Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Home Town Fiction



I've been working on a novel based on my shithole hometown for about three decades. I'll tap away at it for a while and I hate the place so much I'll stop and tuck the file away. Then, after I've thought about the town for a few months I'll revive the novel and work on it some more until I've gotten a few more thousand words done. I've been at it like this for thirty years, almost.

I reckon one day I'll finish it.

Here's a chapter of it.


PORT CITY

By

James Robert Smith
                                                        

     When I think back on it, those years. Nothing happened. Nothing was happening in America. The wheels were turning, the men were running things, the trees were being slowly burned by the rain and the animals were going one by one to Heaven and the rivers were being dammed and the farms were being paved over. But nothing was happening. No one cared. We were all sitting with bellies full of fried food in front of glowing blue boxes watching insane, happy, stupid world flashing before our eyes. But there was something going on, with me. There I was, making something happen by accident. We should have been burning down the old to make way for the new, but there I was. I was.
     The sky is blue. That tree there, the big one: it's an oak. Okay, a live oak. The ground there is dark and sandy. I buried a girl I killed not far from here.
     This is the way I see the world. Everything is fairly simple, if you really think about it. There's black, and there's white. And I'll even admit to some gray areas. But this is the way I see things. This is the way I'll tell about it.
      I've done a lot of things in my short life. I've done something that damned few people have ever gotten away with. I've killed a cop.
      I know you've already conjured some thoughts about what I am and how I live. Probably, most of those theories of yours are wrong. I'm no gun-crazy psycho who'll end up on top of some tower taking shots and waiting for the Peace Officers to pick me off with a scope and rifle. Guns, knives: that stuff isn't for me. The people I've killed I've killed with my bare hands.
      I'll tell you all about it. Right away, I know you've got me pegged wrong. You hear cop-killer and bare hands and your head is chunk full of misconceptions. I have to set you right. It was like this.
***
     On Friday nights I almost always spent the evenings with Vivian Rogers. She's my girlfriend, and mainly we have a physical thing going, although I have to admit she's more than a little sharper than I am. She's got more brains I have to say. (See? A girlfriend. You thought otherwise, I know.)
      Vivian's sweet. She's kind of a big girl. Now, I'm six foot, and she can look me square when we're both bare-naked and standing on the hardwood floor of her bedroom. She always said that's why most guys won't give her a second look: they don't want to fuck some woman who can maybe overpower them. And, yeah, she isn't the most feminine thing I ever laid eyes or hands on; but she's soft where she ought to be, and I've always thought she has a nice smile. She likes me and she likes to have sex with me. We get along.
     Like I said, I spend most Friday nights all scrambled up between Viv's legs and tangled in her bed sheets. I know we must make an awful lot of racket, but her dad's house is big and the den where her parents half live is way on the opposite side. So we don't seem to bother them. And when I bump into her mom or her dad in town or at the shop, I'll be damned if either one of them ever gave me anything other than a kind word. I always figure they're hoping I'll just marry big ol' clunky Vivian and make certain that they'll cap off a normal lifetime with a son-in-law and grandkids and a daughter living somewhere off the premises. Well, maybe.
     But, nobody tells me what to do or when to do it, so I kind of got a bug up my ass that one Friday night. 
And I decided that what I really needed was a long walk. And I mean long. It's not unusual for me to take off around about six in the evening and hoof it twenty miles, round trip. I once told my sister, Angela that I did that--fifteen, twenty miles every few days--and she didn't believe me. She said I was too heavy to do that much walking. But I spend four nights a week lifting cast iron at the South Georgia Barbell Club with a friend, and I dearly love to put away the groceries. So, I reckon I am what you would call fat. Still, it's the truth. I'll hit the sandy alley behind my house late in the afternoon, and around midnight I'm away out on the other side of the causeway that leads out to Jekyll Island: ten miles out. And then I'll shoot on back and catch four hours before it's time to get up. It's easier than you might think.
     I had knocked off at six, like I always did, and locked up and took off. There were about fifty, sixty bucks in my front pocket from the day's till, and like I said, I don't answer to anybody. I felt like a walk. On Reynolds Street I came within a block of Viv's house, and I reckon I stood there on the corner for all of sixty seconds and thought about going over to see her. If I had knocked on the side door next to the garage, Vivian would have answered, or maybe her mom, and I would've been invited in: all 250 iron-pumping pounds of me. But the night was kind of cool for early summer, and the pulp mill was stinking up the air like a shitheap on a griddle, so I figured a walk out toward the marsh would find me some air that smelled slightly less foul.
     I have lived damned near all of my life in Port City, Georgia, but I'll be fucked if I have ever gotten used to the stink of the Rome-Kraft Paper Mill that sits way out on the northern reaches of the Marshes of Glynn. I used to wonder what the hell old Sidney Lanier would think if he could have seen his precious marshes all dead and brown and full of mercury and god knows what else. There’s the Samson Chemical Plant that sits over by the Port City Hospital, too; and it shits out its share of stink around here. Hell, the hospital is full of cancer patients owing their misery to that particular industry. The whole thing makes me sick, so I shouldn’t get started. The greatness of free enterprise.
     At any rate, I stood there at the corner of K and Reynolds and thought about Viv and figured that I just didn't wan to deal with it, that night. My sex drive was currently in synch with hers, and I was thinking that maybe in was OTR-time. I could do without the mess. I took off, headed toward the river where the cannery was incinerating crab shells. Now, that, my Yankee friends, is something no tourist should go home without having experienced. They usually wait until nightfall to fire that sucker up, and the last of the sunlight was fading beyond the flat line of the marsh as I went past the cannery. The incinerator was going full blast and the air was heavy with the stink of the day's crabshhells burning to a fare thee well. So I made a detour down Main Street through the rotting downtown, past the old Rialto that had been empty for twenty years and probably would be for another twenty. My dad had always told me stories about some novelist who had sat up there in an apartment on the top floor of the theatre writing a world-famous fiction of my native South. They made a movie out of the book back in the late sixties, so you'd probably know the title if I thought of it.
     By the time I walked through downtown, it was full dark. Most people wouldn't go anywhere near downtown, on foot, at night, by themselves. But most people ain't me. I don't like to brag or bluster, so that's mainly why I am the way I am. At 250 pounds, I look at first like I'm just fat. A forty-inch waist will do that to you. But I also have seventeen-inch biceps and a fifty-two inch chest and lifting three hundred pounds to me is like most guys lifting seventy or eighty. You get my drift.
     Now, I know that seven or eight normal guys could maybe take me down, and I realize that a twenty dollar pistol can make me as dead as dead can be. But that's the deal. The kinds of guys who would think about screwing around with me can smell fear. And I don't think anybody ever smelled that on me. Nobody dangerous ever messes with me. Of course, I don't mess with them, either.
     Except for where the river comes up next to the town, down there where the docks are and the shrimp boats float in and out with tide, there's a zone of slums and derelict houses around the city. I could have taken one of several routes out to the causeway, so not being stupid, I went the path of least resistance, you might say. Even that can be tricky, if your skin is white. A friend of mine once stopped right where I was walking that night, but in the light of day, to pick up a fellow he thought he recognized as an acquaintance. That person put a twenty-two bullet in him. Almost killed him. A year before that, I had been attacked by three teenage toughs thinking I was a bag of blubber with the wrong color skin walking where I had no business walking. That particular day I had a chain in the big, loose pocket of my jacket, and I ended up beating those three black bastards half to death. I remember after it was over, looking down and seeing teeth on the sidewalk. They weren't mine, mind you.
     So I went on down the street, and passed by some of the old houses there between downtown and the big four-lane that heads out to Jekyll or Saint Simons Island, depending on which way you go. That night was kind of quiet, and the only people I saw were old men and older women sitting out on front porches taking it easy on wooden swings and in old rocking chairs. Maybe some of them recognized me. Maybe not. Nobody said a word to me and I just faced front and kept on.
     All those black faces looking at me walking there in the dark.
     I hate racists. One of my goals in life then was to kill me up a bunch of Klansmen. I try not to be a racist, because my daddy taught me it was wrong, showed me it was wrong. But I don't have a single black friend. I haven't since I was a little kid in junior high. So what does that make me? Some kind of hypocrite? Most of the people I had beaten half to death at that point in my life had been black guys I'd fought with in and out of school. But I never did like for people to be treated like shit for the color of their skin. It was thoughts like that running through my mind that kind of stoked the fire that was smoldering in me that night. I just didn't realize it at the time.
     It took me six or seven minutes to walk through that part of town and then I was out near the highway and the Lanier Bridge that leads out over the Altamaha River. It's a hell of a bridge. Once, a big tanker with a drunken helmsman asleep at his post once came free of its moorings and the tide took it right slam into one of the bridge supports. It's one of the biggest drawbridges in the country, and a hundred idiots who didn't know any better got out of their cars while the bridge was up and watched that tanker heaving sideways at the bridge until it smacked into one of the supports and a whole section went down. Splat. Twenty poor fools found muddy water eternity that day.
     But, they put it back together. It took them most of a year to set that steel and concrete to rights. I hiked along the highway and went up and over the mile-long span across the river. Hell of a hike if you jog it, which I did. I was breathing kind of heavy by the time I trotted down the incline to the other side, cars whizzing past me as I moved along the shoulder, staying behind the oleander bushes that hide the verge of the marsh. I scared up a shitload of rabbits as I clunked along, thinking my private thoughts.
     If you cut to the left there, right at the base of the bridge, you come to the Jekyll Island Causeway that leads out miles and miles across the marsh to the island where billionaires once held court. Their summer houses, now part of a state park, bigger and finer than anything you or I ever dreamed of living in, still stand out on the land side of the island, high and dry and safe from the marauding hurricanes that slam down here once every twenty years or so. But I didn't cut to the left. It's a long haul out that way, and I don't much care for it. Out there you're all exposed and the only place to hide is at the edge of the marsh where the scrub grows. Not a good place to walk.
     I hiked on along the highway toward Jones Island, which isn't really an island, just an isolated peninsula. There's a bit of a spur railway and a rail yard where a couple of short lines park their cargo and empty railcars from time to time. Nothing there but woods full of armadillos and raccoons and a wild horse or three.
     Then, at the tip of Jones Island, I found a spot of grass with no fire-ant hills about, behind a stand of oleander and palmetto and Spanish bayonet, and I lay down to rest before I headed back. I lit up a fat joint I had scored off of a son-of-a-bitch dealer I knew, and smoked it down, thinking about nothing in particular. More than likely, it was the blue lights strobing on the tree limbs over my head, and not the short siren burst, that disturbed me and made me take notice.
     For a moment I just stayed there and looked up at the blue light spearing the trees above me. Oaks and Spanish moss an eerie icy hue and then pitch black and then the oaks and Spanish moss and pitch black again. Over and over. I sat up to look and listen.
     A cop had pulled someone. There they both were: the big tan and white police sedan, and a crappy Gremlin that hadn't seen a carwash since it rolled off its defunct assembly line. I was hidden right well there in the heavy brush, but I had a good view as the big, fat patrolman got out of his car, his flashlight aimed right there with his headlights at the crap-ass Gremlin. The Gremlin's driver's side door clanked open and a little black guy climbed out. The little guy had his right hand up and his wallet held out.
     The cop, alone, got out to greet the little black guy who stood there still and waiting with one hand up and the wallet in the other. But cops hate that shit, when you get out before they get to your car. And this cop, the big fat white guy with that predictable gut hanging over his belt suddenly rushed at the little guy. Oh, I surely hate a bully.
     Cop’s stick was out and from where I crouched in the oleander bushes I heard the crack of that stick on that poor little guy’s skull. And I knew right then and right there that the little guy was dead, mortally wounded, his head bashed in by that blow, two hundred and forty pounds or so of white man blubber behind it.
     I came out of the brush like something insane. Something crazy from a crimson dream of barbarian madness. The cop didn’t see me, as he was standing there looking down at the poor little black guy he’d just killed with a single blow to the head. I think he heard me pounding across the soft, sandy soil but he didn’t have time to react as my right fist caught him upside his head, the blue lights still strobing the night air making me crazier with rage as my fist drew back and smashed him again as he went to one knee, dropping his stick and his own right hand kind of slow motion going for his waist where the .357 was holstered. But he was out of it by then. The second punch had him out. Not as dead out as the little man he’d killed, but in a not-quite-there dreamland of slow motion terror and he knew it was coming, that incident they train you for show you the films for tell you never to allow yourself to be involved in cops avoid this situation. Too late for that. Too late for him.
     As soon as he was on the ground, his limbs loose and rubber on the rabbit-nibbled grass I drew back my big size-thirteen boot and kicked him in the face and his teeth caved in and his nose went splat. I kicked again. And again. And again. Watching his face turn to red red wine. And then, my rage, my anger, my jawbone-of-an-ass madness still not assuaged, I leaped up and came down on his skull with both feet. Once, twice, until his brains were coming out of his ears in pink chunks. I do not lie.
     Then, only then, stepping back was my berserker rage at an end. I sat down on my ass on the berm where the oleanders were growing, the rabbits probably peeking out in pure fear at the great primates killing one another, and I saw what had been done.
     Quickly, now in fear, I looked up the road and down the road and miracle of miracles wonder of wonder there was no car coming or going. I had killed the cop with no witnesses and none were forthcoming and I leaped up and knew that I could not rush back over the bridge. I’d be trapped that way. So I turned toward Jones Island and I trotted toward it, not even pausing to see if the little guy I’d avenged was still breathing. Within minutes I was at the edge of the woods and I pushed, smashing my way through saw grass and brambles and muck until I came to a train trestle all bright with creosote in the night, the mudpungent creek sloshing out with the tide to the dirty Atlantic beyond Jekyll.
     Hours I was in those woods. Hours I was afraid the dumb cops would think to search for me there and would find me. Once, something huge moved through the trees, and I thought it was a cop come to find me, but it was only a wild horse, his body enormous and black in the shadows of the woods. And I was afraid for some reason that this great animal was going to follow me and wanted to chase me down, but in a little while he wandered off, nibbling at low browse. In a while I was across Jones and on Highway 19 on the other side and down it, through the woods, through the edges of yards, dogs barking hoarsely at me the owners ignoring by now the constant canine roar. And then I was at the far end of Norwich Street, after miles and miles of running, out of breath, my mouth gaping, taking in the warm night air full of Samson Company chemicals and Rome Kraft pulpstink. I was close to being safe, the trip now thirty miles round and I wondered where the cops were, all probably at the scene of the so-called crime trying to figure out what had happened.
     Slower, then, I made my way along streets, my bloodied boots scuffing atop asphalt and grit, mosquitoes chasing me, gnats diving at my ears my mouth my eyes my nostrils anywhere mucus or moisture or carbon dioxide could be found. I slapped at the bugs, absently, fear now big in my heart as I got close to home, fear enormous and crowding my reason as the night came to an end.
     And suddenly, in a kind of trance, there I was was, my feet soft, soft atop that filthy sand full of dirt and grime. That alley leading to my back door which I opened in the pitch blackness with my keys, not fumbling but doing it carefully and efficiently. Closing the door behind me I locked it, locked it good and leaned against the concrete block my father had built thirty years before and I slumped to the tiled floor hard atop poured concrete and was about to close my eyes when I noticed my boots, dry now with blackening copblood, the pants I wore spattered with gore (there was a piece of brain like a gob of black, drying snot near my knee).
     So I unlaced those boots, my good my favorite my bestest boots, and I took them off. And I peeled off the pants and the flannel shirt (there was blood there, too, and in my hair!) and I balled the boots in the clothes and I put the heavy ball of murder evidence in a paper grocery bag I got out of the kitchen. Then, going back to the bedroom, the bedroom that had been my parents’ room, I flicked on the light and made sure the shade was pulled down tight and I opened the closet door and there, in the corner, was the loose false block section my father had installed as a kind of safe. I pulled those blocks back and stuck the bag in there, knowing that I’d have to burn the lot as soon as I could.
     Then I climbed into the shower in the bathroom off the hall and took off my underwear and turned on the water as hot as I could stand it and let the water wash away the dirt and the sweat and the blood, watching the dark stuff pool in the hollow at my feet and go swirling down the drain. All of that filth going away, going away. But the fear staying, a little spot in my chest that faded but did not vanish.
     And soon, I slept.

5 comments:

Vicki said...

Dark, deep and compelling. How long ago did you write this chapter? I hope you do finish it.

James Robert Smith said...

That's a chapter that's been edited and rewritten a dozen times since I first wrote it many, many years ago. It's a hard book for me to write. Closing in on 70K words. Probably will be 100K words when finished. Who knows when I'll complete it. I keep adding bricks.

James Robert Smith said...

And thanks, Vicki.

Lawrence Roy Aiken said...

Damn! I like this. You should edit more pieces and post them.

James Robert Smith said...

Thanks, Roy!

I figure I have it 3/4 written. But it's dragged out of me by wild horses only. Maybe in another five years or so I'll finish.