They Don't Dance Much: A Novelby James Ross
In this classic country noir, featuring a new introduction by Daniel Woodrell, a small town farmer takes a job at a roadhouse, where unbridled greed leads to a brutal murder
Jack McDonald is barely a farmer. Boll weevils have devoured his cotton crop, his chickens have stopped laying eggs, and everything he owns is mortgaged—even his cow. He has no/b>
In this classic country noir, featuring a new introduction by Daniel Woodrell, a small town farmer takes a job at a roadhouse, where unbridled greed leads to a brutal murder
Jack McDonald is barely a farmer. Boll weevils have devoured his cotton crop, his chickens have stopped laying eggs, and everything he owns is mortgaged—even his cow. He has no money, no prospects, and nothing to do but hang around filling stations, wondering where his next drink will come from. As far as hooch goes, there’s no place like Smut Milligan’s, where Breath of Spring moonshine sells for a dollar a pint.
A bootlegger with an entrepreneurial spirit, Milligan has plans to open a roadhouse, and he asks Jack to run the till. The music will be hot, the liquor cheap, and the clientele rough. But the only thing stronger than Milligan’s hooch is his greed, and Jack is slowly drawn into the middle of Smut’s dalliances with a married woman, the machinations of corrupt town officials—and a savage act of murder.
This newly reissued 1940 crime novel inevitably evokes James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice with its story of murder and adultery against the backdrop of a country roadhouse, but Ross's writing has an affectless, hard-boiled poetry all its own. In rural Corinth, N.C., farmer Jack McDonald has just had his land seized for back taxes when filling station owner Richard "Smut" Milligan offers him work in the soon-to-open River Bend Roadhouse. It will "take on all comers," from hardworking mill hands to corrupt politicos, and from his job's vantage point, Jack sees all of Corinth society coming to enjoy the dance floor, slot machines, and bootleg liquor. He also witnesses the slow-motion tragedy of Smut's increasing entanglement with the seductive Lola Fisher, wife of the richest man in town, and is himself drawn into the bloody results of his boss's greed. That Ross never published another novel may seem like a tragedy itself to any noir fan who reads this book, which emphasizes less the mechanics of plotting than the rich, profane flavor of its characters' voices. Daniel Woodrell provides an introduction. (Apr.)
“A very fine book.” —Flannery O’Connor
“[Ross] showed us that a writer can come out of the red-clay gulches of rural North Carolina during the Depression—that is, a writer can come out of absolutely anywhere at any time—and make high art without resorting to tricks, stylish ennui or pointless savagery.” —The Millions
“Ross writes in classically laconic, wised-up American prose. His voice suits then and now and will still carry well tomorrow.” —Daniel Woodrell
“As far as I’m concerned, this book is where dark Southern fiction began, and any writer who works in the field owes Ross a debt of gratitude, whether he or she has read They Don’t Dance Much or not.” —William Gay
“In and out of print since it was first published in 1940, this blistering novel about a rural Carolina roadhouse with a dance floor is packed with enough desperate characters to make murder merely inevitable, but no less horrifying.” —Newsweek
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They Don't Dance Much
By James Ross
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Southern Illinois University Press
All rights reserved.
I REMEMBER THE EVENING I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson's filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn't heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn't blow the horn. I stuck my head inside and said, 'You got a customer, Rich.'
I heard Rich push his chair back. 'Yes, sir,' he said. He hustled out. There was a long yellow pencil stuck over his right ear.
'Yes, sir, Mr. Fisher; how many, Mr. Fisher?' he said.
Charles Fisher looked over his shoulder. 'Fill it up,' he said.
Fisher's wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.
She had on dark glasses and she was sunburned brown as a penny. She had on some sort of short-sleeved jersey and it looked like she had left her brassiere at home. She was taller than Charles Fisher.
Rich got the tank filled up and came back to the front of the car.
'Anything else, Mr. Fisher?' he asked.
Fisher shook his head. He paid Rich for the gas and drove on down the street. Rich came back and stood in the door; he put the money in his pocketbook, then took out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his face. Rich was a young man, but he looked droopy and old standing there. I never had noticed how bad his teeth were, nor how bald he was getting, until then. He had on a dark green filling-station uniform and it made his skin look green in what little light there was left.
'Been one more hot day,' he said. 'Wisht I was going to the beach.'
'Why don't you go, then?' I said.
'Hell, ain't got the money. You don't think I stick around this filling station just because I'm crazy about filling stations, do you?'
'I thought maybe you loved a filling station,' I said. 'Was your friend Fisher going to the beach?'
'To Daytona Beach, Florida. His nigger brought the car down here yesterday for me to grease it. He said they was going to Daytona Beach, Florida.' Rich said 'Daytona Beach, Florida' like some religious person talking about heaven.
'That's a long ways off,' I said. 'Why don't he go to Myrtle Beach, or Wrightsville Beach, or Carolina Beach?'
'Cost him more to go to Daytona Beach, I guess. He's got so much money it worries him how to get rid of it.'
'He could leave a sackful on my porch some night,' I said.
'Or mine,' Rich said. He went inside and back to working on the books.
I sat there warming the bench that was already hot. I ought to have gone on home. I had a cow to milk and a mule to feed. I had my supper to get too, unless I went to bed hungry. I had been making out with grapes, peaches, bread, and raw tomatoes, for I didn't like to cook in such hot weather. But my mouth was a little sore from eating so much acid, and thinking about eating I got hungry and decided I would cook supper that night for a change, and have some solid food. I made up my mind to cook an omelet when I got home, provided the hens had laid an egg since I left.
But I couldn't get started. I got up to go and I dreaded walking four miles. The sun had gone down, but it was still hot. The back of my shirt stuck to me. I went inside and got a ten-cent beer.
The beer cooled me off and I thought it was ten cents well spent. I had another one. While I was drinking it I picked up the Corinth Enterprise and began reading. Fletch Monroe publishes the Enterprise when he's sober. The folks around Corinth subscribe to it mostly to get rid of Fletch. He goes on a three-weeks' bender and then sobers up and asks whatall happened while he was drinking. By the time he gets it published it's so old that it's right interesting. Last summer he had a picture of Babe Ruth on one page and above the picture it said, 'Going Good This Year.' Babe had been out of baseball about three years then, but maybe Fletch hadn't found it out.
I had beer number three, and by then the situation looked better to me. I quit trying to find any news in the paper and started looking at the special notices and the want ads in the back. There was half a page listing the names of the folks that were going to have their land sold for back taxes. I looked down in the M's and there I was: 'McDonald, Jackson T., 45 acres, West Lee Township.'
I hadn't paid the taxes in two years and I might have known it was coming. Just the same it wore me out to see my land advertised for taxes. My prospects for a crop that year were lousy. I had a land-bank payment to meet that fall. My mule had the gout, or something like it. I saw I was going to have to trade him or quit trying to farm at all. Now this had to come up. It knocked all the comfort out of the three bottles of beer and I was cold sober. I felt like pitching a big drunk.
Rich slapped the ledger book shut. It sounded uncommon loud because there wasn't any other fuss going on right then. He got up from the desk in the corner and pulled put his watch.
'Closing up?' I asked him.
'Don't close till ten,' he said. 'I was just wondering when Charlie's coming back.' (Charlie was the boy that worked for him.) 'I'm hungrier'n a hound, but I can't go till he comes back from his supper.'
'What time is it?' I said.
'Listen, Rich,' I said, 'you don't happen to have any liquor, do you?'
'No, I don't sell liquor,' he said.
'I didn't think you did,' I said. I went outside and started walking up the street.
It looked like everybody had gone home for supper, and I walked along thinking about where to get some liquor and about the taxes I owed. But LeRoy Smathers hadn't gone home to supper. Just as I came up even with Smathers Furniture & Undertaking Company, he stepped out in front of me. I started to duck around the building, but the back edge was too far away. Then I tried to breeze by like I hadn't seen him. But LeRoy can see in the dark the same as a cat, specially if you owe him money. He grabbed my shirt-sleeve like he was tickled to death to see me. Maybe he was.
'What's your hurry, Jack?' he said.
'Why, hello, LeRoy,' I said. 'I like not to have known you.'
'How you getting on, Jack?' he said. It was twilight-dark then, but I could see his smile all right. It was kind of a threatening smile. I wished I had a couple of drinks inside me to bolster me up.
'My health's not so good,' I said. 'My finances still worse.'
'You been sick?' he said, like he cared a damn. He was a wormy-looking little runt, with two different kinds of teeth in his mouth. Gold teeth and rotten teeth. His eyes sunk back in his head and there were blue-looking rings under them. But the rings didn't come from drinking. LeRoy was a church-going man and was down on liquor. It didn't agree with his stomach. He was a puny fellow, but I dreaded him worse than anybody else in Corinth.
'Not exactly sick,' I said, 'but I worried a lot lately.'
'That's too bad,' he said.
'Pretty bad. I hope you're well as common, LeRoy,' I said, and started to go.
He grabbed me with both hands. 'Jack,' he said, 'you'll remember we put away your mama three years ago.'
'I remember all right,' I said, 'but—'
'It come to a hundred and twenty-five dollars,' LeRoy said. 'One and a quarter. You ain't paid us but thirty-five dollars.'
'LeRoy, I'll pay you the rest as soon as I can,' I said.
LeRoy wore a vest under his coat, summer and winter. He stuck his thumbs in the vestpockets. He was smiling that cloudy smile.
'You been promising that for some time,' he said. 'What say you start paying us a regular monthly sum? Say ten dollars a month, till it's all paid. 'Course we handle such things a little different from what we used to.'
'Different? How?' I asked.
'I'll tell you. We started the Smathers Finance Company here a couple of weeks back. We put all our old accounts in it and we're fixing it so the folks that owes us can pay in monthly installments. We make a carrying charge, and all, in addition to the regular six per cent interest.'
'How much you figure I owe you all now, LeRoy?' I said.
He figured there for a minute or so, in the dark. 'Let's see. A hundred twenty-five to start with. Thirty-five two years ago. Leaves ninety dollars. A little over a hundred dollars. Say a hundred five. The way I'm going to have to finance that now it'll come to a little more'n that.'
'LeRoy,' I said, 'I just ain't got the money to make monthly installments. I doubt if I can pay anything on it this fall. Looks like my cotton won't pay the guano bill.'
'Jack, you wouldn't want it to get out that you refused to pay for your mama's burying, would you?' he said.
I hated to hear him talk like that. 'Damn it, LeRoy, I got nothing to pay with,' I said. 'Nor any way to make anything. If I had I'd have paid you before now.'
He kept on smiling. 'Well, it ain't our policy to cause trouble,' he said, 'but we got to have our money. We can get judgment, you know, and sell your property.'
'What property?' I said.
'Why, your real estate,' he said.
'My real estate?' I said. 'Listen, pal, the Land Bank's got a mortgage on the place that's more'n it's worth. My household furniture ain't worth more'n twenty dollars at the outside— doubt if it'd bring ten. I owe forty dollars back taxes. That'll have to come before your bill. I got some farming tools—about fifteen dollars' worth. I got a mule too. He ain't worth a damn. There's a few hens out there, but if they've laid an egg in the last two months there must be an egg-sucking dog that comes to my house.'
'You got a cow,' LeRoy said.
'She's a good cow too,' I said. 'But I owe Yonce & Company fifty dollars on a guano bill. They got a mortgage on my crop and on the cow.'
'You in bad shape, ain't you?' LeRoy says, and smiles worse than ever.
'I am for a fact,' I said.
'Yes, sir,' LeRoy said, 'a man's in pretty bad shape what'll have his mama buried on the credit and then not pay for it.'
'Damn it, LeRoy,' I said, 'go on home and drink your glass of skimmed milk and swallow your poached egg. I'll get you the money if I have to rob a bank to do it.' I jerked away from him and marched down the street.
I always despised LeRoy. I was a little afraid of him too. He looked like a ghost that's got a bad disposition and stomach trouble. One night I was in the back of the Smathers place and LeRoy was putting Dick Whitney in his coffin. Dick had got his neck broke in an automobile wreck that afternoon, but after LeRoy worked on him a while he looked fresh as a daisy. It looked to me like Dick ought to have climbed out of that coffin and put LeRoy in. LeRoy did the dirty work in that place. Old Bud Smathers, his daddy, just sat around and talked and now and then sold some furniture. Fred Smathers ran the business and kept the books. Len Smathers was a clerk and when there was a funeral Len drove the hearse. LeRoy was the boy that got the fresh corpses. He stuck his icepick in their chests and stomachs to let the water and the blood get out. Then he embalmed them and fixed them up. He could take a fellow that had been cut all to pieces in a knife fight, or had his head busted open in a bad wreck, or had a stick of dynamite explode under him, and make him look better dead than he'd ever looked living. When he wasn't working on dead folks LeRoy was the bill collector.
After I got loose from LeRoy I felt like I had to have a drink. Rich had said he didn't sell liquor, but he was a lie. I reckon he didn't have any that night. It's usually easier to get liquor in Corinth than it is to get flour, but that night everybody was either out or didn't trust me. I went to every filling station around town. They all said they were out. It was the same way in Shantytown, but I didn't much care if they were out over there. I wasn't crazy about tackling that nigger liquor. They cut it with water and then give it kick with some sort of tablets. Sometimes it runs folks crazy.
Since then I've told people that one night I walked all over Corinth with a dollar in my pocket and couldn't get a drop of liquor. They all say it's a lie; nothing like that ever happened in Corinth. But it was so that night. Finally I decided to go home by way of Smut Milligan's filling station and get a pint there. It was out of my way, but I knew if Smut Milligan was still alive he had liquor somewhere around him.
His filling station was about two miles from Corinth, on the Rocky River road, where Lover's Lane crosses it. It was out in the woods, and had the name of a tough place. Milligan sold liquor, and a lot of gambling went on down there. He was outside the Corinth city limits and the town cops couldn't do anything with him. I guess he kept the county officials paid up, for nobody ever raided him.
It was dark when I started down the river road. Several cars passed me, but folks won't pick you up at night and I got over next to the ditch and walked. There aren't many houses on that road, and the ones I passed were all dark. Mostly there are fields along the road, and at that time they were stubble fields in the main, with now and then a cornfield or a cotton patch. About halfway to the filling station there was a stretch of pines on the left side of the road. They had been thinned down to make them grow faster and they looked strange that night. There had been a few lightning bugs all along the way, but when I got to the pine woods it looked like there was a million in there, working as hard as they could. A million lights coming and going. A funny thing about a lightning bug's light is that it doesn't really light up anything; it just makes a quick glow. The woods looked as dark as ever, and the lightning bugs looked like a lot of little eyes in there. I walked as fast as I could and still not be running.
Smut Milligan's filling station was about fifteen feet off from Lover's Lane and it was sunk down a little below the level of the road. It was a wooden building, painted yellow, and had a tin roof. It wasn't very large, but Smut lived in the back of it. He had a lot of merchandise in it; as much as there is in a general country store. But he sold more liquor than anything else. All around the filling station on the left side there was a big woods, full of pines and oaks. The river road was on the right. The land down there was gritty and rocky; there were iron rocks back of the place that were as big as a house. Smut had a car shed about twenty feet back of the filling station. There was a mulberry tree beside the car shed.
It was usually a busy place on Saturday nights and Sundays, but this was a Wednesday night, I think. When I got there Smut was sitting out in front, on a nail keg. The only other fellow there was Catfish Wall, a nigger that made liquor for Smut. Catfish was sitting there in the dust before the door, whittling away on a hickory stick. It looked like he was making him a walking-stick.
There were a couple of lights out in front, but back in the filling station it was dark. Smut Milligan stretched his arms and yawned.
'Hello, Jack,' he said.
'Hello, Smut,' I said. 'Hello, Catfish.'
'How you, Mr. Jack?' Catfish said.
I pulled a keg over next to the gas tanks and sat down, facing Smut and Catfish. Smut Milligan was sitting hunched over his nail keg, and he had his arms folded across his chest. He was a big, rawboned fellow, that was dark-skinned like a Croatan, or a Cherokee. His hair was black like an Indian's too, and he was careless about having it cut. He had his sleeves rolled up to his shoulders and the muscles on his arms stuck out bigger than the muscles on the legs of a lot of men. His fingers were uncommonly long, with knuckles so big that it made them look like chair rounds.
'How's business, Smut?' I asked him.
'Dull. Mighty dull,' Smut said. He yawned again. When he yawned I noticed the long muscles moving up and down his neck.
'You be interested in selling a pint of liquor?' I said.
'Rather sell a gallon,' he said. 'But any amount. Any amount. What's your taste tonight, Jack?'
'Give me a pint of rotgut,' I said.
'Got some powerfully good Cream of Kentucky,' Smut said. 'Dollar and a quarter a pint. Spring water for a chaser, throwed in free.'
'A dollar's all I got,' I said.
'Got some mighty fine corn, too,' Smut said, stretching again. 'Some Catfish run off last April when the moon was just right. Got bead and body. We done named it the Breath of Spring. Cat, get him a pint of the Breath.'
Excerpted from They Don't Dance Much by James Ross. Copyright © 1975 Southern Illinois University Press. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
James Ross (1911–1990) was born in North Carolina, where he worked as a reporter for the Daily News (Greensboro) for many years. He wrote his first and only novel, They Don’t Dance Much, in 1940. The book, considered “country noir,” was praised by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Flannery O’Connor. During the decade that followed, Ross published several short stories in literary journals such as Partisan Review, the Sewanee Review, Collier’s, and Argosy while he worked on another novel, In The Red, which was never published.
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