Moments before Edward Duncan dies, the colorful World War II hero leaves a mandate for his grandson Randol--to safeguard the family's proud Southern legacy. Randol, paralyzed and in a wheelchair after a car accident, buries his grandfather, and learns that his father, a Vietnam veteran, is running an illicit empire with Randol's half-brother, Jerod.
A wise-cracking music critic, Randol already has his hands full with his pot-smoking Goth son. When Jerod brings the gorgeous Annie down South and parks her in their South Carolina home, the family maid Volusia, "quick to ram a bar of soap into any foul mouth," sizes up Annie in short order. Jerod, his father, and Randol, are blind to what Volusia sees so easily, making it that much harder for Randol to bring the family together and salvage their dignity.
John Jeter's debut is a powerfully compelling story about one man's mission to preserve his family's ideals of honor and loyalty.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
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About the Author
John Jeter is co-owner and founder of The Handlebar, an award-winning concert venue in Greenville, South Carolina. He lives in Greenville with his wife. The Plunder Room is his first novel.
John Jeter is co-owner and founder of The Handlebar, an award-winning concert venue in Greenville, South Carolina. He lives in Greenville with his wife. The Plunder Room is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Plunder Room
By John Jeter
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 John Jeter
All rights reserved.
My grandfather tries to pull me closer. I can barely hear his whisper, and my wheelchair won't let me get any nearer, so I maneuver as best I can to lean into his deathbed. His breath is redolent of the blood and decay he must have smelled during the war in Europe, his infantrymen dying around him. I gather he's trying to tell me about the great Southern commandment he's never broken.
"Honor ..." he says through the same soft breaths he took as a baby, "all ... we have ..." He looks up at me with those eyes as blue as the heavens to which he's going; perhaps he already sees his beloved wife waiting for him. "Our legacy ... Randol."
I squeeze his crumpled hand as he lies in the bed where my grandmother Pearl Clementine died nearly two dozen years before. Losing PeeCee devastated Grandfather even more than ... well, he rarely spoke of the war, but he'd been in love twice as long as he'd been in the military.
Grandfather cherished his United States Army, no doubt about that. To hear Grandfather tell it, in the few stories he did tell, the army was an entirely different outfit in his day. The Grand Old Army, they called it then. Grandfather would have given his life for his army, even before his country; to Grandfather, they were more than the sum of the parts in ways I can't imagine or understand today. And in the South, why, the army, especially in those days, was an institution revered as highly as the Church herself.
The old colonel's silver hair flows to his T-shirt collar; he always wore his hair a tad longer than most officers, but then he's also kept more of it than nearly all who live to ninety-three.
"It's ..." He licks his sandpaper lips and grips my hand. His skin is wrapped on him as taut, white, and thin as the wrapper on a Vietnamese spring roll; you can almost see through the old man. His grand walrus mustache, though, still bounces with every struggling word. "Like virginity." He manages a chuckle. "Once you lose ... your honor, it's gone ... forever."
He knows he's almost gone, too. Grandfather wheezes an exhausted cough. I believe he's ready to go, yet I feel as if I am keeping him somehow, keeping him from PeeCee. He may even be thinking about a good, heavenly romp right about now, randy rascal that he always was with her. Still, after a life lived as long and remarkably as his, how could you be late for your own Judgment Day?
"I don't ... a key." His slow glance drifts toward his mahogany chest of drawers. "That will get you ... the Plunder ..."
No telling how many dead Nazis live up there. Grandfather kept them in trunks, U.S. Army footlockers half the size of coffins. He'd stuffed his entire history in the boxes and left them in one of the four bedrooms upstairs. The Plunder Room, we call it.
"Everything" — he tries to shake his head and forms something of a frown, a rare kind of cloud in the otherwise temperate sky of his face —"in there ... is yours." He wheezes again. He must be in pain, but he would never betray that, never has. "I don't trust them with ... don't trust ..."
He closes his eyes in one last bit of mortal distress. "You ... I trust ... Jupe, no ..." A tear appears at the corner of his left eye. "Jupe will pay ... but everything ... you ... need ... to know is in the Plund ... love ... above all, honor ..."
After so many years hearing that word, it finally explodes on me with definitive impact, like Captain George S. James's ball on Fort Sumter: Even in his report to Confederate General P. T. Beauregard that April 1861, a Brigadier General Cooper wrote that James had "the honor of firing the first shell" on the fort. In the South, family honor is like the suit you wear from visitation through the funeral — you don't take it off, and if you do, folks not only notice, especially in a town as small as New Cumbria, South Carolina, but they also figure you're out to destroy the dignity of your family's line forever, backward and forward. And you have to live with that and, worse, die with it. That's pretty much what Rhett Butler was trying to get through to Scarlett's hormones amid all the damned Yankees' dishonorable flames.
My mind stops wandering through the Old South when my grandfather reaches toward the ceiling, the sky, calls to the Lord, and breathes his last.
So my grandfather, Colonel Edward Randol Duncan — a graduate of West Point, whose motto is "Duty, Honor, Country," and whose name I carry, in part — has passed our Southern family's most cherished mantle on to me, along with a key and perhaps a secret or two.
Three days later, I'm shivering at Grandfather's graveside. I look around our family's cemetery, dating back to the 1680s, for possible accomplices to help me in my new mandate, the mission given to me by my grandfather. Last night, hundreds of guests poured through my grandfather's home, paying their respects and filling themselves with fried chicken, artichoke pickle, finger sandwiches, and sweet tea. Through it all, I sat in my wheelchair, eyes glazed like the honey ham, while I accepted condolences and tried to figure out how I could get myself to the Plunder Room. I might as well have contemplated climbing Mount Hood as the antebellum home's grand staircase.
But today, at Grandfather's funeral, the bugler playing taps in the woods behind us brings my attention back to the service. Amid the mournful brass dirge, the real sobbing starts. My son, Eddie, seated in a plastic folding chair behind me, sniffles a little. On my own cheeks, a tear freezes halfway down, and another falls into my lifeless lap.
The afternoon happens to be perfect burial weather. The forty or so mourners around Grandfather's flag-draped casket are huddled in a fine, cold mist. The Piedmont autumn would have reminded Grandfather of the Ardennes or Germany. He would have loved this.
Eddie leans into my ear and hisses.
I turn back and whisper, "The hell ...?"
Eddie points his eyes toward the tree line opposite the family chapel.
My father, Edward Jupiter Duncan, is tilting into a loblolly pine, one of hundreds on the sixty-five-acre tree farm he has just inherited from his father. Jupe is likely throwing up from last night's drinking, but it's also possible that after yesterday's six-hour visitation and all that fried chicken, coleslaw, and potato salad and all those cheese straws and tea biscuits, he might not be feeling too well; they don't call them deviled eggs for nothing. Never mind the vodka Jupe kept pouring into his red Solo cup.
But Jupe isn't ... throwing up.
"It's not like I can go fetch the idiot, Eddie," I hiss back.
"What do you want me to do?" Eddie snaps.
I can't very well move, trapped as I am in the front row. My chair feels so big among all these feeble little seats. Besides, the chaplain is just about to lean over and hand me the American flag that had flown over the U.S. Capitol for fifteen minutes and only moments before had been draped on Grandfather's coffin by the snappy color guard from Fort Jackson.
Jupe is leaning into his trees and damned if he isn't ...
"On behalf of the president of the United States, a grateful nation, and a proud United States Army," says the chaplain, a Major Henderson, according to his name tag and the insignia on his dress blues, "this flag is presented as a token of our appreciation for the honorable and faithful service rendered by your grandfather, Colonel Edward Randol Duncan, United States Army, retired, to his country and his army."
My father is taking a leak on those loblolly pines, the cash cow that his father left him, not to mention on the proud legacy that Grandfather conveyed to me in those treasured moments before he died. That was just a few days ago, in the dim light from an old Oriental lamp with red tassels, amid the smell of his Old Spice cologne and the odor of decay. The silence of that big house knew nothing but love and honor, dignity and respect — Southern mores my grandfather had never outright taught me but believed I would learn by watching. After Grandfather's final breath, I sat in silence at his bedside for a few moments and prayed for the repose of his soul. Then I rolled over to his chest of drawers. Among black woolen socks and a couple of jewelry boxes containing silver tuxedo-blouse studs, I found an old brass key no longer than a nickel. When we were kids, even though we knew the room was haunted, my half brother, Jerod, and I would look through the Plunder Room's keyhole, as big around as your pinky. All we could see were Grandfather's footlockers. As far as Jerod and I knew, the room contained nothing but trunks and ghosts. Grandfather entrusted the room and what's inside to only me. I have no idea what lock this little key fits, though my guess is that it opens some other place that holds the larger key to the Plunder Room.
I take the flag and whisper to the chaplain, "Thank you," then turn my chair for hasty good-byes to the miserable mourners and promise that I will see them all back at my grandparents' house in New Cumbria.
Eddie has already corralled Jupe into the front seat of Grandfather's old Crown Victoria, which I'd retrofitted for my paraplegia. I'd first had to convince Grandfather to quit driving, when he was ninety-two. After heaving my wheelchair into the backseat, I push myself behind the wheel and Jupe over to the passenger side. He manages to slide into a slouch. Eddie doesn't say a word; in fact, seeing as how it's gotten a little easier to handicap people since I've become handicapped, I'd wager my son is stoned.
Gazing through the curtain of mist on the windshield, I growl at Jupe. "Hey, Dipshit."
"Is that any way to talk to your father?" he moans and slurs, or maybe the other way around.
"Is peeing on your inheritance, missing most of your father's funeral, and showing gross disregard for his memory, his son and grandson, his friends, his entire country — is that any way to treat your father?"
"He's dead. Not a whole lot he can do about that."
"You're something else, Jupe —"
"Try calling me 'Dad,' Randol, like most sons do. I never did appreciate your grandfather naming me after his favorite horse. You could show a little more respect."
I pull out of the cemetery and begin the eight-mile drive from Little Brook back to New Cumbria. "I could show a little more respect, but ..." He's already passed out. Through the rearview mirror I watch Eddie, who has long since taken off his sharp regimental tie and blue blazer. "Where did things go wrong?" I whisper, almost to Eddie, but mostly to the ghost of my grandfather.
"Huh?" is all I get from the backseat.
"I don't know. Your granddad here, the complete malfunction that he is, coming from the hero that he did?" I get a little choked up, and for the second time today my eyes sting. "I just really don't want you to turn out like him."
I shoot a look at Jupe, then back at Eddie, then through the dismal film, but the wipers can't seem to sweep away the misery.
It's almost eight-thirty and the guests have finally gone home, depleted of stories and sobs. Volusia still putters in the kitchen at the far back of the house. Eddie has gone to bed. Jupe and I sit in the front parlor — the China Room, Grandmother called it. She decorated it chock-a-block with mother-of-pearl screens, two faux Ming vases and braided money trees, a pair of castiron incense burners as big as basketballs that weigh more than bowling balls, and a one-hundred-percent genuine rickshaw that Grandfather bought her during his tour in Tientsin from 1935 to 1937. The rickshaw stretches full across the back of the room under the southwest window, framed by towering bamboo plants. Its crimson seat cushion shines like a siren's succulent lips. The rickshaw has broken many a child's heart, at least two generations who would have given anything to play on it. More often than I care to remember, I have heard the story of Jupe's "borrowing" the contraption for a big date one night long ago.
As much as I love my grandparents' home, I would be all too happy to give up what is rightfully my father's to my father; the house and everything in it belong to Jupe now. Back in my wandering days, whenever I returned to New Cumbria, I tossed my bags into the servants' quarters between Grandfather's quarter-acre vegetable garden and the woods at the edge of the rear property line. Grandfather called the squat whitewashed bivouac the SQ, as opposed to the HQ, his own home, the big house, his headquarters.
In the SQ, Eddie and I have made a nice little pad for ourselves. The four-room wood-frame cabin isn't quite a bungalow, but it's hardly a shack. Let's put it this way: Before the accident, I was far more comfortable bringing a woman back to Randol's Rec Room than to Grandfather's Garrison, if only because of the privacy. Plus, I didn't have to explain where my grandparents' world of antiques came from. Since the accident, though, I have shuffled between the SQ and the house, mostly to spend time with my grandfather. Thankfully, I could leave the heavy nursing care to Volusia, who has worked here as long as I can remember and appears to be leaving no time soon, despite her employer's passing. I can't do everything myself.
As I watch Jupe snooze in the China Room, it occurs to me that he probably wants to live in this forgotten old mill town about as badly as he wants a colonoscopy; at his age, he needs one. When Jupe was a boy, he couldn't wait to get out of New Cumbria, so why would he want to return now? Besides, he has his "business interests" in Wrenton, and he'd never be willing to drive the hour plus each way more than one day a week. Of course, I can't imagine Jupe and Eddie and me living on the same property. I could least of all imagine what Volusia would have to say about that. The fact is, Jupe will live wherever he wants, the hardheaded son of a bitch. Since I left home at sixteen, he has lived, according to him, in Shanghai (I find that hard to believe), the Bahamas (ditto), New Orleans (in his dreams), Manhattan, Saigon (which, as far as I can figure, did most of the damage that had ever been done to my father), and, for three months, a prison in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where I had to go fetch him when I was thirty-five.
Tonight Jupe's silver-blond hair drapes over the collar of his navy blue blazer, whose shiny veneer blares its age. Masking tape holds the right stem of his wire-rimmed spectacles in place. His magnified eyes, which used to be robin's-egg blue, wander loose in a clouded sky of red, white, and just plain tired. His skin, a mottled mixture of gray, yellow, and tan, doesn't sag; he doesn't have enough for that. At sixty-eight, my father looks a little like one of those guys my grandfather liberated from the guys whose souvenirs are packed in the Plunder Room.
"You look like hell, Jupe."
"I look like hell?" He looks up at me. "It's been a long day. Sad, too. Don't you think you'll be sad when you lose your old man?"
"I don't think I'll pee in his trees."
"Volusia still here? I could use a cup of the South's best coffee."
I look at my watch. She's put in too many hours. "Are you planning on living here?"
He slouches deeper into the cherrywood davenport, bigger than the backseat of a 1957 Buick. The sofa was also shipped over from China. You can curl a man Jupe's size into the shape of a cinnamon roll and he will fit onto just one cushion, that's how big the seats are. Chinese silk of red, ivory, blue, and green still dazzles after all these years, hand-embroidered with dragons, orchids, and vines. And comfortable? You can sink into one of those big round silk pillows and be lost for days. To anyone who pays enough attention, Jupe would probably claim that he lived in one in 1973.
I snap my fingers at him. "Hey, are you wasted? Hungover? Gone to another planet? Mourning the enormity of your father's loss to this family and to this nation? Not paying any attention to me or your surroundings — that's just so completely self-absorbed —"
He looks up, almost startled. "For pity's sake, Randol, would you just shut the fuck up?"
"Dad. Please. I asked a simple question."
"Actually, you asked four. You were about to ask five."
"You are such a child," I mutter, rolling toward the kitchen, where I hear Volusia winding up her endless day.
You can't tell that two hundred or so guests shuffled, ate, drank, and greeted one another through the house all day. Volusia and her hand-picked staff had, in less than an hour, spit-and-polished the downstairs so that it looks as if nobody even lives here, much less ever visited. Still, I know Eddie and I will have enough fried chicken and trimmings to last weeks.
Volusia meets me in the darkness of the pantry, which actually is a hallway between the dining room and the kitchen, with shelves on both sides to hold the silver, china, and dry goods.
Excerpted from The Plunder Room by John Jeter. Copyright © 2009 John Jeter. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jeter's first novel explores family relationships in a Southern setting that will appeal to readers both above and below the Mason-Dixon line. With a quirky narrator, lots of history, and enough twists to keep the pages turning, this book is a choice for lovers of the South, or anybody who just wants a fun read.