This fictional trip to Piper, Alabama is also a journey into the realms of magic and mystery, love and hate, and spilled blood and reconciliation.
|Publisher:||Crane Hill Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.92(w) x 8.93(h) x 0.87(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Viewed from on high, from behind white puffy summer clouds, it is like a small town dreamed or imagined, shimmering comfortably in the sun. An emerald green valley tucked between rolling wooded nobs. A toy hamlet with one straight wide Main Street and meandering secondary streets with schools and churches and lawns and houses, many new or under construction. A child's block village with toy cars and tiny ant-like people, narrow asphalt gray roads curving away from it like arteries and veins from a heart.
Behind the high clouds hundreds of pink cherubs hover over the town and the surrounding county. They dance like plump bumblebees. They quarrel and they sing. Naked babies. Little angels. Hundreds, no thousands of them. An invisible mass of transposed flesh and wispy souls. They observe all and miss nothing. Like the blue speck that becomes a car, moving inexorably toward Piper, an old station wagon just inside the county line on one of those narrow roads.
* * *
Brenda Boykin slows suddenly and turns the old Toyota station wagon into a flat gravel parking area in front of a low concrete-block building, with a sign reading FAT MAN'S SHOP AND SNACK. The gravel pings on the undersides of the car.
"What are you stopping here for?" Jimmy asks, looking at the place with a frown.
"Something else has dropped off this car," she says. "There's a hole in the floor. I can smell fumes."
"No kidding?" he says sarcastically and makes a retching noise. He is her son.Fifteen. Potential juvenile offender. Potential youthful delinquent.
She points to a sign next to a lean-to shed on the side of the building. Mechanic on Duty, it says. Jimmy shrugs. His eyes flick over the facade of FAT MAN'S SHOP AND SNACK. A Mountain Dew sign hangs in the window blinking green in the sunlight. And a red Pabst Blue Ribbon sign. Three gas pumps stand baking in the heavy afternoon air. Shell.
When they open the car doors the muggy late-summer air creeps over them like warm invisible fog. The air feels like hot fingers on their skin. Brenda has been living in Chicago long enough to forget how oppressive Alabama summers can be. She worries about the air conditioner in the car, which has put out very little cool air since middle Tennessee. They spent last night in a Day's Inn in Covington, Kentucky, and awakened to a crisp, cool morning. She felt good. She faced the road south eagerly, with anticipation. As she steps from the car pearl-size beads of sweat are already forming on her forehead.
Brenda is a tall woman. Her thick brown hair is only dusted with hints of gray, worn long and too youthful, she sometimes thinks, too kittenish. She doesn't care. She likes it. She brushes it out and lets it go, likes the feel of it blowing freely in the breeze. She is at least ten pounds overweight, but on her big frame it doesn't show. Her eyes are deep brown, almost black, sitting on high cheekbones, and her lips are full and without lipstick. She wears very little makeup any more; sometimes she forgets it altogether.
The store is dark and crowded and close. The only person inside is a middle-aged man with tan skin and shiny black hair. He has a large wart on his cheek under his left eye. He is not fat. He is thin and drawn. The skin hangs from his jaws like turkey's jowls. He reminds her in a weird way of her ex-husband Billy.
"Are you Fat Man?" she asks.
"Fat Man died," he says, "how can I hep you?"
"I've got a little car trouble," Brenda says. "I don't know if it's serious or not. How far is it on to Piper?"
The man blinks at her. He looks familiar to her. She thinks she knows him. "Where you coming from?" he asks.
"North," she says. "We got off I-65 near Cullman."
He snorts. "Iff'n you'd stayed on it, you'd be in Piper right now." He shakes his head as though what she has done is too stupid to deserve further comment. He has a tattoo on his forearm, a skunk in a top hat, with the words Little Stinky under it.
"We like the two-lane roads," she says. "Where's your mechanic?"
"You're lookin at him," he replies. He watches Jimmy, who slouches in front of one of the drink cases. Jimmy's jeans hang low on his narrow hips. The entire back wall of the place is lined with cooling cases, with milk and orange juice, cellophane wrapped po-boys, beer and soft drinks and bottled water. The man makes no motion toward coming out from behind the cash register.
"Well," she says, "could you take a look at my car?"
"What ails it?" His eyes are mean and singular. He can focus on only one thing at once, and he does that with an intense concentration that chokes out everything else around him.
"The exhaust fumes seem to be coming up through the floor," she says. "We may be asphyxiated." He blinks. "Or catch fire." He does not move. It's as though he has fallen asleep with his eyes open. She looks around. There are racks of cheese crackers and peanut butter crackers and rows of candy: Snickers and Baby Ruths and Goo Goo Clusters. And above the counter and on all sides of it are posted hand bills and various notices, some small, some large, some printed and some hand-written. BUGS-B-GONE PEST CONTROL. "Will keep Children in My Home, Healthy Christian Environment." Fire Wood: $45 a load. A new crisp green and gold poster advertises the upcoming football season of the Piper Christian Academy Eagles. She stares at it. A flicker of excitement passes through her. There had been no Piper Christian Academy when she had lived in Piper, and here she is coming home to become headmistress of the school.
Jimmy pulls out a large Dr. Pepper in a plastic bottle. He moves with it to where she stands and places it on the counter. Jimmy wears a wrinkled, dingy black T-shirt with a White Sox logo on the front. Good Guys Wear Black, it says on the back. The dark man still has not commented on her car trouble. She looks over his head to a large banner. THIS IS MILITIA COUNTRY, it says. LIVE FREE OR FIGHT! Under that, in script, Wembly County. The Home of The Alabama Lords of The Caucasus. WAR AND PEACE IN THE NEW MILLENNIUM. My new millennium, she thinks.
"It ain't likely you'll be 'ass-fixiated' before you get to Piper," the man behind the counter says. "They's a garage there, Coles's Pontiac and Cadillac." He yawns. "I don't do nothin more than check oil and a occasional spark plug, to tell you the truth. That's a old sign. Left over from Fat Man." He stares at her. She does know him. He sat behind her in algebra class, at Piper High School. Jimmy picks up the drink and goes outside, letting the screen door rattle shut behind him. The man's eyes move up and down her body. They linger on her breasts. "He was a hell of a mechanic," he says. He stares at her breasts. Brenda wears no bra under her denim shirt.
"You're Larson Eubanks, aren't you?" Brenda asks.
The man's eyes are like bits of stone. He smiles and his teeth are stained. He does not answer her.
"Coles Pontiac and Cadillac, huh?" she says.
"Yes, well, thanks," Brenda says, "how far is it to Piper?"
"Thirteen mile," he says. His hand is suddenly over hers on the counter. His fingers are pudgy and thick. He leans forward, nods toward the outside. "That Dr. Pepper there is seventy-nine cent," he whispers. His breath smells like cheese. He blinks at her. His eyes are gray and flat and dull. She slowly removes her hand, and he only gradually lets go. Brenda pulls a dollar bill from the pocket of her jeans.
"Listen, babe, how bout"
"I'm not your babe, Larson," Brenda says. She drops the dollar on the counter.
With surprising quickness he grabs her arm. He pulls her toward him. She can hear his breathing, raspy and rapid. She hears the car door slam and she knows that Jimmy is back in the car. She can smell the man's body now, damp with stale sweat. He is a big man, and strong. She pulls against him. He grips her so hard he hurts her.
"I'll scream," she says, "Jimmy's right out there."
"Shit," he says, "I'll break that little skinny boy in two like a tooth pick."
She struggles. Brenda is a big woman, almost as tall as the man. He tries to kiss her on the lips and she turns her head and butts him in the face, and she hears him blubber.
"Goddam bitch," he says. She sees a flash of red blood from his nose or his lip. He is startled, shocked into temporary inaction. His eyes are wide and they blink. She is able to get a distance and an angle and she swiftly kicks him between the legs, square in the balls, and his mouth drops open and a cry of pain escapes him and he goes down. "Ohhhh, Ohhhh," he grunts.
"Don't ever try that again, Larson Eubanks," she says. She looks at the dollar bill on the counter. "Keep the change," she says. She struts as she walks out into the sunlight, letting the screen door slam behind her.
Outside Brenda walks over and kicks the Mechanic on Duty sign down into the dust. Jimmy watches her from the car. She is still trembling inside, jumping from the sharp edge of fear and excitement. She walks over to a rack of quart plastic bottles of motor oil by the door and turns it over. The bottles roll all over the gravel. Jimmy opens the door and stands outside, holding the Dr. Pepper. "Mom?" he says, "what ... what ..." She kicks one of the bottles of motor oil and sends it skittering.
A house trailer with a small wooden porch built at the front door sits on concrete blocks behind the store. Brenda stands looking at it, her hands now on her hips. She nods toward the store.
"Trailer trash," she says. "You drive."
Jimmy looks at her curiously. Then he nods. He goes around to the driver's side and slips in behind the wheel.
The narrow asphalt road unfolds before them. They wind through the wooded hills, thick and green. The woods seem as impenetrable as a jungle. Thousands of eyes watch from the undergrowth as the old blue car goes by. The hum of insects is like music.
They pass open fields, houses set back from the road. Brenda is struck by how many women are hanging out washing or mopping front stoops. Her mind quickly contrasts it all with the concrete sameness of Chicago. She had forgotten that women stay at home, that women are housewives. It seems strange, otherworldly, but it takes her back. Jimmy brakes and swerves slightly to go around a U.S. Postal Service jeep, white with a blinking yellow light on top, that slows at a rural mailbox. She sees a woman in a blue calico dress waving and starting down a gravel drive toward the highway.
"I've got to get out of here," she had said to her friend Marjorie, who lived in the same tired gray block of apartment buildings near Midway Airport.
"Then go," Marjorie said. They shared a ride into the city for years, to the University of Illinois-Chicago four nights a week, where both of them had finally gotten their degrees, grueling night school in harsh over-lit classrooms with weary professors. Her husband Billy, a Chicago cop, was long gone, run off with a bony girl who shook pom-poms at Bulls games. And Jimmy had been picked up for joyriding in a stolen car. Probation. He wasn't the one who stole it, but that was next.
"I'm going to take this job, sight unseen," Brenda said.
"In a freaking minute!" Marjorie said.
A man named Roger Coles. The name was vaguely familiar. He was chairman of the board of trust of a private academy in her hometown: Piper, Alabama. Her brother Lamar, who still lived in Piper, told her about the job opening. Brenda would not have given a nickel for the probability of her ever returning there in one million years.
"I remember you," Coles said on the phone, "I remember you well. Piper High School. Good Citizenship Girl." She had forgotten all about that. "Homecoming Queen," he said, almost reverently. "You probably don't remember me, but I remember you. No need for an interview at all, as far as I'm concerned."
Jimmy had not wanted to come. He had been angry, resentful. He is still a boy, not yet a man, but he will make her pay. She knows he will make her pay.
They pass through an intersection. Piper10 Miles, a sign says. Ten miles from "home." There are more houses now, closer together. Brenda notices how even the poorest people try to fix up their homes, with hanging pots of Wandering Jew on the sagging porches, even old discarded tires painted with whitewash half buried in the yards. Cement statues of deer and birds, bottle trees. She hasn't seen bottle trees since she left Wembly County for what she had thought was the last time all those years ago. Mailboxes are decorated with blue ducks, Disney characters, cardinals. One they pass has a second mailbox high in the air, on a thin pole, marked Air Mail. She smiles and looks to see if Jimmy notices. He does and nods, a suppressed grin on his face. Then they are back passing through woods so deep and dark they might as well have been miles from any civilization at all.
She thinks of the man in the store, Larson Eubanks, the smell of him. She is sure he recognized her. She could read it in his dead eyes. She thinks of Wayne McClain. Their child, who, when Brenda was fifteen years old, the same as Jimmy is now, was aborted in the back room of a funeral home over in Mount Holley. She remembers the pain and the humiliation of it, the shame and the terror, and the dreams that have haunted her for years, dreams of the little girl that she is certain the fetus was, a little blond-haired girl even though she and Wayne were both dark-haired. She wonders where Wayne is now. She has a premonition that he is in Piper. She knows that he is in Piper. She can feel him.
There are ghosts everywhere, movements and flutters behind the thick screen of leaves. The little blond girl flits from limb to limb in the trees, watching their progress down the road. Brenda sees her long-dead mother's face in the configuration of the hills in front of them. Her mother is here, too. Brenda can hear her voice, clearly, and she says, "Like an old song, Brenda. We'll sing it together."
* * *
They have not gone more than two miles beyond the intersection when they see a roadblock up ahead. It looks like a license check, or something more. There are policemen and uniformed soldiers in camouflage fatigues. "Oh shit," she says. Jimmy does not even have a learner's permit. One of the conditions of his probation is that he cannot drive. But that was in Chicago. This is a world away. Maybe she can bluff her way through. There's nothing else to do but keep going, as the road is narrow, no place to pull over and turn around. She sees a soldier standing by the road, looking at them as they approach. He seems to be in charge. Four squad cars and two army green jeeps are parked in a row alongside the road. "Shit, shit, shit," she mutters. She is fumbling in her purse, finding her wallet with her own license.
"What do I do?" Jimmy asks.
"Just let me do the talking," she says, "and pray."
"Afternoon," the soldier says when they are stopped. He leans his elbow on the window and looks in at them. He touches the tips of his fingers to the bill of his soft cap. His name patch says "Putnam Greer, SGT." She knows then that it's not a routine license check. But Greer says, "Could I see your license?" He is very polite. He smiles at Jimmy. He peers upward from beneath the bill of the hat. He squints in the sunlight.
"Sir," Brenda says, "I'm sorry. I was teaching him to drive. The road was, well, you know, deserted. I thought ..."
"Yes mam," the man says. "It's a good road to learn on." He continues to regard her. His eyes sparkle. Fine laugh lines crinkle around his eyes, which are a pale almond color with green highlights. He is hefty and blond. After a moment of awkward silence, she hands Putnam Greer her license. He holds it close to his face. He seems to read every last word on it. Jimmy glances at his mother. Then the soldier hands the license back across Jimmy to Brenda. He touches his hat again. The other men stand in a line behind him. They stand at attention.
"Let me verify this, if you will. You are Brenda Boykin, and you will be the new headmistress at Piper Christian Academy. Am I correct?" He is oddly formal now, stiff.
Brenda is surprised that he knows that. She doesn't answer for a moment. Then she says, "Yes, that's right." She notices the soldier listening to the rumbling of her old car, smelling the exhaust. "I know it wouldn't pass inspection," she says. Not only does Jimmy not have a license, she is driving the car illegally. She had skipped last year's inspection in Illinois, knowing full well it wouldn't pass. She has been lucky, up until now. "But I'm going to have it fixed. I promise." She smiles at him.
"Inspection?" he says. He blinks. His cheeks are chubby and pink, like ripe peaches. "Don't worry, mam," he says. "We ain't got no inspection in Wembly County. We don't tell nobody what they can drive and what they can't. You can drive anything you take a notion to here."
"Oh," she says, "all right."
"Our citizens live free here. We're proud of that." He touches the bill of his hat again. "So let me be the first to welcome you back to Piper," he says. "Maybe you ought to come around and drive, though. All right? Then you just fall in behind that squad car over there. Mr. Coles wants you escorted, right on into Piper and to your new house he's got all ready for you. He says you get the full VIP treatment." He smiles.
Brenda gets out and goes around, meeting Jimmy halfway. Jimmy grins at her. She can see he is about to burst out laughing. Brenda grins back, but shakes her head no. Behind the wheel she nudges the accelerator and the car inches forward. The muffler rattles as though it's full of pebbles. The squad car pulls into the highway and she moves forward behind it. The other squad cars and the jeeps fall into line behind her. The police car puts on its lights, then its siren. The other cars follow suit. Brenda's face is a mask of surprise and shock. She cannot believe it.
"Man," Jimmy says, "Man!" He laughs almost hysterically.
She shakes her head. She grips the wheel. The lights whirl and the sirens whoop. She is embarrassed. She is flattered, in spite of herself. The procession makes its noisy and colorful way into Piper, taking Brenda home. In the dark shadows of the woods the little girl smiles. The trees and the hills vibrate with life, humming and hissing, and the voice of Brenda's long-dead mother says, again, "Like an old song, Brenda. And we'll sing it together."
* * *
Cody Klinger leaves the interstate in the late afternoon and takes the blacktopped two-lane highway to Piper. He has driven all the way from California with only one stop, in Texas. He sleeps sporadically, anyway, sometimes only needing an hour or so a night.
Cody is a young man in his mid-twenties, with pale sun-bleached hair, who is astonishingly good-looking. So handsome is he that anyone seeing him in Hollywood, where he mostly worked, would immediately assume that he was an actor, but they would be wrong. Cody Klinger is a documentary filmmaker.
WELCOME TO PIPER the sign says. Cody is having the last of his late lunch or early supper, two apples and a banana. He munches on the banana as he drives, his hand draped nonchalantly over the wheel. His old 1985 Plymouth van is not quite maroon, a kind of deep red, a color of his own mixing and application. The second seat is out and the back is packed with his video equipment and his clothes. The front seat is littered with paper bags and plastic cups from fast food joints.
Cody does not even notice the police car that pulls out behind him. When he finishes the banana he tosses the skin out the window. Immediately the blue swirling lights go on behind him and he hears the sudden blurt of the siren, just a blip, just enough to signal him to pull over. He does. "I'll be shit," he says under his breath. He has not even checked into a motel yet and already he is in trouble with the cops. He has a quarter bag of pot in the glove compartment. An eight-ball of cocaine is stashed in one of the equipment boxes in the back. Hidden way down. He tilts his mirror and watches the cop approach him.
A middle-aged man with a graying mustache, he has on a shiny badge and a metal nametag, but Cody can't read it in reverse in the mirror. He wears a white shirt and blue pants and a Smokey the Bear hat. When he comes up to the window of the van, he puts both hands on the sill and just looks at Cody. Cody can read the name tag now: Leeds Scroggins.
"I'm Leeds Scroggins, Sheriff of Wembly County," he says. "How are you, son?" His voice is deep and rumbling. It is polite but full of an irony that is not lost on Cody. It is a Southern irony that he had heard all his life, not least of all from his own father.
"I'm all right," Cody says.
"Son, you tossed some litter out of your van back there, and it's a fifty dollar fine for doin that."
"It was a banana peel," Cody says.
"It's bio-degradable," Cody says.
The sheriff just stares at him for a moment.
"I didn't say nothing about it being degrading," he says, "I said it was against the law."
Cody starts to laugh and then realizes that the man is not joking. "Yes sir," he says. The sheriff is looking at his hair. He shakes his head and grunts. He peers into the van, at all the clutter, at the jumble of equipment in the back.
"I notice you got California plates," he says. "What's your business here, son?"
Cody gives him the standard answer, the one they had settled on. "I'm scouting locations, for filming movies. I work for a motion picture company."
"You make picture shows?"
"Yes sir. But I'm scouting locations now. Just looking around. In case we might want to come here to make a movie."
"What kind of movie?"
"Any kind. One set in the South. You have to make them somewhere right? I might find the perfect spot right here in Piper."
"Is that right," he says. It does not sound like a question.
"Yes sir," Cody says. "Let me give you my card." He fumbles around on the dash and finds one. He hands it to the sheriff, who holds it like he would hold a small rodent by the tail. He does not look at it. Cody is getting nervous. He can imagine himself in some dank red-neck jail cell, without even being allowed a phone call to his partner Coates back in Hollywood.
"The movies, huh?" the sheriff asks.
"Yes sir," Cody says. "It can be a boon to a local economy if a company comes in to make a movie. I can get you all sorts of information on that, if you"
"A boon, huh?"
The sheriff seems to be chewing on a tiny ball of air. His lips move, his thick jaw sways in a circular motion. "Uh huh," he says. "Well." His hands still rest on Cody's opened window. Cody looks into the older man's eyes. He can see them shifting in color, subtly and almost imperceptibly as the man's mind works, as he considers his options. Finally, he says, "We don't take too big to strangers around here, son, because most of the time they ain't got no business here, no business at all. But," and he reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a pad, jerks a pen from his shirt pocket, "I'm just gonna give you a warning ticket. You get caught litterin the streets again, it'll cost you double, a hundred smackers, cause this warning is in the computer. You got that?"
"Yes sir. I'll remember that." The man's eyes shift quickly up to his. "Really. I mean it." The sheriff writes on the pad. "Tell me," Cody says, "is there a motel or a hotel in town?"
"Ain't but one," Scroggins says, not looking up, his face close to his writing, "The Moon Winx, out on old Highway 35. It ain't fancy," he says, tearing the ticket off and shoving it at Cody, "but it's clean."
Cody takes the ticket. He is on Highway 35. "Thank you sir. Just straight through town?"
"Straight through town," the sheriff says.
Cody nods again. "Thank you again," he says. He starts the engine. The cop stands in the street watching him. He wears his gun slung low on his hip like a cowboy. The Smokey hat is tilted at a sharp angle. Leeds Scroggins takes a toothpick out of his shirt pocket and sticks it between his lips. He chews on it. Cody waves and pulls into the street.
Leeds Scroggins stands for a long time watching the red van, its color reminding Leeds unpleasantly of hog's blood, as it moves on away from him, stopping carefully at stop signs and red lights until it is almost out of sight. Leeds rolls the toothpick around between his teeth. For years, when he had smoked three packs of Camel cigarettes a day, he had chewed on matchsticks. Since he had quit eight years ago, it has been toothpicks. At first they had poked little holes in his shirt pocket, so now he breaks the pointed ends off when he takes them out of the box in the mornings. He watches the van disappear.
Leeds isn't surprised that the boy is from the movies, because he looks like a movie star, with that tan and those teeth and those blue eyes twinkling like Leeds' wife's blue topaz ear-bobs he had given her last Mother's Day. Roger Coles will surely be interested in hearing about him. Anything that is a boon to the economy of Piper or Wembly County, Roger Coles is interested in.
* * *
Cody, together with another documentary maker named Doug Runnion, formed a production company with a man named Paul Motherwell Coates, who had named their companyfor no reason at all other than the fact that they needed a namePostwar Productions. They had done an hour-long piece on minor league baseball on the West Coast and sold it to PBS. They had done an investigative piece on the shady practices of talent agents who preyed on unsuspecting young people with ambitions for show business, and the film had run as a short feature in the theater chain of a distribution company in the Midwest. That short subject attracted the attention of HBO, which had just commissioned them to do a full-length exposé of the militia movement growing around the U.S. Doug Runnion is currently in Montana, interviewing and filming.
The day before Cody left California, Paul Motherwell Coates spread a map of the state of Alabama out on his desk. Their office was on the second floor of a concrete block two-story building painted bright yellow. It was two blocks off Hollywood Boulevard. The tip of Paul Motherwell Coates's finger rested on a square county just to the north of the state's largest city, Birmingham.
"Wembly County," he said. "A hotbed. They've taken over the county. A man named Roger Coles, the probate judge of the county, also heads up the militia. Along with Michigan and Montana, that's where it's happening."
Cody Klinger was familiar with Alabama. He had been born and raised in Franklin, Tennessee, just south of Nashville, and, first with his folks and then later as a teenager, he had driven through Alabama on the way to the Gulf Coast. His family left the South when he was a senior in high school and moved to Rutland, Vermont, where he graduated high school and then went on to get his bachelor's degree at Bennington College. There, he had become an artist, majoring in film and producing a thirty-minute movie featuring female masturbation for his undergraduate thesis.
Now he wanted to do something on the South. He felt that he knew the South. Backwards and forwards. He had known from the start that it would be he who would head in that direction when production began.
"I know the place well," Cody said with excitement. When he was enthusiastic about something he tended to breathe in short quick spurts, almost like hiccups, as though he were out of breath. "I've driven through there on I-65. Stopped and eaten. There's a barbecue place there that everybody drives out of their way to stop at. Best barbecue you ever put in your mouth."
"Yes, well ..." Paul Motherwell Coats said. He was a small man, older, fiftyish with a narrow brown mustache. A native Californian. Barbecue to him meant stringy beef with watery sauce in cheap Tex-Mex joints. He wore a pale beige linen suit with a checkered vest. He smoked long filtertipped cigarettes. Both Doug and Cody waved their hands in front of their faces and frowned when he lit up. But they both smoked dope and did God knows what all else. Coates was the business brain of the company. Doug and Cody were the artists. Cody slouched in his chair with his foot propped on the edge of Paul's desk.
"How long can I stay down there?" Cody asked.
"Well, no limit on it right now," Paul said. "You can take your time. The advance was substantial and since it's for television we can use tape and that'll save us a bundle right there. Get a motel room, eat three meals a day. Be normal. Nose around. Ingratiate yourself. Talk Southern. Do what you have to. We have expenses written into the contract, but the less you spend the more we'll make. I don't have to tell you that."
"Right," Cody said. Coates kept all the books. He had a way of bleeding every last penny out of whoever they were contracted to. And they needed every penny. Cody would drive across the country in his Plymouth van, with all his taping equipment in the back, along with his clothes, a cot and a sleeping bag. Postwar Productions was the very definition of the shoe-string operation.
"This is going to be a great one, Cody," Coates said. He settled back in his swivel chair and peered across the desk at Cody. The flat California sunlight, dull and muted, slanted through the dusty smeared windows. "This documentary is going to make our reputation, and then we can write our own ticket." He smiled. He fumbled in his coat pocket for his cigarettes.
"Right," Cody said again.
Cody had spent the last couple of days in Austin with an old girlfriend who was in graduate school at the University of Texas. He shot lots of tape footage of the famous bats who nested under the freeway overpass. Millions of bats. The city of Austin couldn't decide whether to get rid of them as the pests they had become or to celebrate them as a tourist attraction. "One bat can eat a pound of mosquitoes a day," his girlfriend said. She wore the same old afghan with a hole cut in it for her head that she had worn around Bennington. It was red and green. Her hair was black and straight. She was in favor of protecting the bats.
"But they shit on people and cars," said her friend who was drinking espresso with them. Her friend was teaching two freshman English classes and working on her dissertation on Alexander Pope. They both looked at Cody to see what he thought.
"Let me get my footage of them," he said. "Then you can do with em what you want. Fuck em. Bats are bats."
* * *
Wayne "Freight Train" McClain is on his way to see Roger Coles because he wants Otis Hunnicutt on his football team for the fall season. It's going to be a hard sell, because Otis is black. Wayne, an All-American running back when he was at Auburn, is the football coach at Piper Christian Academy, an all-white school. Last year he had come within one touchdown of winning the state championship, and this year he is determined to win it all. He wants so badly to win he can taste it. The taste lingers on the back of his tongue like cold beer or good Scotch, both tastes that had gotten him fired from an assistant coaching job at the University of Georgia and reduced him to the ranks of high-school coaching. He had been on the verge of a head coaching job at a major university when the booze got so bad that Bobbye, his wife, had left him and taken their son. Then Wayne was fired. Wayne dried out and got this jobwhich got him his son back. Wayne for now has custody of Keith, who is seventeen. He considers this job a steppingstone on the way back up.
Wayne had grown up here, had been an All-state running back at the old Piper High School, which is now all black. Roger Coles had hired him at the Academy and given him five years to win the state championship. This is his fifth year. He can't win it without Otis. He is not going to stop until he convinces Coles to get him, even if he has to threaten to quit.
Wayne is driving his old beat up red Pontiac Firebird. He drives too fast through town. He doesn't mean to, but Wayne does everything too fast. He is hard on the boys on his team. "Good God, Coach," a parent would say, "this ain't college ball!" Wayne would just look at him or her, not deigning a reply. Lots of the boys who went out quit long before the season started, but those who stayedhis entire squad last year had numbered only twenty-four boyswere lean and hard and in such good shape they could have played a second game after the Friday night game was over. That's why his record, in his four years, was forty-nine and four. He had taken the Eagles to the play-offs his very first year, and the last two losses were in the championship games of the past two seasons. He knows he is the best highschool coach in the state of Alabama. All he needs is a chance to prove it once and for all.
Wayne switches on the radio. It is tuned to WXAY, the local 250-watt station that just a few months before had changed from a top-forty country format to all-talk. The announcer's name is Alex Gresham, and he banters and argues with and insults callers all day long. Everybody in Piper listens to the station. "The bleep bleep federal government is a conspiracy," a man's voice is saying, and Alex jumps in and interrupts him. "Watch your tongue, man. You can express your opinion without cussing. Using words like that is a sign of a poor vocabulary, and a poor vocabulary is a sign of stupidity. So go ahead, stupid!" "Well," the man says, "it is!" "Is what?" "A conspiracy!" "Wheeww," Alex says, "the joint is stunk up mightily here!" There's a click and Alex says, "The People Speak. Go ahead!" It's a woman's voice now. "Alex, I got a good recipe for a three-day coconut cake," she says. "Wow!" Alex says, "tie me to the bed-post, Mama!" "You take three cups of ..."
Wayne buzzes on down Main Street as the woman's voice drones on. He can see Coles's house at the end of the sunlit street, the huge old oak and elm trees that stand in its front yard, shading it. Splashes of white from the house show through the thick green foliage. It's the biggest house in the area, the old Piper mansion, built by the manMason Landow Piperwho had owned all the mines in the surrounding hills way back around the turn of the century, before he sold out to International Steel and moved his family to Florida, where he founded the city of New Smyrna Beach and became a U.S. Senator.
The woman's voice giving the recipe is shrill, and Wayne shuts the radio off. Wayne had not been able to believe his eyes earlier in the week when he had scanned down a memo to the faculty from Coles, announcing that their new headmistress was Brenda Boykin. It had taken him a moment to place the name. Brenda Vick. It had to be. Boykin was her married name, he remembered that. He sat there holding the memo like it was a snake about to bite him. He licked his lips. Brenda Vick.
Wayne had not seen Brenda since the summer after they had graduated together from Piper High School. They had been an item, the star of the football team and the head cheerleader. They had gone together for all four years of high school. They had even talked of marriage, and then Wayne had gone off to Auburn on scholarship to play football and he didn't want to drag the baggage of a hometown girlfriend with him. There would be too many other possibilities. So he shafted her good. Just dropped her. She wasn't going to college anyway, and he would be moving on to a different level. She lived with her mother and her younger brother in a ramshackle house-trailer on the edge of town. He remembered that she had gotten a job in Birmingham for a while. Then that she had married a policeman. Billy Boykin was his name, and they had moved off to Chicago or somewhere, while Wayne was making All-American his senior year and playing two years for the Broncos before he messed up his knee and went into coaching.
He thinks of her now, in his cluttered car: tall, with dark hair cascading down her back, her big black bush of pubic hair and breasts like proud grapefruits, hips wide and sturdy. Her running down the sand bar on Big Sandy Creek, near the Warrior River, where they all used to go skinny-dipping, plunging into the water and splashing, the drops of water flailing like sunlit rhinestones in the air around her head. Laughing. Or lying back beckoning to him. Spreading her legs.
He shakes his head to clear it of the images. There will be time enough to get back with Brenda if he decides he wants to. He has to concentrate on his mission. Otis Hunnicutt is going to be his ticket back to the big time. Otis played last year for Piper High School. He is six foot two, two hundred and thirty pounds. He runs the forty in 4.2. He is built like Bo Jackson and he is the best running back to come out of central Alabama since Bo, maybe even better than Bo. He is that good. Wayne knows the coach over at Piper High, a science teacher who moonlights as the coach, and he knows that every school in the South sent scouts to the games last fall or asked to see Otis's tapes. Schools like Michigan and Notre Dame are interested. This will be Otis's senior year, and Wayne wants him to transfer over to Piper Academy, where he can get the kind of coaching he needs. Wayne wants to give him a football scholarship. And then wherever he goes to play at the next level, Wayne plans to go, too. That will be part of the deal.
The only problem, and it is a major one, is that Otis is a black kid. Not really black black, but a kind of cream, or golden. Even his hair is tinged with gold. But he is a Negro, a black. No black student has ever gone to Piper Christian Academy. The school owes its very existence to the forced integration of the public schools back in the Seventies. The school struggled in its early years, until Roger Coles began to give partial scholarships, football and basketball and cheerleading scholarships to white kids who couldn't afford it otherwise. Now every white child in Piper goes to the Academy for grades one through twelve. It even has a pre-school kindergarten. Piper High and Elementary Schools are all black.
"We can tell everybody he's an Indian," Wayne says. He has rehearsed this. He is sitting in Coles's spacious office in the Coles Building, a three-story brick and glass office complex on Main Street, next to the movie theater. "A, you know, native American. We can put that down on his application."
"Are you serious?" Coles asks. Coles is tall and lean, with a prominent nose. His skin is suntanned.
"Serious as a heart attack," Wayne says, "an Indian. Why not?"
"Have you taken leave of your senses, Wayne?" Coles says. "He's a local boy." He sits behind the huge desk in his office. Coles wears khaki work shirts and pants, like a uniform. He wears the same thing every day and drives around town in his Bronco, looking over his property. He is in his late seventies, and his hair is thick and gray, plentiful and bushy. Almost white. Wayne has no idea how many millions Coles is worth. He couldn't even guess.
Wayne has rehearsed this too: "If you say he's an Indian, Mr. Cole, then he's an Indian. Everybody in Piper will believe it."
Coles settles back and looks at him across the desk. "Ridiculous," he mutters.
"He lives with that old woman he calls his grandmother, but nobody knows who his parents were. I've asked around. She ain't no more his grandmother than I am. Maybe his parents were gypsies, or something."
"Gypsies? Shit, that's worse than blacks, Wayne."
"Somethin," Wayne says, "somethin that ain't black."
"He's black and you know it, Wayne."
"Yeah. But do they know it? Will everybody know it, after you"
"Hell, I know it. Ain't that enough?"
"Depends on how much you want that state championship, I reckon," Wayne says.
"You came close last year," Coles says.
"Close don't count cept in horseshoes and shaving," Wayne says. Coles does not respond to that. Wayne takes a different tact. "Hasn't the federal government been on your back about no minorities at the academy? Seems like"
"We take no federal funds. None at all."
"Seems like something about violating civil rights, discrimination. That lawyer, Grist, whatever his name is"
"Grist is full of shit," Coles says. His face colors. A.J. Grist is a black attorney in town who is a card-carrying member of the ACLU and the NAACP. Wayne can tell from the expression on Coles's face that he would like to run Grist out of town, or worse. Grist was once married to a white woman who claimed to have been a Las Vegas showgirl, and she had run off with a UPS driver, leaving A.J. to raise their daughter Karla. Karla Grist is almost white, a beautiful young seventeen-year-old woman who is a senior at Piper High. Wayne has seen her around town. Once a man saw her, he never forgot her. Wayne is certain of that. "Don't talk to me about A.J. Grist," Coles says.
"All right," Wayne says. "Back to the matter at hand. I've got to have Hunnicutt, Mr. Coles. I can't win it unless I do."
"Nonsense, Wayne," Coles says.
"He'll make em forget about Bo Jackson," Wayne says. "Think of all the good press for the Academy. For Piper. We can call him the new Jim Thorpe. We can"
"The new who?"
"Jim Thorpe. The great Indian All-American. You know? From the Carlisle Indian School, in Pennsylvania. Hell, they made a movie about him. He's a great American hero!" Coles stares at him across the desk. His pale blue eyes are fixed on him. Wayne sees a real spark of interest there now. "Have you ever seen this boy?" Wayne asks. "Hell, he's beautiful. He's like an Egyptian prince. Or an Indian chief! He"
"Easy, Wayne," Coles says. "Don't overdo it here."
"Bottom line: he's a black."
"Nossir," Wayne says, "he's an Indian!"
Coles sits there contemplating. His arms lie flat on the neat desktop. The sleeves of his long-sleeved khaki shirt are rolled up two loops on his forearms. Wayne expects an answer. He braces. He knows that Coles is a decisive man, given to quick and final conclusions.
"All right," Coles says, "we'll give it a try." Wayne tries not to let his relief show. He has been holding his breath, and he tries to let it out slowly and casually. "I want that championship, Wayne." He stares at Wayne, his eyes level. "Maybe he is a goddam Indian. Who the hell knows what he is? He might as well be an Indian as anything else. What the hell."
"Good," Wayne says. He stands. He is anxious to get going.
"Wait a minute," Coles says, "how the hell do you know this boy will do it? Have you talked to him?"
"No," Wayne says, "but you just leave that to me."
"All right," Coles says. He points to the chair. "Sit back down, Wayne. One or two other things." Wayne is nervous now and jumpy. He sits. Coles leans back. His swivel chair squeaks under him. He makes a tent of his long thin fingers and contemplates it. He nods, as though he is talking silently to himself. "This is a big step, Wayne," he says. "I don't want things fucked up."
"You can depend on me," Wayne says.
"Can I?" Coles looks at him. "Stay off the booze, Wayne. I mean it. Start drinkin again and you're out on your ass. Is that clear?"
Wayne nods. He holds his tongue. Coles's tone makes him angry. He wants to tell the old man to go to hell.
"And I want you to leave Brenda Vick alone," Coles says.
"Pardon?" Wayne is not sure what he said. It comes like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky. It's as though Coles has shouted Brenda's name into his ear. At close range.
"Wh ... What do you mean?" Wayne stammers.
"Just what I say," Coles says. He leans forward. He peers at Wayne, and there is silence for almost a minute. "I order you to leave her alone," Coles says, "because I brought her back here for me, not you."
* * *
It is true. Roger Coles has been in love with Brenda Vick, nee Boykin, for twenty-five years, ever since the night he crowned her Homecoming Queen at half time of the football game, while his daughter Helen Grace who was in the same class as Brenda stood by in the court with envious tears in her eyes. Something happened to him, like a bomb exploding inside his head. It was like all the songs said, and he experienced it for the first and only time in his life. He had been struck totally dumb by her beauty, by the way the stadium lights had sparkled on her dark hair and her teeth, the fullness of her lips, her perfect young body in the black sheath of a dress with high heels that made her almost as tall as he was. He had fallen in love with her, hard. But that was back before he was King Coles, when he had barely made his first million. His wife Alberta was alive, and he had just begun his affair with his secretary, Sybil Riggs, now his Executive Assistant, an affair that had lasted all this intervening quarter of a century. And Brenda was a classmate of his own daughter's. Decency itself forbade him, he supposed. He told himself that, and felt virtuous.
When Lamar Vick, Brenda's idiot drunk of a brother, called to inquire about the job opening at the Academy, Roger knew it was providence. When he got her letter of inquiry, it was like something divinely inspired, as though he had said to God, "All right, I've got everything I ever wanted, but is there anything else that I can make mine now to give my future years the joy and pleasure that I deserve?" It was as though God had reached down and rung the phone or plopped the letter square on his desk, the letter with the return address of some godforsaken hell of a place called Summit, Illinois, but written by an angel from his past. An angel who could bring back the vitality of his middle years and stop time's flow for him. She would erase those years since that fateful night on the football field and make him forever young again. It is just too perfect, too synchronistic.
The only obstacle, perhaps, is Wayne McClain. Roger well remembers that they had been in love, had gone together for a long time. He remembers Helen Grace talking about them. Helen Grace had a crush on Wayne herself, and acted like a school girl when he moved back to town. She is married to the local State Farm agent, Putnam Greer. Putt had confided to Roger that for the first year Wayne was back Helen Grace "talked about McClain all the time. That's all she can think about!" And then it had stopped. Abruptly. Roger wondered if something had happened.
After Wayne leaves Roger tells Sybil that he is going out for a while, to ride by and check on the new McDonald's and run some errands. He has been annoyed that the construction company seems to be taking its own sweet time in finishing the McDonald's. Roger had set the grand opening to coincide with the beginning of the football season, but it doesn't look now as if they'll make it.
He likes to get into the Bronco and just cruise around town, looking at all his rental property and his projects under way. He owns a total of seventy-nine rental houses in town. Plans are on the board to build eighty more housesfor saleand construction has already begun on half of them. He also just closed the deal buying three hundred acres of land at the future intersection of I-65 and I-459, the new northern bypass around Birmingham. He's going to build a mall there, the Twenty-First Century Mall, the biggest mall east of the Mississippi River. He is building Wembly County into what will be the most desirable place in the state for white people to live. Every white person in his right mind will want to live in Wembly County and shop at the Twenty-First Century Mall. Everything an upscale person could possibly want will be had right there: four levels of' specialty shops and restaurants, movie theaters, a swimming pool and an ice rink, exercise gyms, bakeries, car dealerships, and a hotel under a sixteen-acre skylight seven hundred feet high, with Macy's and Rich's and Parisian on one end and J.C. Penney and Sears and McCrae's on the other. White people from all over Birmingham and the rest of the state will flock there likes ducks to a slough. Construction is set to begin in the fall. Roger knows that the New Millennium will be a white one, and he intends for it to reach its fullest potential right here in Wembly County.
Roger Coles has almost single-handedly turned Wembly County into a haven for like-minded, conservative people like himself. Roger is Probate Judge of Wembly County. He has run unopposed in the last three elections, and he subscribes to the philosophy of Posse Comitatus, Latin for "Power of the County." He believes, and has convinced other prominent men in the county, that all government above the county level is illegitimate. His militia is his army. Along with the other People's Militias scattered around the country, they are the only duly authorized armies in the United States. And the highest legitimate authority that exists legally is the Probate Judge. "The Supreme Court," Posse literature says, "is NOT the highest court in the land. The Probate Judge is of course the highest authority as to the interpretation of the law or as to questions concerning its enforcement."
He sits now in his Bronco watching a crew putting the yellow tile roof onto his new McDonald's. They seem to move in slow motion. But today he is not annoyed with them, Because Brenda Vick Boykin has been given a police escort into town and is ensconced in the neat little fully furnished cottage on Pineview Road that he is renting to her for the nominal sum of two hundred dollars a month. And he feels his accumulated years dropping away and disappearing into the late summer air.