Excerpted from Dark Winter, a novel in progress
One autumn morning when the country and I were a lot younger, I took off in my GTO hardtop to head west, try a new life, turn into a new Cuddy Mangum.
This was back at the start of the seventies and Americans still expected to make it to king of the hill in a new car on a new highway. If we didn’t like how our life was going, we drove somewhere else and started over. People under thirty had gotten it into our heads we could out-drive the past because even the moon belonged to us. We’d been passed a torch by JFK and we wanted to set the world on fire with it. The horror was, that’s pretty much what we did.
I like to plan things. Pretty early in life, I found out you can’t. But I still tried. My plan this October day was to take my vacation, see the Grand Canyon, then use the rest of the two weeks to look into a job offer I’d had to run a homicide division, which was more than the Hillston Police Department would let me do. The job was in a small town in northern California near Lake Tahoe, and California was about as far away as I could get from Hillston. I liked the town on the map, near names like Cisco, my favorite TV cowboy, and like the Dwight D. Eisenhower Highway and like Honey Lake. In the Hillston, N.C. police department, I had no chance at promotion. In fact, the chief would have fired me if he hadn’t needed me to do his paperwork while he learned how to play golf without hitting himself in the head with the club. I’d just been assigned a partner I couldn’t stand. Justin Savile V. His mother was a Dollard. They ran the state. His father was a Savile of Virginia; apparently that was all that needed to be said about Saviles.
On the personal side; well, there wasn’t any really. I was divorced. I had no family except for a father I suspected of being in the Klan and a demented aunt in Women’s Prison who kept phoning me either to confess to murder or to claim murderers planned to kill her. I had a lot of cousins, many of them with criminal records. I had friends I would miss.
My plan was to tell no one I might not return, to follow the Indian Trail of Tears out of North Carolina, into the innocence of California. I should have noticed that on my map, not far from Honey Lake and Eldorado Forest, there was a Donner Pass Road.
I took off early on a pretty morning. I was about to head onto I-40 West when destiny took an abrupt U-turn on Hillston’s first freeway. I saw a big new billboard on which a businessman named Sonny Dollard was grinning foot-wide whitened teeth down at me from the top of an unfinished skyscraper that belonged to his relatives: “DWR: Southern National Investments, Private Equities & Realty Building.” The name was welded in bronze letters onto the side of the building.
On this billboard, Sonny held up a big yellow sun, like a football he was about to throw across Hillston’s skyline. Giant letters shouted “Touchdown!” because he’d just won a U.S. Senate seat against the “undefeatable” longtime incumbent, the “Tarheel Lion,” Ross Monroe, who must have been very surprised.
“Sonny Days Are Here To Stay!” the sign promised. “SONNY DOLLARD, NORTH CAROLINA’S FAVORITE SON.”
It was when I was looking at the billboard, which hadn’t been there the day before, that blue smoke started rising from under my hood. As if the idea of Sonny in Congress was too much for the GTO to take, with ear-piercing knocks it threw a rod through its block and skidded within inches of smacking into a Trailways bus.
Within seconds, my life had changed in ways I wouldn’t have imagined. I never did leave my hometown. I don’t know who the new Cuddy Mangum would have turned into, but probably not the youngest police chief of Hillston, North Carolina.
I had to be towed back to Habcock Auto, where I could feel the future slipping out from under me like oil from my engine. The gloomy owner, a vet in his twenties, stared at the GTO’s underbelly, then gave me two options. “Buy another car. Wait for this one to get fixed.”
“Jairus, I got to turn down your damn stereo.” “Fire on the Mountain” by the Grateful Dead boomed from massive black speakers. “Okay. My car! How long to fix it?”
There was no hope in his young face. “Too long. Your engine is burnt toast.”
I asked him if somebody could have sabotaged my car. By 1970 under-thirties were pretty much all paranoids.
“It’s possible.” Jairus’s stoic gloom was habitual, but then he’d left a foot and an eye at Cu Nghi, and it was hard not to sympathize with his point of view. The way he threw a tarp over my engine was like he’d zipped it in a body bag. “You could buy a Cadillac,” he offered.
I shook my finger at him. “You know my daddy drives a Cadillac?”
“Buy his. Didn’t he just have a bad stroke? I heard he’d had a stroke.”
“No, you didn’t. That was my aunt Edna.”
Jairus’s wife Sharisse complained that he never listened. She worked a desk at the Hillston Police Department; she was full of information and sympathy about everybody she’d ever met. ’Course, even if Jairus had wanted to listen to her, he couldn’t have heard a word over the Grateful Dead.
He handed me an estimate of repair costs for the GTO. “No sense sugarcoating it.”
“I’ll never buy another used car.”
He nodded, non-committal. “I wouldn’t, I was you. Tell you what. You get Sharisse a raise at HPD and I’ll sell you a ’69 GTO Ram Air IV. It’ll be outside your house in three weeks.” Jairus limped to a wall splattered with photos of stock cars and their drivers. One of the drivers was his wife Sharisse. He tapped her picture. “She’s earned it, ten percent raise. You’ll be driving a midnight green GTO hardtop. 370 horsepower. Pristine.”
“A baby-blue Buick LeSabre convertible is what I want.”
“No, you don’t.” He lay down on a metal creeper. “Sharisse says you can fast dance. Says you dance to Little Richard. You need a GTO.”
I guess he listened to some things.
I decided to postpone my trip west but to hide out at the cabin I time-shared with a friend at Pine Hills Lake so people at HPD would assume I’d left town as planned. Or maybe it wasn’t a decision. Maybe we’re all glass bits in a planetary kaleidoscope and Fate gets a kick out of spinning us around into new patterns. I borrowed my cousin Wally’s Mustang (impounded in the HPD parking lot after he’d used it to drag-race a Lear jet) and drove to visit my aunt Edna Pope. I’d only seen her once since her stroke. Edna had served twelve years of a fifteen-year sentence for aiding and abetting in a homicide. She had a lot of family who came to see her, including three affectionate ex-convict sons, the Pope boys, Graham, Dickey and Preston. They’d twice tried to break her out of Piedmont Prison for Women, with absolutely no chance of success, as she’d shouted at them both times.
Edna had a daughter, Zann, who never came to see her. And I didn’t go there as much as I should have.
This day, in that hot dark infirmary room, was—as it turned out—the last time I saw Edna, and she was the worst off I’d ever seen her. She kept thrashing her arms about, as if all her considerable vitality had been distilled into these flailing gestures. Somehow the motion made me think of her wild-rolling stride-piano playing style that I’d so loved from my childhood.
“Edna, it’s me, Cuddy. How you doing?”
She caught my shirtfront and shook it. “Cuddy. Help! Help my Zann! She need, need us.”
I reminded her that Zann was rich now, a multimillionaire, or at least married to one, and that Sonny was going to be senator now and Zann wouldn’t give us the time of day.
But clawing at my shirt my aunt pulled me to her. Her speech was hard to understand. “Hep her. My dim eye. Look round bag.” She pointed at a prison guard talking to a nurse nearby. “They work for them. They lie. Kill. Kill me. Kill her. Kill me.”
“Who’s they? The nurse?”
“You know. Keep quiet. Help Zann. Kiz . . . kiz me bye.”
I had no idea what Edna was talking about but afterwards I was glad I’d gone along with her request for a kiss. At the time the desperate movement of her lips distressed me. My response registered on her. “You need fuhhh more,” she suddenly advised. She had always used the most graphic words possible when she talked about sex, which was often, despite her age. (Though in retrospect, Edna wasn’t “old”—only 63—but more than twice my age and to me a different world.) The nurse came over to say I had only five more minutes. Edna interrupted to say how she’d “fuhhed” Ray Charles. She then told me she’d shot down Patsy Cline’s airplane. She went on to a lewd act that her common-law husband Galamiel Ryder had been performing on her neighbor at the exact same time as he had allegedly carried out a mass shooting at Cadmean Mills. I was too busy thinking about senile dementia to catch the implications of the last story. It wasn’t until after Edna’s sudden death the following week that the significance of Ryder’s alibi started to wriggle its way like a worm into my brain. “They lie. They kill.” Yes, indeed, Edna; they do.
So if it hadn’t been for that GTO throwing a rod, I never would have changed my mind and gone to Sonny Dollard’s victory party. I went to try to persuade my cousin Zann to go right away to visit her mother in prison. She had wanted me to come to her dinner because I had friends in local politics. I wanted her to go visit her mother in prison to find out who it was Edna thought was going to kill both her and her daughter. I hadn’t seen Zann in a year. We weren’t close. Not like we’d used to be.
One Halloween when Zann and I were teenagers, we were dancing in the parlor of Edna’s house on East Maple, working on a new shag step. The week before we’d lost a competition at the State Fair. The defeat had shocked us.
My Pope cousins and I got together with the kids from the family next door to take dance lessons from Edna, who played piano. Squinting around the smoke of a stubby cigarette, she’d play tunes on her blue-painted upright for hours, hoping to teach us swing and mambo and what she called “Carolina Moon waltzes,” that were “sexy sad” as opposed to “flirty foreign.” Her favorite example of “sexy sad” was a bootleg tape she’d made of a Patsy Cline concert. She made us listen to “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “I Love You So Much It Hurts Me,” when we just wanted to hear “Be My Baby” and “Light My Fire.” None of us thought somebody Edna’s age could possibly know what “sexy” was, even if she could play piano like Little Richard. To us, young was the only synonym for sexy. We flung ourselves at sex like Ping-Pong balls snapped back hard against their paddles. There were few virgins in East Hillston High; we were factory kids with no reason not to live hard and fast. We figured we’d be dead by fifty; many would be long before that, from alcohol or guns, or like Edna’s first husband, in a knife fight, or like my younger sister, in a car crash. In retrospect I wonder if Edna didn’t believe that if she could keep us in her house dancing, she could keep us alive.
Dickey, her middle boy, and Zann and I had always loved those dance classes in the huge unfurnished parlor Edna called the Rainbow Room. It still had its mahogany fireplace with two columns of carved Chinese men, their beards, funny hats and long dresses made of cherry wood. But the room’s high ceiling was flaking and Dickey had shot the fat little feet and the penis off the plaster Cupid above the chandelier. But to Zann in particular the parlor held a hint of its old grandeur and she’d sit on the floor there, arms on her knees, for hours. I don’t know if she was planning, or just waiting for a Sonny Dollard to come along.
This particular Halloween night, all of us, including Zann, were too nervous to sit still. The breeze had a dangerous feel to it and the orange moon was full. There were fewer trick-or-treaters than usual. People in the neighborhood were on edge. A month earlier a long-shot newcomer candidate for Congress named Ross Monroe had been wounded by an assassin hidden in a crowd of Cadmean Mills workers waiting for Monroe to arrive. The candidate’s wife and the mayor, in the back of the car with him, had been killed. They were there to dedicate a new building at the mills. A Cadmean guard had fired at the shooter, but he had escaped. Three workers were caught in the crossfire. One died in the ambulance.
Everyone who’d been there was still talking about how brave the seriously wounded Ross Monroe had been, trying to save his wife and the mayor. He won his election.
Aunt Edna’s boyfriend, Galamiel Ryder, was the prime suspect in the homicide―identified by two people in the crowd as the shooter. Edna wouldn’t say anything about whether Ryder was guilty or not, or where he’d fled. The police had already ransacked the house three times and taken away some of his clothes. Back then the police did pretty much whatever they wanted to do in East Hillston. The only part of town more harassed by HPD was Canaan, where the black families lived.
Edna’s two tin jack-o’-lanterns always held enough sugar to put all of East Hillston in a coma and she always gave it away fast. When you have little, you can be liberal with the little you’ve got. She would plunge treats—peppermint sugar balls and pink bubblegum—into the pillowcases that little witches and cowboys thrust up at her. Convicts, ghosts, race car drivers, big-eared mice wearing white gloves, all took her booty and ran.
But that night, every time trick-or-treaters rapped on the locked porch door, Edna would run to the window to see if it was the cops instead. Finally, two of them showed up. The older one asked Edna if she wanted to tell them where her boyfriend Ryder was hiding out, or if she’d rather go to jail.
In East Hillston we never answered what we knew weren’t really questions by the police. Since childhood we’d been taught you don’t give up the whereabouts of family or friends. I didn’t even like R.R. Ryder. I’d listened for years to my mother’s distress about how her sister Edna was living in sin with a violent convict. Still, nothing would have made me tell those cops where Ryder was hiding, even if I’d known.
“Have you got a warrant?” I asked them, staring hard at “the law.”
The older cop laughed. “Sure, kid.” The younger one was staring at Zann. The laughing cop told Edna they were going to take Zann down to the station to ask her a few questions.
Graham and Dickey Pope shoved against each other in the hallway to get at the cops. Despite their size, Edna yanked her songs back and slapped them. “Shut up, you two. Shut up. Get in the living room! Get!” She practically kicked them through the open arch of the parlor. She told the cops, “Just let me go get my purse. Be right back. Here, have a smoke.” She gave them each a pack. (She had about 100 cartons upstairs that she’d stolen from the cigarette factory where she worked the line.)
When she returned from upstairs, I said, “Aunt Edna, let me call Mr. Rosethorn.” I ran errands for a lawyer, Isaac Rosethorn, after school.
Edna brushed me aside, as she said. “Don’t need a lawyer,”
Now it was my turn to laugh.
Zann did not move or speak until after Edna had left with the cops and the Pope boys had run outside to hot-wire a neighbor’s car so they could follow their mother to the police station.
Then Zann said, “Don’t worry about Mama. She’s too smart for them.” In the kitchen, she had hidden a bottle of some sort of champagne that she’d stolen from some baby-sitting customer of hers, someone she said had a huge refrigerator full of nothing but wines and would never miss a bottle. “Come on. Let’s go to the bridge.”
But she talked me into walking with her to the train bridge that spanned a deep ravine of the Shocco River. It was a favorite thrill to wait on the iron buttress beneath the bridge until the Seaboard streamliner, he Silver Comet, rushed by. I wanted to go home and read a book. I didn’t want to hurry to drink warm champagne as an express train raced over our heads, on its indifferent way to mysterious places north or south.
“You’re mean,” she said. “I know why too. Unhappy in love.”
“Zann, don’t start this. You don’t know Lee.”
“Yes, I do. She’s not worth it, Bluebird. Why, I’d kill for somebody I loved. And I’d kill the person I loved too, if he didn’t treat me right.”
“You’re such a bullshitter.”
“Come on. Let’s go.”
Finally I gave in. Mill Street and its outskirts were too dangerous at night to let a girl like Zann go out alone this late.
A full moon climbed the sky: a huge blood-orange ball veined with thin black strips of clouds. The wind was picking up as we raced through East Hillston, passing gangs of small ghosts who shrieked whenever sudden gusts blew their billowing sheets above their heads. Around us, yellow leaves spun out of heaps on the sidewalks.
We followed the tracks west, running close to Cadmean’s textile factories. Our kin, including my father, were inside Cadmean Mills right now, working the nightshift. The factories never closed except on Sundays and “Christian holidays.” On its own spar, a freight car waited for forklifts to cram it with cotton goods, all kinds of sheets and blankets and towels, whatever could keep America warm and dry. The signs on the roofs of the mills turned the tops of high brick buildings red, white and blue. Water towers, turreted walls, windows by the hundreds, noise and smoke, all were as familiar to us in East Hillston as a local castle to its medieval villagers.
We kept running till we reached the double-track railroad bridge that wedged itself between two edges of a steep ravine. Far below, the Shocco River ran fast and cantankerously around rocks and dead tree roots. Fit as we were, Zann and I had to rest from our climb before we could crawl onto the iron-beamed buttress. We were twelve feet beneath the bridge base and high above the shallow river. In the dark, we listened for the train. When we first heard its distant wail and then felt the faint tremors of the bolted rails above us, I twisted the champagne cork open. It blew out hard as a bullet, followed by a long spray of sticky foam.
“Oh it’s good!” Zann claimed as she drank. I didn’t like it much and said no to another swig.
“Come on, Cuddy, cheer up. Maybe you’ll get your girl back. And if you don’t, she can go to hell.” Her foot shook impatiently, never still. “Love oughta be everything.”
“You don’t believe that.”
She toasted love with the bottle of champagne. “Sure I do!”
A minute later, misty in the light of the moon, the Comet shot past above our heads, as large and silvery as its name, so near and loud that it felt as if its force would suck the enormous bolts out of their iron girders, shake the bridge loose and plunge it into the river below. But once again the train hurried safely away, faster than anything in Hillston, and vanished around a long curve into the night.
Zann called after it, “I’ll be on you someday!”
We were about to start down the ravine when something unexpected startled us into crouching snug against the metal embankment. We heard car tires crunching on the rarely used gravel road that crossed the tracks about a quarter mile from the bridge. All of a sudden, car headlights swung off the road and turned straight towards us, driving up onto the train track on the bridge, stopping midway across.
The doors of the vehicle slammed shut and two figures emerged on the bridge. Backlit by the moon, they climbed onto the guardrail. The taller figure abruptly lobbed an object, long and metallic, down into the black water. We could see it falling. I expected to hear a splash but if there was one, it was drowned out by the sound of another car approaching. This one without lights. The two figures hurried to their car, drove to the opposite end of the bridge and bounced back onto the road, taillights jolting up and down as they vanished.
We waited in the dark. We heard thrashing noises from the bank below us. A long beam of light came along the river, under the bridge. The light swept side to side as a watery, steady thunking sound moved closer—silence, another thunk, another splash . . . Finally, I could make out a shadowy shape. Someone stood at the stern of a small narrow boat, navigating through the Shocco’s ripple with a long pole.
Although we were fifty feet above him and hidden in the dark, the boatman was so eerie-looking in the hazy red moonlight that we were almost too scared to breathe for fear the sound would give us away. The man steered the thin boat to the thickly twisted bough of a huge dead tree sticking out of the river.
“Look!” Zann whispered. “There’s what they threw off the bridge.”
The boatman’s light searched the branch that raised itself above the waterline. Now I could see it too—a long metallic cylinder already sliding from its precarious rest in the bough’s fork. The boat bumped a submerged part of the tree and jostled the object, which slipped stiffly from the branch and sank into the water.
The figure in the boat cursed in frustration. Grabbing at the tree trunk, he lashed his little boat to it and without hesitation slipped off its side and plunged into the river. When his dive rocked the boat, his searchlight fell into the water. Deeper and deeper its light sank down until darkness swallowed it up. Zann and I stared, astonished by the length of time the man stayed under before his head and shoulders finally burst back up out of the river. He took only a few seconds’ breath, then plunged again. As soon as he resurfaced, he flipped himself into another dive.
“What the hell could it be?” I asked Zann. “His fishing rod?”
The dark figure finally hauled himself empty-handed over the side of his boat and just lay in the hold like a fish, gasping. Only then did he realize his flashlight was gone. He sat up but this time didn’t make a noise, just dropped his head in his hands and rested. We waited, watching him by moonlight. After a while, he pushed himself to his feet and laboriously poled the boat back the way he’d come.
Zann and I knew the Shocco well, especially near the bridge; we had swum in it for years. As soon as we were sure the boat had moved far enough away, we climbed down to the bank and ran beside the river to a sharp bend where debris always washed downstream, pushed by a strong rip in the current. We’d been fishing flotsam out of the pool there since our childhoods.
“I’m going in!” Zann pulled off her dotted dress and flung it aside.
There was no stopping her. She waded in, sank down with her hair floating on top of the water, her hands white in the moonlight, feeling at the edges of rocks and tree trunks.
I didn’t expect her to find anything in the dark but she did.
“I’ve got it!” she called, rising out of river and wading towards me. Disappointed, she held up a rifle over her head, its long metal barrel moonlit. “It’s just a gun!”
Wiping wet rotted leaves from its stock and barrel, I studied the gun. “Maybe this is the rifle the shooter used at Cadmean Mills. The murder weapon.”
Zann laughed, tilting her head, wringing water from her hair. “ ‘The murder weapon.’ Cuddy, I knew you’d say that. Let’s take ‘the murder weapon’ to the police station. Maybe there’s a reward. And you can join the force! Then you can always be right and arrest everybody else for always being wrong.”
Mrs. Sonny Dollard was a different person from the Zannie Pope of East Maple Street who’d climbed a drainpipe into our cousin Dickey’s bedroom and cut off his ponytail. Or, I don’t know, maybe she didn’t turn out that different after all.
Zann and Sonny’s “Foxglove” was the largest of the 1920s Georgian estates on North Cove, a secluded spit at the tip of Pine Hills Lake where rich locals stayed in the summer to escape the humidity of their faux chateaux and Tudor manor houses in North Hillston, five miles away.
It was still light when I drove Wally’s banged-up Mustang over from my cabin halfway round the lake. Foxglove wasn’t easy to find. First I nearly missed a white wood archway with the word “Dollard” on it because of all the ivy on it. A wide gravel road branched into three windy cobbled lanes. There were signs at this fork, but it was hard to tell which sign said what, because all three were hung from posts crawling with thorny rose branches. Wally’s muffler brought a fellow in shirtsleeves out of the half-door of a miniscule brick house beside a gate that blocked the road. He squatted at my window. “Yeah?” His short walk had him breathing through his teeth.
I smiled. “Cuddy Mangum. Here for Sonny and Alexandria Dollard.”
The sweaty man leaned closer, like he was looking for other people in the Mustang.
I said, “Just me in here. You wanna check my name with the Dollards?” I pointed behind him.
He looked at his little house. “I’ll check.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I agreed.
The guard studied a clipboard with his flashlight a while and finally waved me through the gate as if he knew it was a mistake and everybody was going to live to regret it. Turns out he was right on the money.
I parked between a yellow Corvette and a red Jaguar XKE; they were blocking two bays of a five-bay garage trellised with jasmine. The lake house called Foxglove was white brick; it had a long lawn, a long dock and a lot of trees that had been there a long time. It was a pretty house if you like casement windows and curly iron furniture. I prefer modern myself.
At the far edge of the close-cropped dark green lawn, Sonny Dollard, a taut man about my age, stood broadly in the middle of his long columned porch. He was yanking back a leaping black Lab by its thick collar. “Cuddy Mangum,” he yelled.
I moved closer, held out my hand. “Sonny Dollard.” I’d met him a few times, but we didn’t know each other. He’d played football at Haver and I hadn’t. I’d gone to war and he hadn’t. We didn’t run in the same crowd. Still didn’t, I guess, since I was wearing a new loose-fit, short-sleeved blue Cuban guayabera with peg-legged pants and my old suede loafers and he was wearing a blue blazer and a yellow striped tie.
“Nice to meet you, Mangum.” He was the type that had to stop himself from turning a handshake into a contest. “I hear you’re a lawman. That’s what we need in this country. Put them in jail.” He whacked the enthusiastic dog hard across its snout to stop its barking and jerked it to face an enormous stable-like building that rose out of a grove of cedars. “Later on, I want you to see my car collection over there. I bought most of them from the guy that runs Haver Power. But come on in.”
Abruptly he twisted around, pulling the large Lab off balance. He dragged the dog with him through a door and vanished. Seconds later, his head, trim as a bullet, shot back through the opening. “Hey. Come on in! They’re in here.”
“They” turned out to be Zann, and, across the long living room from her, two other young women. The three of them sat in matching white chairs listening to a Janis Joplin album, the cover of which Zann was using as a fan. For some reason, as if they planned to start a rock-n-roll girls’ group, they all wore very short white and/or black dresses with white and/or black stiletto heels. One young woman had black hair in a pixie cut. The other young woman’s hair was a dark-honey blonde and it seemed to preoccupy her; she stood at a mirror, messing with it. Zann’s hair was, as it had always been, silver and gold both. She used to joke that she was going to cut her hair off and put it in the bank. I guess in a way she had.
She floated towards me, laughing. “Hello, Bluebird. You are one long tall thin glass of cool.” She took my hands and held them to her face. She turned me towards her friends. “Cuddy and I grew up together with my brothers, Graham, Dickey and Preston. I told you about them. They go to jail a lot.”
Her two friends turned towards me and laughed. The blonde looked familiar.
“No Popes in jail now,” I qualified, sliding my hands out from under Zann’s.
Zann went over and kissed Sonny. “Sonny was very brave to marry me when my family is such a mess. Not you, Cuddy. Here you are, a police sergeant.”
“Here I am,” I agreed.
She asked Sonny to go get us all drinks. After he left, she looked hard into my eyes. “Don’t lie and say you haven’t missed me.”
I shrugged. “I haven’t missed you.”
“Cuddy is such a liar,” she told her friends. She held out her arms to us all. “Aren’t y’all glad it’s just us tonight? Sonny and I have to go to enormous dull parties all the time. People so boring you could throw every stitch of your clothing in a punch bowl full of brandy and drop a match in it and not a one of them would notice.”
“That’s boring,” I admitted.
She told her friends, “I call Cuddy Bluebird because of the color of his eyes.”
“I didn’t notice,” the black-haired friend said. “So you’re a police sergeant, Cuddy?”
“Hillston Police Department. Homicide.”
“There can’t be much of that.” This young woman had an instinct for mean remarks that she did nothing to control. Her skepticism about homicide seemed especially out of place, considering Sonny’s godfather Mayor Graham had been shot to death, along with Congressman Monroe’s wife and an innocent bystander, although I admit those particular homicides had happened twelve years ago, plus Sonny was out of the room getting our drinks when his guest said it. Zann introduced this woman as Patty Fanshaw, who lived near them in town on Catawba Circle.
“More than enough murder for me in Hillston.” I leaned down, shook her hand. “How about you, Patty? Whatever you do, I hope it’s not hazardous in those high heels.”
She lifted first one tanned leg, then the other, showing off her shoes and making it almost possible for me to identify the color of her underpants if I’d tried.
The blonde interrupted us. “I’m Susan Whetstone. I’ll tell you what I do. I shop, take trips, play a lot of tennis, and where’s our cocktails?” Suddenly I recognized her as the woman I’d seen a week earlier with my new disliked partner Justin Savile. They were in a creamy little Thunderbird convertible coupe, and she was busy trying to kiss him as she drove right up on the bottom stone step of the Municipal Building, banging off her hubcap with a loud metallic whack. She looked determined to drive Justin all the way up the steep steps and inside the building. But the Thunderbird jolted to a halt a few steps up, its rear tires spinning. She stared down at the phenomenon, amazed. Leaning over, Justin cut the engine, climbed out of the car and pushed it backwards over the step onto the sidewalk.
The woman revved her motor, drove over her hubcap, crushing it as she bounced away in the coupe, leaving a pungent smell of rubber. I figured she and Justin had been drinking. Usually it was a safe bet with him.
“I’m Mrs. Whetstone,” the blonde clarified for me. “Patty’s divorced. I’m married.”
Patty agreed. “She’s married. I’m divorced. Susan, stop looking at your damn watch. It’s rude.”
Zann drew me into the chair beside her. The diamond ring she wore with her wedding band wasn’t as big as a tangerine but it was the biggest diamond I’d ever seen outside of a museum. I said, “Is that ring Elizabeth Taylor’s?”
“Nope. It’s mine. It’s called Dark Winter.” She smiled. “Sonny named it. For, you know, the company. DWR.”
On cue Sonny returned, running his clattering cart of cocktail equipment at us like it was a game and we were supposed to dodge it.
He shook martinis out of a silver shaker and handed mine to me with an aggressive challenge, like a tackle. “Cuddy! Agree with me: Without law, the wrong sort, the undesirables, will get of control and try to take over? Isn’t that why you’re here? I don’t mean here, but in the police. Defense! A strong defense!” He glanced sideways at Zann, who raised her glass to me, as if toasting “the wrong sort.’ Mrs. Whetstone kept looking at her watch.
“Sonny’s a Visigoth.” Patty smiled at me. Her tone was good-natured. Her remark surprised me. I smiled back.
Another record album dropped onto the turntable. The Platters, “Twilight Time” started. One of Edna’s old favorites.
Zann stood up, moving closer to French doors. “What do you think, Cuddy? Will Undesirables stick their big ugly cleats right into the backs of a strong defense? Will they vault into the end zone in spite of all we can do?” She opened the doors and her laugh played a melody into the autumn night. In pots by the doors, moonflower morning glories were opening up for their one-night stands.
Sonny asked loudly, “Do you want riots?”
He appeared to be addressing me so I answered him. “No, I’m for law and order. My job is to go after people that don’t think the law applies to them. They lunge off the road into dark scary places and kill each other. I try to do something about it.”
“All this violent talk makes me thirsty,” Patty told Sonny.
He handed her a second martini, shaking melted frost from his fingers. The phone rang in the hallway; we all paused while somebody answered it. Soon a middle-aged black woman in a maid’s uniform stepped into the doorway and we all listened as she said to Sonny, “Excuse me, Mr. Dollard, that was Mr. Savile on the telephone. He feels bad but he’s had an emergency and he can’t join y’all for dinner.”
Sonny looked suspicious, if not indignant. “Emergency? What kind of emergency?”
“He didn’t say, sir. But he’d like to talk to Mr. Mangum.”
This request looked to be the final straw for Sonny. He told Zann, “You never know what that nut’s going to do.”
She laughed. “Honey, he’s your relative. You make it sound like Justin’s wanting to talk to Cuddy was a sign of insanity.”
They all watched me as I walked out of the room and into the hall. Patty brushed her hand down my arm as I passed by. “I think it’s all fascinating,” she whispered. “Look at Susan. She’s turned red as a beet with rage that he’s stood her up.”
Indeed, Mrs. Whetstone looked like she’d been tossed in a pot of boiling water. “He,” I assumed, was Justin Savile. I said, “Excuse me,” and followed the Dollard’s maid to the phone.
Justin wanted me to know that Edna Pope had been found dead in the prison infirmary. It looked as if she’d been accidentally smothered.
The shock of his news numbed me for a second. “She’s dead? I just saw her yesterday.”
“. . . Smothered accidentally? What does that mean? How does that happen around nurses and guards?”
He had no further details. He was calling to ask me to tell Zann her mother had died. I assumed the Dollards must have mentioned that I’d be a fellow guest at their small dinner party.
I took Zann aside and told her. She was inconsolable that she hadn’t gone to see Edna in so long a time.
Driving alone at night has always eased me in bad times. Thinking about my aunt, I found myself twenty miles from Pine Hills Lake, and an hour passed before I finally got home to the little cabin I was renting with my childhood friend, Kit Wilde, who also worked at HPD and who probably thought I was on my way to the Grand Canyon.
There was a high-gloss mahogany Chris-Craft motorboat moored to a piling at the shore’s edge; its varnished hull rocked softly back and forth in the pebbles. A man was standing nearby, knee deep in the lake, casting line from a skinny bamboo fly rod. A light floater of line froze in air above his head, still as a snake, then uncoiled far out into the deep black expanse.
I yelled at him. “You got a license to fish this lake?” I knew who it was.
My new (and unwanted) partner Justin Savile turned his head, reeling in line. “Not using a barb. Sorry to startle you. How’s Zann doing?”
“Upset, of course. Feeling guilty. She went to meet her brother Graham at the funeral parlor. They were pretty close.”
“Really?” He sounded surprised. Wading onto the bank, fighting the weight of his wet trousers, he made his way up to the porch. “That’s my boat down there.”
“I figured. I appreciate your calling about Edna, but why did you come out here at midnight in your boat?” I couldn’t make sense of his coming all the way to South Cove to say anything else about an aunt of mine he didn’t know any better than he knew me.
But his gesture towards me was sympathetic. “If you haven’t heard from Kit, she was trying to reach you.”
“Kit told you she was trying to reach me?” I watched him zip the reel carefully into a leather pouch. “She told you about the cabin?”
His dismantled rod slid easily into its leather case. “My family’s got a place here on the lake.” He pointed across the water to where Dollard lights glowed, as if his house there were an answer to my questions. He added, “I brought Bubba Percy. He was looking for you.” Justin appeared to be in close touch with all my oldest East Hillston friends and to feel completely at home at my place. He stripped out of his trousers, slid a silver flask from a back pocket, and gave the pants a twist to wring out the water. As if we had all night before us, he helped himself to my rocking chair. He was as fit and tan as Patty Fanshaw. “Bubba’s using your phone.”
Bubba Percy was an aggravating reporter at the Hillston Star. He’d aggravated me since we were kids. “Bubba’s inside?” I noticed a screen had been pulled off and propped against the porch wall. A window was wide open. “I’ll kill him.” I unlocked the front door. “Bubba, get out of my house!” My small mutt-poodle Martha Mitchell finally noticed I was home and started her watchdog bark. “Too late, Martha,” I told her when she raced out onto the porch.
Bubba, a beefy good-looking redhead, stuck his head through the screen door, cradling my phone in his hand. “Hang on.” He disappeared again. Martha had a slice of pizza. Bubba had one too; I recognized the pizza as one I’d left in the refrigerator.
I asked Justin, “You two ever hear of private property?”
He took a drink from the silver flask. “You feel strongly about private property, you’re not going to like this news: Somebody stole your aunt’s body out of Pauley and Keene’s Funeral Home.”
“Come on!” My raised voice produced a single sharp bark from Martha Mitchell in the living room. That she hadn’t even bothered warning me about an intruder was typical of her love of pizza.
“Bubba!” I opened the screen-door wide. “Get off my damn phone! Martha, shut up!” Amazingly, she did. I turned back to Justin. “What the hell does that mean, ‘stole’ Edna’s body? Is this a joke?”
“I doubt it. Somebody cut the alarm at Pauley and Keene, sapped the security guard, lifted your aunt’s body off the embalming table, walked out with her. Guard was out cold for hours. When he woke up, he phoned Mr. Pauley, who finally faced reality and called HPD.”
Graham Pope certainly hadn’t known his mother’s body had been missing from the funeral home for at least a couple of hours at the time Zann telephoned him. He’d go ballistic when he heard. I sat down too hard in the rocker.
“Here, have some.” Justin offered his flask, which I declined.
I asked if they’d identified the intruder.
“Guard didn’t see a thing. So, you know Mr. Pauley?”
“Yes. I bet he’s hysterical.”
Justin did a very precise impersonation of the director of Hillston’s largest funeral parlor, as if he wanted to cheer me up. “Such atrocity has never before fallen on Pauley and Keene Funeral Home, not in my father’s day nor in his father’s day. The truth is Mr. Keene, Sr., never trusted me with the business when he bought in. He was always trying to get rid of me. And now! That a loved one should disappear on my watch! And before she was even embalmed, dressed and cosmetized! I can just see Mr. Keene, Sr., turning over in his grave, or frankly even wondering if he was still in his grave!”
I told him, “You do a good Ed Pauley. You ought to go on the stage.”
“I do.” Justin lit a cigarette, pinching out the match flame with his fingers. Mrs. Mitchell raced out onto the porch again, ignored me and jumped onto his lap. Disgusted, I scooped her up and threw her back inside the screen door.
I was headed inside to yank the phone out of Bubba’s hand when the reporter flung open the screen, thumping his fist on his bare chest. “This is fuckin’ unbelievable!”
I spun him against the porch rail. “Bubba, what the hell?”
He feigned indignation. “Hey, Lieutenant Cog in the Wheel, be hospitable, man. By the way, you got nothing to serve a guest in this house! No booze? Show some class. Just goes to prove, you can be an officer and not a gentleman.” He tugged his soaked Madras Bermudas up on his hips with one hand so he could use the other to stuff his mouth with the last of my pizza. “Cuddy,” he mumbled, “I’m sorry you lost Edna.” Then he couldn’t help himself. “I mean, really lost her. What’s your take on who snatched her body? Trust me, you want to find it fast! R.R. Ryder just told me Edna knew who the Cadmean killer was. And it wasn’t Ryder.”
The Star’s ambitious reporter was about my age, but still had a baby-smooth face and baby-pink skin. While not the “acme of masculine evolution” that he continually claimed to be, Bubba was muscular, with pouty lips, long lashes and wavy auburn hair that fluffed out and went past his shoulders (like a knight in a Renaissance painting). He either kept the hair in a ponytail or left it loose, but either way he combed it vigorously every half-hour or so, as if the action worked on him like a battery, powering his considerable energy.
Bubba was a self-confessed (more like self-professed) “glory hound, poon hound and howling hound at the tomb of the Almighty Dollar.” His three goals in life were to own a Porsche, sleep with models and win the Pulitzer Prize for “exposing something.” Asked to be a little more specific, he replied with unvaried nonchalance, “Fill in the blanks, Cog. It’s a crazy world. Some wear the tinsel and some shovel the dung.”
Having heard about Edna’s death from a colleague at the Star who worked obituaries and had gotten the news even before the family of the bereaved that her body had been stolen, Bubba had rushed off to Dollard Prison to tell her long-incarcerated lover Galamiel Ryder all about it. I’d long ago concluded that Bubba was in tight with somebody high up at the state prison because he was constantly publishing pieces in the Star about last-minute reprieves, attempted escapes, guards injured in riots, almost before the events happened. He’d been doing stories on the “Death Ryder” for months now.
Totally against the rules, somebody had let him into the maximum security wing to speak to Ryder tonight. Bubba had told him that Edna had not only died but that her body had been stolen. Ryder’s response had the reporter ecstatic. “El Grando Enchilado!” He tried to sweep me into a jitterbug, gave up and danced alone. “El Dorado Motherlodo! For ten minutes, I was across the Plexiglass from the Death Ryder himself. Direct line. When I told him some creep had stolen his wife’s corpse right off the prep slab, man, he blew!”
Justin tipped his flask at the reporter. “I don’t think they were married.”
Bubba grabbed the flask and drank from it. “So what? He wants a Christian burial for Edna and if he doesn’t get it, well, you’ll see his response running above the fold tomorrow morning or I’m quitting the Star!”
Curiosity is my downfall. Otherwise I might have run the two of them back to their motorboat at gunpoint so I could sit down for a second to think. I already had an idea about where Edna had been taken.
But I couldn’t resist wanting to know the details Bubba had weaseled out of Ryder, the state’s best-known political assassin. Bubba said he had Ryder’s “ransom note”: if HPD didn’t locate Edna before dawn, then give her a “decent send-off” with a funeral band playing “For Your Precious Love” (the Jerry Butler version) and if they didn’t permit Ryder, her husband “in the sight of God and man,” to attend that ceremony, then the Death Rider planned to (and Bubba shifted into evangelical style), “lay bear the evil at the dark heart of North Carolina, the way Samson pulled down on his own head the Temple of Dagon in Gaza, pillar by pillar and stone by stone.”
Bubba rubbed the red hair on his chest with exuberant glee. “That is a direct quote. ‘Pillar by pillar and stone by stone.’ Late-breaking to the Star.” He pointed back at my living room. “I just fed it straight to copy on your phone.”
I asked him, what of the many evils at the heart of North Carolina was Ryder talking about?
Pulling a steno pad from a Hillston Star rucksack lying on my lawn glider, he flipped through pages. His eyes glittered like a cat about to claw up a night rodent. “Ryder has an alibi for the time of the Cadmean Mills murders.”
I snorted. “That’s not news. Edna’s been saying that forever.”
Bubba kept writing. “Ha! He gave me the names of two witnesses who can prove it. And he’s going to give me, just me, more names, who really did it, if I can find Edna for him before the sun comes up. He wants her safe in her casket on her way to heaven before God sees she’s missing. He wants her in that Moravian section of the town cemetery, among the married women.” Bubba rubbed his arms, either in glee or from the cold. “Don’t you love it when killers get religion? So, Supercop, help me. Where’s Edna?”
The moon came out high over the black lake. I walked into the yard to see it better. “Ryder’s a bullshitter. Always has been.”
Bubba snorted dismissal. Ryder was giving up three powerful names he could implicate in the killings if Edna’s burial didn’t take place within three days and if he, Ryder, wasn’t present at it. Bubba yanked his wavy hair out of its rubber band and used his comb on it. “Says he’s got more names. Nine was the number of commandments he broke. So nine is the number of evil ones he’ll expose.”
Justin upended his flask. “And you believed him?”
Bubba nodded. “From now on he’s the Sword of the Lord.”
I turned back to them. “I know where Edna is. Justin, call Ed Pauley and tell him to get a hearse ready. “
Bubba dramatically dropped to his knees in front of me. “I knew you’d pay off, Mangum!” He grabbed my hand and kissed it like I was the Pope but had forgotten to wear my ring. “Didn’t I pick your tests to cheat off of in East Hillston High? Give me a hint?”
“Okay. She’s been taken where everybody’s raptured on Saturday night and Jesus saves them all on Sunday morning.”
“Baptist Church of the Kingdom of Christ?”
I nodded. “Close by.”
As Justin went inside, Bubba followed me to the shore, hopping on pebbles with his bare feet. “Forget Savile. Take me with you.”
“Nope. You came by boat, leave by boat. And when you get there, no photos. This is a private situation.” I tapped his chestbone. “Plus, you give me the name of those ‘witnesses.’ Nobody else at HPD.”
Bubba laughed a few fake “ha ha ha’s.” Then he pulled the comb back out of his wet Bermudas and thoughtfully thumbed it. “What about your boss, what about Chief Fulcher?”
I shrugged. “You want Edna, take the deal. If Ryder does blab anything not total bullshit—because, trust me, the governor’s never going to let him attend Edna’s funeral—then I get the names.”
“You’re killing me.” Bubba pinched his nipples; I suppose to demonstrate his pain. “Why don’t you just start your own newspaper that talks nothing but Mangum, Mangum, Mangum, front to back.”
We studied each other a while. “Well, seems to me, Bubba, as far as your newspaper goes, the last thing you want is for us to find Edna, bury her, and arrange for Ryder to stand there sobbing. He gets what he wants, why would he give you names?”
Bubba combed one long sideburn, then the other. “Cudberth . . . I see ‘Win Win’ here for us both.” He pulled me farther into the yard, under a pine tree, even though Justin was still inside on the phone. “All I need’s to persuade Come to Jesus Ryder that Edna’s up there in heaven and sending a message to him from God. I just need God saying to Edna, ‘Edna, go back down to earth and tell Galamiel, You want to see me in heaven, you name names and you give those names to one man only, My good and faithful servant, My Second-Best Gift to the World, Mr. Randolph Bubba Percy.’ You follow me here?”
“Like a search light.” Nothing anybody could say would shame Bubba, including my complimenting him on his humility in describing himself as second to Christ as God’s favorite gift to humanity.
He hopped from foot to foot. “I’m freezing here! Pig, give me a ride. Don’t make me go all the way back to North Cove in that fuckin’ boat with fuckin’ Savile.”
“Bubba, you’re never going to win a Pulitzer. You can’t even think of more than one single curse word.”
“Oh go to hell, cocksucker.”
“Well, you got me there.”
I knew Bubba. He wasn’t a moral man, so I could trust him. I pushed him into the surf. “Okay, clean off your feet. Wally keeps a neat car.”
Justin headed out to us with his fishing paraphernalia. “Ed Pauley considers the whole thing ‘an outrage’ but he’ll do what you ask.” He began unlooping his bowline from a tree trunk. “So, where do we send the hearse?”
Bubba grabbed at me. “I’m riding with Cuddy. I’m not crossing that lake twice.”
Standing in the water, carefully angling his boat away from rocks, Justin laughed. “A little bumpy?”
I gave him the address. “She’s at 1001 East Maple Street.”
It took Bubba about five seconds to place the East Hillston street number. He high-kicked the surf.
“And Justin, this doesn’t go to Fulcher.”
He laughed. “Never occurred to me.” So my new partner didn’t like the chief any more than I did.
He shoved the motorboat farther into the water and swung himself easily inside. “I’m not familiar with Maplewood. You sure her body’s there?”
“Yes, I am.” I stepped into the lake to help nudge the boat farther out. “These are my people, J.B. Savile the Five. They love fast food, fast cars, cheap booze, sad songs. And they love their mamas.”
Justin nodded at me, then yanked the cord to start the outboard. As he swung the rudder to ease the boat around, he blinked his bow light, high dim, high dim at us, a farewell, I suppose.
After trying unsuccessfully to reach Kit Wilde, Zann or Graham Pope, I joined Bubba at the water’s edge. “You don’t want to mess with me, Bubba. You do and above the fold will be one more dream that didn’t come true for Mrs. Percy’s son.”
He shoved at me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’ll get you fired from the Star before your shorts dry out. You’ll be editing the employees’ newsletter at Winn-Dixie.”
“Oh, I already do that on the side.”
For a moment we watched the shiny little roundabout bounce over the choppy lake. It looked to me as if Justin were steering straight along the white line of the moon reflected in the water towards Zann’s house on North Cove.
Bubba flung his arm over me the way he used to do in gym. I didn’t much care for it then, and I didn’t much care for it now. “Pig, you know I wouldn’t mess with you. You’re going to love the names of these two witnesses.”
“Do I know them?”
He laughed. “Oh yeah.”
On East Maple Street at one in the morning, the houses were dark and the streetlamps burnt out. But lights blazed from every window of the enormous, dilapidated Pope Victorian with its maze of porches and balconies connected by half-rotted stairs. Back in 1865, the original owners—a shrewd tobacco merchant with a social-climbing wife—had loved this house so much that they’d rushed down the Hillston road, waving a white flag at the road-weary Union soldiers marching westward into town. They handed the men iced punch and pound cake. The house survived. It was not a story much retold in local pageants.
A hundred years later, fashion had long since moved away, and now nobody who mattered wanted to live in East Hillston anymore. Now Confederate rose hibiscus twisted through the floorboards of a rusted Plymouth Galaxy in the scrawny yard of 1001 East Maple and the house looked like the has-been it was. Mismatched rooms, porches and sheds scumbled together over the decades; each sloppily painted in whatever color happened to be on sale at the time (whether exterior or interior, flat or glossy) until the supply had run out. Deep purple. Dark gray. Light blue. Pink.
When Bubba and I drove up, music poured from open windows. A clarinet mournfully played “The Tennessee Waltz.” The version recorded by Patti Page had always been a favorite of Edna’s. The melody finished, paused, started again. I figured news of Edna’s death had spread and neighbors were either too sympathetic to her family’s grief to complain about the noise, or too scared they’d get their heads blown off by the Pope boys. I felt both emotions myself as I gestured to Bubba to stay put. I knew he wouldn’t do it of course. He’d sneak up on the porch to look in the window. But he wouldn’t try to come in and take photos. He believed me that I’d arrest him on a felony charge as an accessory after the fact to the theft of her corpse. Bubba and I went way back.
I moved as quietly as I could inside the unlocked door. The rectangular living room was, as I had always remembered it, nearly empty of furniture—whether by design or by way of the pawn shop I’d never been sure. Near the glass doors, the upright piano painted baby-blue still stood under an old print of an Indian chief on horseback beneath a big orange moon. Two dog-chewed armchairs faced a fireplace that was a trashcan for beer bottles, junk mail, pizza boxes and dumped piles of cigarette butts. This “Rainbow Room’ was where Edna had taught us all to dance—her own kids—the boys and Zann—and her sister’s kids (my sister and me), plus any teenagers from the neighborhood who wanted to learn, “for free and for fun.”
But now a mournful clarinet sang “The Tennessee Waltz” out of a shadowy corner. Out on the dark varnished dance floor where in old days we’d worked on the Bop and the Shag, I saw Edna’s son Dickey slow dancing with his mother’s dead body cradled softly in his arms. He moved with the graceful precision that sometimes drunks have. It wasn’t clear whether he knew Edna was dead or not. I couldn’t see her face, but her hair and her dangling bare feet were as blue-white as the long thin cotton sheet wrapped in folds around her and floating out across the floor as he turned her in circles.
Dickey was Edna’s middle son, the handsomest of the three, tall and lithe, brown as tobacco leaves; his pink satin cowboy shirt with its black embroidered roses gleamed tight against his arms as he held her motionless weight. Also the craziest of the volatile Popes, he could swing in the blink of an eye from a tearful embrace to a sudden lunge at your head with a baseball bat. That he would have knocked out a security guard at Pauley and Keene’s Funeral Home was easy to believe. I could recall the look in his eyes when he’d pinned a guy twice his size called “Tubs” to a toilet door at East Hillston Junior High by stabbing his switchblade through the guy’s fat hand for calling Edna a whore. I had pulled the blade out of Tubs’s hand while he screamed his head off and had told him he was lucky the knife wasn’t through his jugular. Although Tubs had sworn he’d been stabbed “accidentally” (big brother Graham saw to that), Dickey had ended up in reform school anyhow, where he’d learned all sorts of nasty tricks.
With his black curls and crafty seductiveness he had been Edna’s favorite. She couldn’t resist him. For one thing, the ecstasy of his dancing was just like her own. By four years old, he was doing a bump and grind as she played jump blues on the upright; he’d gyrate, shimmy and shake, shrieking “Booger-woogie! Booger-woogie!” at her, spasming as if in a grand mal seizure. The faster she’d played, the more wildly Dickey had danced.
So tonight as I stood there in the dark hall, watching him waltz with her corpse, I knew I had to be very careful. From his point of view, the dance was probably some sort of magic remedy, a way to reverse her death, to press into her body the vitality they’d always shared, to waltz her in those big slow looping circles around the long empty room, back to life.
Except the room wasn’t empty and “The Tennessee Waltz” didn’t come from a recording as I’d originally assumed but from a clarinet that one of my best friends was playing live. It was Kit Wilde, who still lived next door to the Popes in the house she’d inherited from her parents (except for her time-share with me in the lake cabin). She was the detective in charge of the Evidence Room at HPD. Night before last, she and I had gone to a goodbye dinner for what she’d thought was going to be my two weeks’ road trip west on Route 66. Now I knew why she’d been trying to reach me.
I didn’t see her till she stepped out of the unlit shadows of the bay window on the far side of the room and moved closer to the fireplace. In pajamas, a short black kimono bathrobe and red Chinese slippers, she looked like she’d gotten out of bed to join Dickey’s dance party, in too big a hurry to get dressed. Her looks hadn’t changed since college. She was still a small slender redhead with freckles and a pixie cut. Now her chin lifted, her cheeks swelled with gathered breath and she swayed her gleaming clarinet as if she too were urging Edna to waltz.
When she spotted me, she faltered only slightly but didn’t pause in her melody. Instead her eyes kept repeating a sideways look until she led my gaze to what she wanted me to notice: a large black automatic pistol lying on the piano beside an empty bottle of tequila. I gave her a nod as I stepped towards it. Still dancing, Dickey hadn’t spotted me. Kit kept on playing.
I could make out Bubba’s shadow on the porch moving from one window to the next. On the street, a couple of cars pulled up to the curb and cut their engines. Dickey didn’t notice any of it. Kit quickly restarted “The Tennessee Waltz” at the beginning.
Only after I had palmed the gun did she lower her clarinet. Then she let it drop to her side as I slid Dickey’s .45 under my loose shirt.
He kept waltzing for half a minute more, in complete silence, then he quit, puzzled, and wheeled around to face Kit. Drunkenly he sang her a line of the song as if she might have forgotten the tune. “ ‘Now I know just how much I have lost. Yes, I lost my little . . .’ ” He waited again. Suddenly he rushed at her, shouting: “Play, Kit! Play!”
“I can’t,” she told him. “I’m wiped out.”
In a rage he stomped his boot heel into the hardwood floor till overhead the glass spears on the cheap chandelier shook and chinkled. “Mama wants to dance!”
Kit leaned her clarinet gently against the brick hearth. “No, Dickey, she doesn’t. Edna wants to rest. She’s tired. And I’m tired. I’m taking a break. So stop yelling at me.” Kit spoke with such matter-of-factness that Dickey’s mouth snapped shut, swallowing his reply.
“Dickey, it’s Cuddy,” I called out. Confusion tightened his features and he looked around blankly.
Kit pointed me out to him. “Dickey, pay attention. Cuddy’s here. Look. He wants to pay his respects to your mama.”
Now Dickey swung around. He tripped slightly, caught in the long white sheet, but never loosened his protective clasp on Edna. He couldn’t quite take me in. Tripping awkwardly over the dragging white cloth, he lurched towards the piano for his pistol, saw that it was gone but didn’t appear to realize I must have taken it. “Kit, where’s my gun?”
She said she didn’t know.
“Did you take it?”
He seemed to believe her.
He spun back at me. “What do you want? Get out of here!”
There was no predicting what he’d do next. I started towards him in slow steps. “I have to take Edna back to the funeral home. Pauley and Keene need to get her ready for her funeral, Dickey. I promised her a nice funeral.”
With a howl, he ran with his mother over to a porch window where the full moon was distant among the stars. I figured he must have seen Bubba. But he was past seeing any world but his own. When he took his hand from Edna’s head to point up at the sky, her head fell backward and bobbled. “Cuddy Mangum, you see that moon? I’ll put a meat hook in your heart and I’ll hook you and I’ll pitch you onto that moon. She’s my mama, she’s not your mama.”
I said he was right. That my mother was dead. My mother was Edna’s older sister. She would have wanted Edna to have the right kind of funeral like she’d had. “Dickey, I’m taking Edna back to Pauley and Keene.” I stepped closer.
Shaking his head wildly, he moaned again. “I’ll kill you. You get back from her!”
I held my arms open. “It’s just like Kit says, I want pay my respects. I want you to know how sorry I am.” My sympathy made him flinch. But I could see he felt it. “Dickey, we’re not trying to hurt you. You’re family. But we gotta take her back.”
Kit moved closer to him from the other side, her hands out. “She needs to rest now. She needs to be with people who can take care of her.”
He snarled at us, a low doggish threatened noise, and shuffled back towards the fireplace. “Zann’s gonna set her on fire. Graham told me Zann wants to cremate Mama.”
Kit was only about two feet from him now. “Well, it’s not Zann’s decision. All of you have to agree. And I think you should bury her the way she wanted. With her mama and daddy and Cuddy’s mama. I already picked out her favorite outfit from upstairs, just like you and Graham asked me to do. It’s right over there.” She pointed at a paper grocery bag on the floor. “Edna wanted a grave near her family.”
Violently Dickey kicked his boot at the fireplace mantel. “I gotta take care of her! Her life got ruined. She told me it did. People wouldn’t even talk to her; people writing her how they hoped she’d die! Look how she needs me.” He held out his mother’s body. “Look! Don’t you know I love her?”
I said, “Yes I do.”
Kit reached him, grabbed his hand and held it against the thin deadweight of the corpse’s arm. “Feel her arm, Dickey. You know how she hated the cold. Feel how cold she is. You love her, you don’t want her to be cold.”
Edna had died at least eight hours earlier. It was vivid in Dickey’s eyes that the body’s chilled stiffness shocked him. “She’s all froze up,” he quietly echoed.
I stepped between him and the door. “Let’s do like she asked; let her lie down with her family.”
He shifted Edna in his arms, as if his muscles hurt. Outside, tires screeched, a car door slammed and voices started shouting. I hoped to God that Bubba wasn’t going to come barging inside because there was no doubt there were other guns in this room close enough for Dickey to reach before I could get to him. The Popes, including Edna, believed strongly in the right to bear arms—at home and anywhere else they pleased—even though I doubt they kept their dozen or so automatic pistols, rifles and shotguns in the house in order to be ready to form a well-regulated militia for the security of their country.
Distracted by the noise, Dickey stumbled back to the window to see what was happening. Kit stayed right next to him, leaning close enough to take up some of Edna’s weight. I pressed in from the other side. The three of us stood there for a long instant.
“Come on,” I urged him. “Do right. Let your mama rest.” He stared at me, his eyes swelling with tears, then his muscles let go so suddenly that he almost fell. Kit pulled him upright and I eased Edna out of his arms and over into mine.
At that instant, the oldest of Edna’s sons, Graham Pope kicked the door open and lunged in from the hall, shoving me backwards. “What the sweet Jesus is going on?”
Even though I was holding his dead mother, Graham ignored everybody but Dickey. A barrel-chested, big-backed man in a black tee shirt that said “I CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION,” he had a full brown beard and long wild brown hair. His weight shook the room as he headed straight for Dickey, lifted him completely off the floor and threw him into the trash-filled fireplace. Hauling him out again, Graham slammed him hard against the mantelpiece, pulled him back, flung him again. “You took Mama out of the funeral parlor?! Neighbors look in our window and see you dancing around our living room with Mama? Jesus, goddamn it, Dickey!”
It was like John the Baptist had swept in on us from the desert and cursed us out—John the Baptist wearing a black tee shirt that said, “I CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION.”
Graham picked up his brother and brushed him off roughly. “Dickey! If I didn’t love you and you hadn’t lost your goddamn mind, I’d bash out your brains if you had any! What is your problem?” Graham’s bass voice sounded like it was plugged into heavy-duty speakers at a Johnny Cash concert. “Answer me!” He slapped Dickey in the face so hard the back of his brother’s head hit the edge of the mantel and started bleeding. Kit ran to them and pulled Graham away.
Dickey suddenly wept. “Don’t tell Zann and Preston.”
“I’m not going to tell a soul, don’t you worry about that!” Graham held Kit back with a hand the size of a bagpipe. “You think I want people to know you took Mama’s body out of her coffin and brought her home and started dancing with her? I don’t want anybody to know what a sick fuckhead you are! You think I want Zann to know? Bitch. You think I want your baby brother Preston to know? Sweet Jesus fuckin’ Christ!”
Dickey kept on banging his head back into the edge of the mantel until blood oozed down his face. Finally Kit grabbed him by his curls and thrust him into the ratty armchair, where she held him until he quit fighting her. Then she turned on Graham, “That’s enough of your cursing! You leave him alone.”
Breathing loudly, Graham got himself under control; he put his hands on his knees and looked up at her. “What got into you, Kit? Helping Dickey act this way? Coming over here and playing dance tunes for him to act crazy?! You’re a professional woman!”
She shouted; something she never did. “You think I volunteered to come over here in the middle of the night? I was in bed!” She gestured at her pajamas to prove it. “He came over with a gun, and said you wanted me to pick out clothes for Edna, and he wanted me to play ‘Tennessee Waltz.’ He didn’t say he had Edna with him and wanted to dance!”
Graham took this in. “So why didn’t you phone me? Why did Cuddy here, the police for goddamn it, have to be the one telephones me and says, ‘I think maybe Dickey busted into the funeral parlor and stole your mama?’” Kit tried to answer but he didn’t let her. “Why did our neighbors stop me right out here on the sidewalk?—” He gestured to the porch window. “—And say how you’re inside with Dickey keeping the whole block awake playing ‘The Tennessee Goddamn Waltz’?”
Kit lost it and turned purple for the first time since I’d known her. She ran to the opened window and shouted at the small crowd outside. “Hey you stupids! I was playing right out the window at you! On purpose, idiots! I had to play stupid ‘Tennessee Waltz’ for over two hours! Why didn’t you call the police!”
I was still holding Edna in my arms. “Kit, Kit . . . See if Pauley and Keene are out there.”
Abruptly she quieted down. “Yes, they are. She turned back to Graham. “Don’t you think, if Dickey had let me use a phone I would have used it?” She picked up a black desk phone on the floor whose cord had been ripped out of the wall. “He showed up drunk at my house, waving his Colt .45 in my face. Poor Edna was lying dead in the bed of his pick-up truck! He told me if I didn’t come play clarinet, he’d shoot my eyes out.”
“Oh Dickey,” Graham groaned.
Kit nodded intensely. “So don’t press me, Graham. I’ll have him put away for ten years, I swear to God I will. I don’t care if it’s an insane asylum or Dollard Prison. He can do the ten years he’s taken off my life tonight, telling me he was going to shoot my eyes out.”
Graham dismissed this threat with a backhanded wave over his head that set the glass spears on the chandelier clinking again. “Kit, you think Dickey would shoot you in the face? He loves you!”
I had to jostle Edna as I pulled Dickey’s large black Colt pistol out from under my shirt and threw it at Graham. “Right! I have never once heard of a single drunk in possession of a gun who shot somebody he loved. You follow me, Graham?”
No, he didn’t, really. And the sad fact was, Graham was the brains of the Pope boys. It wasn’t that surprising that Zann had nothing to do with them. “I apologize,” he finally told Kit. “I know you just came here to help.”
She held up her hands. “I was here to keep from getting shot. Where is Zann? Why is she never around to help?”
Dickey mumbled. “She doesn’t love us. She’s too rich and stuck up and now Sonny’s gonna be president.”
“Senator,” I said.
Kit took charge. “Just shut up, everybody. Y’all get her body back to Pauley & Keene. Go on. I’ll close up and I’ll bring her clothes over.”
But by now tequila had flooded Dickey’s system and was gushing out in remorse. He sank to the floor. “Mama loved those silver boots she used to wear dancing. They’re in her closet. And her silver pocketbook.” Kit promised to go upstairs to look for the boots and the purse; she advised Dickey to quit sobbing before he choked on his tears.
When Graham strode over to me, the floorboards rattled under him. “I got her now.” He eased Edna out of my arms. “She’d appreciate the hearse and limo out front. Was that you?”
“Just the hearse.”
“Okay.” He nodded. “I guess Zann.”
At the door, he turned around. “Come on, Dickey.”
It was past two in the morning. Out on Maple Street, fast clouds had blacked out moon and stars. A black limousine and a black hearse, the hearse with its rear door opened, sat parked under the light of a streetlamp on a dented metal pole. Probably some Pope had smashed the pole, possibly years ago. Public utilities didn’t get fixed fast in East Hillston.
The motors of both these vehicles turned on smoothly as soon as we stepped onto the porch. The hearse had discreet white script saying it belonged to “Pauley & Keene.” The driver hurried out.
I spotted Bubba on the sidewalk, notebook in hand, talking to a cluster of gawking neighbors
A woman stepped out of the limousine into the lamplight. It was Zann Pope. Or as she was now called, Alexandra Dollard, the new senator’s wife. She eased Dickey from Kit’s arms and helped him into the car’s back seat.
Justin Savile stood alone near the same streetlight, leaning against his British roadster. He watched everything intently, with his jacket pulled back on one side so his other hand could rest over what I knew to be the shoulder holster of his handgun. But from the Popes’ porch it looked as if he held his hand against his heart.