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A collection of nine award-winning stories, set in locales along the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Texas and battlefields around the world.
Billy Haskel and I were picking tomatoes in the same row, dropping them by the handful in the baskets on the mule-drawn wood sled, when the crop duster came in low over the line of trees by the river and began spraying the field next to us.
"The wind's going to drift it right across us," Billy Haskel said. "Turn away from it and hold your breath."
Billy Haskel was white, but he made his living as a picker just like the Mexicans did. The only other white pickers in the field were a couple of high school kids like myself. People said Billy had been in the South Pacific during the war, and that was why he wasn't right in the head and drank all the time. He kept a pint of wine in the bib of his overalls, and when we completed a row he'd kneel down below the level of the tomato bushes as though he were going to take a leak and raise the bottle high enough for two deep swallows. By midafternoon, when the sun was white and scalding, the heat and wine would take him and he would talk in the lyrics from hillbilly songs.
My woman has gone
To the wild side of life
Where the wine and whiskey flow,
And now my little boy
Calls another man Daddy.
But this morning he was still sober and his mind was on the dust.
"The grower tells you it don't hurt you to breathe it. That ain't true. It works in your lungs like little sparks. They make holes in you so the air goes out in your chest and don't come back out your windpipe. You ain't listening to me, are you?"
"Sure I was."
"You got your mind on Juanita over there. I don't blame you. If I hadn't got old I'd be looking at her, too."
I was watching her, sometimes without even knowing it. She was picking ahead of us three rows over, and her brown legs and the fold of her midriff where she had tied back her denim shirt under her breasts were always in the corner of my eye. Her hands and arms were dusty, and when she tried to push the damp hair out of her eyes with the back of her wrist, she left a gray wet streak on her forehead. Sometimes when I was picking even in the row with her I saw her look at her shirtfront to see if it was buttoned all the way.
I wanted to talk with her, to say something natural and casual as I picked along beside her, but when I planned the words they seemed stupid and embarrassing. I knew she wanted me to talk with her, too, because sometimes she spoke to Billy Haskel when he was working between us, but it was as though she were aiming through him at me. If only I could be as relaxed and easy as Billy was, I thought, even though he did talk in disjointed song lyrics.
It was raining hard Saturday morning, and we had to wait two hours on the crew bus before we could go into the field. Billy was in a hungover stupor from Friday night, and he must have slept in his clothes because they smelled of stale beer and I saw talcum powder from the poolroom on his sleeves. He stared sleepily out the window at the raindrops and started to pull on a pint bottle of urine-yellow muscatel. By the time the sky cleared he had finished it and started on a short dog, a thirty-nine-cent bottle he bought for a dollar from a Mexican on the bus.
He was in great shape the rest of the morning. While we were bent over the tomatoes, he appointed himself driver of the sled and monitor of our work. He must have recited every lyric ever sung on the Grand Ole Opry. When we passed close to a clump of live oaks, he started to eye the tomatoes in the baskets and the trunks of the trees.
"Some of these 'maters has already got soft. Not even good for canning," he said. "Do you know I tried out for Waco before the war? I probably could have made it if I hadn't got drafted."
Then he let fly with a tomato and nailed an oak tree dead center in a shower of red pulp.
The preacher, Mr. Willis, saw him from across the field. I watched him walk slowly across the rows toward where we were picking, his back erect, his ironed dark blue overalls and cork sun helmet like a uniform. Mr. Willis had a church just outside of Yoakum and was also on the town council. My uncle Sidney said that Mr. Willis made sure no evangelist got a permit to hold a revival anywhere in the county so that all the Baptist soul saving would be done in one church house only.
I bent into the tomatoes, but I could feel him standing behind me.
"Is Billy been drinking in the field again?" he said.
"There's nothing wrong with your hearing, is there, Hack? Did you see Billy with a bottle this morning?"
"I wasn't paying him much mind."
"What about you, Juanita?"
"Why do you ask me?" She kept working along the row without looking up.
"Because sometimes your brother brings short dogs on the bus and sells them to people like Billy Haskel."
"Then you can talk with my brother and Billy Haskel. Then when my brother calls you a liar you can fire him, and the rest of us will leave, too."
Both Mr. Willis and I stared at her. At that time in Texas a Mexican, particularly a young girl who did piecework in a vegetable field, didn't talk back to a white person. Mr. Willis's gray eyes were so hot and intense that he didn't even blink at the drops of sweat that rolled from the liner of his sun helmet into his brows.
"Billy's been picking along with the rest of us, Mr. Willis," I said. "He just cuts up sometime when it's payday."
"You know that, huh?"
I hated his sarcasm and righteousness and wondered how anyone could be fool enough to sit in a church and listen to this man talk about the gospel.
He walked away from us, stepping carefully over each row, his starched overalls creasing neatly behind the knees. Billy was at the water can in the shade of the oaks with his back to Mr. Willis and was just buttoning his shirt over his stomach when he heard or felt Mr. Willis behind him.
"Lord God Almighty, you give me a start there, Preacher," he said.
"You know my rule, Billy."
"If you mean chunking the 'mater, I guess you got me."
Mr. Willis reached out and took the bottle from under the flap of Billy's shirt. He unscrewed the cap and poured the wine on the ground. Billy's face reddened and he opened and closed his hands in desperation.
"Oh, sweet Lord, you do punish a man," he said.
Mr. Willis started walking toward his house at the far end of the field, holding the bottle lightly with two fingers and swinging the last drops onto the ground. Then he stopped, his back still turned toward us, as though a thought were working itself toward completion in his head, and came back to the water can with his gray eyes fixed benignly on Billy Haskel's face.
"I can't pay a man for drinking in the field," he said. "You had better go on home today."
"I picked for you many a season, Preacher."
"That's right, and so you knew my rule. This stuff's going to kill you one day, and that's why I can't pay you while you do it."
Billy swallowed and shook his head. He needed the work, and he was on the edge of humiliating himself in front of the rest of us. Then he blinked his eyes and blew his breath up into his face.
"Well, like they say, I was looking for a job when I found this one," he said. "I'll get my brother to drive me out this afternoon for my check."
He walked to the blacktop, and I watched him grow smaller in the distant pools of heat that shimmered on the tar surfacing. Then he walked over a rise between two cornfields and was gone.
"That's my fault," Juanita said.
"He would have fired him anyway. I've seen him do it to people before."
"No, he stopped and came back because he was thinking of what I said. He couldn't have gone to his house without showing us something."
"You don't know Mr. Willis. He won't pay Billy for today, and that's one day's wage he's kept in his pocket."
She didn't answer, and I knew that she wasn't going to talk the rest of the afternoon. I wanted to do something awful to Mr. Willis.
At five o'clock we lined up by the bus to be paid. Clouds had moved across the sun, and the breeze was cool off the river. In the shadow of the bus the sweat dried on our faces and left lines in the dust film like brown worms. Billy's brother came out in a pickup truck to get Billy's check. I was right about Mr. Willis: he didn't pay Billy for that day. The brother started to argue, then gave it up and said, "I reckon the sun would come up green if you didn't try to sharp him, Preacher."
Juanita was standing in front of me. She had taken her bandanna down, and her Indian hair fell on her shoulders like flat star points. She began pushing it away from the nape of her neck until it lay evenly across her back. Someone bumped against me and made me brush right into her rump. I had to bite my teeth at the quiver that went through my loins.
"Do you want to go to the root-beer place on the highway?" I said.
"I never go there."
"So tonight's a good time to start."
That easy, I thought. Why didn't I do it before? But maybe I knew, and if I didn't, Mr. Willis was just about to tell me.
After he gave me my check he asked me to walk to his car with him before I got on the bus.
"During the summer a boy can get away from his regular friends and make other friends that don't have anything to do with his life. Do you know what I mean?" he said.
"Maybe I don't want to know what you mean, Mr. Willis."
"Your father is a university teacher. I don't think he'd like what you're doing."
My face felt dead and flat, as though it had been stung with his open hand.
"I'm not going to talk with you anymore. I'm going to get on the bus now," I said.
"All right, but you remember this, Hack — a redbird doesn't sit on a blackbird's nest."
I stepped onto the bus and pulled the folding doors closed behind me. Mr. Willis's face slipped by the windows as we headed down the dusty lane. Somebody was already sitting next to Juanita, and I was glad because I was so angry I couldn't have talked to anyone.
We got to the produce market in Yoakum, Juanita gave me her address (a street name belonging to a vague part of town with clapboard houses and dirt yards), and I drove Uncle Sidney's pickup out to his house in the country.
My mother was dead and my father was teaching southern history for the summer at the university in Austin, and so I lived with my uncle Sidney. He raised tomatoes, melons, beans, corn, and squash, and anything he planted grew better and bigger than any other crop in the county. He always had the fattest turkeys and best-fed Angus and Brahmas, and each year his preserves won a couple of prizes at the county fair.
But he was also the most profane man I ever knew. When provoked he could use obscenities in combinations that made people's heads reel. My father said Uncle Sidney used to drink a lot when he was younger, and when he got drunk in a beer joint in Yoakum or Cuero, it would take six policemen to put him in jail. He had been a marine in the trenches during World War I and had brought tuberculosis home with him and over the years had had two relapses because he smoked constantly. He rolled cigarettes out of five-cent Bull Durham bags, but he would roll only two or three cigarettes before he threw the bag away and opened another one. So there were Bull Durham sacks all over the farm, stained brown with the rain and running into the soil.
When Uncle Sidney was serious about something, it came out in a subtle, intense, and unexpected way that embedded itself under the skin like a thorn. One day two summers earlier I had been hunting jackrabbits on his place with his Winchester .22 automatic and I hadn't had a shot all afternoon. I just wanted to shoot something, anything, and hear the snap of the rifle and smell the cordite in the hot air. A solitary dove flew from a grove of blackjacks, and I led her with the rifle and let off three quick shots. The third one snipped her head off right at the shoulders. It was an incredible shot. I carried her in my pocket back to the house and showed her to Uncle Sidney, the fact that I had killed a dove two months out of season far from my mind.
"You think that's slick, do you?" he said. "Are you going to feed her young in the nest? Are you going to be there when their hunger sounds bring a fox down on them? You put my rifle in the rack and don't touch it again."
I pulled the pickup truck into the yard and cut the engine, but the cylinders continued to fire with post-ignition for another fifteen seconds. The pickup was actually a wreck without two inches of the original paint on it in one place and with the World War II gas-rationing stickers still on the cracked windshield even though it was 1947. I walked around behind the house and took the chain off the windmill, undressed, and began pulling the ticks off my body in the jet of water that pumped out of the pipe over the trough. Some of the ticks that had been on me since early morning had worked their heads deep into the skin and were as big as pennies with my blood. I shivered each time I dug one out with my fingernails and popped it in a red spray.
"I'll be goddamn go-to-hell if it ain't ole Satchel-ass," Uncle Sidney said from the back porch.
Sidney's battered straw hat, curled up at the brim and slanted sideways on his head, and his cowboy boots, which were worn down at the heels, always made him look like he was rocking when he walked. He was all angles: elbows stuck out as though they were about to cave a rib cage, knees askew from the direction of his boots, a quizzically turned head, a crooked smile. His skin was burned and cracked by the sun, and he had a grip and calluses that could shale the edge off of old brick. He had ridden in rodeos when he was younger and had been slammed into the boards so many times by Brahmas that every bone in him popped when he got out of a chair.
I chained the blades on the windmill and started into the house to finish my bath in the tub.
"Can I use the pickup tonight?" I said.
"Sure. But you don't look too happy about wherever it is you're going."
"It's that damn Mr. Willis."
"What did he do to you?"
"He didn't do anything to me. He fired Billy Haskel."
"Was Billy drinking in the field again?"
"It was the way he did it. He treated him like a child."
"Billy's a grown man. He can take care of himself."
"That's just it. Billy was fighting the Japs while Mr. Willis was cleaning up selling to the government."
"Satch, what you done in last Saturday's ball game ain't worth piss on a rock."
An hour later I was driving down the blacktop in the mauve-colored evening, my hair combed back wet, the smell of the fields blowing cool in my face. Rain clouds hung like bruised fruit on the horizon, and the crack of dying sun on the edge of the land sent long shafts of spinning light across the sky. The breeze bent the corn along the tops of the stalks, and jackrabbits sat in the short grass by the side of the road with their ears turned up in vees. Dead and salted crows had been nailed to the cedar fence posts to keep the live ones out of the field, and their feathers fluttered like a bad afterthought.
I didn't understand the feeling I had, but it was like both fear and guilt and at the same time neither one. I had never thought of myself as being afraid of other people, but maybe that was because I had never been in a situation when I had had to be afraid. Now people whom I had never thought about came into my mind: boys at school who never called Mexicans anything but pepper-bellies; the café owner who would turn a Mexican around in the door before he could even reach the serving counter; the theater manager who was suddenly sold out of tickets when anyone with skin darker than a suntan came to his box office.
I saw her sitting in a swing on her front porch. She wore a white blouse with a round collar and a full flower-print skirt, and she had put a red hibiscus in her hair. She closed the truck door, and we banged over the ruts and drove out on the highway toward the root-beer stand.
"I talked with my father about Billy Haskel," she said. "He's an organizer for the pickers. He's going to try to get him on in another field."
"Your father's in that?"
"Yes. Why?" She turned her head at me, and the wind blew her hair across her cheek.
"Nothing. I just heard some things the growers say about it."
"What do they say?"
"I don't know, they're communists, stuff like that."
"My father's not a communist. None of them are."
"I don't care about that kind of stuff, Juanita."
"Your uncle is a grower."
"He's nothing like Mr. Willis, or some of the others. He doesn't hire wetbacks and he wouldn't fire somebody for drinking in the field."
Up ahead we saw the lights of the root-beer stand and the cars and pickups with metal trays on the windows parked in the gravel under the canvas awning.
"Are we going inside?" she said.
"I don't care."
"Let's get it in the truck."
"Sure, if you want to."
"Hack, you don't have to take me here. We can just go for a drive."
"What's the big deal about a root-beer stand? I should have asked you to the show, except they're still playing Johnny Mack Brown."
"You don't have to prove something for me. I know you're a good person."
"Don't talk like that. We're just getting some root beer."
But while we waited for the waitress to walk out to the pickup, my hands were damp on the steering wheel and I was conscious of the conversations and the glow of cigarettes in the cars around us. The waitress in red-and-white uniform set the tray on the window and looked at me for the order, then her eyes went past my face into Juanita's.
"What, say it again," she said.
"Two root beers. One root beer and then another one on the same tray," I said.
The waitress went away and then looked back over her shoulder at us.
"Don't be sarcastic with her," Juanita said.
"I know that girl. She's got tractor oil in her head."
After the waitress brought our root beers, I picked up one of the heavy ice-filmed mugs and handed it to Juanita. When I reached back for mine, I saw a boy from my baseball team walking past the window toward the restroom.
"Hey, Hack. You keeping your arm in shape for next year?" He looked into the truck, his eyes full of light and curiosity.
"I throw a few every evening against a target on my uncle's barn."
"This man's a mean motor scooter on the mound," he said to Juanita. "He's got a Carl Hubbell screwball that wipes the letters off a batter."
"Yeah, I'm so good I dusted three guys in our district game."
"That don't matter. Those guys thought sheep-dip didn't stink till you put their noses in it."
"I'll have better control next season. Look, we'll see you later, Ben."
"Sure. Take it easy, Hack."
A minute later he backed his car around to leave the lot, and I saw the white oval faces of two people looking out the back window at us. He burned out onto the highway in a scorch of gravel.
A week later Johnny Mack Brown was still playing at the theater in town, so I took Juanita to the double feature at the drive-in. I parked the pickup to the side of the concession stand, and when the lot darkened I put my arm around her shoulders. Her eyes were still on the screen, but when I lowered my head against hers she turned her face up at me with her lips parted. She laid her wrist on the back of my neck when we kissed and brushed her lips sideways on my mouth. I put my face in her hair and could smell the soap and baby powder on her shoulders.
The cab of the pickup had not been designed for romance. The floor stick, even jammed into reverse, stuck up between us like a convent wall, and our elbows and knees banged against the dashboard, the windows, the door handles, and the gun rack. By intermission I had another problem, too: what we used to call the hot rocks, a thick ache in the genitals that made you think someone had poured concrete in your fly. Usually the only way to get rid of it, besides the most obvious way, was to get out and lift the truck bumper. This went on all the time back on neckers' row, but I waited for the intermission and just sat quietly behind the steering wheel for five minutes and then headed for the concession stand.
That was a mistake.
When I went into the men's room — a hot, fetid place that reeked of disinfectant and urinated beer, with an exhaust fan on one wall — a dozen high school boys were inside, leaning over the troughs and passing around a bottle of sloe gin in a paper sack. Someone was throwing up in the toilet cubicle. The room was almost silent while I waited for my turn at the trough.
"Hey, Hack, who's that girl in your truck?"
"Just a friend."
"Is she a Mexican?" It was the same boy, and his question was almost innocent.
"It's none of your damn business what she is."
There was no sound except the dirty noise of the exhaust fan. Then, from a tall kid in cowboy boots, blue jeans, an immaculate white T-shirt, and a straw hat, who leaned against the wall with one foot propped behind him:
"Is is true that Mexican fur burger tastes like jalapeño?"
A left-handed pitcher has certain advantages on the mound, but so does a left-handed fistfighter, because your opponent instinctively watches your right hand as the area of potential damage. I swung upward from my left side and caught him on the mouth and knocked his head into the cinder-block wall. When he wrenched his head straight again, his fists already flying out at me, I saw the blood in his teeth like a smear of food dye. We fought all over the room (someone shot the bolt on the door so the manager couldn't get in), careening against bodies and troughs and trash cans, and I got him twice more in the face and once so hard in the throat that spittle flew from his mouth, but his arms were longer than mine and he clubbed me into a corner between the toilet cubicle and the wall and I couldn't get my elbows back to swing. His fists, white and ridged with bone, seemed to appear and explode against my face so fast that for a moment I thought someone else was swinging with him.
But the other person turned out to be the manager, who had broken the doorjamb and was pulling the tall boy off me.
The boy relaxed his arms and caught his breath.
"The next time you bring a greaser to the drive-in, you better be able to take it," he said.
I wanted to hit him again, but I was finished. I walked out into the parking lot past groups of people who stared at my torn and blood-streaked clothes and the long strip of damp toilet paper that was stuck to one of my loafers. I got into the pickup and slammed the door. Juanita's mouth opened and her fingers jerked up toward her face.
"Forget it," I said. I started the engine and bounced out into the aisle, then I heard glass snap and heavy iron smash against the rear fender. I had forgotten to remove the speaker and had torn the pipe and concrete base right out of the ground, which was all right, but I had also broken off the top half of Uncle Sidney's window.
Uncle Sidney started attending the meetings of the Growers' Association. They met on Tuesday nights at the Baptist church, and if you drove by and saw the pickups parked in the grove of oak trees, the fireflies sparkling in the summer dark, and the heads of men through the lighted windows, you thought only that a church meeting was going on and a group trip to Dallas or a new building was being planned. But beyond the noise of the cicadas they were talking about the Mexican farmworkers' union and communists, their minds melding together in fear, their vocabulary finding words that were as foreign to their world as peasants' revolutions in Russia.
"Why do you have to go there?" I said to Uncle Sid. He was sitting on the porch step in his shiny suit with the trousers tucked inside his boots. The fire of his hand-rolled, brown-streaked cigarette was no more than a quarter inch from his lips.
"Why shouldn't I go there?"
"Because they're dumb people."
"Well, there is a couple that was probably playing with their knobs when God passed out the brains. But sometimes you got to stick together, Satchel-ass. If these Mexicans are serious about a strike, they can do us some real harm."
I watched him drive down the road in the dusty twilight, past the pond where under the surface the late sun was trapped in a red ball as motionless and dead as my heart.
But I should have had more faith in Uncle Sid. I should have known he was too angular to fit very long with a bunch like the Growers' Association. The next Tuesday night, when I had gotten Juanita to come over for dinner, he came back from the meeting so mad that you could have lighted a kitchen match by touching it to his face.
"What happened?" I said.
"That little whipsnip of a preacher stood up in front of the meeting and said I was working a couple of Mexicans that was communists. And anybody that kept communists on his payroll after he knew about them might just stand some looking into himself. Then a couple other of them mealymouth sons of bitches turned around and looked at me and said maybe every grower ought to make out a list of who was working for him."
"Mr. Willis likes to put a finger in your eye if he can."
"Juanita, I got to hire on six more men next week. You ask your daddy to send me a half dozen of them union Mexicans or nigras or whatever they are. I don't bargain on wages, I pay by the piece, but they'll get more than they will from the likes of that preacher. Just make sure your daddy gets me six hard workers that ain't welcomed nowhere."
It was a strange collection that showed up at the house the next week: two old men, a boy, a one-armed man, a Negro, and Billy Haskel.
"When did you get in the union, Billy?" Uncle Sid said.
"I figured it wouldn't do no harm. I ain't worked nowhere since Mr. Willis run me off."
"Is that you, José? I thought you were in the pen."
"They let me out."
"Well, all right, boys. You can pick up your baskets at the barn. Come back to the house at noon for your lunch."
Uncle Sid watched them walk across the lot, his hat tilted sideways on his head.
"Damn, is that the bunch that's got people spraying in their britches all over the county?" he said.
Two nights later it was hot and breathless, and dry lightning was flashing on the horizon. I kept waking up every hour, caught between bad dreams and the hot silence of the house. Toward morning I felt the heat begin to go out of the air, and as my eyes closed with real sleep, I saw the lightning patterns flicker on the wallpaper. Then something in my sleep told me that the color was wrong — the cobalt white had been replaced by red and yellow, and there was a smell of rubber burning.
I heard Uncle Sidney walk from his bedroom to the gun rack in the kitchen and then open the front screen door.
"What is it?" I said, pulling on my Levi's.
"Look there. It was done by somebody with experience. They nailed strips of tires along the wood to give it extra heat."
The cross was fifteen feet high and burning brightly from top to bottom. Strings of smoke rose from the crosspiece like dirty handkerchiefs, and in the distance I saw a flatbed truck roaring down the dirt road toward the blacktop.
Uncle Sid shaved, put on a fresh pair of overalls, and sat down at the kitchen table with a coffee cup and notepad.
"What are you doing?" I said. Outside, the light had climbed into the sky, and I could hear a breeze rattle the windmill blades.
"Making out a list of genuine sons of bitches and possible sons of bitches. While I'm doing this, Satch, see if Billy Haskel's here yet, and you and him put that cross in the back of the pickup. It probably won't fit, so get a boomer chain out of the barn."
Billy and I loaded up the charred cross and propped the top end against the cab and stretched a chain across the shaft. I hooked on a boomer and locked it down tight.
"The sheriff ain't going to be too happy when your uncle drops this smelly thing in his office," Billy said.
Uncle Sidney walked out of the house with his notepad in his shirt pocket. He had on his new shortbrim Stetson hat, a cigarette twisted in the side of his mouth. His knees rose against his stiff overalls.
"What are we doing?" I said.
"Cutting a notch in their butts. You boys hop in."
We drove out to Mr. Willis's farm and saw him in the field not far from the road. He tried to ignore us at first by looking in the other direction, but Uncle Sidney began blowing on the horn until every picker in the rows had stopped and was staring past Mr. Willis at us. His face was tight when he walked over to us.
"Somebody left this in my front yard last night and I want it to get back to the right place," Uncle Sidney said. "You reckon I ought to leave it here?"
"I don't have any idea of what you're talking about."
"I don't blame you for lying. It ain't easy to sit in your own shit."
"You can leave my property, Mr. Holland."
"I will, in just a minute. But first, my nephew tells me you beat Billy Haskel here out of a day's wage. Now, Billy's a poor man and I think you ought to dip down in your billfold, Preacher."
Mr. Willis's face grew tighter and he tried to hold his gaze on Uncle Sidney's eyes. Then his hand went woodenly to his back pocket as though he couldn't control it.
"I'll pay him just to get you off my place."
"No, you'll pay him because I told you to. And the next time you send thugs around my house, I'm going to catch you in town, out in public, and you're not going to want to live around here anymore."
We drove out to Zack's on the blacktop, and Uncle Sid bought two six-cartons of Lone Star and filled the cartons with cracked ice to keep the bottles cold. Then we headed for the house of the next farmer on the list, and by noon we had worked our way across the county to the town. Warning must have gotten there ahead of us, because the hardware-and-feed store was locked, a farmer who hadn't been home earlier almost ran to his truck when he saw us, and a deputy sheriff's car began to follow us through the streets. People stared from the high concrete sidewalks at the blackened cross in the bed of the pickup while Uncle Sidney sat casually behind the wheel with his arm in the window, his beer bottle filled with amber sunlight. At the traffic light a man in a straw hat, colorless denims, and laced boots stepped off the curb and walked over to the running board.
"Mr. Holland, I'm a member of the Association, but I didn't have nothing to do with this business," he said.
"I didn't figure you did, Mr. Voss."
Mr. Voss nodded and crossed the street.
"This is so much fun we ought to do it all over again," Billy Haskel said.
That afternoon Uncle Sidney told me to drive the cross down to the creek bed and dump it, but I replied that I'd like to keep it in the truck until the weekend. On Saturday evening I picked up Juanita and took her to the drive-in movie, ignoring her argument and her glances through the back window at the cross vibrating under the boomer chain. People whom I hardly knew said hello to us, and during the intermission some boys from the baseball team gathered around the truck and drank warm beer with their feet on the running boards. The truck became not only the respected center of the parking lot for every group there but an excoriated symbol of difference that ennobled the individual who was allowed to stand in the circle around it. The beer cans rattled on the gravel, the laughter rose louder, people crawled and banged around on the cab roof, and finally the manager threw us all out. That was in 1947, the year I pitched four shutouts and learned not to think about them.
Copyright © 1985 by James Lee Burke
This reading group guide includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author James Lee Burke. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
James Lee Burke transports readers to the Gulf coasts of Louisiana and Texas and to battlefields around the world in the nine stories in this powerful and atmospheric collection, exploring themes of guilt, memory, war, and race.
In "The Pilot," a man fixes his troubled marriage in his own inimitable way. "Taking a Second Look" is the story of a professor coping with grief who finds consolation not in the classroom but on a neighborhood ball field. In "Lower Me Down with a Golden Chain," an American journalist's decision to investigate both sides of a Guatemalan civil war has unexpected consequences. Narrated by a young boy, the title story depicts race relations in the South through the lens of one family's experience.
Vivid and original, thought-provoking and poignant, these and the five other tales in this collection probe the mysteries of the human mind and heart — and the complex circumstances in which we sometimes find ourselves.
Questions for Discussion
"Uncle Sidney and the Mexicans"
1. Discuss the racial implications in the story, taking into account the year (1947) in which the story is set. What message, if any, is the author conveying?
2. Is Uncle Sidney the main character, as the title suggests? Why or why not? What prompts him to ride around with the burned cross in the back of his truck and face the men who tried to intimidate him? Why does he stand up for Billy Haskel against Mr. Willis?
3. What makes Hack an effective narrator? Why does his relationship with Juanita cause unrest in the community? Compare Hack's two visits to the drive in with Juanita. Why are people more accepting, and even friendly, the second time?
1. Which characters in the story have experienced loss, and how has it affected them?
2. "I started to feel guilty about everything," Claude admits at the beginning of the story. Why is he so burdened with guilt? How did the war affect Claude, who was a child at the time?
3. Claude, the story's narrator, is looking back and recounting events that happened when he was in the fifth grade. What was it that made such an impression on him? What insight does the benefit of age give him?
4. What was your impression of Sister Uberta? How about Father Melancon? Discuss the impact each one has on Claude and his memories of that time.
1. What drives Marcel to harass Klaus and attempt to expose him as a Nazi? Is it patriotism, jealousy, a desire to save his marriage, or something else entirely?
2. Is Marcel justified in his behavior toward Klaus? Why or why not? How much of his resentment stems from the trip he made to Guatemala under false pretenses and his unwarranted incarceration there?
3. Discuss the story's ending. What accounts for Amanda's change of heart concerning her husband and their relationship?
"Taking a Second Look"
1. How has his son's death affected the professor's personal and professional lives? What drives his self-destructive actions? Why is he willing to throw away his career at the university?
2. What inspires the professor to begin visiting the ball field? Why is he more comfortable on the ball field than in the classroom? Of all the players, why does he strike up a friendship with the crippled pitcher?
3. Discuss the professor's take on "The Charge of the Light Brigade." What is his criticism of Tennyson's poem, and how does it relate to his own life?
1. Did you find Hack to be a likable character? Do you think the author intended for him to be a likable character? Why or why not?
2. Why does Hack dwell on acts of violence from his past? Why are Wes Hardin and General McAlester such prototypic figures for Hack?
3. Hack reveals there is "something that was in him that he had never come to understand." To what is he referring? Why does he believe the same thing afflicts his grandson? When Hack tells his grandson about the day he captured Wes Hardin, why does he omit part of the story?
"We Build Churches, Inc."
1. The previous stories in this collection are all set in the American South. Were you surprised at such a dramatic change of scenery to a distant battlefield during the Korean War? Why or why not?
2. What is the significance of the title? Why does Jace's story about his Puritan ancestors resonate with the corpsman when he's later taken prisoner?
3. On the surface, "We Build Churches, Inc." is a story of war. What else is it about?
"When It's Decoration Day"
1. Why is Wesley reluctant to assume the position of corporal? What makes him go along with the promotion in rank?
2. Discuss the underlying tensions and resentments in the story and their implications — Wesley's perception of the enemy, the convicts' enmity toward Wesley, and the soldiers' resentment toward the lieutenant. What social commentary is there about the Civil War in the story?
3. Read the story's concluding sentence. Why does James Lee Burke leave readers with this particular image? What do you think is Wesley's fate?
4. "When It's Decoration Day" is the only story in this collection not set in the twentieth century. Why do you suppose the author chose to include a portrayal of the Civil War?
"Lower Me Down with a Golden Chain"
1. The narrator tries to warn Father Larry that he might be in danger based on some things that he himself said. Is the narrator in any way responsible for the priest's murder? Why is he haunted by images of Father Larry long after he leaves Guatemala?
2. Contrast the narrator's descriptions of Guatemala with the places he describes in the United States. How does Francisco use the United States' involvement in Vietnam to justify his own actions?
3. Discuss the depictions of war in this story, as well as in "We Build Churches, Inc." and "When It's Decoration Day." Despite being set in different time periods and locales, what similarities do they share?
1. Avery admits that his father's ideas "were different from most people's and his attitudes were uncompromising." Why then is his father such a popular figure in New Iberia?
2. Why does Will aid the escaped convict and then later turn him in to the authorities? Along with straining his marriage, did he endanger his family with his decision to aid the man? Why or why not?
3. Why is Will's defense of the rights of African Americans met with such resistance by his peers? Do you suppose his encounter with the deceiving convict has altered his outlook?
4. How does having a child narrator influence the way the story is told? How might the story have differed if it were relayed from Will's perspective?
For General Discussion
1. Discuss the themes of war, race, memory, and guilt in The Convict and Other Stories. What other themes tie these stories together?
2. Which story or stories had the greatest impact on you? Why?
3. What similarities, if any, do the characters in the different stories share?
4. Why do you think "The Convict" was selected to be the title story in this collection? If you would have chosen a different story, which one would it be and why?
5. Have you read any of James Lee Burke's previous works? If so, how does The Convict and Other Stories compare? If not, are you interested in reading more works by him?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Visit www.jamesleeburke.com to learn more about the author, including a USA Today interview in which he talks about his life experiences.
2. Read two additional short stories by James Lee Burke, "The Night Johnny Ace Died" and "Jesus Out to Sea," both of which appeared in Esquire magazine(www.esquire.com/fiction).
3. Pair your reading of The Convict and Other Stories with one of James Lee Burke's novels for a different perspective on his writing.
A Conversation with James Lee Burke
Which of the stories in this collection is your favorite, and why?
I suspect my favorite is the title story, "The Convict," because we see both evil and goodness through the eyes of a child. In art, as in life, a child's perception of the world is often more accurate than an adult's because he sees people and events as they are rather than as he is taught to see them.
What do you enjoy most about the process of short story writing? What challenges does it present?
A short story allows a writer to catch a large theme in a small lens. But by the same token the space is quite confined, and working inside it is sometimes like trying to change clothes inside a telephone booth.
What creative possibilities are there in short story writing that aren't available in novel writing?
A writer can be bold about time transitions, and the brevity of scenes can have a dramatic effect something like a slap in the face. A short story is actually a poem, or at least it should be.
In what ways will The Convict and Other Stories appeal to readers of your Dave Robicheaux and Billy Bob Holland novels?
The genesis of many of my novels is in these stories. I think this is because, as Wordsworth once said, the child is father of the man. The concerns of our youth are always with us, no matter how old we pretend to be. Most people believe that age brings wisdom. If that is true, it has eluded me. I believe children often have more answers than we older people do. Right before his death, Robert E. Lee said his only ambition was to be a child of God.
The three stories about war differ in content and locale from the others in the collection, which are all set in the American South. Why did you choose to include them?
We consider ourselves a peaceful nation, but our history seems to indicate otherwise. The stories dealing with war in the collection are actually about the effects of war on ordinary people, many of whom never experience war directly. I believe one of my best short stories is "Losses." The protagonist discovers that injury to the soul and the emotions can be as grave as injury done to the body, even in war.
"The Pilot" and "The Convict" are both set in New Iberia, Louisiana, where you have a home. What makes the South such a rich setting for storytelling?
The American South in general and Louisiana in particular are a gift from God to the artist. The South is not a culture but a stage play. Our accents are derived from the British as well as our manners. Our tastes are Jacksonian; our aspirations are failed Jeffersonian. Every southerner who is not spiritually dead sees himself as a player inside Gone With the Wind. Kurt Vonnegut once said, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
The antebellum South portrayed in most fiction and film probably never existed. But what did exist is fascinating in its own right. Take a look at the film adaptation of Cold Mountain. The film fared badly at the box office, but artistically it is a masterpiece. One day we'll see that film in a different light, just as we will come to see ourselves in a different light, and I think we'll discover we were much better as a people than we were willing to admit.
Did you draw on any aspects of your own life for the characters or the storylines in this collection?
I draw on either my own experience or the experience of people I have known. But I believe the characters and the stories live in the unconscious. Creativity is actually a matter of discovering what is already inside you.
Why was "The Convict" selected as the title story? How does it reflect the collection as a whole?
The title story happened to be sitting on top of the manuscript. I looked at it sitting there and thought, Why not? I feel my choice was probably a mistake. The title probably misleads some readers. The stories have little to do with criminality.
The Convict and Other Stories was first published in 1985. What makes these stories timeless in their appeal?
I'd like to feel they are timeless, but we'll have to see.
In "Lower Me Down with a Golden Chain," you reference William Faulkner. Are you an admirer of Faulkner's work? What other writers do you admire?
Yes, Faulkner was one of those who belong to the ages. The other great influences on my work were Hemingway and James T. Farrell and Fitzgerald and Flannery O'Connor and Gerard Manley Hopkins. I think the three greatest talents around right now are probably Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Posted May 6, 2011
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Posted February 1, 2013
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Posted December 4, 2011
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