Sarah Jane

Sarah Jane

by James Sallis


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A spare, sparkling tour de force about one woman's journey to becoming a cop, by master of noir James Sallis, author of Drive.

Sarah Jane Pullman is a cop with a complicated past. From her small-town chicken-farming roots through her runaway adolescence, court-ordered Army stint, ill-advised marriage and years slinging scrambled eggs over greasy spoon griddles, Sarah Jane unfolds her life story, a parable about memory, atonement, and finding shape in chaos. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she is named the de facto sheriff of a rural town, investigating the mysterious disappearance of the sheriff whose shoes she’s filling—and the even more mysterious realities of the life he was hiding from his own colleagues and closest friends. This kaleidoscopic character study sparkles in every dark and bright detail—a virtuoso work by a master of both and the tender aspects of human nature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641292108
Publisher: Soho Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 244,936
Product dimensions: 4.97(w) x 7.47(h) x 0.59(d)

About the Author

James Sallis has published eighteen novels, including Drive, which was made into a now-iconic film, and the six-volume Lew Griffin series. He is a recipient of the Hammett Prize for literary excellence in crime fiction, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, the Deutsche Krimi Preis, and the Brigada 21 in Spain, as well as Bouchercon’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His biography of Chester Himes was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

Read an Excerpt

My name is Pretty, but I’m not. Haven’t been, won’t be. And that’s not really my name, either, just what Daddy calls me. Beauty’s only skin deep, he used to say, so when I was six I scratched my arm open looking for it. Scar’s still there. And I guess it’s like everyone saying if you dig deep enough you’ll find China. All I got from that was blisters.
     My real name is Sarah Jane Pullman. Kids at school call me Squeaky. At church I’m mostly S.J. or (as Daddy’s girl, a real yuck for the old guys in their shiny-butt suits standing by the Sunday School door having a cigarette) I’m Junior. Seems like everyone I know calls me something different.
     I wrote all the above in a diary when I was seven. It wasn’t a real diary, it was a spiral-bound notebook, the kind you got for school, with a daisy-yellow cover that said Southern Paper and wide-spaced lines. For security I kept a paperclip on the pages in a changing pattern, how many pages got clipped together, where on the page. Who I thought might want to sneak in and read what a seven-year-old wrote about her life, I can’t now imagine.
     Back then we were raising chickens, six thousand of them at a time in long buildings like army barracks, this the most recent of money-making gambits that included selling dirt from the hills behind the house, building backyard barbeque pits for people, and doing lawn-mower repair. We’d pull sweet little chirpy chicks out of corrugated boxes, then months later wade in among terrified chickens, snag them by their legs, and cram them into cages to get stacked on trucks and hauled away. You had to move fast or they’d pile up in corners of the houses and smother.
     Not that my parents were lacking. They worked their butts off, holding down regular jobs then coming home to this. Loading and unloading fifty-pound sacks of food, turning the sawdust litter daily, scooping and replacing it on schedule, making sure there was water and that the gas heaters in the brooders were good, jets clear, gas low and steady, no leaks. But there wasn’t much money to be had in the town and what money there was, most of it flowed from and went back, having grown like the chicks, to the Howes or the Sandersons.
     I grew up in a town called Selmer, down where Tennessee and Alabama get together and kind of become their own place, in a house that spent the first sixteen years of my life getting ready to slide down the hill, which it did right after I left. Daddy moved into a trailer then and never much left it so as you’d notice. I don’t want to say much about my marriage to Bullhead years later and all that. More scars.
     But I didn’t do all those things they say I did. Well, not all of them anyway.
Mom wasn’t around much after I got to be ten. Nobody talked about it. She’d be gone, for weeks, months, then one morning walk out of the big bedroom and be around a while, moving here to there in the house like a stray piece of furniture we were trying to find a place for.
     Once she left in the middle of a movie, didn’t say a thing, just walked away, some stupid comedy about a couple who had a first date and kept not being able to get together for a second one because of weather and cute animals and traffic jams and parades. My brother and I watched the rest of it, right up to the big ending with the guy stage right and her stage left and big open spaces between. Darn and I waited outside for half an hour before begging a city bus driver to let us ride home free, since we didn’t have any money. My brother’s name was Darnell, but everyone called him Darn.
     Daddy looked up from mixing a milk punch at the kitchen counter when we came in. “Huh. Gone again,” he said.
     I told him she’d be back.
     “I expect she will.” He took a sip, added more sugar.
     “Life’s not the pizza place, Pretty. It don’t deliver.”

We’re speeding along at 23 mph in that all-forsaken foreign desert and there’s dust over to the right. East or west, who knows. There’s not much by way of landmarks out there, you have to look at the compass. Damned sun’s everywhere, so that’s no help either. Oscar pulls the jeep over to get some idea how far away the dust is, what direction the vehicle’s moving, how fast. Our engine’s idling, but the bucks and jolts and bottom-outs are stamped into our bodies. We still feel them. Oscar doesn’t have sweat stains under his arms and I’m thinking Damn, this man’s not human, he’s some kind of alien. Some creature.
     You ever think about having kids, Oscar asks me. Weird shit comes up out there in that deadly sunlight, conversations you’d never have anywhere else. Like the featurelessness around you draws it out. Someday I mean, he says.
     I don’t tell him I already had one.
     Six hours after I had her, two or three in the morning, they told me they’d done all they could but my baby had died. They brought her for me to hold, wrapped in a pink blanket. Her face was ghostly white. Had she ever really lived? An hour after they left, I was gone.
     Nope, I told Oscar.
     The shadow of a bird comes across us as it flies above. We watch the shadow move away from us, toward a distant dust devil. The engine pings. Smells hot. Everything smells hot.
     Just the way weird shit comes up out there, words can start to get away from you. Sentences won’t hang together, they have holes in them. Verbs drop out, answers don’t fit questions. With losses like that, you have to wonder if what we think, what we’re able to think, gets dialed down too.
     Moving away from us, Oscar says. One vehicle, you think?
     Looks like.
     And we’re moving again.
     Oscar with less than an hour left to live.
A year after I left Selmer, on my seventeenth birthday, I was on a bus nosing slowly northward always within sight of the river, like a boat gone off course and sniffing out some access that had to be just ahead. The family behind me, parents, two kids maybe eight and six, bought box lunches when a vendor came aboard at a rest stop. Fried chicken, biscuits the size of saucers, cole slaw. Familiar food for the long, uncertain voyage to somewhere else. All four had serious body odor; oil sparkled in the man’s and the boy’s hair. Even then I knew this signaled something. I found out what, when the boy walked to the front of the bus and came down row by row, repeating the same phrase, a Slavic language of some sort, I think, at each. Foreigners. So much for familiar food. They were embarked on an adventure as brave and as foolhardy as my own.
     I came to ground somewhere past St. Louis, in a college town whose population halved whenever school let out, flatland unrolling to every side, geographically so ambiguous that you couldn’t tell if you were still in the South or had tumbled ass-end-up into some not-Kansas. Place had once been a farmhouse, in times long past had got sectioned up for student rentals, then in its slow, sure decline endured torn-out walls till all that remained were two arenas, one for those in bed or sleeping, one for those not. A stream of passers-through came and went about a core of regulars. Gregory called the temporaries mayflies. Some days he was himself a fly, as in fly-in-the-ointment, other days he was our mentor, leader, truthsayer, shaman. He knew shit, right? For sure he did.
     We met at the student union where I hung around awaiting the great or small whatever. I figured with that many young people, so many hundreds of in-between lives, stuff had to be happening. Moments would crackle, shadows jump like crickets. Gregory found me in the cafeteria lurking over my second hour-long cup of coffee in the still, blanched afternoon of my fourth day. He took me home, gave me a bologna sandwich and bedded me, threw me back in the water.
     I swam.
     “Here’s what it comes down to,” Gregory said, “wandering to find direction. All of it. The more you wander, the more direction you find.” Rain scattered like birdshot on the roof, rolled hopefully into gutters packed with years of detritus, gave up and bailed. About us we could hear breathing, sighs and farts, whispers of dream-time conversations.
     “There were these guys that used to play in the next building over. Years ago, when I was older than you but not by much. And I’d listen. The drummer’d play three beats, drop out for maybe six, come back in for one, the bass thumped away irrespective of tonal center or time signature or any need to keep time, the guitarist’s hand never once strayed from the tremolo bar, milking it, stretching a single note like an elastic band about to pop over nine, ten almost-measures. What the hell was that? So I kept listening. And after a while I found my way in. It was a music of pure potential, music that never quite came into being, that refused to surrender a single possibility.”
     Not that he didn’t have hold of something.
     Gregory had hold of a lot of things. Some of it real, much of it not. He threw out lines like someone fishing close to shore from a boat. Meanwhile, all kinds of stories about him banged up against one another. He’d killed a woman up in Canada, or almost did, or she’d tried to kill him. He’d been a professor at Antioch and one day walked away from it. He was on the run from government agents. He’d lived in a commune near Portland which he left weeks before an FBI raid. What the stories had in common is that in all of them he fled.
     Everybody called the place Cracker Barn, and it didn’t take long before I had my Cracker Barn best friend. I’d gone to grab some sleep, this was my third or fourth day there, only to find all the mattresses occupied. On one of them near the door a skinny girl with too much eye makeup raised her head like a turtle, body not moving at all, just the head poking up, scootched over and patted the ticking next to her. Why the hell not. She probably wasn’t already talking when I woke up hours later, but it seemed that way.
She hailed from Scottsdale, Arizona, “where people live right. But I never could make sense of the rule book. Hell, they wouldn’t even give me a copy of the fucking rule book. Like I was supposed to just know.”
     What I knew about Arizona came down to cactus and cowboys and hot, which years later turned out to be pretty much it.
     Shawna had been at the Barn a long time. The year before, Gregory bought a cake for her twenty-first birthday and they had a party. I found out about that when I asked wasn’t someone looking for her and she said they’d have given up by now. She’d been my age, seventeen, when she left. Told me how she stood at a bus station on 16th Street in Phoenix looking at destinations painted on the side wall, Albuquerque misspelled, whited out for repainting or mostly, then misspelled again.
     It was at the Barn that I first felt a life taking shape around me. I learned to cook there, chiefly from self-defense since no one else was up for it and what came to the table was often unrecognizable and always horrible. Took some doing to get the hang of it, but I had a resident supply of experimental subjects. Cooking proved to be a skill that put me in good stead, as books say, in later life. I also started to learn to read body language there, figuring out how to look behind what others said and what they thought they were saying, all the shady stuff lurking back there.
     Sometimes, especially late at night, Gregory’s stories tumbled over the cliff into true weirdness, like when he started talking about how he invented underclothes.
      “We were just sitting around one day, my friend Hogg and me, in the kitchen as usual with a bottle of something, drinking the heart out of a fine summer afternoon, and it came to me. I sketched them out on the table with a flat carpenter’s pencil. That was a long time ago, a few weeks after we came up with mushrooms, tubas and wasps, or maybe right before. Never thought for a minute the damn things would catch on. Never once saw a penny from any of it.”
     We can’t ever know how others see the world, can’t know what may be rattling around in their heads: loose change, grand ideas, resentments, pennies from the fountain, spiffed-up memories, codes and ciphers.
     That knowledge was the most important thing I carried away from Cracker Barn.

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