Read an Excerpt
By James M. Cain
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1953 James M. Cain
All rights reserved.
I CHOPPED, GRUBBED, AND shoveled, and the deeper I dug the keener I felt it: I was being watched. At first I tried not to mind, as a holdup case, his first day out, on a cockeyed probation deal, could expect watching, especially if left alone on the farm he'd been put to work on. But it rattled me, and didn't help any that I was going about it all wrong, the job I'd been given to do. The order was get out trees, and the right way was hire a dozer. But, maybe on account of the cost, maybe on account of me, to test the stuff I had in me, nothing had been said about that, and I was left with the tools that were there. With chain, rope, blocks, and stuff from the implement shed, and a ladder to help with the climbing, I thought I might get by, shackling trees to each other and hauling them out by the roots. But it meant trenching around each one, and was slow, pesky, and tough.
And then, as I was circling the elm I picked to start on, I felt eyes, and they got me, because mixed up with my release was some highly peculiar stuff. I wasn't on regular parole, and in fact had never been brought to court, as it was all handled by a county police officer, one of those guys that talks noble and looks shifty. He'd got the complaint withdrawn, on condition of a written confession, and on condition the eighty-six dollars I hijacked be repaid by this guy who owned the farm, took charge of me, and started me in on the trees. I thought a fast shuffle was back of it, and it didn't take any lawyer to see where it put me. But I was over a barrel, and had to take it and like it. Just the same, when these prickles went over me, I felt distinctly itchy. And then, as I reached for the ax, there she was, not ten feet away.
Not counting her eyes, which were big, black, and pretty, or her expression, which was sweet, she was the most sickening sight in the way of a woman I think I'd ever seen. She was short, and had on a coat and dark blue dress which were right for the season, early April, and went nice with her dark, wavy hair. But ruining it all was her figure, which was so fat she was deformed. She looked like a soft, blobby barrel, and even had on the belt, crossed and pinned in front, that only the fattest ones wear, to break the belly line. However, I noticed nothing, but grabbed my jumper and put it on, hopped out of my trench, and asked if she wanted something. She said: "No, no thanks. Just stepped over to speak. I think you must be the—young man—my husband told me about. Over the phone last night. That's coming to work for us."
"Oh, you're Mrs. Valenty?"
"Mrs. Val, they call me. I've been away."
"Yes, Mrs. Val, I'm the one. Your husband fixed it up for me yesterday, down at the—county courthouse. But I was held till this morning for papers that had to be signed. At—Upper Marlboro, I believe the place is called. My name's Duke Webster."
"It's a family name, yes."
"But not a Maryland family?"
"I was born in Nevada, Mrs. Val."
"You're older than I expected."
"My husband told me 'boy.'"
"He used that word at the courthouse, I think to take the cuss off the crazy thing I did. I was old enough to know better."
Her husband, she said, hadn't had a chance to tell her much, as she'd been visiting her family in St. Mary's County, "and on a party line, I thought well to remind him it's best to make it brief." I thought she was hinting it hadn't been advertised, and to make like friendly I asked what county this was. She said: "Prince Georges. This little farm is one mile north of the village of Clinton, Maryland. It's nine miles south of Washington, and that road out there, that my husband swung into, when he drove you up from Marlboro, is the famous Route 5, gateway to southern Maryland. Once a tragic land, now at last redeemed."
I'd never heard of Route 5 or southern Maryland, and had no idea why one was famous and the other tragic. But, following her eye around, I realized that if redeeming was the idea, quite a lot had been done, at least on this farm. The house was new, of brick painted white, one story high, and spread out in two wings. The shutters were green, matching the grass, which ran down like carpet to the highway. The other buildings, the sheds, shop, water tank, as well as a little cottage I was to sleep in, were painted white too, and lined up quite neat on two sides of a little street, or back yard as she called it, patio as it was to me. But what brought the colors up, so they looked like some movie, was the drive, of a kind I'd never seen. It was of oyster shells, and led up from the highway to a turning loop in front, with an apron at left for parking, and a bypass at right, for driving around to the rear. Oyster shells are white, and if these had been sprinkled with lime wash, I couldn't really say, but they had a snowy sparkle. They made the whole place look like pastry frosted with sugar, and it had already struck me as kind of a funny coincidence that the one thing the husband had told me, about himself at least, was that he was in the restaurant business.
She talked about that, about the half-dozen places he had, scattered all over Washington, and a big new place that he called the Ladyship, on Connecticut Avenue, wherever that was, though from the way she spoke, it seemed to be quite a location. For that place, she said, he had advertised his own vegetables, grown right on this farm; so being caught, when it opened, without any help at all had put him in a spot. Just why, with a business like that and the dough to build this house, he couldn't get any help, she didn't try to explain, though I thought she skimmed over it a little fast. But about that time I noticed a car in the patio out back. Her car, or the red coupe I took to be hers, was on the bypass facing the highway, as though she'd come in from out back. This car, a sedan, faced the same way, so it could have followed her in. A man and a woman were in it, and it crossed my mind that could be the reason we were having this light conversation, that I could be inspected. I said: "Mrs. Val, would you like it if I stepped over there, so those people can see me? Speak to me, if they want? Maybe ask a few questions?"
She pinked up the least little bit. She said: "This wasn't my idea, Duke. That's my brother and sister-in-law, and they were at my mother's last night when my husband called—with his somewhat mysterious news. They felt they ought to come. I wasn't yet due to return, and as I'd be all alone and all—"
"We'll step over, if you want."
We did, but taking it slow, so she could waddle beside me, and I got that awful feeling you get from a cripple, especially when she started to pant. But I said nothing and, when the other two got out of the car, stood by to speak when spoken to. She called them Bill and Marge and they called her Holly, but she introduced me as "Mr. Webster, Duke," and them as "Mrs. Hollis and Mr. Hollis." The result of that was no notice was taken of me, friendly, unfriendly, or otherwise, which was a way of doing, here in Maryland, I found hard to get used to after my life in the West. The three of them talked along, mostly about hams, which seemed to be cooked out here, and Bill kept telling his sister: "If the work falls behind, you let it stay that way. You hear me, Holly? Take it easy."
She said she would, and all of a sudden he asked me to look at the water in his car. It seemed a funny thing to want, as the filling stations attend to it, but I opened his hood, stuck my finger in, closed up, and said it was all right. He had a little smile on his face, and said: "Duke, you been in the ring?"
"Why—yeah, little. How'd you know?"
"I didn't, until I gave you that little chore, so I could get a look at your hands."
"They're not broke up at all."
"Quit cracking dumb, you know what I mean. Not even a picture actor handles them nice as a fighter."
He was a thick, blocky guy of thirty or so, kind of good-looking, though his wife wasn't, being a thin wispy woman you'd hardly look at twice. He pulled up his right and I cupped both hands over it, which seemed to please him. He said: "O.K., Duke, you're in. Take care of my little sister."
"I'll do my best, Mr. Hollis."
"Don't let her work too hard."
"I certainly won't."
They drove off, after kissing sister good-by, and she went in the house, while I went back to my tree. The next step was my blocks, which had triple pulleys, and should give me traction, if I put them on right. I revved the rope through two of them, climbed up and put on a chain, maybe fifteen feet from the ground. I dragged my first block up and hooked it on the chain. I put a second chain around another tree, but closer to the ground, and hooked on my other block. I took the free end of the rope, tightened up my slack, caught hold of a third tree, and muscled up for the pull. My tree bent, not much, but enough to show the thing would work with a little more clearance below. I pitched in, using the mattock, and really dug trench.
By then it was coming on noon, and when I heard my name called, there she was again, blowing hard from the walk, and making signs I should stop. She had changed her dress to a light blue gingham check, and said it was time for me to eat. I said her husband had given me lunch, a take-out carton from his restaurants, and pointed to it, under some bushes, with a Thermos of hot coffee beside it, and another of cold water. She said I was entitled to a regular lunch, to come in and she'd fix it. I climbed out, put on my jumper again, and started to do as she said. And then all of a sudden it happened.
She'd been interested in my gear, and reached out to feel the rope. If she lost her balance, the ground gave way, or what, I don't know, but whatever the cause, she slid. She slid down in my trench, so the breath squashed out of her and she wedged tight at the hips. I grabbed, but too late, and her head rolled. I jumped down facing her, caught her head, and held it. I said: "Hang on, Mrs. Val, don't let yourself go! Don't do it, or I'll never get you out!"
"It's my heart."
"Don't give in to it! No!"
"I can't breathe."
"Try! You must try!"
"... Wipe my face. Please."
Sweat was all over it, and I got out my handkerchief and wiped it. Then I fanned her, using the handkerchief as you use the towel on a fighter, snapping it into her face. She said: "I'm slipping. I can't touch with my feet."
"Keep talking, Mrs. Val. Fight."
She screamed, then screamed again, from the pain. She said: "I can't stand it! I can't!"
"Hang on! Fight!"CHAPTER 2
ALL THAT TOOK TIME, long, terrible seconds, but I couldn't help it, because what stymied me was the certainty that if she ever actually passed out I could never move her dead weight, and by the time I got to the house, looked up numbers, and called for help, she'd be gone for the big count. But the pain did what no pep talk could do, whipped her to life, and I could get at the rest of it. I let go her head and knelt in front of her, squinched in so tight one leg was back of the other. I took one of her feet, put it on my knee, said: "Now—your arms—wrap 'em! Around my neck—tight! Lean on me—throw your weight! Twist your hips and pull!"
She did, and I felt her move. She gasped: "Oh—thank God—I can breathe! But—let me rest—please."
"That's it, relax."
She let herself down, a little, and I felt her weight, so heavy it was frightening to think what it would have been like if I'd had to move it alone. I said: "Feel better?"
"Yes, but my leg's cramped."
"O.K., straighten up."
She couldn't, and I stopped her, to save her juice. I slid her foot down and put her knee on my knee, so she wouldn't be doubled up and could get some force to her push. I said: "All right, you raise up three inches. You twist your hips and sit. On the edge of the trench you sit, then raise your feet—don't worry about me, I'll close my eyes. When your feet are out, roll over, and that's it. Ready?"
"It'll hurt. You're cut."
"I'm all over blood, from these root ends, and it tickles where it's running down. But never mind that—"
"Let's go. One, two—"
Her scream, the grunt of the ground, and my heave came together, as one. I'd let her rest too long, and the tree moved, against the sky, like some terrible fingers. I bunched myself up, got under her, and somehow pushed her out. The tree was already pinching me, but as she rolled I clawed and came out. Then, just exactly then, when her gingham dress, which had been ripped clean off her, bellied out in the breeze and settled on my head, like some crazy blue sail. I tore clear and the tree was still falling, though not in an arc to threaten us—until my shackle tightened. Then it swung straight at us. I grabbed, threw her over me, and did it again. The ground jumped at the crash, and the butt whipped out of the hole.
She was out cold, face in the grass, and except for pants, belt, bra, and the blood smeared all over her, as naked as the day she was born. I took the dress, what was left of it, and spread it over her, then fanned her with my jumper. She hardly breathed, and her face looked blue, the little I could see. I turned her head, to give her air, unscrewed my water Thermos, slopped splashes on her cheek. She moved her hand I should stop, so at least she was partly conscious. I wiped off the water, said: "Mrs. Val, can you hear me? You understand what I say?" She nodded and I asked her: "What's the name of your doctor? Or do you want me to call Mr. Val, first of all?"
"No! Help me in!"
"You mean, to the house?"
"In a minute, yes."
"Mrs. Val, listen, you're in bad shape, you've taken one hell of a beating, you need a doctor, right out here now, and—"
"I—said—no! I'll go—directly."
"I'll do what I can. I'll get stuff to make it easier. Stay where you are until I come back."
I hustled to the cottage, which was a little one-story shack with a front porch, four rooms, and a little hall. From the bed, where I'd parked my bag, I grabbed up a blanket, and from the parlor two company chairs, which were the kind with chromium pipes and green plastic seats. When I got back she was sitting up, her face hanging in folds, her hair in her eyes, and her breath coming in puffs, but still more alive than she had been. I said: "O.K. First we put on the blanket, keep you a little bit warm. Then you let me help you into this chair I'm putting right here. Then you rest. Then you let me help you to the other one, which I'm putting a few steps nearer the house. Then you rest. I move the first chair nearer, you get to that and rest. Pretty soon, taking one hop at a time, you'll be there. O.K.?"
"That way I can do it."
She made it, leaning heavy on me, but at the last stop she sat there, staring off at nothing, as though thinking of something. Then: "Duke, can I ask a favor? That may sound kind of funny?"
"Whatever you want, just say it."
"You know first aid, don't you?"
"Not really, no."
"Oh yes you do, I could tell. From all you said out there. From how you took charge and all. I want you to fix me up."
"Mrs. Val, you need a doctor."
"Duke, I can't have it known, what happened to me. It's bad enough to be this way, just a sideshow freak. And it's bad enough when things happen, as they do all the time. But to have it talked about—to have a holy show made out of it whatever it is that happens—to have your heart cut out—like there was something I could do—"
"I hadn't thought of it that way."
"You will help me, won't you?"
"After the way you've helped me?"
"How have I helped you, Duke?"
"Treating me human."
"Not everybody remembers it. You and your brother and sister-in-law kind of helped with a pretty bad day. Say what it is and I'll do it."
Excerpted from Galatea by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1953 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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