Yonder Stands Your Orphanby Barry Hannah
Barry Hannah has long been considered one of the country's best living writers, whose singular voice and wicked genius for storytelling have earned him legions of diehard fans. His first novel in ten years, Yonder Stands Your Orphan opens with the establishment of an orphans' camp and the discovery of an abandoned car with two skeletons in the trunk. Man Mortimer, a pimp and casino pretty boy who resembles dead country singer Conway Twitty, has just been betrayed, and his revenge becomes a madness that will ravage the Mississippi community of Eagle Lake and give vent to his lifelong fascination with knives. The pompous young sheriff is useless at solving the crimes, so Mortimer's only challengers are three eccentric Christians -- a disgraced doctor and two ex-bikers, all prey to their addictions -- and an African-American Vietnam veteran whose wife is ill with cancer. Mortimer has a hold on each one of them -- a long-standing debt, a forgotten crime, or responsibilities they cannot yet desert. Yonder Stands Your Orphan paints a searing picture of the American South and establishes Barry Hannah once again as one of the most important writers in America.
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THIS SUNDAY MORNING MAN MORTIMER AND MAX Raymond sat in the pews of the same church, a little white steepled one in a glen set among live oaks and three acres of clover. The jungle swamps encroached on and squared the glen, deep green to black. Loud birds and alligators groaning in their mating season roamed in songs from bayou to bayou. Some fish walked on land in this season.
Cars, just a few of them, sat on the pea gravel under the trees just outside the windows of ersatz stained glass colored like the wreckage of a kaleidoscope. Mortimer and Raymond knew each other then only by automobile. Mortimer favored a rotation of expensive foreign sport utility vehicles. Raymond drove the same old Lexus he had bought when he was a physician.
Raymond came to worship, and to repent, and he wanted a vision. Life heretofore had not instructed him. He had won his wife, a raven-curled, writhing singer of Latin jazz, in a ghastly way that wrecked him as a doctor. He was a dread-stuffed saxophonist in her band. Afraid of his own irony, his insincerity, his ambiguity. Now Raymond had come to repent. He loved Christ, but he yearned for a solid thing to witness, a vision undisputed, because his faith was by no means confirmed.
Man Mortimer was slightly drunk, a state unusual if not unprecedented for this quiet man, a gambler, a liaison for stolen cars and a runner of whores, including three Vicksburg housewives. He was small but substantial, with a big head of waved hair and hooded bedroom eyes. In high school he was a dead ringer for Fabian but in recent years was verging toward the dead country star Conway Twitty. At forty-five he still retained his looks, and the women he sold kept a crush on him and liked his stares, which seemed to invite them into a dangerous ring of power. His charisma assured the women their lives were broad, deep and special, and that half the money in their adventures around the boudoirs of this poor county and in the lacier rooms of Vicksburg belonged to him. The law could not touch him because his bordello was spread in myriad chambers throughout the suburbs and even underpasses in giant, newish sport utility vehicles with flattened rear seats, good mattresses, sunroofs tinted by creamy smoke and fine stereo systems, the aphrodisiacs of new-car smell and White Diamond mist working side by side. These perfumes and compact discs were chosen by Edie, a gal Friday of his who otherwise worked as a blackjack dealer in the casino. His books on the car business were excellent, prepared by an accounting genius named Large Lloyd for his build and his hang, an ex-wrestler and permanent bouncer whose pride in his math and tax savvy was so wild it intimidated the auditors who had once looked into the business. Lloyd was a casino employee, chauffeur and gigolo. Man Mortimer owned three homes, and he gave parties, or mass appointments. He made a point of being nothing like Hugh Hefner, whom he despised for his philosophy and aesthetic pretensions. At Mortimer's parties there were no drugs, no guns, no liquor more than social.
The casino in Vicksburg was clean, even elegant, for these fly-specked counties, but its exits were full of ruined persons, many of them women. Edie and Large Lloyd could spot them and cheer them. Mortimer would appear in an exquisite sedan, as if happening in to end the night after some happy day with well-heeled Episcopals, and steer the women to their salvation. He knew the faces and the postures, and he never made the mistake of plying a busted gambler who was pious or gowned in unpurchasable pride. He couldn't afford noisemakers. On the other hand, he could take another kind of woman right off the arm of her escort, who was likely to be broke and puny too. For a man in such despair and trouble, the exit of his consort might seem merely another cloud in a black evening.
Mortimer had come to the church service in a spell of nostalgic spite. He wanted to see if the preachers were still as feeble and funny as they used to be when he was a kid.
The preacher was Egan, a reformed biker, gambler and drug addict, still with a ponytail, brown-gray, and a large black Maltese cross tattooed on his right cheek. A man immoderate in both callings, dissolute and sacred. He was preaching against the casino now, this nearby hell, a factory of thievery and broken hearts. He preached about hollow and slick men and slot-machine hags with no souls. The leering zombies schooled to rob the poor and sad in the name of fun. Worse than the liquor were the glamour and baying of Mammonites, who turned the soul into nothing but the arithmetic of want. His voice boomed out like Johnny Cash.
Then at the pulpit he tied off his arm with his necktie and injected a hypodermic into a great vein and plunged holy water into it, then withdrew the plunger, and they saw the pale blood in it. This is what God gave us, not the green, gray dirty thing we call cash. Filthy lucre. Filthy, how the old scribe knew it. Mortimer had to agree the man was good. A woman near him fainted and hit her head on the pew. None moved to comfort her, not her children, not her paramour in common-law union. Mortimer almost did, spying a piece of business, before he stopped himself.
Mortimer was a bit afraid of this loon high on his own rhetoric. The preacher looked at him and seemed to know him.
People used to have work, with their hands. But behold, the zombie of the empty, the Middleman, the parasite and usurer. God damns too the Usurer of the lost and confused man, especially his precious time, which is given to even the poor, so they might make a highway to paradise of it in their minds. Using your time, your animal want of sport and folly, and at the heinousest high percentage, oh fools, higher than the Carter administration. And you saw the crashed, blackened helicopters in the desert of the Holy Lands. You saw yourselves, paying those high mortgage notes! Handsome, smiling faces, the manicured hand out to clutch you in that old handshake with sick, sick ruin. And behind that hand with its rings and its Vaseline Intensive Carelotioned palm and fingers, a heart deep cold and black as a well! I give you, brothers and sisters, evil passing for man. The bleached-blond son of Ham. But we know you. Solomon's robes can't hide you.
I see Little Las Vegas. Are you, sir, Elvis, Wayne Newton, Sinatra or the wolvine Michael Jackson, child eater? Those Las Vegasgreased and damned? Or are you only some shadow Lounge Punk, wanting to be big in lights? I know you, friend. I have been kin to you. Check your footwear and your belt buckle, Mr. Wannabe Caesar's Palace Puppy, oh you're sick all right. Do they call attention to themselves? Is your hair some kind of Goddamned Event?
Man Mortimer could not be dead positive whether the man was speaking directly to him. There were moans from others near by. But he would not look away from the preacher. He would drill him right back with his eyes. He allowed the fellow his moment. He had come to mock. Nostalgic, sporting, a bit tipsy. Now the man was way past that. He was good. He might probably be maimed. He might probably die. Mortimer had once killed, in a way. Without laying a hand on them. Not a little finger.
Max Raymond bowed his head, relishing the casino's condemnation, where people watched his wife onstage in her tiny dresses, her humid cleavage and thighs. He was her shill, he abetted her writhing with his horn. A jazz pimp, at worst. Her antiphonist.
Raymond heard the family beside him leaving after the service. A child asking, "Mama, who is Wayne Newton? Or Sinatra?"
"Old zombies with too much money," his brother said.
"Who is a good man?" asked the littler fellow.
"Your granddaddy. Billy Graham," his mother said.
"And Margaret Sanger," added the grandmother. "Was a good woman."
Ulrich lived alone at the lake but now, at Christmas, he was not lonely.
A bombardier out of England and over Germany for the Eighth Air Force, and a puttering aeronaut ever since, a tinkering veteran (though his only personal flight had been without an engine, some fifty yards during Hurricane Camille in 1969), he had thought science his whole life. But recently he had erupted in mourning over man's treatment of animals. And without gratitude to them either, a holocaust without a ceremony! Even primitive Laplanders gave solemn thanks to the animals for their own survival. He could not bear Napoleon's millions of dead horses. Nor could he forgive himself for the random horror he had visited on horses, mules, cows, deer and smaller creatures during the war.
He had no people, only a son back in Minnesota. He had been solitary a long time, and now another was present in his cottage. Death itself, which had a voice, which called to him not in English but he could hear it clearly, calling, saying, It is not long, you can feel me, you know it. You've had plenty of time, plenty. And God knows, your wides of space, over Germany, France, back to England. You killed others before you even had a train of thought. You always wanted to go over and shake hands with those you bombed in the Eighth Air Force, but you chickened out, Captain Hypocrite. Besides, how were you going to shake hands with a horse or dog or kitten or lamb, those sad ones who never got to look up and hide, just stood there and had your hell all over them. As if nature itself didn't eat them up enough.
Oh you're fat at the long table, stuffed with time, friends, your flat stupid brainstorms. Not long. You're going to shake hands with every dead thing. You recall you were a captain, a flyboy, an assassin's instrument barely beyond pubic. You could neither write a good check nor imagine any bill beyond a twenty. You had never had a decent woman's bare breasts against you. All you had was your dog and your model planes and good eyes and baseball. You weren't shit, and then your Minnesota yokel's ass made its wings and you commenced gloating over your own worth.
I almost got your blowhard ass again in that hurricane. You knew I was close, as close as your window with those handsome live oaks with their drapes of Spanish moss your retired old stuffed ass had bought into, flat nasty sand and the smell of dead mullet outside the window, that was me.
Well now you're fat, stubby, your spine packed down by gravity. Got emphysema, struggle about fifty yards without a blackout. I'm in the room, you can walk to me easy. Go ahead, light up another one, might as well make it an old Camel straight like you really want, and hack and hawk a spell, walk right into These Old Arms. You know me, flyboy to aluminum walker, you've known me. It's always Veterans' Day over here.
For Christmas he mailed his son's family in Minnesota a Southern Gourmet Feast, a crate of tangerines and dry-iced jumbo rock shrimp. The son was back at the old farm with a gorgeous and pleasant Swedish wife and blond children, elfin beauties. They loved Ulrich and believed him to be a dear eccentric. Benignly senile, deafened to communication with any but the nearest friends, who whispered in his ear. They were unaware he was a fool who disastrously misconstrued aeronautical possibilities in his dreams of "personal flight." Which is to say, a minimalist backpack and propeller raised above the buttocks of the pilot by titanium struts and powered by a camshaft spun by a featherlight nuclear pack almost invented by a renegade physicist and airport bum in Huntsville, Alabama, with whom Ulrich was in correspondence. There were problems of torque in free fall and necessary wingspan and even of where to place the rudder. Reversing the prop for braking also brought the complication of chewing up the legs, ass and spine of the pilot.
This much had in fact transpired in Huntsville as Ulrich and the inventor looked not so much upward but more at tree level. The half of the pioneer aeronaut that remained brought a staggering lawsuit against the inventor and his philosophical adviser, Earl L. Ulrich of Redwood, MS. Though he lived, correctly, at Eagle Lake.
Ulrich had not told his son or his pals about this litigation, which he, the inventor and the aeronaut were just after settling in an anteroom of the courthouse where the Alabama magistrate declared all three rampant idiots who owed the scientific community an apology and a pledge to vacate themselves from his jurisdictiona jurisdiction that now included all continental airspace into which they might in future hurl a human fuselageforever. Ulrich rose and began an excursus in rebuttal, citing correctable errors quite obvious to them now, as if this project were steaming full ahead despite the judge, as the sad wretch with his artificial rectum and main colon gawked on from his wheelchair, until Ulrich's own lawyer hauled him away, then simply deserted him in a nasty alley near the courthouse. Cold, scrawny dogs drank coffee from Ulrich's large Styrofoam cup, and he knelt, weeping in sympathy for them.
He had not told his son he had the emphysema either, or that he continued to smoke seven long ones a day, against the expostulations of his doctor and the crowd who gathered at the pier. His son believed him to be happy, lucky, if misdressed, and a fine old geezer cheered by others of his kidney, who kept an eye on him that he should want for nothing. In fact he was poor, pitied and increasingly avoided. Some feared he was headed for a breakdown, many were concerned that he might be giving a speech and just die on them.
On Christmas Eve afternoon Ulrich waited in front of the paint and body shop for the boys in the Redwood garage to hammer out a dent in the door panel of his dear old woody wagon, a Ford he boasted he might sell for a little fortune on the West Coast. He had had wonderful trips and thoughts in this car. He waited and smoked, holding on to his walker with one hand, enjoying the nippy air. He dreamed of Minnesota, where the breathing would be easier. He thought of freezing at twenty thousand feet in a flak-holed and strafed B-17, damned near a flying colander, the .50-caliber shell casings rolling back and forth on the floor beside the head of the waist gunner behind him. Until they landed, he had imagined the boy was vomiting bullets the whole time. It might be that a small madness lodged with him then. Flakked, then strafed, by the first of the German jets in the war. Who was he to live, who was he to have madness, even to speak of madness, after the others dead who would give anything to be melancholy just once again? He was old, but he had no wisdom. Age bore him no rich fruit or gain, only the stare of inconsolable amazement.
Ulrich watched while an odd vehicle came on toward him. A teenager in camouflage, speckled by acne in the face, rode an all-terrain cart across the front of which was tied a slain deer, its tongue out. The butt of a deer rifle rose from the frame in a hard scabbard behind his seat, handy to his reach. As the boy motored into the driveway of the shop, Ulrich saw the sparse and nasty whiskers around his mouth. A country girl came out of the garage, a high-schooler, with a body worker in overalls, greasy. The body worker held a rubber hammer. The boy on the cart was taken with himself. The deer flung over the hood, head and antlers down, the pink tongue out. Already the boy was spitting and acting as if this was not such an extraordinary deed. A killer with a sneer and a fine machine, that was about it. He spat. He could not help it, he was a stud with his booty.
Ulrich trembled in a sudden revelation. The deer's full unearthly beauty. The punk who had turned it into trash. He was not poor, he was not hungry. He had driven miles to show it off. His bleeding trophy over the oily pavement.
"Young man! I sense a wrong here." Ulrich left the walker and was soon at the seated boy, hands around his throat. Squeezing and squeezing to kill him. Choke the punk out of him. The boy could do nothing but claw and moo.
The boy reached back for the butt of his rifle. Nobody had sprung to his aid. Ulrich released one hand and yanked out the rifle before the boy could get an angle on it. The boy was very hurt in the throat and his face was only now unbluing. He gasped. A rag doll, he fell to the concrete.
"This is a thirty-thirty all right, and a fine one. You strutting little shit. All this fine equipment. So much. Here, let me"
Ulrich beat on the vehicle violently with the gun. Its hood, its lights, its rear rack. The telescope sight flew off, then smaller pieces, and finally the stock split, and Ulrich flung the mined weapon off into the hard weeds in a yard next to the garage. Next thing, he mounted the vehicle and drove off, over the leg of the hunter. He roared out on the main highway awhile and made a turn for the lake, where they lost sight of him. He took the vehicle into the black deeps of the swampland, where only dogs or another ATV could pursue.
The hunter was in a condition beyond amazement. But he muttered, a sort of squall. "Crazy. Who is he?"
"That man is old, he's really old," said the body man, Ronny. "Man, that was some goofy-ass piece of work. He's off driving your ATV into them swamps, Percy."
"I ain't believing."
"He's done left his old woody wagon right here."
The girl had been giggling but trying to maintain her mascara and explosive dye job, newly teased, so you witnessed a kind of intermediate chemotherapy effect of the skull.
"What the hell you laughing at?" yelled Percy, holding his throat.
"Lookit there. He left his walker," she said.
"Damn. The man can't hardly breathe. This is one old sonofabitch who changed his life in fifteen seconds," said Ronny.
"I'll change him," croaked Percy. He spat.
"No you won't," said the girl. She had gotten sad. "You go hunt out that old man, one on one, I bet he'd walk out of them woods with your balls in his hand."
"Who the hell you think you are, Marcine?"
"Sick of this country is what. And all you puffed-up little dicks in it. All 'cause your daddies were too cheap to buy a good rubber."
"That's enough out of you now, Marcine," said the body man, lifting the rubber hammer as if he might do something with it.
"I'm sick of my name and I'm sick of my hair and sick of pickups and guns and y'all raising dogs to kick and people calling deer sonsofbitches and wanting me to settle down with them in some goddamn trailer home to breed more like them and"
"Well, Big Missy Marcine. If you think you so wasted here, why don't you move on up to Vicksburg and sell what you got. I know the man can help you." The body man thought she was his.
"It'd be a step up," she said.
"And don't let the door hit your butt when you leave."
"Did anybody notice I'm hurt and robbed?" whined Percy, still sprawled on the concrete.
At the end of the doxology, Egan stood, a sinner. In his sweat he was miserable for his own former self as a drug mule. A methedrine bagman, a pavement thug. He himself had driven Mortimer's car years ago, although he had no idea whose car it was. He sensed something heavy and odorous in the trunk, but he was not paid to smell or reason. He was sent to get the thing below water in a twenty-foot pool of bayou at the rear of his uncle's land. A busted route of saplings and clipped post oaks was all there was for a path. He let it, a 1948 Chevrolet, below the chilly water, Missouri tag sinking, purple, at last. "Show me." Then he strolled back, sopping wet, to his chain-smoking uncle's house, careful to shout hello because the man kept a .22 Magnum rifle at his lodge. God knows what for, except for those who would poach or harm his many dogs and cats.
Egan's uncle was a decrepit Irish ex-priest, sent to minister to Mississippi, which the diocese described as a third-world country, forty years ago. The poverty of blacks, whites, the paucity of Catholics. But slowly he had turned landowner. His name was Carolus Robert Feeney, but he had long since gone by Carl Bob. He bought a lodge near Eagle Lake and made his peace with the lord of the coons, lynx, bobcat, armadillo and the rolling vinery of the lower Delta jungle. Now he was a pantheist and fairly profane in this faith.
His nephew Egan still loved him and appeared at odd times to make repairs to the lodge. In these chores he had found scriptures in the house and converted to Protestant ecumenism although railed at by his uncle, who now despised all churches.
Feeney loved Egan too. He nursed him through the jitters of several whiskey and methedrine collapses. The old man knew nothing of the underwater Chevrolet, as Egan knew nothing of its story. Neither Large Lloyd nor Edie, Mortimer's right hands, had any idea where it rested.
Scores of corpses rested below the lakes, oxbows, fiver ways and bayous of these parts, not counting the skeletons of Grant's infantry. The country was built to hide those dead by foul deed, it sucked at them. Back to the flood of 1927, lynchings, gun and knife duels were common stories here. Muddy water made a fine lost tomb.
It was just seven years ago Egan had been the driver who felt silent forms in the car seats beside him wanting to scream and party. When the car went under, he loved even the sweat on his brow. Done. The Christian antiapotheosis. Now, he said, let's really get wasted, brother monkeys. Mister Me, I be dead.
Two days later a deputation arrived at the body shop in Redwood. Dr. Harvard and Melanie Wooten in the front seat of her station wagon. The culprit Ulrich in the back, hangdog. Behind them they towed the ATV, dinged up and muddy. It was not Ulrich's only misadventure with a local machine. Two years ago he had bought a used Jet Ski and had gone airborne with it on the other side of the cove. Went out of the lake and pile-drove into blackberry bushes and wild vicious yucca plants. The steering column had driven his scrotum upwards into some unprepared cavity, and the yucca spears had entered his thighs and stomach very deeply before he rolled off into the lesser crucifixion of blackberry thorns. He could not recall what he was trying to prove. Perhaps atonement for the maimed pilot in Huntsville. Or all of his life after the war.
Melanie came out to the body man, Ronny, who was waiting with the same rubber hammer, and with Percy and Marcine too. They had squabbled but returned because there was nowhere else in Redwood to gather. Marcine was much taken with Melanie, who was elegant and lovely, but in a natural way that would have suited any outfit. Marcine was not aware there were any women in this county, young or older, like Melanie. And the older woman did work her charm, as the dignified Harvard leaned on the car hood smoking a pipe, her ally.
Excerpted from YONDER STANDS YOUR ORPHAN by Barry Hannah. Copyright © 2001 by Barry Hannah. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Barry Hannah’s eleven other books include the collections High Lonesome and Airships, which is regarded as a modern classic. He has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was nominated for the American Book Award for Ray and the National Book Award for Geronimo Rex, which won the William Faulkner Prize. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi.
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