Burden, a twenty-one-year-old grocery store clerk in Walterboro, South Carolina, has two things on his mind: suicide and sex. Suicide because of overwhelming guilt for his role in the death of a beloved cousin. Sex because if you live in a small Southern town stuffed with unfulfilled wives and their vengeful men, it's got to be a great way to go.
Of course with such a plan there are bound to be complications: second thoughts, husbands who won't take the bait, and most surprising of all to Burden himself, the return to town of the one woman it might be worth staying alive for.
Burden's women are unforgettable: Maude, whose kneecaps can make a man fall to the floor in a swoon and married to the town's doctor, a much older man not possibly capable of living up to those kneecaps or the woman who goes with them. Pru, whose passion for afternoon lovemaking is close to insatiable, and whose long-haul truckdriving husband Eugene is rarely on the scene to accommodate. Then there's Jo, a different creature altogether - the woman Burden might truly love but who he seems to have let slip from his grasp.
Readers of Clyde Edgerton and Charles Portis will find themselves happily at home in this lyrical and funny novel with the feckless hero who keeps trying to end it all...but can't.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|File size:||300 KB|
About the Author
Tony Walters lives in central Florida with his wife, Mary. Burden is his first novel.
Tony Walters lives in central Florida with his wife, Mary. Burden is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Tony Walters
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Tony Walters
All rights reserved.
"Get your pants on, Burden," Eugene Boaz's wife protested. She wanted to sound stern, to sound in command. But her voice faltered and the urgency drained, making her words seem silly. Get your pants on. ... As she spoke, she struggled against Burden's reluctance to pull on his jeans and her own desire to reclaim her mount a final time before sending him into the night — this after the headlights of her husband's truck had swept across the front yard.
Only by good fortune had she caught those beams, betrayed by twin reflections drawing illumined fingers across the sheers of the second-story bedroom window. At that moment she had been straddling Burden. She had been straddling him for several long minutes before that also, her fingernails in furious motion as they teased across his chest and belly, her body bending backward in a sweaty, athletic arch. The ceiling's troweled texture ("They look like clouds, don't you think so, Burden?" she had remarked the first time they'd made love in this bed) had been a mere distraction to her eyes, the ceiling fan's spinning blades no more than a lost detail as her loins slurped the glans pleasure swelling inside her. She had been absolutely pulsing — pulsing — swelling wetly, enveloping Burden in a way she hadn't Eugene in years, her mind intoxicated by the humid bouquet of sexual perfume scenting the air.
But then the telltale halogen reflections had swept across the sheers and she had sprung forward so quickly she had nearly struck foreheads with Burden.
"Jesus, Pru, that felt good," Burden said. "Do it again." His words were slurred, his mind steeped in that same sexual perfume. A lazy, crooked smile adorned his face and his eyes were closed, his senses abandoned, lost somewhere beyond the bedroom's pink walls. Instead of doing it again, Pruella had leapt off her moistened toy and scrambled for a T-shirt and floral pedal pushers.
"Eugene just pulled up. Lord, he's home early! Get your clothes on, Burden, get them on now before he comes in and shoots us both." Knowing that Eugene moved like a sloth kept Pru from becoming hysterical; still, it wouldn't do for Burden to be so, so goddamn deliberate.
But Burden's consciousness was a sail unfestooned from a mast; he was floating just above a tropical sea, his canvas edges skimming the waves, buoyed by the barest breeze. An indolent sun burnished a blue sky, lulling his sail-self nearly to sleep. He felt prepared for Eugene. He felt anesthetized for the task at hand. Burden?
Burden! Pruella pinched his cheeks, pulling his mouth into a narrow slit. She pressed her face to his, their noses touched. When she spoke he could smell her words, warm and wet and foul with sex. "Eugene's gotten home!"
Yes, Eugene, Burden thought. He appreciated the precarious turn the evening had taken, delighted in that turn. So this is it. At last, he thought. Eugene, 230 pounds of stimulus-response. Eugene, with muscles at the ready for the slightest provocation to demonstrate their power, simmering underneath curls of coarse black hair. The coital opiate spiking Burden's blood dulled his sense of self-preservation, making him, for the moment, carefree. With deliberate ease, he slipped on a rumpled shirt then bent ass up over the edge of Pru's bed and felt for his jeans, determined to take his time.
Pruella slapped his ass (she had done so many times this evening) to get his attention. Burden turned to her, wagging his ass like a censer, his impish smile telling her he liked the sting her delicate hand left on his buttocks.
It was then that she said, "Get your pants on, Burden," as she handed him his jeans. "And get off the bed. Lord!" She pulled the bed sheets and cover to the headboard, creasing them under the pillows and folding them on top. She smoothed the cover as well as she could, then leaned over to a mirror and worried her fingers through sex-tousled hair. Henna strands caught fire in fragments of errant light, and she couldn't help but smile noticing how vibrant she looked after a good fuck.
Burden pulled Pru from the mirror and ran a hand under her T-shirt, groping a breast and buying time. "Just once more," he insisted. He thought of Eugene — surely he was in the house by now.
"Burden, no." But she hadn't the conviction of her refusal and her lips were soon to his, their tongues darting past parted teeth. Only the sound of the garage door jangling closed separated the two. "Lord, what am I doing? Get your pants on and get them on now." Pruella pushed Burden away and hurried to the window. Why hadn't she kept it open? Jesus, the room reeks of sex!
"Pru?" Eugene's voice bellowed from the kitchen. "Pruella?" Her name sounded as though it had been blown out a busted exhaust pipe.
Pru slid the window open. Moist air crawled over the sill and she could see rain puddles in the sidewalk and street reflecting lamplight and lighted windows from across the way. She turned back to Burden and cursed. His jeans were only to his knees and he gave no indication they'd be fully on and zipped up before her husband lumbered into the room. The sound of muffled footsteps carried from below, telling her that he was nearing the stairs. Pru took Burden's arm and ushered him to the open window.
"Hold on, Pru, give me a chance —"
"Shush! He'll hear," Pru whispered tightly. She tilted Burden's head and guided it under the window sash.
Burden stretched out a hand and clasped the window's frame to buy a few moments more; surely even Eugene was only so slow. Yet even now the opiate of Pru's sex was dissipating in his blood, returning him to his better senses and to doubt. He glanced at the bedroom door and then back at Pru. "Give me a kiss," he pleaded. Yes, a kiss would help, Burden thought. "You can't send me out without a last kiss." His head gamboled and his lower lip jutted out in a wonderfully effective pout as he silently counted the risers Eugene's feet were fouling, carrying him nearer.
"Burden," Pru pleaded, but she kissed him just the same. "Now get, you," she said, pushing him through the window. As he slid down across the porch roof the friction of its shingles worked Burden's jeans over his ass. He splashed down in the wet grass unscathed, then turned to face Pru as he pulled his zipper closed. "Pru," he called to her.
"My shoes, I need my shoes." With a silent actor's dramatic flair he pointed to his wet, white socks, the only clothing he'd retained during their lovemaking.
"Oh, shit!" Pru scanned the bedroom for Burden's sneakers, saw them discarded beside the bed table. She scooped them up and tossed them down to Burden. After he pulled on his shoes Burden lifted his face to Pruella, his eyes betraying a certain disappointment, almost dissatisfaction with how the evening was ending. At length he offered her a final kiss, placing it wetly on his palm and tossing it up to her. Pru caught the kiss. When Burden turned away, she wiped it on her pants.
"Pru?" the exhaust pipe bellowed.
Pruella thought to close the window but preferred that it appear she'd been standing by the open window for many minutes, caught in idle fascination by the quiet, dampened Walterboro streets resting sleepily below her. Composing herself, she relaxed against the wooden frame and closed her eyes, relieved.
When Eugene opened the door, he did so the way a husband does who perpetually suspects he will one day open it to find his wife in bed with another man, which is to say with a mixture of apprehension, belligerence, and relief.
"Pru," he continued more softly, "why didn't you answer me?"
"What? Oh, hello, dear." She held a hand out for her husband. "I must have been lost in my thoughts." She drew a long breath as she took his hand in hers. The storm had exhausted its fury somewhere in hidden eastern vistas, leaving the late evening air cooler as the sky darkened from peach to plum; tea olives opened their many mouths, exhaling honeyed breaths; a dog bayed, and a conversation from next door — only one end of which could Pru discern — carried up through the open window. "I do love the smell of the air after a thunderstorm, it somehow makes all the fragrances more ... alive. Don't you think so?"
Eugene harumphed gruffly but all the same drew in a deep breath and imagined that under the smell of freshly scrubbed air and the delicate fragrance of tea olives he detected the odor of detergent. This was what he thought cum smelled like.
Burden broke through the doors of Buck's and entered a darkness different from that of the night. Three patrons, clumped like trash at the bar's far end, tended to their drinks under a television bolted high on the wall. Only one of the patrons paid more than passing attention to the screen, and its volume was lost below Merle Haggard's plaintive voice as he sang out from a small jukebox. The television threw its pale light across the room, dressing its walls and furnishings in a flickering palette of faded, mutable colors. Frankie stood behind the bar, conducting the drunken crescendo his three performers were slouching toward. Bobby Cort held First Chair, and it was his face that the television held most vividly alight, which was a shame. Cat Burrows, at fifty-five, ten years older than Bobby, thought he belonged in the First Chair. Blind Willie sat in a rounded, unkempt but not undignified heap, oblivious to his poor position or the televised chiaroscuro playing across his flannel shirt.
"What'll you have, Burden?" Frankie asked.
Burden sat softly on the fourth bar stool. The seat of his jeans was still damp from his fall from Pruella's bedroom window. "Corona."
Frankie grinned, for Burden always ordered an import after having sex. Domestics meant he'd done without. Frankie pulled a Corona from the cooler, popped its top, and wedged a lime quarter in the bottle's mouth. "How was it, good?" he asked as he set the bottle in front of Burden.
Burden shook his head in a manner indicating he could not say. "I'll let you know once I'm done."
"Interrupted? What happened, the old man come home?"
Burden cast his gaze mirthfully down toward the counter like a shy young boy.
"What quarter? Third? Fourth?"
Frankie grinned again. "Sudden death."
"Not sudden enough for me," Burden muttered quietly.
Frankie started to ask Burden to repeat himself when Cat called out from his seat. "Hiya, Burd." He raised a sweating can of red and white in greeting, giving Burden an informed smile when he saw the Corona that Burden volleyed with a cheerful grin of his own.
Burden looked up at the television. Cheerleaders frolicked the way very responsible, very directed people frolic, forcing geometric shapes from apparently chaotic movements. "Who's ahead?"
"Fucking Cocks." That was Bobby, spitting his words out on a spray of chilled bourbon. Of the five present, only he perceived Merle's deeper meaning.
"Go Cocks," Blind Willie said without inflection.
"Fuck your Cocks," Bobby said. He loved the Game Cocks, but superstition demanded he bad-mouth them at every opportunity, lest Fate learn of his love for them and crush them to dust.
"After your wife finishes with me. Go Cocks," Blind Willie repeated with unforced equanimity.
Bobby Cort shook off the mental image of anyone having sex with his wife, then said, "Well, it isn't going to last, so don't get your hopes up." And it wouldn't. No Game Cock lead — in itself a rare phenomenon — was so great that it could not be overcome by well-coached incompetence.
"See you in November."
Blind Willie sucked down more of his Bud. He never ordered imported.
"You interested in laying money on that?"
Willie turned and regarded Bobby Cort with impassive eyes. "Ten dollars."
Cat hooked his toes under the bar rail and leaned backward on his stool till he had cleared Blind Willie. "Hey, Burd, you want to head out to Monck's Corner in the morning? Cousin of mine up there — you remember Clyde — got himself a new motor. Wants to try it out on the lake."
"What kind'd he get?"
"Johnson. Got one hundred and twenty-five horses just chomping to lead us to some fat-assed bass."
"Good motor." Burden upended his bottle to his lips. He brought the beer into his mouth in measured amounts, watching the tiny bubbles as they floated heavenward through the bottle.
"What do you say, Burd? You in?"
Burden brought the bottle down to the counter. "I don't know. I got to make some deliveries tomorrow. Promised my dad I'd get them done before one o'clock," he lied. "But you can sure bring me back some bass if you like."
"I didn't lay ten-dollar piddly ass amounts when I was in fourth grade, betting whether Skunk Johnson had the balls to look up the teacher's dress," Bobby said to Blind Willie.
"Okay, make it fifteen," Blind Willie returned calmly.
"I wouldn't screw my own wife for fifteen dollars."
"He's telling it straight," Frankie said from behind the bar. "Offer twenty."
"Can't you deliver whatever you've got to deliver in the afternoon? We could get back by one o'clock. I'd help you. We could get it finished up in no time."
Burden considered Cat's proposition and was about to respond when the door opened. He turned and watched Eugene Boaz force his mass through the door's slender frame, feeling as though he were witnessing a type of sexual violation. He also grew a degree cooler. He leaned into Blind Willie's ear and said, "I been with you fellows last couple of hours. Hear?"
Blind Willie looked at the beer in Burden's hand. "Drinking imported. Suddenly afraid when Eugene walks into the place." He spoke his conclusion into his beer can, then said to Bobby, "Twenty's as high as I go."
"It's a bet. Did you hear him, Frankie? You heard him, right? Twenty dollars. Clemson is going to whoop the ever-living shit out of your Cocks."
"Your wife couldn't do it, what makes you think Clemson can?"
"Would you lay off my goddamn wife?"
Eugene carried his mass to the bar and heaved it on the stool next to Burden. He smelled vaguely foul, as though he had collected the vagrant odors of the cities he'd made runs through in his rig.
"What're you drinking tonight, Eugene?"
"Whiskey. Straight. And a beer." Eugene surveyed the group. "Christ, women," he confided as Frankie set a mug of beer and a shot glass on the counter before him.
Burden edged closer to Blind Willie.
"Know what you mean," Frankie agreed, filling the shot glass with whiskey.
Eugene made a show of sniffing the air then hesitated, casting a suspicious glance toward Burden. He sniffed again.
Burden turned to him. "Cock or Tiger?" he asked as a distraction.
"Cock or Tiger? Blind Willie put twenty on the Cocks."
"Shit, tiger'll whip a fucking rooster any day."
"Amen, brother. Goddamn got that right." Bobby raised his glass to Eugene. His beloved Game Cocks would lose, but not on his account.
Eugene leaned into Burden and sniffed again.
"Look, do I smell like shit or something? Did I maybe step in dogcrap and don't know about it?" Burden demanded, countering Eugene's sniffs of suspicion the way a baboon might turn to challenge an attacking cheetah.
"Where you been earlier, boy?"
"Why I got to tell you where I been?"
"'Cause I asked." Eugene brushed a hair-coarsened forearm against Burden's naked hand.
"Been making deliveries all day." Burden's pinky finger twitched spasmodically, tapping the Corona lightly.
Frankie refilled Eugene's shot glass. "Burd's been with us past couple of hours, Eugene, watching the game."
Burden took a sip of Corona, its flavor leeching under Eugene's shadow. Goddamn, Eugene, he thought. Away from Pru, away from the moment, Burden didn't have the courage to provoke him.
Eugene downed the shot and took a quarter of the beer into his rough-rimmed maw. He held his eye to Burden. His father had raised him to trust a bartender's word, but he also believed he detected the faint odor of detergent. After a few moments' hesitation he settled back on his bar stool.
Excerpted from Burden by Tony Walters. Copyright © 2002 Tony Walters. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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