Rolling the Bonesby Kyle Jarrard
Carl Stein, a professional con man, moves in on Carl and Venus Blalock, an unsuspecting couple in a small Texas town. Over the course of the con, Stein’s wife, May, befriends Venus. But not even May’s accidental drowning when the two couples are on a summer picnic stops Stein from stealing thousands of dollars from the Blalocks and then disappearing. Venus and the two Carls narrate a fast-paced story as they flee to Mexico. On their frantic road trip, they encounter an intriguing range of people, from a man stuck in a Keno parlor to a reporter determined to steal a million-dollar jackpot. In this novel about downfall and redemption, each narrator eventually regains control of his or her own life through the intervention of chance.
- Steerforth Press
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The guy pulled up to my hardware and lumber store just after I opened up the Saturday before Thanksgiving. He had an old white Falcon, and it'd been awhile since I'd seen one of those. Wisconsin plates. He made the woman stay in the car. Then he came in through the door with his hands in his jacket like he might've had a gun on him.
I was at the cash register and kind of jumped back. Damn giant, at least six-six. Wearing red high-top tennis shoes, green trousers a size too big, and a blue denim shirt. But the hands came out and he wasn't armed.
"'Morning," I said, all five-five of me. "What can I do you for?"
He didn't stop until he got to the bathroom door. Then he turned and asked, "Use your facilities? Nothing else open yet."
"Have at it," I called.
But as he wheeled around to go in, his knee knocked a bottle of Spot-Off from a shelf. I can still see that sucker tipping through the air.
"Damn it to hell," he let out. "I can't believe I did that."
Well, you did, you son of a bitch, I wanted to shout.
But it didn't really matter. Because I could see right away that there was something else going on here. Not just a pit stop. Not even a bona fide robbery. Something else.
"Don't worry about it," I assured him. "Happens all the time."
And itdid. Permanent stink in there, like in a hospital or rest home.
"I'm real sorry. Really."
He was thirty-something. Headed to Houston to get an oil rig job? That paid big, and he looked strong enough for anything. He squatted and started carefully picking up the bits of glass with his bare hands.
"Leave it," I said. "I'll get it."
He straightened up. "What is it, anyway?"
"Trichloroethylene and a few other things."
He shot me a look like I had to be nuts sitting in there with those bottles getting poisoned. Then he bent into the bathroom. The light shone under the door. I could hear him shuffling the Democrat.
The woman in the car was maybe twenty-five, and a looker. With mounds of curly blond hair that caught the morning sun and seemed all lit up, and a happy round face with green eyes peering steadily out at the world like it was the most interesting place imaginable. It wasn't often, or hardly ever, that this would happen, but this woman, on the big scale of women, was right up there with my Venus, who, of course, is the most beautiful black-haired, black-eyed creature ever to walk Texas.
Anyway, I ignored the mess on the floor, went outside, and made like I was counting up the cement stepping-stones. I'm not nosy, but I was bored stiff. There were the ads to do, but here I had a little story going.
The morning was warming up. She saw me watching her, rolled down the window, and hung her sunburned arm out. It was skinny, like a little girl's, and bobbed up and down like it weighed almost nothing.
"Howdy," I said.
She nodded, smiled lightly, waved the arm and hand.
Her man was coming out. "You sure you don't want me to mop up that mess? I can't leave you with that."
"Nah," I said.
"Mop what?" she asked.
"Knocked over a bottle of solvent. Fingers are burning."
"Where're y'all headed?" I asked.
"He says we're getting there," she said.
I didn't press it. "Well, that's good."
"What's good?" he said, looking at me, then at her.
She said, "I think he was being polite. Hoping we're coming to the place we want to be. Just like you said we were. But when was that? Five hundred miles ago? A thousand? I just want to get out of the car. Permanently."
I made like I couldn't care less what that was about and went on counting stones twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five and marking on my clipboard.
He kept examining his fingertips.
Then it occurred to me that he was going to get sick or something on account of touching that Spot-Off. "You take care now."
"What's that?" he asked.
That funny mustard-yellow hair of his, Scandinavian or something, puffed up in the breeze. His white face shone like a full moon.
"I said y'all take care."
"We're from Wisconsin," he said, "and "
"Saw your plates," I said. "Long ways."
She said, "Nine thousand four hundred and twelve miles."
He jabbed his head her way to say butt out and she rolled her eyes in response and didn't care if I saw it.
"Mister, I need a job." He held his chin high, as if he were talking to someone much taller than himself, which almost made me look to see if there wasn't something above me he was addressing.
"Looks like you took the long road to get here," I said.
"That's counting all the side roads to all the little towns," she said. "If only we could get out of the car for more than a month at a time ..."
"I've helped at a store like this before," he went on. "I'm a builder, too."
"They got stores good as this one in Wisconsin?"
"Yes sir. Worked at three of them. I mean one after the other. I didn't get fired or anything. We moved around."
"You can say that again," she said.
I let him off the hook. "Name's Carl," I said.
He lowered his face toward me and his smile opened up on a huge set of teeth, some as big as a thumbnail. "That's my name, too." The voice had kicked up higher, lost its dangerous edge.
"Well, now," I said. "Your name Blalock, too?"
"No, it's Stein," he said. "This is my wife, May."
"Mrs. Stein," I said.
"May will do," she said.
Could he spray flock on a Douglas fir? That was my moneymaking sideline and we were fixing to fire up the blowers. It'd be nonstop until Christmas, and if the past was any guide we'd rake in the dough.
Then he said, "Heard you could use some help out on the D & D deal."
That was a big plant that was going to be making men's socks, of all things, outside Red Rock and for now my number one building contract. You never saw so much glass. I don't know how much we sold them. Or how many board feet of pine or barrels of nails.
True, I'd fired my foreman, but this guy somehow didn't seem experienced enough to handle a team of twenty men. I did need somebody to flock Christmas trees, though.
"You ran into Tommy Atherton, then," I said. "He was drinking out there on the job. I couldn't have that, you know."
"Don't know any Tommy Atherton."
"Then how'd you find out about my foreman?"
"Only heard there was an opening out here."
"Who you been talking to?"
"Guy at Kendal. Said you were the one who had the big D & D deal and might be wanting help."
That was Kendal & Co., the Dallas outfit that'd been trying to buy out us little guys. I was ready to bet a thousand bucks they'd recruited this fellow as a spy. "Kendal, huh," I said. "Look, I've got everybody I need right now. But thanks all the same for dropping by."
I started back counting. Heck with the flocking job, too. I'd get some high school kid and do like before.
He didn't move. "I need a job, Mr. Blalock."
"Can't help you, Mr. Stein. But I do wish you luck."
He stood there like he hadn't understood plain English.
So I shouted, "Boy, you can tell those Kendals I said go straight to hell. You got that? I ain't going to sell to him."
"Do what?" he shrieked.
"You want work? They'll give you work. Now get out of here."
"They didn't have a job."
"But one of the workers came up to me on the parking lot and said you might be hiring up here. Guy said he'd worked for you before. McKnight?"
"Danny McKnight. Bailed his ass out a hundred times. Well ..."
"So we came straight here, Mr. Blalock. That's it."
I counted some more stones, took my time. Either they were poor people in real need or damn good actors. I couldn't decide.
Then my mouth opened before I'd finished thinking. "Can you flock?"
"Flock? Mister, I'm the world's number one flocker. Right, May?"
"How long a job is that? Just for the holidays?"
I could see dark exasperation in her face and felt bad for her. "We can see about that when the time comes. You never know ..."
"That right?" said Carl.
"Sure," I said.
If this was all a trick and the Kendals were up to something, well then everything would come to a head, wouldn't it? That might be for the best.
We had Carl and May over to our house south of town for turkey supper, and Venus liked them right off. There was a lot of quick talking and laughter, which felt good because our table can be a quiet place through the year, and the rich food was piled up so high it seemed like all you had to do was lean forward and eat to your heart's content. That's the way I like Thanksgiving, the night of succulent meat and delicious gravies. Venus had lit a couple of dozen long yellow candles and turned off the lights so that each of our faces was cast in a warm glow that spoke of contentment and well-being. I said grace, which definitely is rare for me, but Venus nodded at me grinning to say it was all right to be praying that night because there was a joy at work there.
Carl said, "We haven't had a meal like this since ... I don't know!"
Venus was wearing a red dress I'd bought her in Dallas, a simple straight thing that was too tight now. She wouldn't wear it in public, saying it was way too vulgar, so once in a while I tried to get her to wear it when we were having dinner together at home alone on one of our birthdays or something. But she wouldn't ever do it, left it in the closet and told me to think about a cold shower. That night, though, there it was in plain view, and I had the hardest time keeping my eyes off her bosom filling that deep V-cut. I guess it was the other pretty woman being in our company that'd helped her get up the nerve to put it on again.
"Well, we haven't had company for Thanksgiving in a long time," said Venus. "So everyone's getting something special tonight."
"Where are you staying?" I asked Carl.
"At the Roadway up north. I'll find us a house next week."
"I'll find it," May insisted. "You're going to be working."
"Maybe I could help you," Venus said to her. "Go through the ads and whatnot. I may know a house or two for rent."
"That would be very nice." She poked her hand into all those curls and then pulled it out again, and I watched to see if she hadn't found something in there that she was going to show us. "I just can't believe it all," she said. "It's been not just months but years. Years."
"What?" I asked.
"A bona fide sit-down dinner with fine people welcoming us into their home, the portion of the earth that is beneath my derriere not moving at seventy miles an hour, the things to the right and left of me not moving backward and out of my vision, the look of these candles, the smell of this food and of the women's perfume and the men's cologne, and the color of all your eyes like colors I'm seeing for the first time."
"Too much wine," said Carl, poking his food with his fork.
May hiked her pretty white shoulders in the blue summer dress she wore as if to say, Wine or no wine, it was a rare evening full of things and people to be grateful for if one would take the time to see.
Venus leaned to give her a hug and pull the strap back up her shoulder, as if that could somehow make up for the fact that the girl needed a real dress to wear in November.
"I kind of agree with all that," she said. "As for the wine ... drink all you want because you can spend the night if you want to."
"Can't be out driving around drunk anyway," I said. "We have cops here who'll throw you in jail on New Year's Eve, for Christ's sake. Guys who'll sit behind a billboard waiting on you for hours and straight-out salivate giving you a ticket. They end up in the front row at church Sunday playing deacon or what have you, but they aren't the least bit sorry for all the misery they deal out during the week."
"We don't go to church anymore, though," said Venus.
"Church?" said May. "The last thing I remember was Bible school. And the fat man who kept touching the girls in places he shouldn't have been whenever he leaned over us at the table to point out some passage or other. I told Mama that was the end of religion for me. She didn't argue with me. Unbelievable."
Venus clapped her hands, and I couldn't remember the last time I saw my wife clap her hands. They were big hands with long fingers, and the sound was loud, silly somehow for someone forty-four years old like me, and I laughed.
Carl said, "I don't think we can spend the night."
"Come on, Carl," I said. "Loosen up here. Don't have to work tomorrow."
He nodded and examined his food like he was considering the veracity of that. Then he gave May a look that meant, Calm down, we're in these people's home, don't get out of control. That's what I saw in his eyes, anyway. For her part, she answered him by picking up her wineglass and throwing back the rest of the ruby contents.
"Tell me some of the places you've been," I said to Carl.
"Everywhere. Wherever the money is."
"Why is it always about money?" May asked.
"Got to eat, honey."
"We've never starved."
"Jobs play out. You move on."
"Seems like we run."
Venus repeated my question. "So where have you lived, then?"
May answered. "I think the sweetest place was Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and that's where we just came from. We had a little white house. Stayed the whole summer."
"I wouldn't have wanted to heat that place in winter," said Carl.
"That bad?" I asked.
"I liked Mrs. Johnson a lot," said May.
"Who was she?" Venus asked.
"Widow who lived next door. She had a peach orchard and I helped her put up preserves. Dozens of jars. Best stuff on earth. She had this huge white kitchen with blue curtains and on account of her age she had trouble getting into the root cellar, which was down some stairs under the kitchen, and so I'd take all the jars we'd done down there and set them on the shelves and smell the sweet earth. Carl cut trees in the Ozarks and came in very late because they worked him to death and I'd sit out back under the peach trees with Elaine Johnson and watch the stars come out over Oklahoma and maybe there wouldn't be a sound on the earth save the crickets in the tall grass out where her lot ended and the countryside began. I'd sit there thinking there was no reason to move my body an inch because everything was perfect."
"There was something spooky about cutting down trees in the Ozarks," said Carl. "Like I was doing something wrong."
"You were earning your living," his wife said.
"We were cutting the oldest trees up there."
I said, "The Ozarks are the oldest mountains in North America."
"What's that, Carl?" Venus asked.
"I read that, anyway. That they were once like the Rockies. They've eroded down. Might even be true."
May and Carl studied me with surprise and then waited gently for me to make my point, though there really wasn't one.
"I guess that was the wine talking," I said.
"I think so," Venus agreed.
"Why not," said May. "Once like the Rockies! I can believe that. That's how old things are. But how many people ever think about how old things are? People don't even know much about their country's own history, much less how old its rocks are. I think you have to care about the rocks, and the people who live by the rocks, and the trees that grow between the rocks, and the people who tend to those trees, and what kind of fruit they give, and what makes it taste like it does. There was a cinnamon flavor to those peaches. I'm not kidding."
Venus gazed at May and shook her head slowly side to side like she was hearing unheard-of things, which she was. And I thought, Here is one of the brightest people ever to enter this house, and she's just a woman who happened to show up with her lanky husband after wandering all over the heartland. What were the chances of this happening, this particular pair waltzing into our lives? Why did it feel like we were being given a gift by some unseen benefactor?
They had a light to their faces and it came from the youth of their hearts. A hardworking boy and maybe his dream girl, out making their way through the rough-and-tumble of the world, trying not to let the sheer fatigue of it all rend them apart. I wondered if they would make love when we put them in the guest room in the back of the house, and I kind of hoped they would because me and Venus would surely hear it and it would not be lurid or shameful but very nice.
I pondered Venus, and I swear she could see my thoughts. Then she popped up to get the dessert and May went running after her.
They stayed in the kitchen a long time, and so I poured more wine for me and Carl and he thanked me and kept his hands on either side of his glass, as if it needed steadying or as if he were sheltering his thoughts.
"It's been a good Thanksgiving," he said.
"I'm only glad you stopped at my store to use the can."
He laughed. "Well. We'll see."
"You're doing fine on the job. I'm not worried."
"Thanks for the vote. I won't let you down."
"Why would you do that?" I asked.
Then it was all the pecan pie and vanilla ice cream you could eat, and the talk slowed and the windows turned deep blue as the last of the light went its way and May announced that, Yes, they could spend the night. I saw Venus's eyes light up and I was sure she was going to start clapping again, but then she didn't, and we all carried dishes to the kitchen where Venus declared that we would in fact abandon the mess. After which she and May brought all the candles from the dining table into the living room and set them around and then got on the couch and started talking. As if someone had opened a giant old box and let out all the years of desire for talking, for saying everything that could possibly be said whenever a breath was not being taken.
Carl and I let them be. Went out on the porch to see the land stretching out broad and overlit by uncountable stars in the vault.
"I think they'll be friends," he said.
We sat on the steps and witnessed the night like grown men.
"I guess I've kept her moving too much."
"You do what you have to."
"Yeah, but I can't put down roots."
"There'll come a time."
"I don't know."
"She'll take you there."
"It's like that orchard, Carl. She's not just talking about the peaches."
"Venus taught me that."
"Listening to the words behind the words. You'll hear them."
"You think so?"
We watched the glow of the town shining up over the chalk hill that stood between here and there.
"I think so, Carl. Question of time. Question of need."
"May is frightening sometimes."
I wanted to laugh, but held it. "How so?"
"Just being that beautiful. Like if I lost her I'd just ... what? Stumble and fall. Everything I do is for her. Every stroke of work. Every minute of my day. It's like I'm only here because of her."
"That's not so bad, friend."
"I don't know ..."
"And I bet she'd say she's only here because of you. Works both ways."
"I hope it does."
"You can't see that?"
"Plain as day."
Once in a while a pair of headlights came toward us and then the car or truck zoomed on past. White dust floated off the road through the mulberry trees and dogs barked far off.
"Damn dust," I said. "I swear my head is full of it."
"I swear ..."
"You know, I think May might be one of those people you call gifted."
"I'd have to agree."
"Not for all the things she can do, though. Not for all the things she can say, either, because she can really say a lot of things when she gets going."
"Can she now?"
"It's those times that pop up out of the blue when she'll notice something you'd never imagined, though maybe it was right there all along, and then get you to see it, too. I remember once when we were in the desert out West and she got this notion that we had to climb up on top of this big pile of orange rocks that we were driving past and damn it if I didn't give in and march right out there. Middle of the blazing afternoon. We got up there and she squinted at the desert and I said, `What?' And she said, `Hush up and listen to this.' I shut up and there was nothing. Just the wind. I said, `What?' She said, `The wind. Listen.' It was hot as an oven and I was sure rattlesnakes were gathering around that hill to cut us off"
"But they weren't."
May stood right behind us, and Venus behind her. They sat down on the step above us and May passed a wine bottle forward to Carl. He peered at it and I smiled and said, "Hurry up." He had a big swallow and then I did and then I set the bottle on the step.
It was like there was nobody but us four in the world, though I don't exactly know where that notion came from. Maybe because we had created such a sanctuary for ourselves that night, or maybe because we knew inside that maybe there weren't going to be half a dozen such evenings in a lifetime. Where quiet harmony and trust were the gold.
"No, the snakes weren't circling, Carl, but they might've been watching, for we were a sight to see perched on those rocks miles from the car without a water jug. The desert is a weird place. It's like it's all one big thing, dry, empty, monotonous. Until you start listening to it."
"We listened a very long time."
"Standing out there in the sun?" I asked.
"We were sitting down," May said. "Feet over the edge of a big drop-off. The rock was blazing hot, but we didn't feel it after a while. That's right. We forgot about the heat and stared out into this desolate void before us. I remember moving my head lightly this way and then that way to make the breeze that was moving around us make a different sound on a different part of my ears. I couldn't think of anything but how little movement it took to make the sound change utterly. I wanted to tell Carl to try it but when I looked at him I could see him smiling because he'd already been doing the same thing. Catching the strange power of the wind in his ears."
"What was wonderful," Carl said, "was that after we left there"
"We stayed there all the rest of the afternoon," she said.
"and went on down the road into the night toward Bakersfield, I could still hear the wind when it had barely been blowing at all."
"It was the permanent wind," said May. "The one that's always there. Has blown for all time. Has never ceased."
"All that from sitting on a rock," he said.
"Why not," said Venus, and it wasn't a question.
May said, "Whenever I think things are out of kilter, I think about those orange rocks and the wind that was speaking to us."
I thought how the evening had a familiar feel to it, as if Venus and I maybe had had this kind of communion some time back, but if we did, habit and familiarity had erased a lot of that ancient feeling, leaving us to awe at the glow being cast across our world now as if some new star were rising to startle us and make us think again about wind.
I had another hit of wine, finishing it, and then saw them all looking at me. "What?"
"Nothing," said Carl.
"It's been a good supper," said Venus.
I saw that May had borrowed one of Venus's sweaters. Just the same, she was leaning hard against her, trying to get warm.
Excerpted from Rolling the Bones by Kyle Jarrard. Copyright © 2001 by Kyle Jarrard. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
By PAOLA CAPRIOLO
Translated by Liz Heron
Copyright © 1997 Liz Heron. All rights reserved.
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I know the author personally, so I could be a bit prejudiced. On the other hand, I could be a bit jealous as well. But this novel is a wonderful read, almost as if Faulkner, McMurtry and Vonnegut had pooled their efforts: great writing, super plot, plus really weird stuff. Jarrard, himself a Texan who works in Paris (France, that is) as an editor for the International Herald Tribune, takes you from smalltown Texas to the jungles of Mexico to the redneck casinos of backwash Louisiana, not to mention a brief sidetrip with space aliens, JFK included. Then, too, there's Sinatra providing occasional background music. 'Rolling the Bones' is rocking and rolling from first page to last. I couldn't put it down until I had finished it.