Miracles Ain't What They Used to Be features new fiction starring Joe R. Lansdale’s unlikely best friends Hap and Leonard, two good ol' boys from East Texas who have a way of getting into some bad fixes, along with some of Lansdale’s most famous and hard-to-find Texas Observer columns. In his nonfiction, Lansdale discusses, dissects, and discovers the trials of a Southern writer's life, his personal literary inspirations from Poe to porn, race and class in today's unsettled South, the Cold War in East Texas, the tornado, and the Bomb. Also featured is a candid and often coruscating Outspoken Interview, and an essential bibliography of one of today's most prolific and eclectic writers.
About the Author
Joe R. Lansdale is the author of more than thirty novels, including the Edgar Award–winning Hap and Leonard mystery series (Mucho Mojo, Two Bear Mambo) and the New York Times Notable Book The Bottoms. More than two hundred of his stories have appeared in such outlets as Tales from the Crypt and Pulphouse, and his work has been adapted for The Twilight Zone and Masters of Horror. His work has been collected in eighteen short story collections, and he has edited or coedited over a dozen anthologies.
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Miracles Ain't What They Used to Be
Plus The Parable of the Stick and Lots of Other Stuff
By Joe R. Lansdale
PM PressCopyright © 2016 Joe R. Lansdale
All rights reserved.
THE PARABLE OF THE STICK
Leonard looked up from the newspaper he was reading, a little rag that was all that was left of our town paper, the bulk of it now being online, and glanced at me.
"So I'm reading in the paper here about how the high school, hell, grade school, all the grades, they got a no-fighting policy, no matter who starts it. Some guy jumps you on the playground, lunch break, or some such, and you whack him in the nose so he'll leave you alone, you both go to detention."
"Can't have kids fighting. You and me, we fought too much. Maybe it's not a good thing to learn, all that fighting. We met at a fight, remember?"
"Horseshit," Leonard said, and put the paper down. "Look here, Hap, I know a thing about you, and I know how it was for me at school, with integration and all, and I don't think it works like that, and shouldn't. This whole thing about fighting to protect yourself, and getting the same punishment as the one who picks on you, how's that teaching common sense?"
"How's it work, Leonard?"
"Think on it. There's this thing I know about you, let's call it the parable of the stick."
I knew exactly what he was talking about.
I said, "Okay, let's call it that."
"You moved here from a smaller school, and I know you had some problems. We've talked about it. I wasn't there, but I know the drill. Try being black in a formerly all-white school sometime."
"I could try being black," I said, "but I'd still be white."
"You came to school from some little town, to Marvel Creek. And there was this bully, a real asshole, bigger than you, and you were small then, right?"
"Not that I'm a behemoth now."
"No, you lack my manly physique, but you've grown into something solid. Then, though, you were a skinny little kid with hay fever and a plan to do something with your life. Which, of course, you failed to do. What were you going to be, by the way?"
"I don't know. A writer I thought."
"Ah, that's right. Hell, I knew that. It's been so long since you mentioned it, I forgot. Yeah, a writer. So you move here, a poor country kid with shabby clothes and his nose in a book, and this guy, this big kid, he picks on you. He does it everyday. Calls you book worm or some such, maybe pencil dick. So what do you do? You do the right thing. You go to the principal and tell him the kid's fucking with you, and the principal says, okay, and he pulls the mean kid in and talks to him. So what's the mean little shit do the very next day?"
"Double beats the shit out of me."
"There you have it, but you're not fighting back, right?"
"Oh, I fought back. I just wasn't any good at it then. Probably why I learned martial arts."
"Sure it is. I did the same thing. I wasn't so little and didn't lose too much, but I was a black kid in a formerly all white school, and then there was my extraordinary beauty they were jealous of."
"Don't forget the massive dick."
"Oh yeah, the black anaconda that knows no friends. So this happens a few days in a row, this mean kid ignoring the principal, him not giving a greased dog turd what the principal said. You go home, and your dad, he sees you got a black eye and busted lip, and what does he do?"
"He tells me if he's bigger than me, bring him down to size."
"Right. He says, 'Hap, go out there and get yourself a good stick, cause there's plenty of them lying around on the edge of the playground by the woods. You get that big stick, and you lay for him, and when he don't expect it none, you bring that sick down on him so hard it will cause you to come up off the ground. Don't put his eye out with it, and don't hit him in the head, unless you have to, but use that stick with all your force, and if something breaks on him, well, it breaks. You get a licking every day and you don't do something back, taking that licking and being licked is gonna turn into a lifetime business.' He told you that, right?"
"And you got you a stick next day at playground break, laid it up by the edge of the concrete wall on one side of the steps that led out of the school, and when the bell rang for the day to end, you got out there as quick as you could, ahead of the mean kid, and you picked up that stick."
"I did at that."
"Like a fucking hawk watching for a rat."
"Down the stairs he came, and you —"
"Swung that stick," I said. "Jesus. To this day I can still hear that fucking stick whistling in the wind, and I can still hear the way it met his leg just above the knee, right as he came down the last step. I remember even better that shit-eating, asshole-sucking grin he had on his face as he came down and saw me, before he realized about the stick. And better than that, I remember the way his face changed when he saw I had that stick. But it was too late for that motherfucker."
"What I'm saying."
"I caught him as he put his weight on his left leg. Smack of that stick on his hide was like a choir of angels had let out with one clean note, and down he went, right on his face."
"And when he started to get up?"
"I brought that stick down on his goddamn back with all I had in the tank, and oh my god, did that feel good. Then I couldn't stop, Leonard. I swear I couldn't."
"Tell it, brother. Tell it like it was. I never get tired of it."
"I started crying and swinging that stick, and I just couldn't fucking stop. Finally a teacher, a coach I think, he came out and got me and pulled me off that bastard, and that bastard was bawling like a baby and screaming, 'Don't hit me no more. Please don't hit me no more.'"
"I actually started to feel bad about it, sorry for him —"
"As you always do," Leonard said.
"— and they carried me to the principal's office, and they brought the asshole in with me, and they put us in chairs beside one another, where we both sat crying, me mostly with happiness, and him because I had just beaten the living hell out of him with a stick and he had a fucking limp. He hurt so bad he could hardly walk."
"What did the principal do?"
"You know what he did."
"Yeah, but now that you're worked up and starting to sweat, let's not spoil it by you not getting it all out, cause I can tell right now, for you, the whole thing is as raw as if it happened yesterday."
"It is. The principal said, 'Hap, did you hit him with a stick?' and I say to him, 'Hard as I could.' The principal looks at the mean kid, says, 'And what did you do?' 'I didn't do nothing,' he says. 'No,' the principal said, 'what did you do the day before, and the day before that, and what were you told?' And the kid said, 'I was told to leave Hap alone.'"
"And what did the principal say?" Leonard said. "Keep on telling it."
"You're nuts, Leonard. You know what he said."
"Like I said, I never tire of hearing this one."
"He said to the kid, 'But you went back and did it again anyway, didn't you? You went back and did it because you wanted to pick on someone who you thought wouldn't fight back, or couldn't, but today, he was waiting for you. You didn't start it today, but you started it every other day, and you got just what you deserve, you little bully. You picked on a nice kid that didn't want to fight and really just wanted to get along, and I know for a fact he asked you to quit, and he came to me, and I came to you, and still you did it. Why?' 'I don't know,' he said. 'There you are,' said the principal, 'the mantra of the ignorant and the doomed.'"
I took a deep breath.
"I remember him saying just that. The ignorant and the doomed. Then the principal said to me, 'Hap. He picks on you again, you have my permission to pick up a stick and just whack the good ole horse hockey out of him. I catch you laying in wait for him again, or doing it because you can, then that's different. That makes you just like him, a lowlife bully. He had this one coming, but he's only got it coming now if he starts it. But he picks on you, you give it to him back, and I won't do a thing. I won't say a word.'"
"There you have it," Leonard said. "That's the way we should have kept it. Self-defense is permissible."
"A stick was a little much," I said.
"Yeah, but these kids in school now, they're being taught to accept being victims. Why there's so many goddamn whiners, I think."
"You don't learn justice by taking it like the French. That's not how it works. Someone doesn't give you justice, you got to get your own."
"Or get out of the way of the problem."
"All right, there's that. But then the motherfucker just moves down the road a little and picks a new victim."
"I think you're trying to justify what we do sometimes."
"I don't need to justify it. Here's the thing, you get more shit from the meanies because the good folks don't stand up, don't know how, and don't learn how. And they're taught to just take it these days, and do it with a smile. Principal then, he knew what was up. You have any more trouble from the bully after that?"
"Not an inch worth," I said. "We became friends later, well, friendly enough. I think in his case it cured him across the board."
"So he didn't pick someone else to whip on?"
"No, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen that way. I think he wasn't really a bad guy, just needed some adjustment, and I gave it to him. I think he had problems at home."
"Fuck him and his home," Leonard said. "Everyone now, they don't have an idea what's just, what's right, because they punish everyone the same. Ones that did it, and ones that didn't. I can see that if no one knows what went down, but now, even when they know who the culprit is, one who started it, it comes out the same for both. The good and the bad."
"Could have gone really bad. I could have killed that kid with that stick."
"That would have been too much, I guess," Leonard said.
"All right, maybe too much, but there's still something to learn there, still something your dad taught you that matters and has guided you ever since. Don't treat the just and righteous as same as the bad and the willfully evil, or you breed a tribe of victims and a tribe of evil bastards. Learning to be a coward is the same as learning to be brave. It takes practice. And that, my good brother, is the parable of the stick."CHAPTER 2
Summer this happened, I must have been about seventeen, give or take a few months. I was down at the garage with my dad. He was washing tools in gasoline, cleaning them up, getting ready for me and him to drive to the café and get some lunch, though in that day and time we called the noon meal dinner, and the later meal supper. Yankees had lunch. We had dinner.
Dad was always greasy because he always worked. He cleaned up when he was home, but he was the kind of guy that could put on freshly cleaned and ironed khakis, and within an hour at the garage, look as if he had been living inside an oil drum. He worked hard and was good at it. He could fix any kind of car and make it hum. Odd thing was, we always drove junk. I guess it's like the barber who needs a haircut, the dentist who needs his teeth cleaned, the carpenter whose porch is sagging. Dad spent his time working on other people's cars, trying to put food on our table and a roof over our heads.
When he was eight his mother died, and his fondest memory of her was that once for Christmas she had given him an orange and a peppermint stick. He talked about it like it had happened yesterday, like the gift was as important as a new car. For him it was.
His father was a mean-spirited jackass that made Dad work in the cotton fields when he was eight. At that time and place this was acceptable behavior. Once, on the way to the fields, Dad fell off the pinto pony he rode and busted his eardrum. He rode the horse back home, hanging on its back, limp as a blanket.
His father took a horsewhip to him, then sent him back to work with blood running out of his ear. You'd think with an upbringing like that, Dad would have passed it down the line, but he didn't. I never got one whipping, spanking, whatever you want to call it. And I'll tell you, I'm not altogether opposed to a slap on the ass for doing something that is going to get you killed, but that's a far cry from a beating. I never got either from him, though my mother once took a flyswatter to me for something I well deserved. It embarrassed me more than it hurt me.
For a poor kid I was what they called spoiled in those days, and what my mother called loved. Spoiled was going to work at fifteen instead of eight.
The summer this happened, I was working a night shift at Imperial Aluminum and going to school during the day, but this was the summer, so I was free until three thirty. I got off at midnight. If there were child labor laws against that, neither the boys I worked with nor the aluminum chair company we worked for was aware of it.
So there I was, waiting on Dad to clean up a bit, and this guy comes driving up in this shiny, gold Cadillac with a golden swan ornament on the hood, the kind that was made mostly of plastic. When you turned on the lights, the swan lit up. Coming down the road at night you saw the headlights, and dead center of the hood a golden swan floating across the night, seemingly pulling the car along with stiff-winged elegance. During the day it was just a gold-plastic bird with a wire and a bulb inside of it.
The Caddy drove up as we were about to leave, and this raw-boned, redheaded guy, with his short shirt sleeves rolled up to display his sizable biceps, got out. His hair was well-oiled and slicked back on the sides and he had a bit of a ducktail in the back. He looked as if he were wearing a copper helmet.
He got out and stuck a cigarette in his mouth, walked about halfway up to the wide-open garage doors, paused, lit his smoke carefully with a gold lighter — doing it for dramatic effect, like he was posing for a photo — and then snapped the lighter closed with a metallic clap, stuffed it in his tight pants pocket, and strutted into the garage, his black boots with red explosions on the toe flashing before him; the toes on those things were so long and pointed he could have kicked a cockroach to death in a corner.
The man kind of glowed. It was as if a white-trash Apollo had descended from heaven in his golden chariot, down from the sun to get his oil checked, have a chicken-fried steak with white gravy, and screw a mortal before ascending back to the heavens. In my mind I nicknamed him Apollo Red.
There was a lemon-colored Buick parked inside the garage, and it was the car my father had been working on that morning. Dad was drying his hands on a shop rag when this guy swaggered in, leaned a large hand on the Buick, and said, "This car fixed yet?"
Dad studied Apollo Red the way a snake studies a frog.
"Yep," Dad said.
"My girlfriend's got to have it."
"All right," Dad said. And he told the guy what the charge was.
"She'll have to owe you," said Apollo Red.
"Owes me for the last time I fixed it."
"Looks like you didn't fix it good enough."
"That was the transmission, this here was a leak in the carburetor. I rebuilt it so she don't have to buy a new one. I saved her about thirty dollars."
"Did, did you?"
Dad just looked at him.
The fellow strayed an eyeball my way. "That your boy?"
"Yeah," Dad said.
"Needs a haircut."
"Yeah, he does."
"I'd hold him down and trim it with a pocket knife."
I had heard this shit a million times, and sometimes it seemed a million times a day. Lot of the kids then had long hair. The girls liked it and so did I. I thought this hair remark was an odd statement coming from a man that wore his hair the way he did. Probably as long as mine, but tamed with hair oil and spray and a lot of mirror examination and a fine-toothed comb. I started to say something smart, but somehow I didn't want to get into Dad's bubble. And something about that guy made me cautious, like knowing to avoid a dark alley at night in a strange city.
"He might need it, but it won't be you cutting it, or two more just like you," Daddy said.
That caused Apollo Red to purse his lips and knit his brows. His gray eyes became slits. Apollo Red thought a moment, almost loud enough to hear his thoughts running about in his head like mice on gravel, and then he turned his attention back to Dad.
"Girlfriend needs the car. She sent me to get it. She can't pay you nothing right now, but she's good for it, and I'm going to take it."
"Naw, she ain't taking it, and neither are you," Dad said. "Shouldn't have worked on it, knowing she don't pay her bills."
Excerpted from Miracles Ain't What They Used to Be by Joe R. Lansdale. Copyright © 2016 Joe R. Lansdale. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Parable of the Stick,
Miracles Ain't What They Used to Be,
"That's How You Clean a Squirrel",
Outspoken Interview with Joe R. Lansdale,
The Drowned Man,
Darkness in the East,
The Day Before the Day After,