Give Us a Kissby Daniel Woodrell, Pinckney Benedict (Foreword by)
"My imagination is always skulking about in a wrong place." And now Doyle Redmond, thirty-five-year-old nowhere writer, has crossed the line between imagination and real live trouble. On the lam in his soon-to-be ex-wife's Volvo, he's running a family errand back in his boyhood home of West Table, Missourithe heart of the red-dirt Ozarks. The law wants/b>
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"My imagination is always skulking about in a wrong place." And now Doyle Redmond, thirty-five-year-old nowhere writer, has crossed the line between imagination and real live trouble. On the lam in his soon-to-be ex-wife's Volvo, he's running a family errand back in his boyhood home of West Table, Missourithe heart of the red-dirt Ozarks. The law wants his big brother, Smoke, on a felony warrant, and Doyle's supposed to talk him into giving up. But Smoke is hunkered down in the hills with his partner, Big Annie, and her nineteen-year-old daughter, Niagra, making other plans: they're about to harvest a profitable patch of homegrown marijuana.
Doyle takes just one look at Niagra's flattering red boots before joining his brother's scheme. Of course it means dealing with the law and maybe worsethe Dollys. A legendary clan of largely criminal persuasion, the Dollys have been feuding with the Redmonds for generations. Now they want a piece of Smoke's cash crop, even if it means killing to get it. Doyle is fast realizing that yes, you can always put the country back in the boy...but sometimes that's not smart.
He celebrates blood kin, home country and hot sex in this rich, funny, headshakingly original novel. Woodrell is a ladystinger of a writer."Annie Proulx"
Slick, sparkling, stylized....takes on a mythic quality."The New York Times Book Review"
A backcountry Shakespeare....The inhabitants of Daniel Woodrell's fiction often have a streak that's not just mean but savage; yet physical violence does not dominate his books. What does dominate is a seasoned fatalism....Woodrell has tapped into a novelist's honesty, and lucky for us, he's remorseless that way."Los Angeles Times"
Woodrell is a marvellous writer."Roddy Doyle
And so does Daniel Woodrell. With Give Us a Kiss, his fifth novel, the Ozark-born and -bred author has written a fast-talking white trash libretto about the eternal two-step between genes and karma. Doyle, frustrated by life and love, looks for answers in his past lives and his ancestor's portraits, and he's assured by both that the chip on his shoulder isn't going anywhere. "I carry a bunch of anger around," he says. "Who I carry it for rotates." Woodrell uses these elements to create a darkly comic crime dance where the mystical and the murderous make out in the corner: "I was born for this," Doyle says. "Again, I mean." The result of all these genre shenanigans is charmingly (and terrifyingly) good, dirty fun. --Salon
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Give Us a KissA Novel
By Daniel Woodrell
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2012 Daniel Woodrell
All right reserved.
THREE FINGER JERKS
I HAD A FAMILY errand to run, that’s all, but I decided to take a pistol. It was just a little black thirty-two ladystinger and I tucked it into the blue pillowcase that held my traveling clothes. The pillowcase sat on the passenger’s seat, because you never know when you’ll need to slide a hand in there, all of a sudden, somewhere along the road. I was on the drift back from California to someplace that didn’t have any bench warrants out on me, and naturally I’d showed my face at my folks’ place in K.C., and they saw I had the spare time to take on errands for them. There was no point in arguing. This errand I wanted to do anyway, pretty much, just to see the details of the situation and to note the conclusion, should there be one. After I tuned the radio to a station playing good cornpone driving tunes, I pointed the sort of stagnant pond-green Volvo with Missouri plates I was driving, which probably was on hot sheets as a yellow Volvo with California plates, into traffic on Highway 71, and booked it south from Kansas City.
The law had come nosing around for Smoke again, and Mom and General Jo asked if I wouldn’t go back down home, find my big brother, and talk some sense at him. The Kansas City law had a serious warrant, and, really, truth was on their side, but us Redmonds have never been the sort of bloodline who’ll give our kin up easy to the penitentiary. It is one of our legends of our hillbilly selves, our heritage and genetic demeanor, that we don’t truckle before authority. Mom and General Jo had squared up long ago and gotten a straight life going for themselves on the Kansas side of Kansas City near Thirty-ninth and Rainbow, but these cops on Smoke’s case had lost patience with their recitations of ignorance and were getting all bent out of shape. Smoke was hid away down in the Ozark hills where we came from, and had been for over two years, but the folks figured it was time he came on in and tried to cop a plea. The law had been on their butts almost daily, with spot visits and surly phone calls at all hours, and had finally worn them out as parents.
“Doyle,” General Jo had said, “you help us with Smoke, son, and we’ll help you with your trouble. Your trouble ain’t really much. Domestic shit, is all.”
I’d said what I had to, which was, No sweat, I’ll do it.
A hundred miles south or so I cut east and rolled into the Ozarks region, which is the perfect flip side to a metroplex. It’s all meadows and hills, trees, and red, rocky dirt. The houses show signs of having been built by different generations with different notions of architecture, but all run together to make single rambling homes where the different wings appear almost to have been built as refutations of previous wings. You start seeing chickens in the yards and huge gardens and swing chairs on porches and various vehicles that have rusted so successfully into the landscape as to appear indigenous. Quite a few weathered, tilting outhouses are still standing as a hedge against those fearful days when the septic tank backs up.
Our region, the Ozarks, was all carved by water. When the ice age shifted, the world was nothing but a flood. The runoff through the ages since had slashed valleys and ravines and dark hollows through the mountains. Caves of many sizes are abundant in the cliffs and hillsides, booger-gloomy tunnels that track deep beneath the dirt crust, toward the core, which is allegedly extreme in temperature. These mountains are among the oldest on the planet, worn down now to nubby, stubborn knobs. Ozark mountains seem to hunker instead of tower, and they are plenty rugged but without much of the majestic left in them. The hillsides and valleys sport vast acreages of hardwood and scrub oak and pine, with small, splendid creeks and rivers tracing the low spots. Here and there chunks of land have been cleared by that type of person who has no quit in them at all. Clearing a farm in this terrain often takes generations of bickering and blood blisters to get done, and these hillbillies stuck with it. As a reward for their diligence, they got to give a go at squeezing a living from chickens and hogs and stony fields of red, feckless dirt.
On passing such homesteads I think, Hats off to your hardworking dead and living!
Right near Green Eye I stopped at a Country Boy’s and scooped a six of Busch and a couple packs of Lucky Strike straights. That helped a little. When I finally hit West Table, Mo., our real home, twenty miles north of the Arkansas line in the bull’s-eye heart of the Ozarks, the sun had climbed way up past straight and was evil hot. It might’ve been a nice day in early August if the heat was knocked down to ninety or so. The old boys sitting on benches around the square had their hats in their hands, fanning their faces, telling jokes that were fresh back when Bing Crosby’s crooning made young girls wet their floursack panties. There was a kid with a stick stretching a softened wad of chewing gum off the curb, spinning a long gooey web around himself he wouldn’t soon be shed of. This town, where I was born, and Mom and General Jo were born, and all of us on back past the Civil War were born, is still that way. There is a town square with shops and stores that haven’t been strangled by Wal-Mart yet, with diagonal parking all the way around. The old kind of soda fountains still exist, two of them anyway, and everybody seems to know your face if not your name if you’re a local Ozarker.
On the far side of the square I braked for two ladies from the bank to cross the street, their cotton skirts all clung up in their butts, by sweat, I imagine. They seemed to know the fine picture they made when they caught me smiling wider than just friendly, because one pinched her fingers up there and shook her skirt loose and less interesting, while the other fluttered her fingers at me and didn’t bother. She smiled, too. I believe she was one of the McArdles, from three or four years behind me in school.
On past the square and down Grace Avenue I pulled in at Slager’s Liquor Store. I hoped I could get in and get out without seeing anybody I’d have to jaw with. Everybody talks with everybody in West Table, and a ten-minute trip to the hardware store can yawn into an hour and a half of trading windy chat about hog prices, cousin Fannie’s gout acting up, places where the fish are biting, and places old codgers used to go where, believe me, sonny, those Memphis gals did not bite. This is the surface of life here, anyway. Back behind the smiles and homespun manners and classic American hokum there’s a whole nother side of life, a darker, semilawless, hillbilly side. The side of my homeland that has always attracted me, as it had all the Redmonds and Dawes from whom I spring, and held my respect.
Mr. Slager was behind the counter inside his booze store. He was a crisp little bantamweight fella, up in years, who affected neomilitary attire. His shirts always sported epaulettes, or else they were camouflage. You could get cheap thrills by sticking his spit-shined shoes under skirts and keeping your eyes on the toes. Slager was a decent old skin, yet he had a wistful air about him, standing in his store window in the uniform of the day, that gave me the feeling he thought he’d unfairly survived a patch of bad combat back on Pork Chop Hill or some battle of that vintage.
The store was air-conditioned down forty degrees from the outside, and it instantly chilled my sweat. As the heavy door shut behind me, Slager said, “Hiya.”
“How’re you, Mr. Slager?”
He didn’t seem to know me, since I’d been gone quite a while.
“No kick comin’,” he said, looking at me pretty close. “Whatta ya—Hey, you’re one of ol’ Panda’s, uh, grandkids, right?”
“Right. Doyle Redmond.”
He leaned forward, as if to inspect my uniform, then snapped back to ramrod straight.
“My God,” he said. “It is you—that ponytail threw me. And those whiskers—that’s called a, what’s that now? Goaty, eh?”
“It’s sort of a goaty, sort of not,” I said. “What I need is a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red.”
“We got,” Slager said. He spun around and reached up for the bottle, then about-faced and set it on the counter. “Scotch,” he muttered. “Can’t stand it myself.”
“You have to work up to it,” I said. “Once you get the taste for it, there’s no goin’ back.”
“I’ve been told,” he said. “I know ol’ Panda prefers it—I didn’t know you beatniks did.”
I let that beatnik comment slide by, wondering if Slager had never bought a TV or anything, because that bongo-beatnik stuff was back about when I was born.
“What’s the damage, Mr. Slager?”
“It’s not cheap,” he said. “Scotch. Too something or other for my taste. Nineteen dollars.”
There was a poster behind the register that advertised beer while discouraging drunk driving, but it was the tall glass of beer that stood out, beckoned. A Bush-Quayle sticker was glued flat on the counter, and I put a twenty down on it out of the two hundred the folks had spotted me.
Slager scooped the bill, rang it up.
“Sellin’ more and more of the stuff, though,” he said.
“Now I’m back, keep it in stock.”
“I do that for Panda already.”
I picked up my change and the bag with the bottle in it, then headed toward the door.
“Give my best to Panda.”
“I’ll do her,” I said, and by the time I was behind the wheel again Slager was staring off out the window, back on Pork Chop Hill or whatever, imagining himself dying gloriously with his heroic comrades instead of living on and on for no special reason except to feel semper fi and lonesome and guilty.
Panda’s house was at the edge of town, just a few more blocks along Grace Avenue from Slager’s, and it sat atop a steep nub of earth right up against the town cemetery, almost looming over the acres of dead. When I pulled into the pea-gravel drive I could see my grandpa the sportsman at the door of the side porch, a cigar in his mouth, a BB rifle in his hand. Since his knees went kaplooey this had gotten to be his hobby, hanging out the door, potshotting at the bevy of squirrels that run between the mighty, leafy oaks of the cemetery. The fact that there are plenty of squirrels still alive in there amongst the headstones gives testimony to how many years Panda has stacked behind him, because there was a time he didn’t miss what he shot at. Once in a while he’ll hit a car cutting through the cemetery and some poor sap’ll come to the door to complain and get deluged with one of Panda’s spectacular gushers of bullshit that usually ends when the fella with the dinged car apologizes and offers to drop off some tomatoes fresh from his garden. Panda is a pisser of an old man, and he’s got a big mean streak and a big funny streak and fairly often they are the same streak. He delivers jokes that hurt and mean things that make you laugh, sometimes.
I grabbed the bottle out of the car and headed across the yard to the side porch, and Panda heard me and looked over. He dropped the butt of the BB rifle to the floor and worked his cigar over with his lips. His first words were: “Nice ponytail—reminds me of Liz Taylor in National Velvet.”
“Don’t start off on me that way, Panda.”
“It’s the truth. Yours is maybe even nicer’n hers—more girly.”
I held the bagged bottle up and said, “Got some Johnnie Red here.”
Panda wore a white sleeveless T-shirt and khaki pants. He made a show of holding the door open for me.
“You’re always welcome, Doyle,” he said. His accent is deeper than mine, lush and basso, almost Delta-sounding. “Not as welcome as Johnnie Red, but more welcome than just any ol’ hippie off the street.”
“Blood bein’ blood and all,” I said. His hippie comment is twenty years out of date, and it makes me wonder what kind of time-warp conversations he and Slager must have, the one stuck on the space-time continuum back where a “goaty” meant beatnik, the other still seeing hippie-pansy teenage rebellion agitatin’ behind the hairstyle of his thirty-five-year-old grandson. I just haven’t felt like a haircut for a while, there’s nothing else to my hairdo but that. Plus, nowadays every third Ozark timber-hauler has long hair and a beard, but Panda must see that as evidence that the ongoing Woodstock Revolution has him surrounded, I guess. He’s a clean-shaven, flattop man himself.
I said, “Good to see you,” as I sat at the kitchen table, hoping that what I said would prove to be true.
“Oh, sure—back at you,” he said. He rooted his knobby hands in the cupboard above the sink, then came over with a couple of dusty glasses. His walk was unsyncopated, that big limp throwing the rhythm of his steps out of time. “Need ice?”
I’m trying to get along with him at this point, but I’m not sure there’s a right answer to that question. Then it comes to me that ice’ll be candy-assed in his lexicon of manly traits, so that’s what I said, just blurted it, the Redmond love of petty friction coming out in me, too. “A couple of cubes would be good.”
“That’s how I take it,” he said, outflanking me. He popped the freezer door open and snatched a blue tray of ice, then sat at the table across from me. The kitchen was dark and shadowy like the whole downstairs of Panda’s house was—shades drawn against the eyes of neighbors, I suppose. All I could see of him, even at two feet, was his outline. He still made a stout, burly outline for a man with eight decades plus under his belt. His outline sat still for a bit, then his voice came from it, “Well, crack the seal, boy.”
I pulled the bottle and busted the seal and started pouring Johnnie Red over ice, and it wasn’t too many swallows before we were getting along just dandy, and I knew I loved the aged asshole inside that dark outline, no matter what.
By all accounts Panda was a better man as an old man than he’d ever been when younger. I couldn’t’ve stood to know him, I don’t think, when he was twenty-two or thirty or even forty, blood relative or not. His temperament was given an outlet for some years when he took up boxing, and from what I’ve been told he was a country-fair heavyweight. This was back in the days when a one-hundred-ninety-pounder was a big bruiser. Panda was a corn-circuit heavyweight during the tail end of the twenties and into the thirties. He tussled with Indian Jack Roberts in Tulsa, Bearcat Lee in Memphis, Cowboy Hussel in Omaha, Willie Perroni in Hot Springs, and Johnny Risko in Kansas City. Those fights were highlights. Most of his scraps were at small-town smokers and county fairs in places like Sedalia and Mountain Home and Joplin. He fought with a funny, crouching, cross-armed style he still liked to demonstrate, a style that by its odd tilt dictated he pretty much lived or died by the great left hook. In an era when white fighters tended to duck good black fighters, Panda didn’t. He took on whoever wanted to tangle, but he generally spoke of this fact in a way that tended to strip the shine from his democratic gesture, “I always would fight a nigger in a minute.” His actual record remains unknown, though he once told me he had thirty-five fights, with twenty-five wins, a half-dozen losses, and some no-decisions. He said he’d knocked out quite a few fellas but he hadn’t counted them up. What has always made me wonder is, his lifelong sidekick, Jimmy Ware, who’d been both Panda’s second and sparring partner, told me an odd thing I can’t jibe with Panda’s personality: this is, Panda’s real record was more like forty or forty-two wins against seven losses and six no-decisions, and his kayo tally was over thirty. Modesty about his accomplishments is something I could never associate with the Panda I knew, who was not exactly a fella who underappraised himself. I think I saw him fight in one of my past lives, but I dropped out of regression therapy without knowing if he’d kicked butt or been beat. My therapist was certain I’d bought a ringside ticket, at the very least. The truth of his record is there to be found, I suppose, in the yellowed sports pages of tank-town papers. I always planned to do the research and find out someday.
The thing that fits with Panda is, he didn’t need to fight, he just enjoyed it so. When Panda came up, the Redmonds were still well-to-do, at least by Howl County standards. There are several pictures of Panda from that era, and he was always dressed more like a Kansas City boulevardier than a traveling country jake, which is what he was. He drove a new Ford to all his bouts, Jimmy Ware alongside him to fix his cuts and hold the spit bucket. I like to think of them back there in the heydays, tooling from town to town in a fresh-smelling Ford, nipping bootleg from a hip flask, two Ozark tuffies out in the world, having tumultuous adventures.
Panda’s dad, Manfred, handed over the Redmond land to Panda a few years after he’d hung up the gloves and started staying put. The Redmond land in those times took a lot of minding, being over seventeen hundred acres of Ozark meadow and forest, acres that had been very profitable Redmond land since the year after the Civil War ground to a finish. Our land then began where the house still is, ran across what has become the newer part of the cemetery, clear over until it hit a little mud river called The Howl that marked the eastern border of all the fine land that was ours.
That land was ours right up until Panda lost his mind for a critical few seconds and shot some sorry wretch on the West Table town square. He did this shooting during a Saturday livestock sale, so there weren’t more than seven or eight hundred eyewitnesses. This silly killing happened in 1950, not all that many years before I was born, and I think it has shaped my life, and General Jo’s and Smoke’s, too, in all kinds of ways that can’t be proven but are sensed, felt, maybe only imagined. What would our lives have been like if we’d still been well-to-do instead of broke down to white trash and bristly about it?
The man Panda shot, three times, even once after the man was down and begging, was named Logan Dolly, and nobody says the man was anything other than a worthless piece of shit, but, still, that second and third shot were seen by all. When the sheriff, Carl Tucker in those days, hustled over to Panda, he said, “That first shot might’ve made you a hero—but you’ll have to go down for the second and the third.”
Panda’s mom was still alive, and she couldn’t tolerate the idea of her only surviving son doing life up in Jefferson City. She knew people. The Redmonds and all the kin hereabouts knew people, so the land, our land, and all our hogs and cattle and implements, were sold for less than they were worth, and the cash was ladled out to grease the wheels of justice. The money went to two lawyers, two judges, a state representative, a congressman, Sheriff Tucker, various key witnesses, and the family of the dead Dolly, who I imagine figured they’d gotten a damned fine price for Logan. Several weeks after the killing it was ruled self-defense, and Panda walked scot-free, and from then on wherever he walked people let him walk with plenty of elbow room.
I’ve never been told why he did it. No one, not even Mom or General Jo, would answer my questions on the topic. I suspect that if the facts were let out, Panda’s vicious act would look awful sorry, probably inexcusable.
But our whole legacy, a Redmond legacy that had taken generations to build, was burned up in bribes because of three finger jerks Panda couldn’t control.
THAT BULLHEAD LOOKS TASTY
THE BOTTLE OF Johnnie Red had gone a good ways south, and the sun was starting to slip down toward the rim of the world. I’d opened a few shades to let in some light, and Panda was standing by the sink, his feet rooted, but his upper body and arms were feinting and crouching and snapping short geriatric hooks at a badass phantom battler who’d had Panda’s number back in the heydays. In regression therapy, which I fell into to appease my wife, it appeared for a while that in a former life I might actually have fought Panda, but then the veiled memories began to focus on a ticket in my former hand. Otherwise, this might’ve been me Panda dreamed of licking. He had gotten a good, sweaty octogenarian lather up. A chewy cigar chunk stuck out of his mouth like an on-off knob.
Suddenly he stops whipping up on the phantom who isn’t me, and turns his drunk blue eyes my way.
“What kind of trouble you in?’
“No trouble at all.”
“Not really, I don’t think.”
Panda assessed my comments for a minute, that stogie stub twitching rhythmically. Then he said, “That shit ain’t goin’ to flush, boy.”
I sort of enjoyed being called boy. It made me feel like I had one hundred percent of my head hair again, and there was a long, rich life stretching before me instead of a promising future moldering behind me.
“That’s my story,” I said.
“You still married?”
“Legally,” I said. “That’s off-limits, Panda.”
He put his hands up alongside his mouth and pressed his cheeks together to create a comic, woeful facial expression.
“Ohhh, l’amour, l’amour,” he moaned in his notion of a pitiful Frenchman, then switched to what I imagine was an Italian immigrant, going, “Where da fore arta dou whanna I wanta you so a bad.”
I rattled my glass of ice cubes and said, “Something along those lines.”
Panda came to the table and dropped heavily to his chair.
“It’s always along those lines,” he said. He looked at the bottle and the ashtray full of Lucky butts. “We should be thinkin’ about eatin’,” he said, “and I know just what I want to fry.”
“Okay. So tell me.”
“Sweet, fat catfish.”
“From the IGA, you mean?”
“Why, hell no. Sweet, fat catfish noodled fresh from The Howl, over here a ways.”
“Boy howdy,” I said, and laughed. “I saw this fish noodlin’ trip comin’ ever since you first said, ‘Crack the seal, boy.’ ”
Panda couldn’t walk it, so I had to drive. He sat in the passenger’s seat, blackthorn cane between his legs, and shot scolding glances my way at any slight jostle, as if I was taking every bump in the road all wrong. If Panda’s face was carved on the prow of a seagoing vessel, it’d be a vessel that didn’t get fucked with much. He’s got the nose job common among leather pushers, a honker carelessly crafted into a memorable, intimidating lump by six hundred stiff jabs he didn’t slip. There’s a little swayback an inch above the nostrils that rules out the strict usage of “flattened” as a description. Jimmy Ware did the best he could on the plentiful splits in Panda’s skin, especially around the eyes, but his brows are yet cleaved by hairless puckers, and odd-shaped gashes have aged even odder on his cheeks and lips. He has the face of a man who early in life discovered pain and slow disfigurement as special delights, and never met the agony he didn’t seek more of. But it’s the overall glow of personality that gives his face that back-off-sucker sheen, as his smartness shows in his bright blue eyes, and along with the smarts obvious in those orbs, you can see the unabashedly mean and dauntless spirit of the man.
That is, he’s a wonderful figure for a grandpa, by Redmond standards.
I took the route through the new wing of the cemetery, the dead laid out in democratic rows across a hillock and a swale where our hogs used to wallow. Then I pulled onto Jewel Road for a couple hundred yards until we came to the private drive of the newest owner of most of our land. He’d fenced everything in with pretty crisscrossed white lumber, and the only way to get to The Howl from this angle would be up the drive, then plow the Volvo across his immaculate grounds.
The house is a mansion built by drumsticks. It’s a huge, impressive piece of architecture, even though Panda considered it just a boogered-up squatter’s hovel. The notorious owner, Sam T. Byrum, sucked beaucoup lucre into his pockets when the red-meat scare came in the seventies and his poultry interests boomed. Byrum, or maybe his wife, Helene, had a deep-rooted fixation on Gone With the Wind, because this house is held up by the aristocratic white columns of the ol’ Tara place the Yankees did wrong to in that flick. The power of film has resulted in this place, I guessed, and despite my atavistic allegiance to the land it sits on, the joint impressed me. There are white-bricked walls on either side of the drive, and though the gate was open I could see it carried brass-plated scrollwork that read TARARUM, a lazy mix of “Byrum” and “Tara.”
I had the car stopped outside the drive, and, by golly, Panda’s eyes had gotten misty.
“Go on in,” he said.
“Go on in, I told you.” He stabbed that blackthorn cane on the floorboards a couple of times. “Drive on to The Howl.”
This was the sort of moment, a key instance in fact, when Redmonds drift wide of the dully acceptable. The Volvo, I knew, didn’t exactly belong to me, and was probably reported stolen, and there’s an open bottle of Johnnie Red on the dash, and the blue pillowcase with a ladystinger in it is on the backseat, and this land hasn’t been technically ours for near forty years. But we Redmonds haven’t accrued our pungent family history by meekly toeing the mark the world has laid down, as we have our own Redmond world stuck between our ears by cherished myths and lies, facts and memories and inherited animosities.
Cut to: me naked in the Howl River, the brown water warm as spit. Panda had squatted on the hood of the Volvo to direct me, a novice noodler, on how to hand fish. There was an obvious wheel rut running from Tararum, past the swimming pool and the flower beds and the sexy statues, clean to where the Volvo sat.
“Don’t be such a sissy,” Panda said. “Run your hand up under the bank, into those mud holes. The cats sit in there when it’s hotted up like today.”
This mode of fishing, noodling, is a crime. The fine is around five hundred dollars, but Panda had a love for it as it was a skill country men of his age excelled at. I did not excel. I did not even enjoy it, running hands blind under logs and into mud holes—I am cursed by a bounty of imagination. Vivid possibilities rushed my brain while my hands slid into holes, such as creatures neither fish nor snake, but toothy and scaly carnivores that had lived for eons in mud holes and would soon snack on my succulent digits. All kinds of folktales about noodlers pulled under! by serpent-sized catfish and drowned (some of these stories are actually documented) or sliced like bacon by sharp fins, went boo! in my brain.
I’d gotten a two-pound bullhead by accident right quick, and I kept looking at it on the grassy bank, flopping at Panda’s feet, thinking, That’ll fry up to feed two.
“You’re sloshin’,” Panda yelled. “You won’t get none that way, boy.”
“I am not sloshin’.”
“You been citified. You ain’t worth a damn noodlin’.”
He wanted a jumbo catfish, but, truly, I was happy with that bullhead. The sun was about to fade out, but there was a tangle of blowdown crushed against the bank I hadn’t yet tried. So I slid that way, my feet sinking in mud. Just as I got there something came flitting out at thigh level, and brushed me like a cat in a dark room, but slimy and big, and all I could think of was a horrible thought about my privates dangling there like dough balls of bait, and I dove toward the middle and swam, thrashing hard.
As I clawed up the slick bank I said, “That bullhead is plenty.”
Then I saw the sheriff, on foot, following our wheel ruts, with Mrs. Byrum behind him, standing back by the pool. Helene Byrum was a smashing blond lady, probably forty plus, but rich and sleek and distant. She was dressed in white finery, a wafer-thin and snug dress, very comely and chic, but her body language was clearly shouting, Get the fuck off my land, you white-trash goobers!
The sheriff was a tall, slender bullwhip of a fella, only a few grades older than me. He sported a big handlebar mustache he apparently doted on, pampered, as it was nigh perfect, and showed he was not only a handy fella with the tiny clippers and Butch Wax, but also fancied himself to be linked to the famously mustachioed frontier lawmen who had stood tall and firm and backshot so many white-trash bad boys and mixed-breed chicken snatchers while serving the public. That big official pistol slapped at his side as he came downhill. His name was Terence (never Terry) Lilley, and he was a butthole cousin to the Redmonds.
“Goddamn it, Panda,” he said when he got close enough. His voice was thinner than he was, high and scratchy, but his face was stern. “You been warned to not come in here.”
Panda gave him a straight stare.
“My mind, she is old, rattly,” Panda said. “Things have melted out a here.” He pushed a finger hard against his head. “Such as do this, don’t do that.”
“The lady is pissed,” Terence said, then saw me come over the lip of the bank, naked. “And who is this, bareassed and grinnin’ like the wave atop a slop bucket?”
“Doyle,” I said. “Redmond.”
Terence nodded some, did a little fine-tuning of his handlebars.
“Oh, sure, Doyle, the little Redmond.”
I’m six two in boots, haulin’ two hundred pounds, but to many herebouts I am still Smoke’s li’l bro. I stood there, shakin’ water drops loose like a dog. I smelled strongly of Howl River, but that’s a stink I never could hate. I started to pull my jeans on, and I noted that, up the hill, there, Helene hadn’t looked away from me once, or gone into a high-toned, elegant swoon, either. In fact, she had a hand held above her eyes to clarify distant objects.
I cupped some fingers under my love works and made a show of whippin’ river drops off. I made it appear to be a heavy job.
When I pulled my jeans up, her hand dropped.
Suddenly she was immensely likable, and the huge socioeconomic gulf between us seemed narrowed down to a mere crack that one good jump could carry me across.
Sheriff Lilley began to slowly amble around the Volvo, looking at its bad color in the fading light.
“Who did this paint job?”
“Oh, I forgot the name.”
“I’d sue,” he said. He backed a few steps from the Volvo and the sad-assed paint job me and General Jo had done, trying to spray over yellow with blue. “I see paint jobs that a way when kids have stolt a car or something.”
“I like it,” I said. “It’s different.”
“It’s real different,” he said. Then he faced me and said, “You see Smoke, and I know you will, tell him to settle things with those Kansas cops. They’ve had a man down here twice, and they’re pesterin’ the hell out of me.”
“If I see him, I’ll tell him.”
“Quit it—you’ll see him. I’ve seen him a few times, and I could find him again if I gave two shits about what he done up in the city.”
I imagine Sheriff Lilley’s lack of resolve vis-à-vis Smoke traces back to us bein’ butthole cousins. A butthole cousin is a cousin, sure enough, but it’s such a distant, hard-to-trace blood mixin’ that such relatives are called butthole cousins. It doesn’t mean you’re friends or swap Christmas cards or any of that, but it means you’re kin of a sort, and kin of any sort means a little something in the Ozarks.
“You know,” he said, “my wife fetched home one of your books, Doyle. She’s a reader, I’m not, really. I never did finish it—too violent and silly.”
I stood there and took it, this capsule review from a sheriff who’d once been the object of ridicule for spelling “law enforcement” as “law engorgement” on a campaign poster. I had learned to be calm before such philistines.
“And you,” he said, whirling on Panda, “this is the last time I catch you trespassin’ on Byrum land and don’t ring you up. I mean it, Panda, goddamn it. You’re an old man and all, but I’ll ring your ass up good next time.”
“I could do ninety days without changin’ cigars,” Panda said.
“Next time we’ll see if that’s so.”
I picked the bullhead up, finger in the gills, which I guess I shouldn’t have.
“And that fish is an illegal catch,” Sheriff Lilley said. He came a little closer for a look at the bullhead. There was good eating on that bullhead, and it was still floppin’ fresh. “I could ring you both for that right now, but I’m headed home.” He held a beckoning hand toward me and I let him take the fish. “Now I’m gonna overlook your crimes if you get your asses out of here right now—’cause my, oh, my, that bullhead looks tasty.”
WHENEVER SMOKE AND me got together, something not too savory seemed to happen. In our teenage years we were like car wrecks that you knew would happen again, almost nightly, at the same old crossroads of Hormones and Liquor. I suppose I figured a little more age might have made us brothers less combustible companions, though I’m not sure it wasn’t those dangerous possibilities that had me on this family errand at all.
The morning was hot by breakfast. There was a slight, hot breeze carrying the scent of the feedlot, which is a good stink, a stink cattlemen always say smells like money. There was lots of loot in the wind. Now and again, in the gustier moments, you could hear the beef bawling richly down in the pens.
I set out to find Smoke using Panda’s directions. The drive would not be long, but it would take me into the countryside of our home territory, which is the same as going to church for me.
I was going slow down a rock road that had split away from Jewel Road, and the trees from both sides had joined branches above to make a secular cathedral of limb and leaf. When the rock road went into a low-water spot and I had forded a few inches of creek, I looked for the first dirt lane headed south.
There was, by happenstance, or nature’s weird foreshadowing, I’ll never know, a road-killed carcass at the first lane headed south. The carcass was hairy and stretched full-length, paws fully extended. It was a coyote, and its yellow fur was busted open in the rib cage area and alive with maggots, so that it seemed to be breathing, busted open or not. One of my past-life voices (the girl on ancient Crete who milked goats and was barren) broke through the veil and said, “Look closely, Imaru!” Imaru is what they all call me, even the more recently past ones. The exposed meat of the coyote showed signs of having been pecked and torn at by all manner of lesser creatures who would have fled before the beast when he lived. I guess I sensed the message but didn’t rightly absorb it.
I drove slowly past the carcass and down the lane. The lane was only clear enough for one car to pass, and branches and weeds and stems beat against the Volvo, snapping and cracking encouragement to back up, get out of here. No voice guided me though, as they only come in tune enough to make out in a frustrating hit- or-miss style, like trying to dial in the Chicago blues station on the radio driving across Kansas at night. You might catch a few notes but you can’t call the song, let alone the lyrics.
I bounced down the rut holes and bent back the branches and pushed on. A house busted into view before too long. It was kind of an A-frame, but with double-A peaks, and a cedar deck, and an old yellow mobile home snug along the deck as an add-on. The deck was partly covered, and many a wind chime, all varieties, were hung from the roof. There were potted Norfolk pines about head-high growing near the porch rail, and a few peacocks and guinea hens and a couple of cats and a mutt looked at me as I pulled up.
The peacocks let rip with that wicked screeching they favor.
I got out, fired a Lucky, and sat on the hood. The mutt came over, wagging his tail low to the ground like a whisk broom, signaling in this manner of dog-lingo body language that he acknowledged my superiority and would enjoy being friends. He was longhaired, basically white, and spotted the color of an oil stain in the driveway. I petted him, and he grinned and jumped so I could reach behind his ears more easily. We were tight buddies in a matter of seconds.
Then the screen door slammed, and out came this vision of hillbillyette beauty. She held a pistol in her hand in a fairly neighborly and utterly charming fashion. Her long hair was a perfect champagne blond, and she had cutoff jeans on and a T-shirt that said COUNTRY BEAVER AND THE RHYTHM DRIFTERS. Sunglasses with a white frame hid her eyes. Her red cowgirl boots went up her bare legs like flame licks from hell.
She was studying me, a scholarly expression on her face. I couldn’t quite speak, and she kept poring over me. Finally she sat the gun on the porch rail and said, “I know who you are.” She slid her shades down her nose, and I saw for the first time her stunning green eyes, so smart, fearless, and ethereal. “I seen your picture on Smoke’s books.”
“Is that right?” I said, which wasn’t much, but I was happy to hear myself speak.
“I’ve read ’em all,” she said.
“Is that right?”
“Every one of ’em. Every word.”
She was leaning on the rail, stretching like a fearless cat.
“Is that right?”
“You scared of me?” she asked.
“No, no. Just bein’, I don’t know—polite.”
Excerpted from Give Us a Kiss by Daniel Woodrell Copyright © 2012 by Daniel Woodrell. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Five of Daniel Woodrell's eight published novels were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Tomato Red won the PEN West Award for the Novel in 1999. Woodrell lives in the Ozarks near the Arkansas line with his wife, Katie Estill.
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Great book. I highly recommend it. Characters are excellently drawn and setting is spot on. Great twists. Really puts you in the Ozarks.
I am a city girl who learned so much about life amoung mountain dwellers...all of it insightful and heartwarming. This author is brilliant...his prose so intelligent and readable. I never read the same author consecutively...until now! I am about to begin another of his novels.
I'm surprised this book has not gotten more reviews--I LOVE THIS AUTHOR! I had just read The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodress and while it was probably one of the most gritty and disturbing novels I have ever read, it was one I could not put down. After that, I rushed off to my local library and picked up two more of Woodrell's novels. Give us a Kiss, is, thankfully, much more light-hearted, a dark comedy, that again, I could not put down. Whether humorous or tragic, Woodrell has a distinct voice and gives the reader a refreshing story. Highly recommended!