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IT WAS THE SAME old Saturday night Mom and I had been having off and on since my father died—or at least the man I had thought was my father. Here lately, the evening got started earlier than it had been starting, as the filling station where I worked was closed, with the sign hung on the pump: "Sorry, No Gas." So there I'd be, home with Mom. But don't get the idea that things were slow or that time dragged. Plenty was going on, a little too much, for my taste, and too lively. The first part—in the early evening— wasn't too bad, just screwy, which, of course, there's no law against. She'd begin talking about how rich we would be by and by, pretty soon, one of these days, and tonight was extra special on account of the rainbow she'd seen late in the afternoon, after the rain when the sun came out.
"And you know, Dave," she whispered, "what's under the end of that bow—a pot of gold, that's what. It's waiting for us, I can feel it—if we just show some gump. If we take the car next week, go out there and get it."
"There's a road to the end of that bow?"
"You know what I mean."
"No, I don't."
Because she'd meant so many things at one time or another, I'd more or less lost track. Like for a while she meant oil, insisting it ought to be drilled for on our land, and then we'd get royalties on it, "thousands and thousands." I told her southern Ohio was all drilled out. "They used to have oil here," I explained, "but that was years ago, and there's no more to be had—on our land or any other." Then for a while she meant Marriott. She'd read about Marriott in the papers, that he should locate a park on our land, with roller coasters, ferris wheels, and on the river a steamboat ride.
Our place is on the Muskingum, ten miles up from Marietta, or two places, actually—small farms next to each other that we grew produce on, she doing most of the work, me helping her when I could, with hired labor when we needed it. It's true that steamers once ran on the river, but I didn't know any way of getting Marriott up here. She'd meant other things too, each one goofier than the last, so what she meant now I didn't exactly know, but I let her tell me; I knew I'd have no peace till she did.
"OK, what is it?" I asked.
"Well," she began, drawing a long, trembling breath, "this time it can be done—by us. We don't have to ask nobody. We just up and go—drive over in our car when we get good and ready to take advantage."
"Because this time we can—"
"Will you for God's sake say it?"
"It's in Maryland. We drive over to Cumberland, which is less than a day's trip, and—"
"Yeah? And what?"
"Buy us lottery tickets."
So, all that puffing and poofing, and she come up with this. But she was small and young and pretty in her freckle-faced mountain way, and I knew by then that she lived in a world of dreams. So I kissed her and told her: "Fine, we'll drive over to Cumberland—that's the place?—next month when the roads dry off. Right now, everything's flooded, and we'd be up to our hubcaps in water. But soon as it goes down we'll go and buy ourself a ticket."
"More than one, Dave—we have to buy a bunch. That way, you're bound to win."
That wasn't the way I'd heard it, but I went along and for a while kept her company pretending. Then after a while I asked: "So OK, we cash a ticket—then what?"
"Well, we'll be rich."
"I asked you: and then what?"
" Then ... with all that money we could sell this place, sell the other place too, and sit back and—"
"Whatever we want."
We had two places because I'd bought a second one after my father died—her husband, I mean—in addition to the place we had when he was alive. That place he had built himself in the only way he knew—with a hammer, saw, lumber, and his two hands. A ranch-house, he called it. He was from Texas, and when he went into the army, he had been put on recruiting duty in Marietta, where she was slinging hash in a lunchroom. She was from Flint, West Virginia, then a coal camp on the Monongahela, now a ghost town, with the mine closed down, though a strip crew has started work on the other side of the mountain. She'd worked first in Fairmont, down the river from Flint, but she got let out after a row she got into. That's when she crossed to Ohio. I asked her once why she came so far instead of picking Clarksburg which was just down the road. "I don't like Clarksburg too well," she told me, but once when I was over there I found out the reason. She was a Giles, and back of Clarksburg the place is full of Kings. A Giles doesn't come near a King, on account it's not healthy. I'm trying to explain her a little, how being "mountain" caused her to be like she was.
So they got married, she and Jody Howell, and he bought the other place with the money they'd both saved and built the house himself. He built it the way he knew from Texas: square, cut up into four rooms with connecting doors, two front doors, two back doors, a front porch, and a kitchen out in the back yard. However, a house that's perfect for Texas is cold as death in Ohio. When winter came, we almost froze. When I was 16 he came down with galloping TB and sat out on the porch all day with a cup beside him to spit in, "chasing the cure," as they call it. Then he died. He had never told us he carried insurance, but a check for $10,000 came, made out to me. With the money I made a down payment on the place next to us, $9,000 against the price of $22,000, and we moved to the new house. She was bitter toward him, that he carried insurance for me, "and not one cent" for her. That's when it started up, her acting so peculiar, which is what I'm leading to. I'm not going to apologize for beating around the bush a little bit; the way I feel about it, I could beat around the tree, even a whole forest full of trees.
OK, then, I'll say it: she made passes at me. After talking about the gold, the money we would make one way or another, she'd catch hold of my hand, pull it around her, and draw it across her breast that was full and warm and soft. It scared me to death and then some. I've been trying to say she was mountain, and I'd heard of stuff like that—of mothers that fell for their boys, and vice versa, fathers and daughters.
It sounds funny, but you have to remember that mountain boys of 16 can load just as much coal as pappy, so when they work in the mines, they get married, mostly to girls of 14, maybe younger. Well, when Sonny comes sweet 16, never been kissed, a good-looking boy with muscles, mommy's still in her twenties, with ideas no older than that. And of course it kind of works backwards, with pappy and Sissy, soon as he notices her. I'm trying to say when you run into something like that, that you hardly dare to believe, you generally find there's a reason. With Mom, there was her looks on top of her age. She was still in her thirties, and I was just 22. She was medium, verging on small, with dusty blond hair, light blue eyes, pale skin, and freckles, and a body no man could forget.
But I'm still beating around the bush. I'm trying to say: what scared me to death was that if she was mountain, I was too or at least so I thought. It turned out I actually was, though in a different way than I'd supposed. If I was mountain, maybe I wanted my hand to be there as much as she did. I had a horror about it, that we might be headed for something like going over the dam nine miles down the Muskingum.
So all of a sudden I said, "Time for bed." We both slept on the first floor of the new house, me in the den, her in the dining room. The way the house was laid out, the front door opened onto a hall that led back to the kitchen, and that had stairs in it, leading up to the second floor and a closet under the stairs, for wraps. To the left of the hall, through an arch leading in, was the living room, with a fireplace at the far end, and a double door in the rear wall, leading to a dining room. Beside the fireplace was a door to a small den that was built as kind of an annex to the living room, but mainly to make a sundeck up on the second floor. To get us all on one floor she had me sleep in the den and put herself in the dining room, both of us on cots she bought in town, and under blankets, as she said sheets were "just foolishness" besides being trouble to wash. I felt pretty ashamed but went along. So this particular Saturday night I was no sooner tucked away than there was a tap on my door, and there she was, bringing me cornbread and buttermilk. I drank and ate while she sat beside me in nightie and blue kimono, but with everything hanging open, unbuttoned. I said: "Hey, pull that kimono together!"
"You've seen me often enough, It's just nature."
"I've seen you too often, especially here lately, and maybe it's nature, but that's not saying it's right."
"You mean, on account of my being your mother?"
"What do you think I mean? And why don't you mean it?"
"There might be a reason, Dave."
That's the way she always talked about it. She always slid past the point, never hitting it on the nose, so it didn't occur to me she might mean something actual. I told her: "Goddamn it, pull that thing together!"
"Did you hear what I said?"
"Did you hear what I said?"
She pulled it together at last. Then, as though it was just a funny idea that had popped in her head, she said: "You look so comfortable there in that bed, I wouldn't ask much to crawl myself in right there with you."
"I wouldn't ask anything to kick you the hell out. Here, take this glass and git."
I drained it and handed it over. She took it and said: "You aren't very nice to me, Dave."
"You're too damned nice to me."
"Little Davey Howell, listen—"
"I said git. So git."
At last she got or git or whatever you'd call it, and after I'd snapped off the light, I lay in the dark asking myself, what about it? There was no doubt what she meant. The question was, what did I mean? I was 22, with normal impulses, a little too normal these last two months, since a girl I'd been going with left me flat, turned around and married a guy for no reason at all I could see except that he had a Cadillac. It had rocked me pretty hard, especially at night, which was when that girl and I got together for some great lovemaking. With Mom, I thought my answer was no, but I wasn't sure that it was.
I lay awake and was bothered plenty. But I must have gone to sleep, because I woke up all of a sudden with the light shining in from the living room, and Mom by the bed, shaking me. At first I thought it was more of the same.
"Dave," she whispered, "there's somebody down on the island. They're hollering."
The "island" was a little hummocksy hill in the river that had stuck out from the east bank where we lived and then had been cut off by the river a couple of years before. It was in sight of the ranchhouse where we kept a light burning to make it look like someone was there. It wasn't in sight of this house, though, unless you went upstairs to look.
"Mom, you're imagining things. No one could be on the island. There's no way on this earth they could get there. It's probably some drunk on the road, wanting help with his car. Now go back to bed. Leave me alone; let me sleep."
"Maybe no way on this earth. There could be other ways."
"Other ways? What are you talking about?"
"What do you think?"
Then suddenly I remembered the newscasts, the flashes they kept coming up with while we were watching TV about the plane a guy had hijacked by holding a gun to a girl as his hostage, a stewardess on the plane, and making it fly all around in a crazy way, from Chicago to Pittsburgh and back and around, while $100,000 and a parachute were brought and handed over—with 28 people on board and a storm coming up. Mom stood there in the half-dark, staring down at me, and whispered: "He's hollering and she is too, that girl—she must be the one he was holding the gun on—it's got to be that."
I jumped up and ran back to the kitchen and listened. Sure enough, I could hear a man yelling, and then in between a girl.
"OK," I said. "We have to go down. Get the flashlights while I put something on."CHAPTER 2
SHE WAS ALREADY DRESSED, waiting for me out back. I put on my pants and shoes but no socks and a sheepskin coat, without a shirt. In the kitchen I picked up the rifle that always stood there. It was an Enfield from World War I my father had got at a surplus sale in Marietta. I threw the bolt and rammed a round into the chamber. With both of us holding flashlights, we went down the path. As we got near the water's edge, the guy stopped hollering and all of a sudden said: "Hey!"
"Hey," I answered. "Who are you?"
"Never mind who I am. You got a boat?"
"You got a car?"
"Get the boat. Show me the car. Hand me the keys."
"Oh please," the girl cut in in a trembling voice, "do what he says or he'll kill me."
"You heard me, kid. Do it now!"
"And you heard me, I hope," I said. "OK, but there's a couple of things we have to get straight first. Lady, who are you?"
"I was the stewardess on that plane, the one he hijacked last night. He kept holding a gun to my head. Then when they finally opened the door, he was too scared to jump, and I pushed him. He grabbed me, and we both went. He kept hitting me to make me let go, but I wouldn't, and then we came down in the water. Oh, please, he could kill me now. He—"
"Oh no he won't."
"What makes you think I won't?"
"If she gets it, you do too."
No answer to that, so I told him: "You can't get off that island without me ferrying you over. God help you in that water if you try to swim. It's flood tide. They'll fish you out dead nine miles down when you go over the dam. Understand?"
"OK. Now I have to get oars from the house—"
"Over that hill."
"I don't see no hill."
"I'll have a light put in."
I said, "I'll be back with the boat" and started for the house, whispering to Mom: "Whatever I do, keep talking." By now she had turned off the spotlight. I went on up to the house and into the kitchen to look at the clock. It said five after five. Daybreak was only a few minutes away, so I had to move fast. I went outside again, picked up the oars from the back porch, and went down the other path to the boat which was tied up to our little landing. Fortunately, a week or ten days before, I had put it up on a trestle.
It takes a few days for a boat to swell after being out of water that long, and of course it leaked, but not much. The second time I had bailed it out there wasn't much to bail, which meant it was tight and ready. So, after stripping off the tarp I had put on, I was ready to go. A johnboat is a square-ended thing the size of a soap dish, with a seat in the bow, one in the stern, and one across the middle. I got in and tilted one oar and the rifle on the seat in the bow, using the other oar as a paddle. Then I shifted the shot bag from cuddy under the front seat, to balance my weight, and cast off. The shot bag was a sixty-pound canvas bag full of buckshot to trim the boat with when I went out alone. Then I sat down on the seat in the middle, holding onto the landing. With the river being so high, the boat was less than a foot out of water, which, of course, made it handy. Then I waited, watching the sky in the east. Down below I could hear voices, yelling—Mom's, the guy's, the girl's—the girl's loudest of all. I had no idea what she was yelling about, but if she was yelling, she wasn't dead. So far, so good.
The sky was beginning to turn gray, so I shoved off. I shot the boat out into the stream and started to paddle. It was a left-handed way to go, but I didn't dare row regular, on account of the noise it would make, the thump of the oars in the oarlocks. I rounded the point. Sure enough, Mom was there on the bank talking. I steered to bring the hummock, the little hill that was part of the island, between me and the guy and the girl. I feathered the oar to swing in close and let the current carry me. I came to a tree, one sticking up out of water where the river had risen around it in the spring flood we were having, and caught it. Suddenly all three voices came through, the girl yelling at Mom: "Do you want him to kill me? Is that why you dare him to do it?" And Mom yelling at her: "I'm trying to get through his head what'll happen to him if he dares do it, that's all I'm trying to do!" And the guy telling Mom: "OK, OK, but I goddamn well might; I might blow her head off if she don't shut up and you don't!"
Excerpted from Rainbow's End by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1975 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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