on her lap. She had a problem looking straight at Grampa Enoch, who’d taught her many things about the largemouth, the spotted, the redeye, and even the Suwannee basses, back when he’d been seventy or eighty pounds more alive.
“This is a hell of a note at my age,” John X. said. He was rubbing his chin, gazing out at the Bay, watching the regular afternoon rains blow in from the Gulf. Clouds were dark and bunched together, rolling toward land. “Criminentlies, Enoch, I’m two years older’n you. Let that sink in.”
“It is,” Enoch said. “It’s all sinkin’ in, Johnny. Every goddamn thing is sinkin’ in.” He paused to take two deep snuffling breaths. “But Randi could go off and make the Tripp name mean somethin’ to the world. Think on that like a dyin’ man, would you?” Enoch raised his head from the bed, the weight wobbling atop his weak neck. “Save Etta, Johnny. She’s the good thing I’ve known lately. She’s got to where she can cast ’tween twin lily pads, perfect.” His head flopped back on the white pillow like a carp tossed on the bank to die. “You got a lot of moves, John X., dust ’em off’n save her.”
“Now how can I save us?” John X. asked in a tone of lilting frenzy. He gestured at his feet where there were black low-top sneakers, then his knobby knees and no longer athletic thighs that were visible beneath blue golfer shorts. He plucked a smoke from his heart pocket and lit it with the butt he still had burning. “This’s all the clothes I’ve got. Randi took the car and I’ve got under a hundred bucks, E-noch. Buddy.”
Enoch propped his left elbow on the bed and levered his hand upright. He aimed a finger bone at the closet.
“Take my suitcase. It’s got clothes. The truck keys are in this drawer here.” His hand fell. “My gift, and welcome to it.”
John X. retrieved the suitcase and the truck keys. He could feel the pistol sagging his shorts, and cigarette smoke rose from between his fingers.
“Later on, Enoch.”
“Uh,” Enoch grunted. “You were my best pal, Johnny, and I couldn’t make her not do it, so that’s that. Randi’s blood, and I can’t rat out blood.”
John X. shrugged and, with down-home grace, waved his cigarette in a gesture of dismissal.
“Aw, forget about it,” he said. “Que sera and so on, you know.”
Enoch’s eyes closed and he said, “See you at the back table on Cloud Nine, Johnny.”
“Sure ’nough,” John X. said. “I’ll stick the balls right up your ass there, too.”
“That’s good. You always did do that.”
John X. gestured at Etta to kiss Enoch good-bye.
“On the cheek?” she whispered.
John X. nodded, then watched her plant one on Enoch’s beard. Then she hugged his sick, weary head, but it seemed he didn’t care to notice.
As they went down the brightly polished floor of the hallway they did not speak. On the elevator Etta asked, “Why’d she leave, Dad?”
“Well, kid, I always was more Spanky, you see,” he said philosophically, “and she was more Alfalfa in type, and that mix ain’t good forever.”
“Huh,” Etta grunted. “She said she outgrew you.”
They walked through the lobby and stepped out to the street just as the first fat drops of rain began to fall. Trees shimmied in the Gulf breeze. The streets gave off that nice hopeful smell of fresh rain on hot pavement.
“What’s our stragedy, Dad?” Etta asked, using a coined word that was a favorite of his.
He shrugged, then smiled, and his face was briefly as handsome as it had ever been: blue fuck-me eyes, strong chin, proud nose, terrific come hither grin.
“First, find the truck,” he said. “Second, flee.”
The truck was orange and in sorry condition. The color was owed to a half-price paint sale and the condition to simple neglect. The pistons sounded like a family squabble. A fist-sized gap had developed in the rusted muffler so that exhaust rose into the cab at stoplights. The windshield on the passenger side was webbed with cracks surrounding a .22-caliber hole that resulted from a night when Enoch had taken his coonhounds on a moonlit run across property he’d been warned to stay clear of. The tires were iffy, but the radio worked and all the buttons moved the dial to different country stations. On the tailgate there was a big bumper sticker that read, I Don’t Give A Damn HOW You Did It Up North.
The liquor was in a plastic ice chest that Enoch had left in the truck bed, minus one bottle that rode in the cab. The two suitcases were on the floorboards under Etta’s feet.
The truck was now pulled over on the shoulder of a blacktop road that had a view of The Breeze-In Trailer Park. There was a drizzle of rain and sirens filling the air. John X. reached blindly for the bottle, his eyes steady on the twenty-foot flames rising from his trailer.
“I didn’t kill him,” he said as his hand found the bottle. “Or hurt him much, either, I don’t guess. That there’s the sort of thing Lunch does whenever there’s a chance of it.”
Etta’s face was pale, her mouth open. She hadn’t looked away from the flames since she first saw them. Her arms were wrapped around her shoulders, hugging herself.
John X. poured two fingers of whisky into a bar glass with pink elephants on it that he’d always kept in Enoch’s glove box. He swished the whisky around his mouth, then swallowed. The trailer walls had collapsed inward, and as flames destroyed his most recent home John X. closed his eyes to the awful fact and symbolism of the sight.
“Well, kid,” he said sadly. “I’m feelin’ the call of the open road. Whatta you think?”
Her eyes stayed bugged on the fire, and her tongue flickered over her young painted lips.
“You’re drivin’,” she said.
Three hours later the afternoon rains petered out and the sunset was pink and promising. After Pascagoula they’d left the big Gulf Highway for a smaller one that cut away from the coast and was flanked by loblolly pines, barbed wire fences, and chicken shacks.
“Fix me up with a tiny angel, angel,” John X. said.
“Just a sec,” Etta said. She’d been painting her fingernails out of boredom, and at present her hands hung from the window to dry the purple polish. The wind blew the black crucifix straight back from her ear. In a few seconds her nails were dry enough, and she pulled her hands in and poured him a tiny angel of Maker’s Mark in the pink elephant glass. When she held the glass toward him she said, “What’ll he do if Lunch should find us?”
“Now don’t you worry about that,” he said as he took the glass from her hand. “That’s my department.” He drank the whisky and set the glass on the seat. “I don’t want you worrying about that.” He kept his eyes on the road and straightened up like he meant business. “I realize I’m a little bit askew as a daddy, but, girl, I want you to know, if anyone messes with you or me, why, I’ll get P.O.ed pretty good, and, darlin’, when I get mad I’m just like Popeye .”
© 1992 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.