During the 1950s, Gold Medal Books introduced authors like Jim Thompson, Chester Himes, and David Goodis to a mass readership eager for stories of lowlife and sordid crime. Today many of these writers are admired members of the literary canon, but one of the finest of them of all, Elliott Chaze, remains unjustly obscure. Now, for the first time in half a century, Chaze’s story of doomed love on the run returns to print in a trade paperback edition.
When Tim Sunblade escapes from prison, his sole possession is an infallible plan for the ultimate heist. Trouble is it’s a two-person job. So when he meets Virginia, a curiously well-spoken “ten-dollar tramp,” and discovers that the only thing she cares for is “drifts of money, lumps of it,” he knows he’s met his partner. What he doesn’t suspect is that this lavender-eyed angel might just prove to be his match.
Black Wings Has My Angel careens through a landscape of desperate passion and wild reversals. It is a journey you will never forget.
About the Author
Elliott Chaze (1915–1990) was born in Mamou, Louisiana, and attended Washington and Lee, Tulane, and the University of Oklahoma before joining the New Orleans bureau of the Associated Press. He served in the army during the Second World War and was stationed in Japan in the early days of the American occupation, an experience that informed his first novel, The Stainless Steel Kimono (1947). After returning to the United States and living for a time in Denver, Chaze moved to Mississippi, where he would spend the rest of his career as a reporter, columnist, and city editor at the Hattiesburg American. In all, Chaze wrote nine novels, including Goodbye Goliath, Wettermark, and Tiger in the Honeysuckle, and contributed articles and short stories to Life, Reader’s Digest, The New Yorker, Redbook, Collier’s, and Cosmopolitan.
Barry Gifford has written fiction, nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, and librettos, and has contributed to many publications, including The New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Brick, Film Comment, and The New York Times. His film credits include Wild at Heart, Perdita Durango, Lost Highway, City of Ghosts, Ball Lightning, and The Phantom Father. Among his most recent books are Sailor & Lula: The Complete Novels, Imagining Paradise: New and Selected Poems, The Roy Stories, The Up-Down, and Writers.
Read an Excerpt
I'd been roughnecking on a drilling rig in the Atchafayala River for better than sixteen weeks, racking the big silver stems of pipe, lugging the sacks of drilling mud from barge to shore, working with my back and guts and letting my mind coast. It needed a lot of coasting. Down around six thousand feet we twisted the pipe off in the hole and they abandoned the well, paid us off, and said to come back in two months, maybe three months.
Benson, the little cockeyed driller, told me I'd made him a good hand. He said most big men were sloppy and slow on a drilling rig, but that I used my weight the way a small man does, and when he put down the next wildcat he thought I'd be ready to work derrick. He said I was too good to waste "down on the floor with the mules," and he wanted me upstairs with the wind in my hair and an extra two bits an hour on my paycheck. It was all I could do to keep from laughing in his face.
Now the hot soapy water in the old-timey bathtub in the little hotel in Krotz Springs felt lovely.
I hadn't had a hot-water bath in almost four months. The soap was oily and fragrant and it slid down my chest making little zeros of suds, each filled with the milky-green color of the water. I slumped down in the water so that my chin rested just on the surface of it. I soaped my head and scrubbed it with fingertips and fingernails, then ducked beneath the deep hot water, holding my breath, feeling the dirt of months float loose. I always cut my hair short, so short I can use it for a fingernail brush when I wash my head. I credit this trick to Washington and Lee University. It's about the only thing they taught me there in that splendid woman-starved nest of culture where students address one another as "gentleman," where freshmen wear nauseatingly cute beanie caps, where no one walks on the hallowed grass, and everyone is so sporting it hurts.
The bellhop beat on the door of the bedroom while I was still underwater in the tub.
It surprised me that I could hear him. The noise came through the thick steel tub and through the water, a thumping, ringing sound. I surfaced and told him I would be there as soon as I dried myself, and he said all right in that weary, completely neutral voice peculiar to bellhops. While I was drying, he began knocking again, and I had the towel wrapped around me when I reached the bedroom door opening onto the flea-bitten corridor with its cheese-colored walls.
"Here she is," he said.
And there she was. I guess I'll always remember the first time I saw her, standing there in the half-gloom of the corridor, with the country-town bellhop dressed like an organ-grinder's monkey, almost leaning against her, smirking.
"She's a looker, ain't she, Bub?"
I said she was a looker. He appreciated that, smilingly, with a terrible show of teeth. He said he was glad I liked her and that she was the best there was in Krotz Springs and that God only knew why she bothered to hang around a little fishing village on the Atchafayala when she could be in New Orleans or Memphis or anywhere, what with her legs and manners and all.
She said nothing.
Her eyes were lavender-gray and her hair was light creamy gold and springy-looking, hugging her head in curves rather than absolute curls. She wore a navy-blue beret of the kind you associate with European movies. Then there was the hair and face and a long loose stretch of metal-colored raincoat, very wet, and the cold smell of it plain in the mustiness. Then there were the legs and the bellhop wasn't kidding about them. Then there were the feet, broad and fat and short as a baby's. The shoes looked expensive, brown suede and shiningly wet.
"For God's sake give him his dollar," she said, putting no feeling into it one way or the other.
I moved to the bureau and got the dollar and gave it to the bellhop. He smiled awfully and left, and she came in and shut the door and there we were in the room together, just like that. We weren't — and then we were. After sixteen weeks on a drilling rig, it is a lovely shock to find yourself with no mud in your ears, alone in a room with a young expensive-looking woman with lavender-gray eyes.
"Hello," she said, still putting nothing into it.
I think I grinned. I remember that the Buster Keaton act didn't seem to fit the loveliness of the face, didn't seem to fit it at all, and when she plumped down on the iron starch of the top sheet of the bed, it crackled comically.
I said, "I'd've worn a nicer towel if I'd known this was going to be formal."
"I'm tired," she said. Her hands were cupped against the aluminum-colored rubber of the raincoat over her knees. "Let's don't make jokes."
"Never joke with a tired tramp," she said. "No one gets as tired as a tired tramp."
She shivered and said she could do with a drink. I sloshed her a bourbon on rocks, using the bathroom glass and what was left of the ice. I made a lazy little ceremony of it, partly because the red-orange bourbon looked pretty as it thinned against the ice, and partly because I wanted the ice to dilute it a bit, and partly because my hands were clean for the first time in a long time and I liked the way the glass squeaked against my clean palms.
"It's good," she said, not making a face the way most women do with raw whisky.
"You mean it was good."
"I could do with another."
"From the looks of you, you could do with the whole fifth."
"Could do." She nodded. She looked me up and down. Not appraisingly or insultingly, but the way you look at a building or a mountain or an anthill, just looking. I stood there taking it, the thin grass carpet scratchy against the soles of my water-softened feet, looking back at her. I felt a laughable impulse to introduce myself and to dig into the classic parlor patter of home towns and possible mutual friends and to explain why I was wearing a towel and to tell her the bellhop had me all wrong, that what I wanted was a big stupid commercial blob of a woman; not a slender poised thing with skin the color of pearls melted in honey.
Instead I poured the drinks, this time mixed with tepid water.
The rain beat against the windows and against the tin roof of the hotel. It came down in hissing roars, then in whispers, then in loud shishes like sandpaper rubbed against wood. She drank the second glassful, climbed off the bed and began undressing, and then we were together, the cheap naked bulb still blazing down on the bed.
Thinking back, I remember the stupidest things; the way there was a taut crease just above her hips, in the small of her back. The way she smelled like a baby's breath, a sweet barely there smell that retreated and retreated, so that no matter how close you got to it you weren't sure it was there. The brown speckles in the lavender-gray eyes, floating very close to the surface when I kissed her, the eyes wide open and aware. But not caring. The eyes of a gourmet offered a stale chunk of bread, using it of necessity but not tasting it any more than necessary. I remember getting up and coming back to her, and of throwing a shoe at the light bulb, later, when the whisky was gone. I remember the smell of rain-darkness in the room and her telling me I'd cut my feet on the light-bulb glass on the floor. And how she said I was no better than a tramp myself, that I made love to the cadence of the raingusts on the roof, and it was true I was doing just that, but it seemed the natural thing then. And I felt so marvelously clean and soaped and so in tune with the whole damned universe that I had the feeling I could have clouded up and rained and lightninged myself, and blown that cheese-colored room to smithereens.
I was up early next morning for more of the soap and water, and she came into the bathroom while I was still in the tub. She was dressed. She told me she was leaving and that it had been a nice night. This she said in the small, automatic voice of a child leaving a birthday party, her thoughts already somewhere else. Her eyes were clear, her lips a freshly painted red. The fact that I was bathing seemed to mean no more to her than the cracks in the tile wall.
I hauled out of the tub and picked her up and carried her back into the bedroom and it was three days before we left the room. Together. She said it was like the song we kept getting on the little bedside radio: "If You've Got the Money, Honey, I've Got the Time." The trashy tune and words sounded funny coming out of her in the Wellesley manner, in that imperceptibly clipped, ladylike voice.
"But when the money's gone," she said, "I'm gone, too. I don't sleep for thrills any more."
"Did you ever?"
She laughed. "Let's let it go at that; I just don't any more."
That was all right with me. After the months on the river I didn't feel finicky about the nuances of romance — all I wanted was plenty of it. At that time I had no more idea of falling in love with her than I had of making a meal of the big yellow cake of soap in the Victorian bathroom.
"When the money's gone," I told her, "I'll probably be sick of you."
"I hope so."
"It'll be better if you're sick of me." But like I say, when we left the hotel we left it together, the funny-faced old bellhop toting our bags out to my Packard convertible, carrying the bags a block to the parking lot down by the river, smirking every foot of the way.
I gave him a dollar and then another fifty cents when he'd got the bags squared away in the square-tailed trunk of the car.
The Packard was none the worse for storage, and at Alexandria I stopped at a used-car lot and bought a pair of Louisiana tags with the white pelican on them. Just to play it safe. The man sold them fairly cheap and they had a nice comfortable shine to them after they were fitted into the nickeled frames.
Going across the Red River bridge, I sailed my Mississippi tags over the iron railing and saw them hit the water with a splash, forty feet below. She watched me, leaning back in her leather-padded corner, smoking quietly. Nothing seemed to surprise her: the car, the tags, the business of taking an uncharted trip with an unknown man. The wind whipped her bright hair the way it does in the soft-drink advertisements, co-operatively, beautifully. The cross-stripes of tar on the white highway thumped faster and faster beneath the wheels until the thumping became a buzzing. The air was soft, yet not dead. And over all of it lay the very good feeling of going somewhere.
In Dallas I got turned around somehow and drove out through a plush Home-and-Garden-Club kind of neighborhood, where all the houses were of long thin wafers of Roman brick or blotchy fieldstone and were set far back from the road, their picture windows shining like gold foil in the late sun. We passed what must have been some kind of club, and there were limber-legged young kids on a strip of fine clay, stroking brand-new white tennis balls with a beautiful laziness, their expensively coached strokes almost insolent. Then we came out of that part of town and there were some grubby youngsters batting an old gray ball around a gray asphalt court, a public one with ragged chicken-wire backstops. These kids played aggressively, jumpy and fast, the movements ugly and determined. They beat the ball as if they were killing a snake.
"It's funny," she said to me, "they can be playing the same game and yet an altogether different one. It's the money."
"Everything stinks without the money."
"Some day I'm going to wallow in it again. I'm going to strip down buck naked and bathe in cool green hundred-dollar bills."
"You said again."
"Did I?" She asked it teasingly.
"You tell me."
"Oh, no difference," I said. "No difference at all. But you're a funny one, with your saddle-stitched shoes and your million-dollar luggage and half the time trying to talk like a ten-dollar tramp in that snooty voice. You're a comic."
"Don't be tiresome."
"That's what I mean, words like tiresome. I never in my life heard a tramp say tiresome."
She had lost interest. "Some day," she said, "I'm going to slosh around in hundred-dollar bills, new ones that've never been used before." She giggled, a small light sound against the heavy hum of the Packard. She was breathing oddly, her shoulders moving as if her lungs were upstairs there, in her shoulders. She wore a T shirt of some kind of cocoa toweling and when she leaned back hard against the seat it was a splendid thing to see. Her skirt was gray flannel and it fitted as if it had been smeared on her, and below it were the legs. You hear and read about legs. But when you see the really good ones, you know the things you read and heard were a lot of trash.
I threw back my head and laughed and we swerved left, almost hitting a battleship-gray Olds '98, and the man and woman in it craned around to glare fleetingly at us. She stuck out her tongue at them. They blinked unbelievingly.
"Look at them," she said, "with their big prissy eight-thousand-ayear frowns."
She said she knew the man made eight thousand a year because he wore a button-down collar white oxford and when he frowned he did it just the way her eight-thousand-a-year uncle did it. As if he expected a bonus for it.
"That's not bad money," I said, feeling her out.
"There's no bad money."
"But, darling, you've got to have drifts of it, lumps of it, and little piles of it only make you sick and petty."
It was the first time she'd called me darling and it was the first time she'd made anything approaching a speech on this my favorite subject. I eyed her with new interest. You can say what you want, but really money-hungry people, ravenously money-hungry ones, are a society all to themselves. My plan had been to get enough of her and to leave her in some filling-station rest room between Dallas and Denver. I'd told her I was a salesman, that I sold novelties and notions to drugstores, and that the winter months were slack ones in the trade and I'd taken the roughnecking job on the river to tide me over. It's a funny thing, but I've found that if you tell someone you sell novelties and notions, they think it's impolite to ask what novelties and notions are. They don't ask you any more about it. Anyway, until she said there was no such thing as bad money, I was all for dumping her along the way in a day or so. Now I didn't know for sure, but I still thought I would, because a woman had no place in my plans. Most of them are big mouthed and easily identified. I don't know why, but you can pick any woman and she doesn't look as much like other women as a man looks like other men. Maybe it's the thousand different ways they can do their hair and lips. I don't know. But this one with the cocoa-covered bosom and the absolutely perfect legs, a blind man could find her on a Friday noon in Rockefeller Plaza.
The road signs began making sense and we doubled back through the ritzy neighborhood and kept going north until we hit the highway I wanted.
That night we stopped at a barbecue stand where some kind of engine turned the beef ribs over and over, like a bloody Ferris wheel, over the charcoal fire. We ate slowly, washing down the greasy roasted meat with stingingly cold beer, and then we smoked and were quiet. I wanted some more potato salad and when we got it we decided to split it and get some more beer. The beer lasted longer than the salad. While we were finishing it, she moved over against me and I kissed her a long time, her lips cold and fresh and soft. She kissed the way an expert dancer follows the lead, giving and taking at exquisitely the right moment, and getting across the idea that she had a lot in reserve and this was only a sample. I'm not lying when I say I think that kiss lasted a quarter hour. But I still planned to leave her in the ladies john of some filling station. Because you can't kiss your way out of prison and I knew that for sure. For dead sure. And even as I kissed her I remembered 'way back in the dim part of my brain how it had been in solitary at Mississippi's Parchman. In solitary they shove your food to you through a hinged slit in the bottom of the door, and you don't get to see anybody, not anybody at all. I used to kick the tray back out through the slit and curse them, hoping they'd come in and beat me. Anything to break the monotony. But they didn't come. I'd shadow-box to kill time. There was no window, only the yellow light bulb with the juices of bugs on it, and I never knew if it was day or night or rain or shine or Sunday or what. You can't kiss your way out of a place like that, and there's no barbecue, no cold beer in there.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Black Wings Has My Angel"
Copyright © 2018 Elliott Chaze.
Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
To be honest, I never heard of the book. But heard there's going to be a movie and looked up the book. This is a book I found, different and a little weird at times. Not sure what to say about it really. But it seemed a little depressing at times. Different kind of read.