The New York Times Book Review
Edge of Dark Waterby Joe R. Lansdale
May Lynn was once a pretty girl who dreamed of becoming a Hollywood star. Now she's dead, her body dredged up from the Sabine River.
Sue Ellen, May Lynn's strong-willed teenage friend, sets out to dig up May Lynn's body, burn it/em>
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Mark Twain meets classic Stephen King--a bold new direction for widely acclaimed Edgar Award winner Joe R. Lansdale.
May Lynn was once a pretty girl who dreamed of becoming a Hollywood star. Now she's dead, her body dredged up from the Sabine River.
Sue Ellen, May Lynn's strong-willed teenage friend, sets out to dig up May Lynn's body, burn it to ash, and take those ashes to Hollywood to spread around. If May Lynn can't become a star, then at least her ashes will end up in the land of her dreams.
Along with her friends Terry and Jinx and her alcoholic mother, Sue Ellen steals a raft and heads downriver to carry May Lynn's remains to Hollywood.
Only problem is, Sue Ellen has some stolen money that her enemies will do anything to get back. And what looks like a prime opportunity to escape from a worthless life will instead lead to disastrous consequences. In the end, Sue Ellen will learn a harsh lesson on just how hard growing up can really be.
The New York Times Book Review
A charming Gothic tale...as funny and frightening as anything that could have been dreamed up by the Brothers Grimmor Mark Twain."New York Times Book Review"
Reading Joe Lansdale is like listening to a favorite uncle who just happens to be a fabulous storyteller. This book deals with dark and strange material, but it is hugely appealing as narrated in the first person by young Sue Ellen, who shines."Dean Koontz"
A doozy of a read, the kind of book we call an 'all nighter'...It's that kind of great, and it's pure-blood Lansdale, crammed to bursting with plot twists that recall the snaky bends of the Sabine River...This sucker moves...It's our favorite book of the year so far, and one of Lansdale's best, ever."Austin Chronicle"
The strongest, truest, and most pitch-perfect narration since Huck Finn's. Marvelous and terrifying, EDGE OF DARK WATER is the result of real genius at work. A masterpiece."Dan Simmons, author of The Terror and Drood"
An ambitious, quietly grieving portrait of racism in Texas in the 1930s."New York Times"
For those new to Lansdale's work, this novel will serve as a good intro: entertaining, eerie and soaked with the East Texas period atmosphere Lansdale owns like no other writer....Along the river chase, readers will pick up on nods to homer, Dickey, Twain and others, but the brooding East Texas atmosphere is all Lansdale: the specter of Skunk is like something out of a horror movie; man and nature both provide plenty of thrills and chills; the mystery of who killed May Lynn is given just enough attention; and Sue Ellen's precocious teen wisdom and bumpkin delivery provides the laughs....Joe R. Lansdale could fall into the Sabine River at its filthiest point and still come up dripping nothing but storytelling mojo."The Dallas Morning News"
EDGE OF DARK WATER describes a trip downriver that is one-half Huck Finn, one-half Deliverance, and entirely Joe Lansdale. If you aren't familiar with the work of this true American original, and master of hillbilly noir, climb in the boat and hang on for dear life: the water is rough."Joe Hill, author of the New York Times bestsellers Horns and Heart-Shaped Box"
Joe Lansdale has long been one of our finest and most difficult to classify writers. You can call his writing supernatural, horror, crime, or plain Southern, as long as you remember to call it great. Always a generous storyteller, in EDGE OF DARK WATER he offers a beautifully spun tale of life in the sticks, friendship and mortality, and tells it with the wit, humor and pure-dee power we've come to expect of him."Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter's Bone"
Nonstop adventures that edify, terrify and deepen the bond between Sue Ellen and Jinx. A highly entertaining tour de force."Kirkus Reviews"
Edgar-winner Lansdale channels Mark Twain in this chillingly atmospheric stand-alone set in Depression-era East Texas...Lansdale's perfect ear for regional dialogue and ability to create palpable suspense lift this above the pack."The Washington Examiner"
Joe Lansdale always transports me. In EDGE OF DARK WATER, he takes me to the mysterious brooding landscape of Twain and Faulkner, with a compelling twist that is all Lansdale."David Morrell, New York Times bestselling author of First Blood and Creepers"
A coming of age story peopled with original and fascinating blood-and-bones characters. A chillingly atmospheric tale of good and evil and adolescent angst. EDGE OF DARK WATER has all the potential of becoming a classic, read by generations to come."New York Journal of Books"
Joe Lansdale is one of the dark kings of modern mystery fiction, a master of the genre. His name deserves to be whispered with the greats."John Connolly"
Joe R. Lansdale's fellow Texans would call Joe a 'straight shooter.' That's what makes his writing so good-no BS involved. Joe's work is alternately scary, funny as hell, disturbing, but always (and most importantly) memorable."Bruce Campbell"
A storyteller in the great American tradition of Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain."Boston Globe"
Joe R. Lansdale has a folklorist's eye for telling detail and a front-porch raconteur's sense of pace."The New York Times Book Review"
One of the greatest yarn spinners of his generation: fearless, earthy, original, manic and dreadfully funny."Dallas Morning News
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Edge of Dark Water
By Lansdale, Joe R.
Mulholland BooksCopyright © 2012 Lansdale, Joe R.
All right reserved.
Of Ash and Dreams
That summer, Daddy went from telephoning and dynamiting fish to poisoning them with green walnuts. The dynamite was messy, and a couple years before he’d somehow got two fingers blown off, and the side of his face had a burn spot that at first glance looked like a lipstick kiss and at second glance looked like some kind of rash.
Telephoning for fish worked all right, though not as good as dynamite, but Daddy didn’t like cranking that telephone to hot up the wire that went into the water to ’lectrocute the fish. He said he was always afraid one of the little colored boys that lived up from us might be out there swimming and get a dose of ’lectricity that would kill him deader than a cypress stump, or at best do something to his brain and make him retarded as his cousin Ronnie, who didn’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain and might hesitate in a hailstorm.
My grandma, the nasty old bag, who, fortunately, is dead now, claimed Daddy has what she called the Sight. She said he was gifted and could see the future some. I reckon if that was so, he’d have thought ahead enough not to get drunk when he was handling explosives and got his fingers blown off.
And I hadn’t ever seen that much sympathy from him concerning colored folk, so I didn’t buy his excuse for not cranking the phone. He didn’t like my friend Jinx Smith, who was colored, and he tried to make out we was better than her and her family, even though they had a small but clean house, and we had a large dirty house with a sagging porch and the chimney propped up on one side with a two-by-four and there were a couple of hogs wallowing out holes in the yard. As for his cousin Ronnie, I don’t think Daddy cared for him one way or the other, and he often made fun of him and imitated him by pretending to bang into walls and slobber about. Of course, when he was good and drunk, this wasn’t an imitation, just a similarity.
Then again, maybe Daddy could see the future, but was just too stupid to do anything about it.
Anyway, Daddy had these tow sacks—about ten of them—and he and Uncle Gene had them full of green walnuts and some rocks to heavy them up, and they had them fastened on ropes and thrown out in the water, the ropes tied off to roots and trees on the shore.
Me and my friend Terry Thomas had gone down there to watch and help, because we didn’t have nothing else we wanted to do. Terry didn’t want to go when I told him what I wanted to do and where we were going and that I wanted him there with me, but he broke down finally and went and helped me toss bags and pull up fish. He was real nervous about the whole thing because he didn’t like either my daddy or my uncle. I didn’t like them, either, but I liked being outside and doing things that men do, though I think I would have been more happy with a line and a hook than bags of walnut poison. Still, I liked the river and the outdoors better than I liked being at the house with a mop in my hand.
My grandma on Daddy’s side always said I didn’t act like a girl at all, and I ought to stay home learning how to keep a garden and shell peas and do women’s work. Grandma would lean forward in her rocker, look at me with no love in her gooey eyes, and say, “Sue Ellen, how you gonna get a husband you can’t cook or clean worth a flip and don’t never do your hair up?”
Course, she wasn’t being fair. I’d already been doing woman’s work for long as I could remember. I just wasn’t no good at it. And if you’ve ever done any of it, you know it ain’t any fun at all. I liked doing what the boys and men did. What my daddy did. Which, when you got right down to it, didn’t seem like all that much, just fishing and trapping for skins to sell, shooting squirrels out of trees, and bragging about it like he’d done killed tigers. Most of that bragging took place after he got liquored up good. I’d had me a taste of liquor once, and I didn’t like it. I can say the same for chewing tobacco and cigarettes and anything that’s got lettuce in it.
As for putting my hair up, she was really talking about certain religious ways, and I couldn’t figure that God, with all he had to worry about, would be all that concerned with hairdos.
This day I’m telling you about, Daddy and Uncle Gene was drinking a little and tossing those sacks, and the water was turning dark brown where the walnuts went in. After a while, sure enough, a bunch of brim and sun perch come floating belly up.
Me and Terry stood on the shore and watched while Daddy and Uncle Gene got in the rowboat and pushed off and went out there with nets and gathered them fish like pecans that had fell on the ground. There was so many I knew we’d be eating fried fish not only tonight, but tomorrow night, and after that we’d be eating dried fish, which is another thing I forgot to put on my list of stuff I don’t like. Jinx says dried fish tastes like stained shorts smell, and she won’t get an argument from me. If they were smoked proper, that was all right, but dried fish are a lot like trying to chew on a dead dog’s tit.
Walnuts didn’t really poison the fish to death, but it stunned them up a mite and made them float to the surface, white bellies showing, working their gills. Daddy and Gene gathered them up with nets on a stick and put them in a wet tow sack for gutting and cleaning.
The sacks was tied to the shore with ropes, and me and Terry went down there to start pulling them in. The walnuts still had enough green in them they could be used downriver to stun more fish, so we was supposed to save them. We got hold of a rope and started pulling, but it was real heavy and we couldn’t do it.
“We’ll be there d’rectly to help out,” Daddy called from the boat.
“I think we should cut this one loose,” Terry said to me. “No use straining our guts out.”
“I don’t quit that easy,” I said, and looked up to see what was going on with the boat. It had a hole in the bottom, so Daddy and Uncle Gene couldn’t stay out long. Uncle Gene had to bail it out with a coffee can while Daddy paddled the boat back to the bank. When they had it pulled out of the water, they came over to help us.
“Damn,” Daddy said, “either them walnuts has got heavy as a Ford or I’ve gotten weak.”
“You’ve gotten weak,” Uncle Gene said. “You ain’t the man you once was. You ain’t the strapping example of prime manhood I am.”
Daddy grinned at him. “Hell, you’re older than me.”
“Yeah,” said Uncle Gene, “but I’ve took care of myself.”
Daddy let out with a hooting sound, said, “Ha!”
Uncle Gene was fat as a hog, but without the personality. Still, he was a big man in height and had broad shoulders and arms about the size of a horse’s neck. Daddy didn’t even look kin to him. He was a skinny peckerwood with a potbelly, and if you ever saw him without a cap it was cause it had rotted off his head. He and Uncle Gene had about eighteen teeth between them, and Daddy had most of them. Mama said it was because they didn’t brush their teeth enough and they chewed tobacco. There were times when I looked at their sunken faces and was reminded of an old pumpkin rotting in the field. I know it’s a sad thing to be so repulsed by your own kin, but there you have it, straight out and in the open.
We all pulled on the rope, and finally, just about the time I thought I was going to strain my guts out, up come that bag. Only it wasn’t just the bag. There was something caught up in it, all swole up and white, and dangling long strands of wet grass.
“Now, wait a minute here,” Daddy said, and kept pulling.
Then I seen it wasn’t grass at all. It was hair. And under that hair was a face big around as the moon and white as a sheet and puffy-looking as a feather pillow. I didn’t know who it was right off, till I seen the dress. It was the only dress I’d ever seen May Lynn Baxter wear. A dress spotted with blue flowers and so faded you could barely tell what color the flowers had been in the first place, and it had gone a mite short on her as she had grown tall.
Only time I’d seen her not wearing it that I could remember was when me and her and Terry and Jinx slipped out one night and went to the swimming hole for a dip. I had thought she was so pretty there in the moonlight. Not a stitch on, well formed, with moon-blond hair to her waist, and that dress hanging on a limb next to the river. She moved like she was hearing music we couldn’t. I knew then she was gonna be the kind of girl that made single men turn their heads and take a deep breath and married men wish their wives would catch on fire. Fact was, she already was that kind of girl.
Terry didn’t pay her no mind, and I think it’s because he might be a sissy. There’s a rumor he is, and part of the rumor has to do with a boy from the far end of the river that come up one summer to visit relatives. I don’t know if it’s true, but I don’t care one way or the other. I’ve known Terry since we was babies, and from what I’ve seen of man-and-woman love, it mostly has to do with Daddy lying around and not doing much, getting drunk, and hitting Mama in the eye. One time, after he’d beat her up pretty good and went out fishing, a rainstorm come up, and I lay on my bed hoping a bolt of lightning would shoot out of the sky and hit him in the top of the head, knock them few teeth out of his skull and kill him, leaving nothing behind but his cap. I know that’s mean, but that’s how I was thinking.
I didn’t like that Mama thought she deserved that ass-whipping. She thought a man was the one ran things and had the say. She said it was in the Bible. That put me off reading it right away.
So there lay May Lynn, partway on the shore, that dress having grown smaller on her over the years, and smaller yet on account of how she had puffed up.
“Her eyes is swole shut,” Uncle Gene said. “She’s been in the water a bit.”
“It don’t take no time at all to look like that,” Daddy said. “You get drowned and don’t float up overnight, that’s how you get.”
All of a sudden May Lynn started to flutter and leak. Gas coming out of her, and it smelled real bad, like a giant fart. Her hands was tied behind her, twisted up in rusty wire, and so were her feet, which was pulled up to meet her hands. Her skin had swelled around the wire—the wire that had gotten tangled up in our bag.
When we pulled her completely up and laid her out, we seen there was a Singer sewing machine fastened around her feet with more wire, several pieces of it twisted together to make it strong. The wire had gone deep into her wet flesh, all the way to the bone. The weight of that Singer was why all four of us was needed to pull her up.
“Ain’t that May Lynn Baxter?” Daddy said.
He had just figured who it was, his ability to see into the future dragging its feet until the future had arrived. He turned to me for an answer.
I could hardly get the words out of my mouth. “I reckon that’s her.”
“She was only a girl,” Terry said. “She was our age.”
“Age ain’t got nothing to do with living or dying,” Uncle Gene said. “But no doubt about it, she’s twisted her hips for the last time.”
“I reckon we ought to do something,” Daddy said.
“I think we ought to cut our rope free and push her back in,” Uncle Gene said. “She ain’t gonna get no deader if she ain’t found, and her daddy won’t have to know she’s dead. He can think she run off to Hollywood or something. Wasn’t that what she was always saying she was gonna do? I mean, it’s like a dog dies and you don’t tell the kid, and they think the dog is living with someone else, or something like that.”
“She doesn’t have any real family,” Terry said, not looking at her, but looking out at the river. “We were her only friends, me and Sue Ellen and Jinx. She isn’t a dog.”
Daddy and Uncle Gene didn’t look at him. It was like he hadn’t said a thing.
“We could do that,” Daddy said. “We could push her back. She wasn’t known to be of much account anyhow. And they’re right. She ain’t got no real family, with her mama and brother dead, and her daddy in love with the bottle. It wouldn’t do no harm to just let her sink. Hell, he didn’t miss her much when she was alive, and with her dead, he still won’t miss her.”
“You ain’t pushing her back,” I said.
Daddy took note of that. He turned and looked at me. “Who you talking to, little girl? You ain’t talking to your elders like that, are you?”
I knew it might mean I was going to get a thrashing, but I stood by my guns.
“You ain’t pushing her back in.”
“She was our friend,” Terry said, and I saw tears in his eyes.
Daddy reached out and slapped me on top of the head with the palm of his hand. It hurt. It made me a little dizzy.
“I’ll make the decisions around here,” Daddy said, and leaned his face close to me. I could smell the tobacco and onions on his breath.
“You didn’t have any reason to strike her,” Terry said.
Daddy glared at Terry. “Don’t be talking above your raising.”
“You aren’t my daddy,” Terry said, stepping out of range, “and if you push May Lynn back in the water, I’ll tell about it.”
Daddy studied Terry for a moment. Probably judging distance, wondering how fast he could reach him. It would have required too much work, I reckon, because the tension drained out of him. Daddy Don Wilson wasn’t one for expending energy if he didn’t have to, and sometimes even if he had to.
Daddy twisted his withered mouth a little, said, “We was just funning. We ain’t going put her back, are we, Gene?”
Uncle Gene looked Terry over, then me.
“I suppose not,” he said, but the words sounded to me as if they had been burned real good and were mostly charred.
Daddy sent Terry into town to get the constable, but didn’t let him take the truck. He made him walk. It would have been easy enough to have loaded the body in the back of the truck and driven us all into town, but that would have been too damn convenient, and that wasn’t Daddy’s way. And he didn’t like Terry on account of he figured he wasn’t the way he thought a man ought to be. Uncle Gene had a truck, too, but he didn’t offer it, either. I think he just didn’t want a dead gal in the back of it.
I sat on the shore and looked at May Lynn’s body. It was gathering flies and starting to smell and all I could think of was how she was always clean and pretty, and this wasn’t a thing that should have happened to her. It wasn’t like in the books I had read, and the times I had been to the picture show and people died. They always looked pretty much like they were when they were alive, except sleepy. I saw now that’s not how things were. It wasn’t any different for a dead person than a shot-dead squirrel or a hog with a cut throat hanging over the scalding pot.
Shadows came tumbling through the trees and over the water and you could see a bit of the moon shining on the river; it looked like a huge face floating up from the bottom. The crickets had started to saw at their legs pretty seriously, and there was a louder gathering of frogs that came with the dark. If I hadn’t been staring mostly at a dead body, it would have been kind of pleasant. As it was, I felt numb, the way your arm will get if you sleep on it, but I felt like that all over.
Daddy built a fire a ways from the body to sit by while we waited on Terry and the law, and Uncle Gene gathered up the fish and carried them up to his truck. He took them to be split up with us, and to take the rest over to his house and his wife. Since he and Daddy had gone to pulling at a jug before he left, he was lit up good, and I figured if he didn’t wrap the pickup around a tree in the dark, when he got home he’d make his wife, Evy, clean the fish, and then he’d give her a beating. Uncle Gene said he liked to give her one a day when he could, and one a week when he was busy, just to let her know her place. He had even offered to give me one a couple of times, and Daddy thought it might be a good idea. But either Mama was there to stop it, and ended up getting beat on by Daddy instead of him beating on me, or he eventually played out on the idea because it got in the way of his drinking.
Anyway, Uncle Gene decided it was best to go home, and left Daddy to his business.
Daddy tried to get me to come over and sit by him near the fire, but I stayed where I was. In dark places he liked to touch, and it made me feel strange and uncomfortable. He said it was a thing fathers did with daughters. Jinx told me that wasn’t true, but I didn’t need her to explain it to me, because I could tell inside of me it wasn’t good. I sat away from the fire, and though it was a warm enough night, the fire did look inviting. But all I could think about was how Daddy was. How his breath smelled of whiskey and tobacco most of the time. How when he was really drunk, the whites of his eyes would roll up from the bottom like a frightened horse. How if he tried to touch me he’d start breathing faster, so I just kept my place in the shadows, even when the mosquitoes started to show up.
“You and that sissy boy going to stir things up don’t need stirring,” Daddy said. “We’d pushed her back in the water, we’d be home by now. Most things you decide to deal with you could skip.”
I didn’t say anything to that.
“We should have kept a fish or two to fry on the fire,” he said, like maybe it was my fault Uncle Gene had packed them all up and toted them off. There were still a few that had washed up to the bank, but he wasn’t willing to leave the fire and go get one to clean and cook. And I wasn’t about to do it. All I could do was think about May Lynn and feel sick, and I had to keep my eye on Daddy cause the drunker he got the bolder he got, and the harder he talked. You never knew when he might do something stupid or scary. That’s how he was. He could be laughing and having a good time, and the next thing you knew he’d pull a pocketknife and threaten to cut you. He didn’t look like much, but he was a known hothead and knife fighter, and was supposed to be good with his fists, and not just when he was hitting women and children. He was also known to tire out quick and start looking for a place to nest.
“You think you got it hard, don’t you, baby girl?”
“Hard enough,” I said.
“I tell you what hard is, that’s when your own father sets you out the door and locks it and won’t let you come back for a night or two. And when he does, it’s just because cows needed milking and eggs needed gathering, and he wanted someone to hit.”
“Well, now,” I said. “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did it?”
“You ain’t never milked a cow in your life,” he said.
“We ain’t never had one.”
“I’m going to get one, and when I do, you’ll milk it. You’ll do same as I did.”
“It’s a thing to look forward to,” I said, and then I shut up. The way he twisted his head and turned the jug of hooch in his hand told me it was time to be quiet. Next thing I knew that jug would be flying through the air, and he’d be on me, his fists swinging. I just sat there and kept watch and let him suck his liquor.
The moon was high and the night was settled in heavy as stone by the time we seen a light coming over the hill on the trail that split down between the thick woods that led to the river. Along with the light came the rumble of a truck, the crackling of tires over a pocked road, and the swish of close-hanging limbs dragging alongside of it.
When the truck was down the hill and still a good ways from the water, it stopped, and I could hear Constable Sy Higgins pulling on the parking brake. He left the motor running and the lights on. He got out of the truck like a man climbing down from a tall tree with a fear he might fall. Terry got out of the other door and came down quickly. When he was close to me, he said so no one else could hear, “He’s drunk. I had to get him out of bed, and he didn’t want to come. He said it wouldn’t have hurt to just push her back in the water.”
“That’s the law for you,” I said. “Now if we could get the clergy here and the mayor, we’d have the perfect pile to smell.”
Constable Sy sauntered down the hill with a flashlight shining in front of him, even though the headlights on the truck were bright enough to see how to thread a needle. He made toward the fire, his belly bouncing before him like a dog leaping up to greet him. Daddy got to his feet, staggering a little. They were drunks together.
“Where is she?” Higgins said, pushing his fedora up on his head. When he did, I could see his hard face and the patch over his eye. Way the shadows fell, it made that eye look like a black tunnel. Rumor was he’d had it scratched out by a black woman he raped. The holster that held his gun was said to be made out of an Indian’s hide, and had been passed on to him by Indian-fighter relatives. It was probably just a story.
Constable Sy hadn’t even bothered to look around and find May Lynn. It wasn’t like she was hidden in the woods under a tarpaulin. All you needed was one good eye to find her. A blind man would have noticed her right off.
Daddy led him over to the body while me and Terry watched. Constable Sy shined the light around on her and the sewing machine lying nearby. He said, “She’s squatted to pee for the last time, but I think maybe the sewing machine can be salvaged.”
Daddy and Constable Sy snickered together.
“Wasn’t nothing wrong with her,” I said. “She’s the one murdered. She’s the one that’s had something done to her. There ain’t a thing funny about it.”
The constable shined his flashlight on my face. “Girl, you ought to know children ain’t supposed to speak unless spoken to.”
“That’s what I tell her,” Daddy said.
“I ain’t a child,” I said, dipping my head and squinting my eyes against the light. “I’m sixteen.”
“Yeah, well,” the constable said, moving the light from my head to my toes. “I can see you ain’t as much a kid as I remember.”
I don’t know how to explain it, but that light running up and down me wasn’t any different than a hot yellow tongue; it made me feel kind of sick.
“Why don’t you and your girlfriend there go sit down out of the way?” Daddy said.
That made Constable Sy snicker, and Daddy liked that. I could tell the way he stood a little straighter and his chest went out. There wasn’t nothing made him feel better than belittling somebody, unless it was hitting somebody upside the head that didn’t expect it.
Terry sighed, and me and him went over and sat down on the ground by the fire. Constable Sy went to his truck and got an old blanket out of the bed, and then he and Daddy, using the toes of their boots, sort of kicked poor May Lynn onto it, wrapped her up, carried her, and put her in the constable’s truck bed. When they dropped her back there, it sounded like someone tossing a big dead fish on a smooth flat rock.
“You could have done this yourself,” Constable Sy said. “You could have brung her in and we could have looked at her in the morning.”
“I’d rather your truck stank than mine,” Daddy said.
May Lynn didn’t have a mama anymore, cause her mama had drowned herself in the Sabine River. She had gone down with some laundry to soak, and instead wrapped a shirt around her head and walked in until the water went over her. When she came up, she wasn’t alive anymore, but she still had that shirt around her noggin.
May Lynn’s daddy was someone who only came home when he got tired of being any other place. We didn’t even know if he knew his daughter was missing. May Lynn used to say after her mama drowned herself her daddy was never the same. Said she figured it was because the laundry around her mother’s head had been his favorite snap-pocket shirt. That’s true love for you. Worse, her brother, Jake, who she was close to, was dead as of a short time back, and there wasn’t even a family dog to miss her.
The day after we found her, May Lynn was boxed up in a cheap coffin and buried on a warm morning in the pauper section of the Marvel Creek Cemetery next to a dried patch of weeds with seed ticks clinging to them, and I suspect some chiggers too small to see. Her mother and brother were buried in the same graveyard, but they hadn’t ended up next to one another. Up the hill was where the people with money lay. Down here was the free dirt, and even if you was kin to someone, you got scattered—you went in anyplace where there was room to dig a hole. I’d heard there was many a grave on top of another, for need of space.
There were oaks and elms to shade the rest of the graveyard, but May Lynn’s section was a hot stretch of dirt with a bunch of washed-down mounds, a few with markers. Some of the markers were little sticks. Names had once been written on them, but they had been washed white by the sun and rain.
The constable ruled on matters by saying she had been killed by a person or persons unknown, which was something I could have figured out for him. He said it was most likely a drifter or drifters who had come upon her by the river. I guess they had been carrying a sewing machine under their arm.
He didn’t make any effort to search out her murderer or find out why she was down there. For that matter, there wasn’t even a doctor or nobody that looked at her to be sure exactly how she was killed or if she had been fooled with. Nobody cared but me and Terry and Jinx.
The service was conducted by a local preacher. He said a few words that might have sounded just as insincere if they had been spoken over the body of a distant cousin’s pet mouse that had died of old age.
When he was through talking, a couple of colored men put the plain box down in the ground using ropes, then started shoveling dirt in the hole. Outside of the colored men, and the preacher and the seed ticks, we had been the only ones at the funeral, if you could call it that.
“You’d think they was just taking out the trash, way that preacher hurried up,” Jinx said, after they left.
“Way they saw it,” I said, “that was exactly what they was doing. Taking out the trash.”
Jinx was my age. She had her hair tied in pigtails that stood out from her head like plaited ropes of wire. She had a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid. She wore a dyed blue flour-sack dress that had some of the old print faintly poking through, and she was barefoot. Terry had on some new shoes, and he had gotten from somewhere a man’s black tie. It was tied in a big knot and pulled up tight to his neck, making him look like a bag that had been knotted near the top. He had enough oil in his black hair to grease a truck axle, and it still wasn’t quite enough to hold his wild mane down. His face was dark from the sun, and his blue eyes were shiny as chunks of the sky. None of us was happy with what had happened, but he was taking it especially hard; his eyes were red from crying.
“No one will make a concerted effort to discover what happened to her,” Terry said. “I think a search for the truth is out of the question.”
I loved to hear Terry talk, because he didn’t sound like no one else I knew. He hadn’t dropped out of school like me, as I was having problems with it being so far and no way to get there and I didn’t like it much anyhow. My mother, who was pretty good educated, didn’t like that I had quit, but she didn’t get out of bed to make much of a complaint against it; that might have required her putting on her shoes.
Terry liked school. Even the math part. His mother had been a schoolteacher and gave him extra learning. His father had died when he was young, and as of recent his mother had taken up with and married an oilman named Harold Webber. Terry didn’t get along with him even a little bit. Webber made Terry’s mother quit teaching school to be home with the kids, and then she started a seamstress business, but he made her kill that, too, and toss out all her goods, because he believed a husband took care of his wife and she shouldn’t work, even if she liked the work she did. In the end it was all about the same anyhow, as jobs, especially for women, had become as rare as baptized rattlesnakes.
Since that marriage, Terry had a look in his eyes like a rabbit that was about to run fast and far.
Jinx could read and write and cipher some, same as me, but she hadn’t learned it in school. Coloreds didn’t have a school in our parts, and she had been taught by her daddy, who had gone up north to work for a while and learned to read there. He said it was better in the north for coloreds in some ways because people acted like they liked you, even if they didn’t. But he come back because he missed his family and being in the South, since he knew right off who the sons of bitches was; there wasn’t as much guesswork involved in figuring who was who.
But when times got bad, that didn’t keep him from heading north again. He hated to do it, he told Jinx, and meant it, but he had to go up there and make some money and mail it back to her and her mother.
None of us was happy in East Texas. We all wanted out, but seemed stuck to our spots like rooted trees. When I thought about getting out I couldn’t imagine much beyond the wetlands and the woods. Except for Hollywood. I could imagine that on account of May Lynn talking about it all the time. She made it sound pretty good, even though she had never been there. Still, that’s where I wished to be. But as I had learned from Jinx, shit in one hand and wish in the other and see which one fills up first. She said the same thing about prayer, but I had never taken it on myself to test the notion.
We decided to go to May Lynn’s house and see if her daddy was there so we could let him know the bad news, tell him he missed the funeral. Our guess was if he was home, he would know by now, but it was something to do, and to tell it true, if he wasn’t home, we wanted to take a look around. I can’t explain it, but I guess we didn’t want to let go of May Lynn just yet, and going where she lived seemed a way to keep her memory warm.
With her dead, a lot of hopes I had were gone. I always figured May Lynn just might go off to Hollywood and be a movie star, and then she’d come home and take us back with her. I never could figure why she would do that, or what we might do out there, but it beat thinking I was just gonna grow up and marry some fellow with tobacco in his cheek and whiskey on his breath who would beat me at least once a week and maybe make me keep my hair up.
None of this kind of thinking mattered, though, because May Lynn didn’t become a star. Truth was, as of late, we hadn’t known her very well ourselves. By the time she showed up in the water wired to that Singer sewing machine, I reckon I hadn’t seen her for a month. I figured it was similar for Terry and Jinx.
Jinx said she thought May Lynn had come of the age to think hanging with colored kids might not lead to stardom. Jinx said she didn’t hold it against her, but I had doubts about that. Jinx could hold a grudge.
As to what happened to May Lynn, I had ideas about that. Nobody loved a picture show the way she did, and she’d hitch a ride with anyone if they’d get her into town on Saturdays to catch a show. Men were always quick to pick her up. Me, I’d have had to lay down in the middle of the road and play dead to have them stop, and even then they might have run over me, same as they would a dead possum. Could be May Lynn got a ride with the wrong person; an angry Singer sewing machine salesman. It was a stretch, but I figured it was better detective work than Constable Higgins had done.
To get to May Lynn’s house from our side, you either had to walk ten miles up to the bridge and cross over and walk about ten more on the other side along the edge of the river, or you could cross by boat to the far bank and walk right up to her house. It would save you hours.
We used Daddy’s boat, the one with the little hole in the bottom, and while me and Terry rowed, Jinx used a coffee can to bail the water out. After a while, I took a turn and she rowed.
Trees leaned way out over the river and there were long vines and dangles of moss hanging near the surface of the water. There was the usual turtles and water snakes swimming about, long-legged birds diving down to take fish out of the water, and those little bugs that flittered along the water’s surface like dancers.
We had been going along for a ways when Jinx said, “You hear that?”
“Hear what?” Terry said. He was still wearing his knotted tie, but he had slid the knot down so that it was no longer tight against his neck.
“That knocking sound,” Jinx said.
We stopped rowing and listened. I faintly heard it.
“That’s trees striking and rubbing together in the wind,” Terry said. “They’ve grown up too close to one another, and that’s the sound they make. See how brisk the wind is?”
I looked at the trees, and they were blowing right smart. The water was wind-rippled, too.
“It might be the wind doing it,” Jinx said, “but that ain’t trees knocking together. Them’s bones.”
“Bones?” I said.
Jinx pointed toward the riverbank, where briars and brambles twisted tight around the trees. “Somewhere back in the thicket there is where Skunk lives. He hangs out bones on strings, and when the wind blows, they bang together. Human bones. That’s that sound you hear, them bones.”
“There isn’t any Skunk,” Terry said. “That’s an old wives’ tale. Like the goat man that’s supposed to live in the woods. It’s just a tale to scare children.”
Jinx shook her head. “Skunk is real. He’s a big old colored man that’s more red than black, with twisty red hair; he wears it wild, like it’s a bush. They say he keeps a dried-up bluebird hanging in it. He’s got dark eyes as dead and flat as coat buttons. They say he can walk softer than a breeze and can go for days without sleeping. That he can live for weeks sipping water from mud holes and eating roots and such, and that since the only baths he ever had was when he fell in the river, or when he got caught out in the rain, he stinks like a skunk and you can smell him coming a long ways off.”
Terry let out a laugh. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“He’s part Indian—Seminole or Cherokee or something—and that’s why he’s red-touched. He’s a tracker used to live in the Everglades over in Florida. He’s a stone killer. Ain’t nobody bothers Skunk unless they want someone caught, or dead is more likely. He chops off hands and takes them back to prove he’s done the business he was hired to do.”
“Even if there is a fella with a bird in his hair, and his name is Skunk,” I said, “I don’t think that’s bones from his place rattling. Terry’s right; that’s treetops knocking together. I’ve heard that sound before, and not just in this place.”
“Well,” Jinx said, “he moves his place around. And if that is trees, not bones, it don’t mean Skunk ain’t out there. I know people that have seen him. I know one man told me he hired Skunk because his wife run off and he wanted Skunk to find her. He said Skunk must have misunderstood or didn’t care. All he brought back was her hands, chopped off right at the wrist with a hatchet. Old man told me the story said he didn’t ask where the rest of her was, and he paid up, too. What Skunk wanted from him wasn’t money. He wanted all the man’s blankets and the food he canned for the winter, and his biggest, fattest hunting dog. Old man gave it to him, too. Skunk carried that stuff off in a wheelbarrow, the dog tied to a rope, walking alongside him. Old man said Skunk didn’t use no hunting dogs because he was better than any of them. He figured the dog was for dinner.”
“And he’s got a big blue ox named Babe,” Terry said. “And he can rope a tornado and ride it like a horse.”
Jinx was so mad she almost stood up in the boat.
“He ain’t like no Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill,” she said. “You’re making me mad. He ain’t no story. He’s real. And you better watch out for him.”
“It wasn’t my intention to make you angry, Jinx,” Terry said.
“Well, you done made me angry,” Jinx said. “Big angry.”
“Sorry,” Terry said.
“Go on, Jinx,” I said, soothing her ruffled feathers. “Finish telling about him.”
“He don’t talk much, unless it’s to who he’s gonna kill. They say then he can’t talk, just makes funny sounds. I know cause Daddy told me he knew a fella had got away from Skunk, just by accident. That Skunk had been hired to get him, found him, tied him to a tree, and was gonna cut his throat and chop off his hands. The tree this fella was tied to was up against the bank next to the river. It was an old tree, and though this fella wasn’t thinking about it on purpose, he was pushing with his feet to get away from Skunk. The tree was more rotten than it looked, because there was ants at the base, and they had gnawed it up. This fella told Daddy he could feel them ants on him, biting, but he didn’t hate them none, because they had made that old tree rotten, and with him pushing with his feet, pressing his back into the trunk, it broke off. He went backward into the water. When he hit, the log floated, spinning him around and around, him snapping breaths every time he was on top of the river. Finally the log come apart altogether, and that loosened the ropes and he swam out to a sandbar and rested, and then he swam across to the other side. Course, none of it done him any good. Daddy said that later, after he told him about it, he wasn’t seen no more. Daddy said it was because he didn’t have sense enough to go up north or out west, but had stuck around. He figured Skunk finally got him. Skunk ain’t no quitter, though he can wander off from a trail for a while if he gets bored. He gets interested again, he comes back. He always comes back, and there ain’t no end to it until he’s got whoever he’s after.”
“Why was Skunk supposed to be after this man?” Terry asked.
“I don’t know,” Jinx said. “Someone hired Skunk to get him, and Skunk got him. Reckon he chopped off his hands and gave them to whoever hired him, or maybe he kept them himself. I don’t know. As for what was left of the fella, I bet he rotted away in the woods somewhere, never to be seen again.”
The boat was drifting lazily toward the bank. We started paddling again.
“He’s in them woods,” Jinx said, not through with her Skunk business. “In the dark shadows. He don’t do nothing but wait till someone wants to hire him. He’s out there somewhere, in his tent made of skins, all them bones hanging around it, rattling in the breeze. He wraps all those bones in that tent and straps it to his back and moves about, sets up camp again. He’s waiting till someone wants him. They got to talk to one of his cousins to go up in there and find him, because he won’t let no one else come close, and they say even his cousins are afraid of him.”
“How did he get the way he is?” I asked her.
“They say his mama couldn’t stand him no more cause he was crazy, and so when he was ten, for his birthday, she took him out in the river and threw him out of the boat and hit him in the head with a paddle. He didn’t die. He just got knocked out good and floated up on shore. He took to living ’long the riverbank, and in the woods. Later, his mama was found with her hands chopped off and her head had been stove in with a boat paddle.”
“How perfect,” Terry said, and he laughed.
“You laugh, you want,” Jinx said. “But you better believe it. Skunk’s out there. And you run up on him, it’s the last running you gonna do.”
Finally we come up on the spot by the river where May Lynn had lived, paddled the boat up there, and leaped out on the bank. Terry had hold of the rope that was tied to the front of the boat, and he looped it around a stump by the water. Then for insurance we all dragged the front end of the boat out of the water so the hole in the bottom was on dirt.
Just before we started up to the house, Jinx looked out over the river and pointed. Jinx was a big pointer. She was always pointing out this and pointing out that. Every time we were there Jinx would point out that spot. It’s where May Lynn’s mother went into the river with a shirt wrapped around her head.
“It was right there,” she said, as if we didn’t know.
We walked up a hill, which was slick with pine needles. The house was on top of the hill and it was raised on a bunch of leaning creosote posts; it was up high like that so that when the river rose it wouldn’t float away. With the way it leaned, I reckoned it wouldn’t be long before the whole shebang was shoved off and went tumbling downhill and into the river, about where May Lynn’s mama had gone down.
When we got to the top of the hill, just so we wouldn’t surprise May Lynn’s daddy and get our teeth filled with shotgun pellets, I called out, “Hallo the house.”
No one answered, but we waited a minute anyhow. Just in case he might be napping off a drunk. There was an outhouse farther up the hill, and there was a ditch that ran off from it out into the water, which was the plumbing. What went in the hole in the outhouse went down the hill through that open ditch, and into the water. Terry studied the toilet for a while, then said, “That isn’t very sanitary. You should keep your body leavings away from water. It’s standard knowledge. You dig a pit, not a runoff. That’s lazy.”
“Her old man is lazy,” I said. “What else can you say?”
We had been standing below and near the house, waiting to see if anyone came out. When they didn’t, we called out again, all three of us calling at the same time. Still no one answered.
There were some steps going up the ten-foot rise to the weathered, sagging porch, and we walked up them. They shook as we climbed. The sides of the steps were fixed onto the platform by wooden rails, and where there should have been a step at the top there wasn’t one. You had to stretch your leg out and climb carefully onto the landing, which wobbled when we climbed up on it.
We called out one more time, but still no one answered. Except for Cletus Baxter, there wasn’t anyone left to answer. There had been May Lynn’s brother, Jake, but he came to an end about a year back. Word was he robbed banks, but according to most he knocked off filling stations. He hid out down in the Sabine bottoms between station jobs and nobody would tell the cops on him. It wasn’t that he was all that well liked, but he was one of the river people, and he had a gun and bad temper and at any moment either one of them could go off.
Course, Constable Sy Higgins knew he was there, but he didn’t care because Jake kept him paid up. Constable Sy, according to folks I heard talk, was always glad to hear Jake was about a new job of stealing, cause it meant the constable was going to have a fresh supply of whiskey, or a new eye patch.
As for Jake, before the real law could close in on him, if they were ever going to, he come down with a cold and got pneumonia and died right in the house.
When no one came to our knock at the door, Terry said, “What in the world are we doing here? May Lynn is back at the graveyard.”
I was the only one that had ever actually met Cletus Baxter. All of us had been in the house a few times to see May Lynn, but when Terry and Jinx were with me, Cletus was never there. When I had seen him, he hadn’t so much as acknowledged me with a fart or a nod. Her mama we had all known; a quiet, thin woman with hair the color of damp wheat, a face like all the sadness in the world.
Even Jake we had all seen, a dark-eyed man with a handsome face marred by a scar across his right cheek where an old shotgun had blown apart on him when he was about our age. He was friendly enough, but always eyed us like we might be young feds out to gun him down for stealing twenty-five bucks from a filling station.
“It is funny,” I said. “Here we are, and I don’t know what for.”
“We is just plain nosey, that’s what for,” Jinx said.
I knocked on the door again, and this time it moved. We all stood there looking at the crack that was made when it did, then I reached out and pushed at it, and went inside just like I had been invited.
Terry and Jinx followed.
“This isn’t right,” Terry said.
“It sure ain’t,” Jinx said.
Neither of them turned around, though. They kept coming after me.
The house was just one big slanting room that was sectioned off by blankets hung up on ropes so the blankets could slide back and forth. The biggest section was for May Lynn’s daddy, and there were several blankets stretched across the house for his part. One of his blankets was pulled back and I could see a cot in there and a little table with a Bible on it that was stuffed full of papers. When I looked more closely, I saw they were cigarette papers for rolling. There was a tin of Prince Albert on the stand, too, and all over the place—the table, the bed, the floor, and even on the one wooden chair—there was specks of tobacco, like dirty dandruff flakes. I remembered I had watched him roll a cigarette once, and his hands shook so bad from being on the end of a weeklong drunk, he scattered tobacco everywhere.
Part of the room had been divided for a cooking place, which was a woodstove with a pipe that ran out a hole cut into the wall by a window. Over the window was curtains made of the same blue flowers that had been on May Lynn’s dress.
May Lynn’s part was sectioned off by blankets, and it wasn’t much. If Jake had ever had a section, it had been taken over by his old man. It was hard to believe four people had ever lived there.
We moved May Lynn’s blankets aside and took a peek. She had a little feather mattress on the floor, and it was stained by water and sweat. There were two near-flat pillows on the mattress. One of them had a pillowcase made of the same material as her dress and the kitchen curtains. The other didn’t have a case. There was a dresser with a cracked mirror up against the wall. It had belonged to May Lynn’s mother, and it was the only piece of real furniture in the house.
On top of the dresser was a huge stack of movie magazines. There was a chair by the dresser and one at the end of the bed. May Lynn used to sit in one chair and I would sit in the other, and she would show me the magazines and the people in them. They seemed like people from a dream, like angels descended from heaven. They didn’t look like anyone I knew except May Lynn, even if she didn’t have the clothes for it.
Jinx touched the magazines, lifted them, said, “These here all put together is heavy enough to sink a boat.”
“She certainly loved them,” Terry said.
“I figured she’d go off someday and become a movie star,” I said. “I figured anyone could do it, it was her.”
Terry sat down in the chair at the end of the bed and picked up one of her pillows. He said, “It smells like her. That drugstore perfume she wore.” He put the pillow down and looked at us. “You know, May Lynn really ought to go to Hollywood.”
“She’s a whole lot dead,” Jinx said, sitting down on the mattress.
“She should still make the journey,” Terry said, and crossed his legs. “It’s all she ever wanted, and now she’s ended up buried in a hole like a dead pet. I don’t think that’s how it ought to end for her.”
“And I don’t think I ought to stink when I’m straining in the outhouse,” Jinx said, “but so far it don’t work no other way.”
“We could take her to Hollywood,” Terry said.
“Say what?” I said.
“We could take her.”
“You mean dig her up?” Jinx said.
“Yes,” Terry said. “She won’t dig herself up.”
“That’s certainly true,” I said.
“I mean it,” Terry said.
Me and Jinx looked at one another.
Jinx said, “So we dig her up and carry her and the coffin all the way to Hollywood on our backs, and when we get there, we go over to see the movie people and tell them we got their next star, a dead body that don’t look nothing like May Lynn used to look and has a smell about her that could knock a bird out of a tree and kill it stone dead?”
“Of course not,” Terry said. “I’m merely stating the obvious fact that we haven’t got so many friends that we should not care about a dead one. I think we have to dig her up, give her a funeral like they used to give heroes in ancient Greece. You know, burn her on a funeral pyre and gather up her ashes; the ashes can go to Hollywood.”
“She ain’t a Greek,” Jinx said.
“But she was a kind of goddess, don’t you think?” Terry said.
“What she was was a river-bottoms kid that was very pretty that came up dead with a sewing machine tied to her feet,” I said. “You’re crazy, Terry. We can’t dig her up and set her on fire, take her ashes to Hollywood.”
“It’s the principle of the thing,” Terry said.
“How’s that?” Jinx said.
“It won’t mean anything to her, you’re right,” Terry said. “Being dead takes the fun out of things. I know. I once had a dog that died and I prayed that he’d come back to life, but he didn’t. And I finally decided God had brought him back, but hadn’t let him out of the hole. I went out and dug him up to help him out, only he was still dead and not looking very good.”
“I could have told you how that was going to turn out,” Jinx said.
“It isn’t like any of us want to remain here,” Terry said.
“That’s true,” Jinx said. “I do, I’m gonna end up wiping white baby asses and doing laundry and cooking meals for peckerwoods the rest of my life. And if that’s what I got coming, I might do like Mrs. Baxter and wrap a shirt around my head and go in the river.”
“Don’t even say that,” I said.
“I just did.”
“Well, don’t say it again.”
“There isn’t anything for us here,” Terry said. “You can’t really grow here. Not the way we should. We stay here, there will always be some kind of weight on our heads, holding us down. I like the idea of taking May Lynn’s ashes to Hollywood and sprinkling them around where she’ll always be a part of it. May Lynn had an adventurous spirit about her, and I think she was no more than a few months shy of departing from this place.”
“She should have hurried up,” Jinx said.
“We have a chance to leave,” Terry said. “All we have to do is reach out and embrace it. Together we can make it work. We can help each other achieve that goal.”
“What you need is a good meal and some sleep,” I said, looking at Terry.
Terry shook his head. “No. What I need is a shovel and some friends to help me dig her up. Then we burn her and the magazines together. It’s symbolic that way.”
“Symbolic?” Jinx said.
“Then we put the combined ashes in a jar—”
“A jar?” Jinx said.
“Or some kind of container,” Terry said. “Then we float down the river to a good-sized town, catch a bus, and head for Hollywood.”
“A bus?” Jinx said.
“Stop being a mockingbird,” Terry said, frowning at Jinx.
“That sounds crazy,” I said.
“I like crazy better than I like being around here,” Terry said.
“That’s two of us,” Jinx said.
They both stared at me, waiting for agreement, I suppose.
“Let me think about it,” I said.
“I know you,” Terry said. “You aren’t really going to consider it. You’re just saying that so I’ll shut up.”
“While you think about it,” Jinx said, “me and Terry are gonna be setting May Lynn on fire with them magazines, and by the time you’ve decided one way or the other, we’ll be in a boat, maybe one without a hole in the bottom, on our way to Hollywood with that gal in a jar.”
“I know this much,” I said. “The Sabine River don’t go to Hollywood.”
“Yeah, but we’ll arrive there somehow,” Terry said.
I could almost see the wheels in his head turning.
He lifted his head and his lips curled at the edges. “There’s the barge. We could take the barge. It’s big enough to live on.”
“It’s too big for some of the narrow spots,” Jinx said. “We might go better by patching up the boat, or getting some other one.”
“I bet we can get it through those spots if we put our backs into it,” Terry said.
“The barge, as you call it, ain’t nothing more than a raft,” I said.
“You could actually dock it against the bank at night and sleep on it,” Terry said.
“I want to think about it,” I said, feeling the pressure, hoping the whole thing would go out of his and Jinx’s head by the time we got back across the river.
“What’s to think on?” Jinx said. “You told us you can’t even sleep good for watching for your daddy coming into your room.”
I nodded, thinking about how I usually slept with a piece of stove wood in the bed next to me, my door locked, one eye open and an ear cocked. “That’s true.”
“Well, then,” Terry said.
“I got some things to do at home first,” I said, still thinking it was all going to be forgotten in a short time, but actually beginning to warm to the idea.
“All right, then,” Terry said. “We can all go home and prepare, and if either of you have any money, now would be a good time to bring it.”
“I have a quarter,” I said. “That’s it.”
“I got the teeth in my head,” Jinx said.
“I have a few dollars,” Terry said. “But what we really need is a plan.”
We gathered up the magazines, and decided it was okay because May Lynn told us her daddy always thought her wanting to be in the movies was silly, told her wanting to be on a screen dressed up like a hussy in tight clothes and wearing makeup like war paint wasn’t any plan for a grown woman. That meant those magazines would soon be burned up for fire starter or tossed out to rot when he came back and found out she was dead. I figured that portion of the house would become his, too, littered with cigarette papers and tobacco crumbs.
Excerpted from Edge of Dark Water by Lansdale, Joe R. Copyright © 2012 by Lansdale, Joe R.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than a dozen novels, including Sunset and Sawdust, Lost Echoes, and Leather Maiden. He has received the British Fantasy Award, the American Mystery Award, the Edgar Award, the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature, and eight Bram Stoker Awards. He lives with his family in Nacogdoches, Texas.
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This story is narrated by Sue Ellen, a young girl living in poverty in a small southern town during the Depression. A local girl is found dead, and Sue Ellen and her friends are joined by Sue Ellen's mother as they head out to take the ashes of the young wannabe starlet to her ultimate goal of Hollywood. Of all of the characters, I think my favorite was probably Jinx. I loved her honesty and found it refreshing. Any scene with Jinx I could see clearly in my head, as Jinx was so colorful and full of life-- a mouthy little firecracker! At times this book made me feel somewhat depressed, but a lot of the time it made me smile with the quaint colloquialisms and honest remarks. And once it actually made me shiver, as a few parts of the story were particularly creepy. A mysterious and dangerous character by the name of Skunk is introduced partway through the story, and this character was presented in such a creepy way that I actually felt a shiver go through me at one point, which is not easy to do. I do not creep-out easily! Part psychological thriller, part pure entertainment, and part cautionary tale, this story held my attention throughout. While not a roaring ride, it kept a nice steady pace, and it kept me guessing. I loved the author's writing style. Shocking, honest, horrifying, and brutal. I can't wait to read more. My final word: Author Joe Lansdale has found a fast fan in me. Honest and genuine writing, quirky southern prose, refreshing characters, and shocking subject matter coalesce into one of the best books I've read thus far this year, and has left me hungering for more!
The reader is introduced to sixteen-year-old Sue Ellen and her family on the no-nonsense first page, when Daddy is ‘fishing’ – a chore that combines ‘telephoning,’ i.e., “cranking that telephone to hot up the wire that went into the water to ‘lectrocute the fish,’ dynamiting them, and poisoning them with green walnuts. I might add, as does the author, that the dynamiting doesn’t always work too well, as he attempted it one time when he was so drunk that some of his fingers got blown off. By page eight, Sue Ellen, Daddy and her Uncle Gene, finishing up the fishing project, discover the body of her friend, May Lynn Baxter, at the bottom of the lake, long dead, her hands and feet tied behind her and with a sewing machine weighing the body down. She describes her as “the kind of girl that made men turn their heads and take a deep breath . . . [who] moved like she was hearing music we couldn’t,” a girl with no living family who had dreamed of going to Hollywood and becoming a movie star. Sue Ellen and another good friend, an African-American girl named Jinx [described as having “a sweet face, but her eyes seemed older, like she was someone’s ancient grandma stuffed inside a kid”], and Terry, the fourth member of the group and a boy who was rumored to be homosexual, determine to “burn her up” and take her ashes to California from East Texas, described as a place where “jobs, especially for women, had become as rare as baptized rattlesnakes.” That trip, when it finally begins, fittingly enough in a leaky boat, is like nothing the friends, or the reader, could possibly have anticipated, or even imagined. This author’s writing has been compared to that of Mark Twain, and deservedly so. That said, I should add that I found the writing to be very original, as is the book as a whole, which is [loosely] placed in time by the frequent casual references to the segregation that was then the norm, as were drunken, abusive husbands/fathers, and convincingly captures the vernacular of small-town, little-educated and poverty-stricken Southerners of the period. There is some graphic material [not sexual, I should point out] that seems of a piece with that. “Edge of Dark Water” has been described a “hillbilly noir,” and that captures it as well as anything. Recommended.
Lansdale's gifts are not simply plot or character but the ability to use seemingly simple prose to create a profound and evocative world where his characters reside. This deep south adventure isn't so much a mystery or a glorified chase scene, instead, its a deeply rich story about characters on the run from each other and from outside forces. The questions are more about who will hurt whom the most and how the characters find humanity and peace amongst these seeminbly impossible obstacles. A bit of a meandering pace but, again, Lansdale isn't trying to create a thrill ride. There are some rough, dark waters in this book. so be advised, Lansdale is never one to shy away from the rough stuff. Not quite horror, not quite mystery, 'Edge of Dark Water' is a deeply engaging work set in a world most of us should be happy not to call our own. Lord knows the protagonists pine for a better one.
Reviewed by Anne B. for Readers Favorite Sue Ellen and her uncle Gene were fishing when they found the body of their friend, Mary Lynn, with a sewing machine weighing her down. No one really cared that the girl was dead; they all seemed to think it was a bother. Sue Ellen and her friends, Jinx and Terry, along with Sue Ellen’s mother, dug up the body and burned it. The four set out on a journey to Hollywood, along with Mary Lynn’s ashes and a jar filled with stolen money. Skunk, an evil killer, was hot on their trail. The man was obviously a sociopath. Their journey was beset with danger. "Edge of Dark Water" is a beautiful blend of adventure, horror, and suspense. This review is on the audio version. I was captured from the moment I began to listen. The plot is character-driven. What characters the author has created! The story is narrated by Sue Ellen. It is easy to pick up on her quick wit and sarcastic manner. This book actually had a wee bit of humor woven into it. Much of the humor comes from Sue Ellen’s descriptive comments. It is subtle humor and southern humor. Southerners will understand what I mean. Jinx is a black teen with a major attitude. Terry is rumored to be a homosexual. Sue Ellen’s mother is an alcoholic. Skunk is hard to describe; he wore a dead bird and severed hands tied to his hat. "Edge of Dark Water" is one of the best books I have listened to in quite some time. Angéle Masters perfectly mastered the accent. She moved back and forth through the characters smoothly. The sound quality is very nice. I will be looking for more books by Joe Lansdale.
Very well done. This author never disappoints!
Loved this book the twist and turns are never ending and the character are full of life and well rounded the journey on the river you felt like you were there with them and felt what they felt
This was an exceptional read. You will not be disappointed. I have become a fan of Mr. Lansdale and plan on purchasing three more of his novels.
Review of Edge of Dark Water by Joe Lansdale 5 stars I think there must be close to 1000 reviews and blurbs already for this book, which just published on Feb. 12. Many of them are from writers and reviewers far more articulate than myself. Every blurb and comment I’ve read is positive, and I have to second that. Joe R. Lansdale is a Master, by any criteria. I’ve never forgotten his set “The Drive-In” and “The Drive-In II” and I never will. Now I will never forget “Edge of Dark Water” (and his debut novel, “The Bottoms,” which I plan to read very soon). Mr. Lansdale has so recreated the structure and milieu of East Texas during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, a typically Southern region, and made it so real even to those of us who didn’t actually live this era, that it becomes an ongoing, perpetual, mindset. Youngsters (actually adolescents now) May Lynn, Sue Ellen, Jinx, and Terry live a very hardscrabble, rock-bottom life. The only one of the four who has a decent parental set is Jinx, and because she is resident in the extended South, and African-American, she has her share of troubles not akin to the other three. But May Lynn, Sue Ellen, and Terry all have domestic difficulties; it is fortunate that the four do share this close and abiding friendship, and the taut nature of this bond becomes intensely apparent when Sue Ellen and Terry discover May Lynn’s drowned body in the Sabine River—the river that becomes a character in and of itself, the river that will change all their lives in immense and unending ways. “Edge of Dark Water” is an incredibly heartrending novel, but it is one I cannot imagine not reading.
REVIEWED: The Edge of Dark Water WRITTEN BY: Joe R. Lansdale PUBLISHED: March, 2012 One of the best new novels that I've read in a long time. It's described as being half "Huckleberry Finn" and half "Deliverance," which is about as accurate a comparison as I could come up with. Lansdale's descriptive prose and imagery is absolutely breathtaking and the dialogue alone is pitch-perfect: Quick, funny, and poignant. It's a coming-of-age novel set in the dark badlands of east Texas in which three teenagers who feel trapped in their small town lives along the Sabine River come across an opportunity to leave and realize their dreams. Their friend is found dead and along with her a map to stolen loot. Hot on the teenagers' trail are their abusive and drunk kin and the gruesome hired killer, Skunk, whose legend is too great for them to believe... until he shows up after them. Yet another Lansdale masterpiece. Five out of Five stars
Edge of Dark Water is a perfect summer read. This morbid thriller is filled with terrific characters, loads of action, and an ideal setting for horrific fun. Channeling Mark Twain from the dead, Lansdale flips the coming-of-age story boating down a river onto its head, straying just shy of Deliverance territory. It is an ideal balance of murder mystery, adventure, and pulp. Three outcast teenagers and an addict mother journey together in order to escape their Depression era lives in East Texas, and come to realize the truth of the warped world they inhabit. And in typical Lansdale style, their journey is filled with vicious drama, upbeat laughs, and peculiarities that only he can deliver. A fun ride down a rough stream. Four and a half stars.
This is a gripping historical novel with three friends on a mission to get the ashes of their deceased friend to Hollywood. Set during the depression era, the novel includes murder and more murders. Death is at every turn of the river. Great characters: an addicted mother, a "sissy" boy, a "mouthy" black girl, a tomboy, a cruel husband, a man who smells like a shrunk, and more. This is a wonderful and exciting book and would make a great movie. Gritty and great. Highly recommended! This book deserves an A+++
Wonderful!!! I loved this book......couldn't put it down. Anyone familiar with the east Texas piney woods and the Sabine River will feel like you're right there. Loved all the 'good' characters......you just know they'll all be fine after the story ends. I'll never forget this book. Lish
A chilling atmospheric and gothic coming of age story that is very well told. I enjoyed every minute of it.
I had a lot of fun reading this book. Great characters, that have been compared to Mark Twain's characters, and I see why now. The story kept me reading and not wanting to put the book down.
The comparison to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn made me have to read it and decide for myself. Know what? It was a fair comparison. I was proud of the characters in this book because they just keep bravely putting one foot in front of the other.