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ALL through my growing-up, my father and I would sometimes explore the woods around our small Tennessee town, Pilgrim’s Rest. Once, when I was eleven, I turned up a brass button. It was badly worn and tarnished, but I could make out the faint CSA on it.
My father held it in his hand and looked at it for a long time. Being of the South and steeped in its history, I didn’t need to be told that the letters stood for Confederate States of America and that the button had come from a Southern soldier’s uniform. I knew that no battles had been fought there in our part of the Cumberland Plateau during that long-ago war, but I had heard other stories.
"Is this from the Burning?" I asked him.
"What do you know about that?" he replied, not taking his eyes off the object.
"Just what people say."
"Nobody knows if that story is true," he said deliberately. "You shouldn’t repeat it."
"I won’t," I said, because I admired my father and wanted him to respect me. "But where do you guess this comes from?"
"I wouldn’t know," he said, finally looking at me. "But all kinds of things are buried around us. And whatever’s here, one day the earth will give it up."
YOU may have heard of me. If you have, you may not want to keep reading, because the word on me is that I have a little trouble with the truth. Well, yes—I have been known to twist things. I’ve had my fifteen minutes of fame, and when they were over, I was tagged with a label that says, Don’t trust this one —he lies.
So stop reading if you think I’m still playing fast and loose with the facts. But what follows is the straight dope. I’ve taken the liar’s pledge, and I want to be believed, more than I want anything else. And besides, if you stop reading, you’ll miss out on a good yarn, full of love and lust, friendship and betrayal, trust, deceit, and the taking of lives. All those things, in short, that, for better or worse, make us human.
But let me back up and start, like a good reporter, where things began….
AS he crossed the dining room of Nashville’s Capitol Grille, Sonny McMahan exuded power like a sharp cologne.
Diners at nearby tables turned toward him, lifting their faces as if toward the sun. He flashed his teeth, waved, shook a quick hand here and there. He was a study in sheer alpha-male presence, and watching the spectacle, it was easy to forget for just a moment that he had come to see me.
But then he spotted me, and the wattage of his smile turned even brighter. Eyes fixed on mine, he covered the rest of the distance across the carpeted room in long strides, reaching out a big hand even before he got to me. I found it immensely flattering. I think I was supposed to.
"Hey, bud." Grabbing my hand in his and my elbow in his other, he squeezed hard. "Damn." Moving easily for a large man, he slid into his chair even as the maître d’, catching up, held it for him with a murmured "Governor."
"Damn," he said again, shaking his head. "Good to see you."
I was flattered, as I mentioned, but not overwhelmed, and I wanted him to know it. "So is governor one of those titles you carry with you to the grave?" I asked. "Long after you’ve left office?"
"I imagine so." Sonny flicked his napkin sideways and then settled it with a practiced flutter into his lap. "Governor, senator, general, chairman of the homecoming committee… " He cocked his head and squinted—an old Sonny gesture denoting playfulness. "You’re gray, you know that? And you’re wounded."
"I know." I touched the spot in the center of my forehead where four butterfly tapes held together a recent gash. "This was just a dumb accident. As for the gray, it started in my early thirties. At first it bothered me. Then I tried to capitalize on it—you know, the man of the world, the columnist who looks like he’s been around. One of my girlfriends called me the Silver Fox for a while, back when the nicknames she gave me were the printable kind."
We talked for a while about unimportant things, just catching up, the way friends do after a long separation, when you want to see how much of your old friend remains and how much has been washed away by time.
As we spoke, I studied him surreptitiously. I had kept up with his career over the years and had even spoken to him on the phone once, when he was governor and I was doing an article for the Examiner’s Sunday magazine on the nation’s new breed of politicians. But it had been almost twenty years since I had seen him in the flesh.
He was bigger and beefier, with lines at the corners of his eyes and in the gap between his brows. His clothes looked expensive— certainly a change from the Sonny I remembered. So what remained? The same square, well-structured face, a face you might call open were it not for the heavy eyelids that always seemed to be hiding secrets behind them. The big McMahan jaw, which a certain Knoxville hood had broken a knuckle against during one of our high school field trips. And the voice, a husky baritone I would have known anywhere. He had always used it to charm and bluff and bullshit his way around people. In the midst of all his tomfoolery, Sonny’s voice was one of the reasons it was hard to dislike him.
Tish, he told me, had a commitment she couldn’t escape but would try to join us when she could get away. "She wanted to see you as much as I did."
A waiter hovered and took our lunch orders. "I’ve heard about this place," I said to Sonny when the man had left. "Somebody said that if you want to see Tennessee politicos and all the people who hang around them, the Capitol Grille is ground zero."
He shrugged. "I suppose so. There are other places, too, more relaxed. But the food here’s fine. Fine as frog’s hair."
"That’s one of those expressions I haven’t heard in Chicago much." I looked around the room, with its arched ceiling, columns, oak paneling, and well-groomed diners. "You know all these people?"
"Most of them. Some staff people from the statehouse. Assembly’s not in session right now, so no senators or representatives. Some lobbyists, though. A lot of them live here year-round, and they can afford to eat at this place on a regular basis."
He peered into the distance. "He’s railroads," he said, pointing to a tall man in a well-cut suit sitting with a good-looking woman. "I don’t know that lovely thing with him. But I know she’s not his wife."
"Do you miss politics?"
He laughed so loudly, some of the nearby diners glanced our way, and I saw a woman roll her eyes and grin at her companion as if to say, That’s Sonny, all right.
"I’m not out of politics. I’m just out of the kind where you have to get elected. But let’s talk about you." He began buttering a fat roll, and his look turned serious. "I’m not going to beat around the bush. Damn shame, what happened to you. Tish and me, we’ve been talking about it. You’d think they’d give you more than one—"
"More than one chance? I guess it works that way in politics," I said, remembering Sonny’s first, unsuccessful, run at statewide office years ago. "But not in journalism. We get held to a higher standard. Mass murderers and newspapermen. One strike and you’re out."
Sonny looked uncomfortable, silently admitting the truth of what I’d said. But he brightened quickly. "So what?" he said as the waiter slid his poached eggs and buffalo-brisket hash in front of him and a big shrimp salad in front of me. "Fuck ’em and their higher standard. I want to offer you something to do."
I nodded politely, waiting. He’d hinted at some kind of job offer when he called a few days earlier. And when he sent me a round-trip plane ticket, curiosity made me get on the plane. I was bored with Chicago, bored with being the former Randall Wilkes, the guy who still drew stares and whispers in bars and restaurants. And so I came to Nashville, to see what my old friend had for me.
"Could you use some work?"
"Maybe." No sense in sounding desperate.
"Well, how about this? I want to write my memoirs." He gave the last word an exaggerated pronunciation, as if to say, Listen to me being all French and pretentious. "And I want you to help."
I fiddled with my salad. During the flight down, I’d had an idea it would be something like this. Flackery, as my old pals in the Examiner newsroom would call it. Writing for hire. Public relations. Image-shaping. All those things held in scorn by real journalists. The kind I used to be.
"Here it is," Sonny went on. "We think it’s a good time for a book. Tish even has a title: McMahan: A Son of the New South. What do you think?"
"I like it."
"So now that we’ve got the title, the rest should be easy," he said playfully. "Will you do it?"
I speared another forkful, playing for time. "What exactly do you see me doing?"
"We want you to write it! I’ve got a ton of raw material put together by my staff—my whole career, from the day I first put out my shingle through my election to the Assembly and on into the governorship. We’ll dump it into your lap, and you write it up in that style of yours. Oh, we’ve read your column for years. We got it off the Examiner Web site."
"I’m flattered." A small red flag fluttered somewhere in my brain cavity. "Is this a summing-up kind of book or a curtain-raising kind of book?"
"Huh?" Now it was his turn to be coy. He knew exactly what I meant.
"I picked up a copy of the Tennessean at the airport when I landed last night. The op-ed page had a column wondering whether you’re planning to run for office again, especially after… " I decided not to finish that thought.
He finished it for me. "After the mess I made of it last time." There seemed to be no resentment in his grin. A politician must need the hide of a rhino, I reflected.
"Well, they don’t know dick," he said around a mouthful of buffalo hash. "That piece quoted two unnamed sources in the state-house, and I know their names. They’re both pissants. Look—" He paused to wipe his mouth. "I won’t close the door on anything, all right? But I’ve really enjoyed this last year, being out of the rat race. I’m just a country lawyer—" He caught my amused look. "All right, a Nashville lawyer. And I’m finding out there’s more to life than getting elected."
"There’s making money, for one thing. I read that some of your political friends have steered you into some very nice investments."
A cloud passed over his face, and I sensed I’d gone too far. He was, after all, still one of the most influential men in the state, governor or not, and he was offering me a job.
The look dissolved. "Maybe they have," he grunted. "No crime in that. But to get back to your question: I can honestly say to you that at this point I have no political ambitions. What’s that the marine says to St. Peter after Guadalcanal? ‘I’ve served my time in hell.’ You want coffee?" He signaled to the waiter, who was at his side in a second.
"So this isn’t a campaign biography," I said.
"But it isn’t warts-and-all either."
"Well… " He spread his palms wide, as if to show me he was holding no weapons. "I did some hell-raising when I was growing up. You were usually there, remember? I don’t mind folks knowing about the good times. But if I wanted all my warts to show, what’s the point of hiring somebody? What I mean is… " His look turned almost devilish. "If you want to tell a few lies about me, the good kind, I won’t mind."
"Is that why you picked me? Because I’m good at telling lies?" I immediately regretted that, and his grim look made it even worse.
"No," he said patiently. "Because you’re one of the best writers around. Editor and Publisher quoted somebody saying that once. And because you’re my oldest friend, even if you’ve had some bad times lately and have turned into a prickly son of a bitch."
"Thank you for your honesty."
"Don’t mention it." Our coffees arrived, and we began doctoring them. "So anyway, you can start plowing through all that research stuff anytime you want," he said as we stirred our coffees. "If there’s anything you need—"
"Not so fast."
He stopped, eyebrows up.
"I don’t want to write a puff piece," I said. "I want—"
He glanced up, looking across the room for a second. "Hold that thought," he said, reaching for my arm. "You can come over and have dinner with us tonight and tell me exactly what you want. And we’ll see if it fits with what I want."
I started to speak, but he held up his hand. "I’ve got to leave you now, I’m afraid. Got to put on my public relations hat, meet with some rich folks, and try to pry some money out of them. But here comes the prettiest former first lady in all of Tennessee. You can say the rest of your speech to her."
I swiveled around in time to catch a woodsy scent and found my neck enveloped in cashmere. "Hey, you," somebody whispered.
It wasn’t just the words or the way they seemed to stretch off into infinity, the way Southern speech can do. It was their musicality. Some Tennessee twangs will take the varnish off your furniture, and some come coated in honey and go down like your mother’s milk. This was one of the latter. And one that I knew.
I struggled to my feet. Leticia McMahan and I hugged while Sonny looked on approvingly. "He’s making demands already," he said to her. "I thought it was time to call up my reserves. Knock some sense into him, will you?"
He turned to me. "You don’t want to say no to her. She’s a deadly shot with that little 20-gauge of hers. She bagged more quail on our last hunting trip than I did." He made a big fist and tapped my shoulder with it. "See you tonight. Come hungry."
As he left, Tish slid into his seat. Two waiters materialized and swiftly cleared away the remains of our lunch, refilled my coffee cup, and then, without being asked, brought her a pot of tea and a plate of small scones.
She looked at me for a long time, and her warm affection hit me like a drug. I guess I hadn’t been on the receiving end of any looks like that for a long time, and I needed it.
"Sorry I’m late, but I had to talk to a business group. I skedaddled as soon as it was over." She poured her tea precisely. Her hands looked tanned and strong. Then she turned her attention back to me.
"How are you, Randall?"
I started to give her the stock answer, or maybe the sarcastic one.
But unlike her husband, Tish had always been one of those known for straight talk.
"I’ve seen better days."
She nodded. "You’ve gone gray. But I think it looks very distinguished." She looked at me more closely. "And you’ve been hurt."
I touched the spot on my forehead lightly. "Just a war wound."
"Was it connected with what happened to you? At work, I mean."
She’s going to be hard to fool. "I suppose so. But it’s not worth talking about."
We made small talk for a while, and I studied her, just as I had Sonny. I’d say her husband showed his age. Early forties and still vigorous, although a kid no longer. But Tish—although she was the same age, it had not withered her one damn bit. She was still ahead on points. The lines edging her eyes were finer than his, and that wonderful jawline looked as if it could cut glass. The only real change I could see was the hair. Once a straightforward brown, it was now streaked with dark gold, all brushed and blown and poufed. It looked just right for a Nashville woman of affairs and former first lady of the great state of Tennessee.
I had no trouble stripping away the years and envisioning the young woman I’d first glimpsed back on the Vanderbilt campus as she rushed past me headed for class with an armload of books. I asked a friend about her and was told that the long-legged sprinter with the flyaway hair was named Tish Alcott and that she was vice president of the Thetas.
I was intrigued enough to find out more about her, which eventually led to… But that’s another story.
I tuned back into the conversation. Tish was talking about Sonny’s mother, Faye. "She’s not doing so well. She still lives back home. We tried many times to move her up here, and she wouldn’t have it. Now I’m afraid her… well, her mind is slipping. She’s as sweet as ever, but she goes in and out. Sometimes she imagines things, like she’s having a conversation with Blue. Other times, she’s just not there at all."
"I was sorry to hear about Blue," I said. "I saw the story on the wires a few weeks ago. Didn’t get many details."
"Not many of us were sorry." A look of distaste passed over her face. "One of his low-life traveling companions said Blue got drunk, fell off a dock, and drowned in the Mississippi a few miles north of Memphis. Newspapers ran it for a day or so and then forgot. Sonny didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. Anyway, Blue never was much of a father to him, so… " She let the thought trail off.
I could have risen to his defense, maybe should have. But I let the moment pass.
"Faye’s the one we’re concerned about," she went on. "Sonny worships her. He says he never would have made it to governor if she hadn’t pushed him every step of the way."
"The way I hear it, he owes you a lot for that too. Some people say you’re the brains—"
"I know." She made a sour face. "I’m the brains behind Sonny. Well, that’s crazy. They just say that because he grew up poor and my folks had money. I’m supposed to be some kind of Henry Higgins who took this dumb country boy and molded him into something. Listen, Sonny McMahan just happens to be a natural-born politician, one of the best this state ever saw."
It was easy to talk to her, so I decided to stray into sensitive territory.
"How did he let the governor’s office slip through his hands?" She was ready for that. "Because we were stupid enough to let him get involved in friendships with some people who were doing business with the state, and the opposition jumped all over it. Although none of it was illegal, it was ethically wrong, and Sonny admitted as much. But the damage was done. It became the big issue of the campaign, and it brought him down."
She stared into her glass. "I blame myself as much as I blame him. He usually listens to me, and I should have warned him off. I didn’t see it coming."
"Sonny told me he doesn’t have any more political ambitions."
My expression must have given me away. "You don’t believe him?" she asked.
"I’m a newspaperman. Or was. I like Sonny, but I haven’t believed anything a politician told me in years."
She regarded me for what seemed a long time with a half smile, as if pondering how much to tell me. Finally she said, "Sonny’s keeping all his options open. He may run for office someday. Then again, he’s becoming quite the business investor, and right now he’s enjoying the feel of making some real money—the kind of thing that’s frowned on while you’re governor."
"I’ve heard about some of that. Real estate, right?"
She nodded. "He’s partners with some people who are looking at developing the Cumberland Plateau. To hear them talk about it, that area is Tennessee’s next big thing. Money’s heading in that direction, and Sonny wants some of it to be his."
"Don’t tell me he’s going to turn Pilgrim’s Rest into a strip mall."
"I sure hope not," she said with an exaggerated look of shock. "I love your old hometown, and he does too. We bought a summer place up in the Colony. Did you know that?"
I shook my head.
"We’ve got Faye close by, and it’s also not far from where your father lives. If you visit him, you could… " She stopped, sensing something in my look.
"My dad and I haven’t been on good terms lately, ever since I got fired. It’s hard for him to understand."
"I’m sorry." She reached over to pat my hand. "If your mother were still alive, she’d understand."
"After kicking my butt, maybe she would."
"You know you’ve lost some of your accent?" she went on, adding a lopsided grin to take the sting out of it. "All that time up there with the damn Yanks, and you’re starting to sound like them."
"Ouch." I felt defensive. "Not true. Nobody’ll ever catch me torturing vowels the way a native-born Chicagoan does."
"You should come home, Randall, at least for a little while. This book could give you the excuse to do that. Maybe you don’t get along with your father; that’s your business. But Pilgrim’s Rest is your hometown too, just like Sonny. You must have some good memories there."
"Let’s say I’m interested," I said slowly. "I wouldn’t want my name within a mile of the book."
She looked ill at ease. "He doesn’t want your name on it. And you know why. He can’t afford to—"
"Have any of my dirt rub off on him. I sympathize. I guess we agree on that point, then."
Her expression relaxed. "Just do the work and let Sonny get the credit. It’s the kind of thing you do well, anyway—research and writing and bringing a subject to life."
She wrote something on a pad of paper, tore the sheet off, and passed it to me. It was a dollar sign followed by a number, a fairly large one. She put her palms down on the table, finished with her pitch.
I was impressed. Somewhere between the appeal to come home and the subject of money, she had managed to sway me. "All right, Tish. I’ll do it."
"Wonderful!" She reached across the table and squeezed my hand hard. "What do you think about this? You can work here in Nashville for a week or two, talking to people. Then, when you’re ready, you can drive down to Pilgrim’s Rest and move into our place in the Colony. We’ve been thinking of closing it down in the next few weeks, what with winter on the way, but we’ll keep it open as long as you want to stay. It’ll be your base of operations. You shouldn’t have any problems." She stopped, chewing on her lower lip. The Tish Alcott lips, I recalled, had always been one of her more spectacular features.
"No. It’s just that we’ve had a few prowlers around the place. Probably just kids from town. You remember the old divide between the town people and the cottage people? Nothing’s changed. Anyway, when you move in, just let the police know you’re there."
"Maybe I’ll take your little 20-gauge shotgun."
"It’s already on the premises."
Leaving, we walked up the long flight of stairs and paused there, where I let my eyes roam over the grand interior of the hotel that hosted the Capitol Grille. The almost century-old Hermitage, last of Nashville’s grand hostelries, had seen glory days and then decline. Now, after the application of pots of money, she shone again, with a lobby resplendent with marble, tapestries, stained glass, and the faint sounds of a harpsichord. The tariff was a little high for me, so I had taken a room elsewhere.
We stepped out into the overcast skies of an early fall day. Downtown Nashville was no Chicago, but it had its own style. The Hermitage was dwarfed by gleaming high-rises that seemed to have sprouted up from the concrete since I was last here. Up the hill to the north, on Nashville’s highest ground, stood the pale limestone bulk of the capitol, scene of Sonny’s triumphs and his last defeat.
Tish’s ride, an SUV the color of butterscotch, was delivered, and she drove off after repeating Sonny’s dinner invitation and giving me directions. As I stood there, wondering how to spend the intervening hours, I heard a voice.
"Excuse me." I glanced to my left and saw a man standing at the curb, cell phone at his ear, looking my way. "Are you Mr. Wilkes?"
He was a little below my height and somewhat younger, with round cheeks, a buzz cut, and a loud off-the-rack sport coat. As strange as it might sound, something about him said cop. I’ve spent hundreds of hours in the presence of policemen and policewomen, from desk sergeants to rookies, plainclothes types to division commanders, and I’ve learned to pick up the clues they give off.
"That’s me," I said to him.
He held out his cell phone. "Call for you, sir."
All right, I was curious. As I moved toward him, I got my feet tangled up—or appeared to—and stepped a little closer than necessary. Then, as I regained my balance, my hand holding the phone swept wide, parting his jacket just enough to give me a glimpse of what nestled beneath his arm.
"Sorry," I muttered to him. Then, curiosity satisfied, I said hello.
"Hey, bud. I’m still in that meeting, but I just wanted you to know how happy I am you said yes."
"How the hell did you know I said yes?"
"I got my ways. Randall, boy, I am pleased. I am well pleased."
As he spoke, the sun came out, bouncing off the glass of one of the new buildings across the street. When Sonny McMahan is pleased, I thought, the natural world must resonate like a tuning fork.
Excerpted from Damnation Falls by Edward Wright.
Copyright © 2008 by Edward Wright.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.