A New York Times Notable Book: A woman’s suicide leads a man to a Nevada mining town—and a nest of poisonous secrets—in this “top-notch thriller” (Publishers Weekly).
There is something about the sad woman eating alone night after night at the Harmony Café that intrigues San Francisco CPA Jim Messenger. Unfulfilled himself, Jim feels a kinship with her—and later, when she commits suicide, he resolves to find out why. His search leads him to Beulah, a middle-of-nowhere mining town in the Nevada desert, where hatreds run deep, where secrets are as venomous as a rattlesnake bite, and where a stranger asking too many questions might inexplicably disappear. Still, in this dusty, barren landscape, Jim feels completely alive. And he’s not going anywhere until he uncovers the truth, even if it rips the whole town apart.
Richly atmospheric and peopled with achingly human characters, Blue Lonesome is a crime novel as tense and coiled as a rattler ready to strike and as dark and hypnotic as the lonesome desert night.
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Read an Excerpt
By Bill Pronzini
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Bill Pronzini
All rights reserved.
That was the name he gave her, how he thought of her from the beginning. But it was more than just a name because she was more than just a woman alone. She was the saddest, loneliest person he'd ever encountered: pure blue, pure lonesome.
He knew loneliness; every night he slept with it and every day it rode him, burrowed deep, like a tick rides a deer. He'd seen it in a thousand faces other than his own, but never as naked as it was in hers. Part of its essence was pain, the soul-heavy kind that never eases, never goes away. And part of it was ... sorrow and loss? disillusionment? emptiness? yearning? He couldn't be sure because he could not get close enough to her to judge. She was like a woman encased in glass—you could see her more or less clearly but you couldn't reach her.
Pure blue, pure lonesome. If this were the thirties and he had the talent of Jelly Roll Morton or Duke Ellington or one of the other jazz greats, he would write a ballad about her. And he would call it "Blue Lonesome."
How long had she been coming to the Harmony Café? Not long; he was sure of that. He looked up from his dinner one early June night and there she was, by herself in a nearby booth. The naked loneliness shocked him at first. He could not take his eyes off her. She didn't notice; she saw nothing of her surroundings, that night or any night. She came, she ate, she went. But she was never really there, in a café filled with other people. She was somewhere else—a bleak place all her own.
He saw her at the Harmony the next time he came in for supper, and the next. Holly, one of the waitresses, told him she was there every night between six-thirty and seven. Holly didn't know who she was or where she lived or where she'd come from. No one else did, either.
Usually he ate at the Harmony two or three nights a week, not because the food was particularly good but because it was out at the end of Taraval, a short two-block walk from his apartment. The woman changed his habit pattern; he began to frequent the café as often as she did, and at the same time. She fascinated and disturbed him. He didn't quite know why. He had never been attracted to lonely women; they possessed too many of the same problems and insecurities he did; the few women he'd dated since Doris had been the opposite of lonely—extroverts teeming with energy and life who had allowed him, if only for a little while, to feel fully alive himself. Nor was it a physical attraction. She was not a pretty woman even by his noncritical standards. Too thin, too pale, even though her skin had a leathery quality that spoke of years spent outdoors; lusterless ash-blond hair carelessly home barbered; unpainted mouth like a razor slash; large, pale gray eyes that would have been her best feature except for the pain and the way they stared, flat and empty, like the eyes of someone almost but not quite dead. No, it wasn't attraction but rather a kind of seductive bewilderment. No one is born that hurt, that blue lonesome. Something had happened to make her this way. Something so terrible that he couldn't even imagine what it must be.
It was three weeks before he screwed up enough courage to approach her. He was a shy man, nonaggressive, uncomfortable in social situations: one of the reasons for his own loneliness. The fact that he approached her at all was a measure of the depth of his fascination. He stopped beside her booth, feeling awkward and uneasy and oddly driven, and cleared his throat and said, "Excuse me, miss."
She had already been served and was eating; she chewed and swallowed a mouthful of food before she lifted her head. The flat, hurting eyes flicked over him, acknowledging his existence—and then denying it again a second or two later as her gaze returned to her plate. She didn't speak.
"It's crowded tonight and I wondered ... would you mind if I sat here with you?"
Still she didn't speak. At any other time, with any other woman, he would have walked away. Now, here with her, he sat down, slowly and a little stiffly. His skin felt moist. She went on eating without looking at him. Hamburger patty, lettuce and tomato garnish, fruit cup, black coffee—the same meal she ordered and consumed every night, without variation. The dish came with cottage cheese too, but she never took so much as a taste of it. That was one of the things about her that disturbed him. Not so much the fact that she had little if any interest in food, as the fact that she didn't care enough to ask for a substitute for the cottage cheese, or to have it left off the plate entirely.
He cleared his throat again. "My name is Jim," he said tentatively, "Jim Messenger."
"Have you just moved into the neighborhood? I ask because—"
"It won't do you any good," she said.
Her voice, more than the words themselves, took him aback. It was low-pitched, so husky as to be almost a rasp—and as unnatural as any generated by a computer. No emotion, no inflection. Utterly lifeless.
"I'm sorry, I don't know what—"
"I'm not interested," she said.
"In you or anything you have to say."
"I'm not trying to pick you up, if that's what—"
"Doesn't matter if you are or not. I don't want company. I don't want to talk. I just want to be left alone. That all right with you?"
"Yes, of course ..."
She had left him with nothing else to say, nothing to do but to retreat. She hadn't looked at him during the exchange and she didn't look at him as he backed away; she went on eating as if he'd never been there at all. He sat down in another booth. His cheeks felt flushed, but inside he was cold.
He watched her finish her dinner, put her coat on, pay her check, leave the café. She didn't glance his way as she passed him. She didn't look at the cashier. He had the impression that she didn't even see the summer fog that swirled around her, robbed her of dimension and definition, then allowed her to disappear altogether.
My God, he thought. My God!
TWO NIGHTS LATER he followed her home.
He didn't plan to do it. The thought never entered his mind. He arrived at the Harmony at almost the same time she did, was served and finished eating at almost the same time. Stood in front of her at the cashier's desk and opened the door for her when she left. The door might have opened automatically for all her awareness of him. Outside she turned toward the ocean. He paused for a moment, watching after her; then, instead of turning the other way, toward Forty-fourth Avenue where he lived, he set off behind her.
They had gone half a block before he fully realized what he was doing. At first it made him angry at himself. Weirdo behavior, for Christ's sake; and illegal besides under the new stalking laws. But the anger didn't last long; rationalization diluted it. He wasn't a rapist or a psycho—he meant her no harm. Just the opposite. He was curious, that was all. He was a kindred spirit.
He was a damn fool on a fool's errand.
Yes. All right. He kept on following her just the same.
At the end of Taraval she turned right onto Forty-eighth Avenue, and before long, right again into the foyer of an old stucco apartment house that faced the ocean. By the time he reached the entrance she was gone inside. The building stood almost three stories, wind- and salt-eroded to a colorless hue, containing six small units—three front and three back. From the sidewalk he could make out a bank of inset mailboxes in the narrow foyer; he went in to them. Each box wore a Dymo label. These told him that five of the apartments were occupied by more than one person, married couples and sharing singles. The one exception was 2-B, second-floor rear.
That had to be Ms. Lonesome. I don't want company. I don't want to talk. I just want to be left alone. She wouldn't share her living space with anyone, male or female. Not her.
So now he knew her name and where she lived. Janet Mitchell, 2391 48th Avenue, Apartment 2-B, San Francisco. And what good was this information? What could he do with it? It was irrelevant, really. The questions that mattered to him were inaccessible, closely guarded inside her glass shell.
Who was Janet Mitchell? What had made her the way she was?
The prospect of never knowing was like a splinter at the edge of his mind.
JUNE BECAME JULY, July became August. Ms. Lonesome continued to come to the Harmony every night, without fail. Continued to eat the same dinner and to speak to no one except her waitress. She grew thinner, more gaunt—or so it seemed to Messenger. As if the hamburger patty and tomato and lettuce garnish and fruit cup were the only meal she ate each day. Or could afford to eat? He didn't think that was the case. She must have some money; her clothes were not shabby and her apartment, even in that old stucco building, must cost at least $800 a month. No appetite for food: no appetite for life. A woman who simply did not care anymore.
He tried to stop himself from making the Harmony his only source of supper, managed at one point to stay away for three consecutive evenings. But she kept drawing him back, like an iron filing to a piece of magnetized iron. He didn't try to approach her again. He didn't follow her again. All he did was show up between six-thirty and seven and eat one of the specials and watch her eat her meal—and wonder.
Obsessive behavior. Unhealthy. He knew it, chafed at it, but couldn't seem to free himself from it. The one saving grace was that his obsession was mild, low-grade; away from the Harmony, at work or alone in his apartment, he thought about her only now and then, for brief moments; he lost no sleep over her. But it worried him just the same. His was not an obsessive-compulsive personality; nothing like this had ever happened to him before. It was even more frustrating because he couldn't understand what it was inside him that made him react to a stranger in this fashion. Their only common bond was loneliness, and yet hers, so acute and evidently self-destructive, repelled him as much as it fascinated him.
One clear Saturday afternoon he went walking on Ocean Beach, something he often did for exercise and because he enjoyed the sea air and the company of young lovers and children, the exuberance of dogs chasing sticks thrown into the surf. On the way home he caught himself taking a detour that brought him past Ms. Lonesome's building on Forty-eighth Avenue. Would she be there, shut up inside her apartment, on a bright, sunny day like this? Yes, he thought, unless she works Saturdays. If she even has a job. What kind of job would a woman like Janet Mitchell be able to hold?
While he was thinking this, he stepped into the foyer and laid his finger against the bell button above her mailbox. But he didn't press it. He stood for almost a minute touching the button and not pressing it. Then he swung around, stiff-shouldered, and walked away without looking back.
What could he say to her? Please tell me your troubles, I'm a good listener, I know what it's like to be hurt and lonely, too? No. No. There was nothing he could say, no words to help or comfort her.
All he could offer Ms. Lonesome was more loneliness.
WHAT DID HE have, really, to offer anyone?
Name: James Warren Messenger. ("I hope you never bring me any bad news," a joking client had said to him once, "because then I'd have to kill you. You know—kill the Messenger?")
Height: 6 feet
Weight: 178 pounds
Distinguishing features: None
Distinguishing physical characteristics: None
Background: Born in Ukiah, a small town a hundred miles north of San Francisco. Father owned a hardware store, mother worked in a bakery. Both dead now. Both missed, but not deeply so; it hadn't been a close-knit family unit. No siblings. Average childhood, but none of his boyhood friendships had survived his moving away to attend college. No high points in those first eighteen years. No low points, either. And therefore few memories and fewer conversation pieces.
Marital status: Divorced. The marriage had lasted seven months seventeen years ago, while he and Doris were students at U.C.–Berkeley. "It just isn't working, Jimmy," she'd said to him one night. "I think we'd better end it right now, before things get any worse between us." Not long after they separated, he found out she'd been sleeping with a prelaw member of the track team for more than three months.
Employment: Certified public accountant with Sitwell & Cobb, Business and Personal Financial Consultants, Income Tax Preparation and Strategy.
Length of employment: 14 years
Annual salary: $42,500
Possibility for advancement: Nil
Interests: Jazz, all kinds, with a slight preference for the old New Orleans style—stomps, rags, cannonballs, blues—of Armstrong, Morton, Ellington, Basie, Kid Ory, Mutt Carey. Reading, broad range of subjects. Old movies on tape. Travel. (He had never been farther east than Salt Lake City, farther north than Seattle, farther south than Tijuana. Someday he hoped to visit Hawaii. And the Far East. And Europe.)
Hobbies: Collecting old jazz records. Building a comprehensive private jazz library.
Activities: Occasional outings to one of the Bay Area jazz clubs, and a long weekend every other year at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Occasional baseball games at Candlestick and the Oakland Coliseum (though the recent greed-based strikes had pretty much destroyed his enthusiasm for the game). Walks on the beach. Running (but he didn't do that much anymore because of his knees).
Special skills: None
Future prospects: None
Mr. Average. Mr. Below Average.
Mr. Blue Lonesome.
AUGUST MELTED INTO September. And on the third Sunday of that month, Ms. Lonesome didn't come to the Harmony for supper.
Messenger waited until a quarter past eight, drinking too much coffee and watching the door. Her failure to show up bothered him much more than it should have. Maybe she was ill; there had been a strain of Asian flu going around the city. Or maybe she'd gotten sidetracked somehow. In any case it was nothing for him to get worked up about, was it?
She didn't come the next night.
Or the next.
Or the next.
He was concerned by then. Relieved and concerned at the same time. He didn't want her in his life, yet he'd allowed her to become a small part of it—a part that he missed. Eating his supper at the Harmony was not the same without her. In some perverse way her absence made that segment of his day emptier, more lonely.
He wondered if she was ever coming back. For reasons of her own she might have decided to eat her evening meal elsewhere. She might have moved to another part of the city or another city altogether. Suddenly here, suddenly gone ... didn't that hint at a transient existence? Lonely people didn't always stay in one place. Sometimes need and restlessness turned them peripatetic. She hadn't seemed to be looking for anything—just vegetating. But maybe he'd misread her and she'd been biding her time, waiting to end her suffering in some other place. Waiting to find a new beginning.
When she didn't come again on Thursday evening, he left the café at seven-thirty and walked the three blocks to her apartment building. The space on the 2-B mailbox where her name had been Dymo-labeled was now empty. Moved out, then, he thought with a brief, sharp feeling of disappointment. Where? The manager might know; the label on the box marked 1-A—D. & L. Fong—also bore the abbreviation Mgr. He hesitated. Did he really want to know where she'd gone?
No, he thought, I don't.
He rang the Fongs' bell.
There was no admitting buzz at the door. But after half a minute a thin, middle-aged Asian woman appeared in the lobby and peered out at him through the door glass. His demeanor wouldn't have alarmed even the most paranoid individual—the woman opened the door almost immediately.
"Yes. The apartment isn't ready for renting yet. Next week, could be."
"I'm not here about an apartment. I ... well, I'm wondering about Janet Mitchell."
Mrs. Fong's eyes narrowed. Her lips pinched together in tight little ridges. "Her? You know her?"
"Yes, I know her," Messenger lied. "Can you tell me where she went?"
"Or at least why she moved out."
"Moved out? You don't know?"
Excerpted from Blue Lonesome by Bill Pronzini. Copyright © 1995 Bill Pronzini. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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