Thursday, December 22, 2011
THE BASTARD HAND, lost chapter
The month or so before my first novel, THE BASTARD HAND, came out saw me editing the hell out of it. A lot of the editing had to do with quality control, but some of it was purely for length. All told, I chopped out almost 170 pages from the original manuscript, and I think it's a better novel for it.
But there was one scene I hated to see go, because I thought it was fun and displayed all the Reverend's dubious charms quite nicely. I chopped it because, technically, it didn't move the story forward at all and was a bit superfluous. But it was the only cut scene that I lamented over a little.
So here it is. If you've already read THE BASTARD HAND, this happens when Charlie and the Reverend first leave Memphis and are on their way to Cuba Landing. If you haven't read the book yet, well, consider this a brief diversion into debauchery.
I GET IRRITABLE
Before we got on the freeway the Reverend pulled a fifth of Canadian whiskey out of the trunk and we started passing the bottle back and forth before we’d crossed the Tennessee-Mississippi state line. He listened, enthralled, while I told him about getting my money back, and he laughed at all the right places and glanced at me with wide eyes and said, “No shit!” and “I’ll be doggoned!” and “Well, cut off my legs and call me Shorty!”
A good audience, the old Reverend.
The miles on I-55 flashed by, taking us away from Memphis. For a long stretch the road seemed to drop steadily and he said, “We’re coming down off the Bluff now. Can you feel the difference?”
I noticed that the signs of city life stopped almost all at once and the scenery got rural. We passed over the hills, through green and clay-colored patches of deep forest, past sagging willow trees. Kudzu grew in ditches and up the stout trunks of every tree, thick and dense.
Only a few short miles west, the land flattened abruptly into the fertile expanse of the Delta, and whenever we’d reach a high point on the road we could look in that direction and see cotton fields stretching away from us.
I’d never seen Mississippi before, and I sort of fell in love. Every few minutes one of us would make a comment about how pretty it was. The rest of the time we spent laughing, drinking, singing songs, like a couple of teenage boys on their first road trip.
Just north of Holly Springs he decided to get off the freeway and find someplace to eat. He steered the car off the next exit we came to, and we found ourselves on a long lonely stretch of two-lane road heading west.
Very nice, but not exactly what we had in mind. The land flattened out and the road curved through the heart of the woods, great giant trees looming on either side. Not a diner or a gas station or any sign of humankind anywhere.
The woods around us began thinning out, until we came to a straight stretch on the road and the cotton fields we’d seen from a distance were all around us. The first sign of civilization, but not a particularly happy one. Still no sign of humans—no one working in the fields, no houses in the distance, nothing. They were around somewhere, we knew that, but damned if we knew where.
“Cotton fields,” he said vaguely. “I used to work in the cotton fields.”
He sighed. “No. Not really. My daddy owned the pharmacy in town and I worked there. But if you tell folks you’re from Mississippi they like to think you picked cotton, so that’s what I’ve always told them. I don’t know the first damn thing about picking cotton.”
I laughed, started to say something about living near Seattle and not working in a coffee shop, when the left front tire went boosh! and the car lurched across the dividing line and toward the ditch.
He wrestled with the steering wheel, pulling the Malibu back on the right side of the road and pumping the brake. He steered the car off the road, rolled to a noisy stop on the gravel. He craned his neck, looked out his window, then drew his head back in. He said, “Well, damn. We lost the front left tire.”
We sat there for a minute, getting our heartbeats back under control.
Then I said, “You have a spare?”
“Well, that’s a relief. Let’s get this thing taken care of.”
We climbed out of the car and the heat hit us hard. The sky was huge and white and the sun beat down. We went around to the trunk and Preacher had to try three different keys before he found the right one. He said, “One of these days I’m gonna mark these dang keys. I can never keep track.”
He opened it up. His suitcase and a small carry case were on top, and under them the spare tire, all shiny and new and black as pitch. I pulled it out with a heave and set it against the bumper, then searched the rest of the trunk for tools.
There weren’t any.
“Reverend,” I said. “You do have a jack, don’t you? And a tire iron?”
He looked puzzled. “Don’t I?” He shouldered in next to me, eyed the trunk, then straightened and put his hands on his hips. “Well, I gotta say, it sure looks like I don’t.”
“You have a spare tire but no tools to put it on.”
“Sure does look that way, don’t it?”
We stood there staring at each other for a minute. I sighed and rubbed a hand across my face. Already, sweat was coursing down the back of my neck and beading on my scalp.
“Well,” I said. “Well. We’re screwed.”
“Now, don’t jump to conclusions, Charlie.”
“Reverend,” I said. “I’m not jumping to conclusions. We’ve got a blown tire, no tools to fix it with, and we’re stranded in the middle of fucking nowhere. In my book, that means we’re screwed.”
“Well, now,” he said. He wiped sweat from his wide forehead and gazed off to the west. Nothing but cotton fields, but he said, “There’s bound to be some human beings ‘round here somewheres. Maybe if we drive real slow we can get up the road a-ways and find someone.”
“We can’t. Drive on that rim and it’ll get so bent up we won’t be able to take the lug nuts off. Besides, we’ve already driven miles on this road and haven’t seen a single soul.”
“All that means is that we’re closer to finding someone than we were before. And the rim can take a mile or so.”
“I don’t think so.”
“C’ mon, Charlie! Let’s go before we melt out here.”
He clapped his hands together, grinning, then got back in the car.
“C’ mon, Charlie,” he called. “Chop chop!”
I rubbed my face again, muttered a line of expletives under my breath, and hoisted the spare tire back in the trunk.
We drove another mile on the blown tire, inching along at five miles an hour. The ragged rubber flop-flop-flopped along the road until I thought the noise of it would drive me insane. The endless fields of cotton and the intense heat were like a fever-dream, a mind-numbing rendition of a mundane Hell. I couldn’t believe that only an hour ago I thought the goddamn place was beautiful.
The Reverend seemed totally unperturbed. He hummed as he drove, taking an occasional swig from the bottle. He said a few words to me at first, but my responses were irritable so he decided to leave me alone.
Then we saw what we’d been hoping for—a patch of trees up ahead, at the far end of the field, and beyond them a barn.
We both sat up hopefully, and he said, “Hot damn!” He capped the bottle, handed it to me, and I shoved it under the seat. The blown tire flopped faster, and he pointed ahead. “See there? What’d I tell ya?”
Just on the other side of the barn, a huge old farmhouse stood like a sun-battered oasis in the desert. Preacher laughed. “God will provide, won’t he?”
I smiled. “Sure looks that way. Unless this is the Ed Gein residence.”
The Reverend asked me who the hell Ed Gein was, and I told him Gein was someone even crazier than him and the Reverend said he sounded like a decent fellow. At the side of the farmhouse a woman was hanging laundry on a sagging line and she looked up as we coasted to a stop right in front of her house.
The Reverend squinted his eyes and examined her. It was a huge front yard and she was some distance away, but I could tell she was one of those hard-boned southern women who worked like a dog and never said much. She stared back, all the while pulling damp clothes out of a hamper and hanging them on the line.
“Handsome woman,” he said.
“You ever see a woman you didn’t like?”
“Not yet I ain’t. God created women to be admired, Charlie, and I ain’t one to sneer at His plan.”
“She looks a little rough to me.”
“Damn straight she does. I bet she ain’t had a good hambone put to her in decades. Can you imagine what that woman would be like in the sack? Old thing would probably tear your ass apart.”
A lavacious gleam in his eye. I shook my head, sighed. “Maybe we can tend to your needs once we get to Cuba Landing. Right now we have a small problem with the car. Why don’t you go on up to the house there and see if she has a jack and a tire iron?”
I climbed out, went around to the driver’s side, and got down on my haunches to check out the rim. Sure enough, it was bent at a slight angle, straining against the bolts. Burping whiskey, the Reverend got out of the car and walked around back to open the trunk. I followed him, said, “Get a hammer too, if she has one. I’m probably gonna have to pound the rim out a bit to pull it off.”
He looked at the woman, hardly paying attention to me. “Okey-doke. If I ain’t back in an hour, call the army.”
I pulled the tire out and bounced it on the road. “No way, Rev. You’re not gonna leave me standing around in this heat while you go off gallivanting. Just see if she has what we need.”
“Damn if you ain’t the bossiest travel partner I ever met.”
Grinning, he straightened his white collar, pushed a hand through his hair, and started up the huge yard towards the woman. As he approached, she began smoothing her shabby dress and touching at her hair self-consciously. He stuck his hand out at her and she took it, smiled at him. The smile softened her features dramatically, touching her eyes and every part of her face. She was quite pretty after all-- the Reverend apparently had some uncanny knack about finding qualities in people that were just below the surface.
They stood there by the clothesline for a few minutes, talking. The Reverend swept his arm in my direction, and the woman glanced over at me, nodding about something he was saying. She looked for all the world like a wallflower being asked to dance at the senior prom. I would’ve given anything to know what he was telling her.
After a moment she nodded vigorously and led him around back of the house. He glanced back at me, gave the “okay” sign with thumb and forefinger, and they disappeared from view.
Immediately I had a bad feeling about it, and after a minute I’d just about made up my mind to go and get him. But right as I took a step in that direction they reappeared. He carried a red plastic toolbox in one hand and a rusty old jack in the other. The woman walked beside him, talking enthusiastically.
He left her at the washing line and made his way back to the car. The woman waved at me, and went back to hanging up her clothes.
“Well, here ya go,” he said, handing me the jack. “And lookee here. She had a whole box full of brand new tools in the shed. Pretty box too, ain’t it?”
He set the box on the hood of the car and opened it. A shiny black tire iron rested on top, so new it still had the thin coat of manufactor’s grease on it.
I picked it up, looked at him. He looked back at me, a half-grin on his pleasant face.
I said, “Listen, I’m sorry for jumping on you like that. S’ the heat, you know?”
He waved a hand at me in dismissal. “Paw! Don’t think nothing of it. I do tend to have a one-track mind, I reckon.”
He wiggled his eyebrows at me, and I laughed, shaking my head.
“You do beat all, Rev.”
I took off my shirt—the same bowling shirt I’d worn the day before—and started to work.
He hung around beside me, glancing at my progress occasionally, making “hmm,” noises under his breath. But I could tell he was distracted. The woman hanging up clothes still watched us, and without even looking at the Reverend I knew he was watching her.
Finally he said, “Y’know, Charlie... if it’s all the same to you, I think I might go on up there and get better acquainted with the lady.”
I stopped working at the rusted lug nuts long enough to arch an eyebrow at him. “Don’t you figure she’s married or something?”
“I asked her ‘bout that. Husband’s off in the fields.”
“Rev, I’m gonna be done with this pretty soon.”
“How soon, you reckon?”
“Well... twenty minutes or so. Maybe half an hour, depending.”
He grinned, rubbed his hands together, gazed at the woman. Appetite showed in his eyes. “Twenty minutes or so, huh? I tell you what...”
I looked at him, waiting, while he calculated in his head.
He clapped his hands together and said, “Yeah. I tell you what, Charlie, since you got yourself a little money now. I bet you that I can go on up the house there, chat that lady up, have myself a nice little ole’ romp, and be back here before you’re done changing that tire.”
I stared at him.
“What do you say, Charlie? If I can’t do it, then supper’s on me tonight. If I can, then you gotta buy.”
“This ain’t Bridges Of Madison County, Rev.”
“Bridges of what?”
“Never mind. You’re crazy, you know that?”
He grinned. “Damn straight. Craziest motherfucker this side of Ole’ Man River.”
I twirled the tire iron in my hand, said, “Okay. You’re on. I know you’re good, but you’re not that good. In fact, if you’re able to reduce that woman to a mere object for your sexual gratification before I finish, then supper’ll be on me for the next week. And I’m talking steak and lobster.”
“Well all right!” he said.
He headed back toward the house, striding purposefully, and the woman put down her work and waited for him.
I watched as they exchanged a few words and the woman actually blushed visibly. They talked for several minutes, laughing and carrying on, while I stood there watching like an idiot.
And then she was walking back to the house, the Reverend following her.
I started working. Fast. Somehow I knew they weren’t going inside for lemonade.
Exactly twenty-three minutes later my hands were covered with grease and I was tightening up the last nut on the new tire. The sun beat down on me relentlessly, and the back of my neck was raw and irritable. The whole time I worked, not a single car passed on the road, not a single sound disturbed me. Less than an hour from Memphis, but it may as well have been the moon.
I would’ve had the damn thing done ten minutes earlier, but my greasy hands—all signs of amber light gone for now—kept slipping on the tire iron and after that I kept dropping lug nuts and would have to crawl around retrieving them. The rim wasn’t bent too badly so it didn’t take long to hammer it out, but the bolts were rusted on and Samson would’ve had a hard time with them.
The problem was, my mind kept wandering, calculating down to the minute how long the Reverend would take to chat the woman up, seduce her, have his way with her, and then be back. It couldn’t possibly be done in twenty minutes.
But that didn’t stop me from hurrying. I’d known the Reverend only a short while, but I knew that if anyone could do it, he could.
I dropped the not-so-new-looking-anymore tire iron into the toolbox, wiped my greasy hands on my jeans, and stood up, my lower back aching.
I was just heaving the blown-out tire in the trunk when the front door of the house slammed. The Reverend came skipping down the porch steps, whistling a happy tune, buttoning his collar. A curtain moved in an upstairs window, and I saw the woman peeking out-- her hair mussed and her shoulders bare.
He stopped, glanced up at her and waved. She waved back, smiling an embarrassed smile, and the curtain fell in front of her.
“Howdy, Charlie,” the Reverend said, approaching the car. “I’m mighty hungry, how ‘bout you? What say we have filet mignon for supper?”
I slammed the trunk shut. “Filet mignon,” I said. “Son of a bitch.”