By Jim Thompson
Read by John McLain
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With an election coming up, Nick needs to fix his problems and fast. Because the one thing Nick does know is that he will do anything to stay sheriff. Because, as it turns out, Sheriff Nick Corey is not nearly as dumb as he seems.
In Pop. 1280, widely regarded as a classic of mid-20th century crime, Thompson offers up one of his best, in a tale of lust, murder, and betrayal in the Deep South that was the basis for the critically acclaimed French film Coup de Torchon.
Table of Contents
Preview of The Getaway
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Well, sir, I should have been sitting pretty, just about as pretty as a man could sit. Here I was, the high sheriff of Potts County, and I was drawing almost two thousand dollars a year—not to mention what I could pick up on the side. On top of that, I had free living quarters on the second floor of the courthouse, just as nice a place as a man could ask for; and it even had a bathroom so that I didn't have to bathe in a washtub or tramp outside to a privy, like most folks in town did. I guess you could say that Kingdom Come was really here as far as I was concerned. I had it made, and it looked like I could go on having it made—being high sheriff of Potts County—as long as I minded my own business and didn't arrest no one unless I just couldn't get out of it and they didn't amount to nothin'.
And yet I was worried. I had so many troubles that I was worried plumb sick.
I'd sit down to a meal of maybe half a dozen pork chops and a few fried eggs and a pan of hot biscuits with grits and gravy, and I couldn't eat it. Not all of it. I'd start worrying about those problems of mine, and the next thing you knew I was getting up from the table with food still left on my plate.
It was the same way with sleeping. You might say I didn't really get no sleep at all. I'd climb in bed, thinking this was one night I was bound to sleep, but I wouldn't. It'd be maybe twenty or thirty minutes before I could doze off. And then, no more than eight or nine hours later, I'd wake up. Wide awake. And I couldn't go back to sleep, frazzled and wore out as I was.
Well, sir, I was layin' awake like that one night, tossing and turning and going plumb out of my mind, until finally I couldn't stand it no longer. So I says to myself, "Nick," I says, "Nick Corey, these problems of yours are driving you plumb out of your mind, so you better think of something fast. You better come to a decision, Nick Corey, or you're gonna wish you had."
So I thought and I thought, and then I thought some more. And finally I came to a decision.
I decided I didn't know what the heck to do.
I got out of bed that morning, and I shaved and took a bath, even if it was only Monday and I'd washed real good the Saturday before. Then, I put on my Sunday-go-to-meetin' clothes, my new sixty-dollar Stetson and my seventy-dollar Justin boots and my four-dollar Levis. I stood in front of the mirror, checking myself over real good; making sure that I didn't look like some old country boy. Because I was making a little trip to see a friend of mine. I was going to see Ken Lacey and get his advice about my problems. And I always try to look my best when I see Ken Lacey.
I had to pass Myra's bedroom on the way downstairs, and she had her door open to catch the breeze, and without realizing that I was doing it, I stopped and looked in. Then I went in and looked at her some more. And then I eased toward the bed on tippy-toe and stood looking down at her, kind of licking my lips and feeling itchy.
I'll tell you something about me. I'll tell you for true. That's one thing I never had no shortage of. I was hardly out of my shift—just a barefooted kid with my first pair of boughten britches—when the gals started flinging it at me. And the older I got, the more of 'em there were. I'd say to myself sometimes, "Nick," I'd say, "Nick Corey, you'd better do something about these gals. You better start carrying you a switch and whip 'em off of you, or they'll do you to death." But I never did do nothing like that, because I just never could bear to hurt a gal. A gal cries at me a little, and right away I'm giving in to her.
Well, though, to get back to the subject, I never had no shortage of women and they were all real generous with me. Which maybe don't seem to add up, the way I was staring at my wife, Myra. Licking my lips and feeling itchy all over. Because Myra was quite a bit older than I was and she looked every bit as mean as she was. And believe me, she was one danged mean woman. But the way it is with me, I'm kind of single-minded, I get to thinking about something, and I can't think of anything else. And maybe I wasn't suffering any shortage, but you know how that is. I mean, it's kind of like eating popcorn. The more you have the more you want.
She didn't have a nightdress on, it being summer, and she'd kicked the sheet off. And she was kind of lying on her stomach, so that I couldn't see her face, which made her look a lot better.
So I stood there, staring and steaming and itching, and finally I couldn't stand it no longer and I started unbuttoning my shirt. "After all, Nick," I says to myself, "after all, Nick Corey, this here woman is your wife, and you got certain rights."
Well, I guess you know what happened. Or I guess you don't know either. Because you don't know Myra, which makes you about as lucky as a person can get. Anyways, she turned over on her back all of a sudden, and opened her eyes.
"And just what," she said, "do you think you're doing?"
I told her I was getting ready to take a trip over to the county where Ken Lacey was sheriff. I'd probably be gone until late that night, I said, and we'd probably get real lonesome for each other, so maybe we ought to get together first.
"Huh!" she said, almost spitting the word at me. "Do you think I'd want you, even if I was of a mind to have relations with a man?"
"Well," I said. "I kind of thought maybe you might. I mean, I kind of hoped so. I mean, after all, why not?"
"Because I can hardly stand the sight of you, that's why! Because you're stupid!"
"Well," I said. "I ain't sure I can agree with you, Myra. I mean, I ain't saying you're wrong but I ain't saying you're right, either. Anyways, even if I am stupid, you can't hardly fault me for it. They's lots of stupid people in the world."
"You're not only stupid but you're spineless," she said. "You're about the poorest excuse for nothing I ever laid eyes on!"
"Well, looky," I said. "If you feel that way, why for did you marry me?"
"Listen to him! Listen to the beast!" she said. "As if he didn't know why! As if he didn't know that I had to marry him after he raped me!"
Well, that made me kind of sore, you know. She was always saying I'd raped her, and it always made me kind of sore. I couldn't really argue about her saying I was stupid and spineless, because I probably ain't real smart—who wants a smart sheriff?—and I figure it's a lot nicer to turn your back on trouble than it is to look at it. I mean, what the heck, we all got trouble enough of our own without butting in on other people's.
But when she said I was a rapist, that was something else. I mean, there just wasn't a word of truth in it. Because it just didn't make sense.
Why for would a fella like me rape a woman, when he had so many generous gals chasing him?
"Well, I'll tell you about this rape business," I said, getting kind of red in the face as I rebuttoned my shirt. "I ain't saying you're a liar, because that wouldn't be polite. But I'll tell you this, ma'am. If I loved liars, I'd hug you to death."
Well, that really started her off. She started blubbering and bawling like a calf in a hail storm. And of course that woke up her half-witted brother, Lennie. So he came rushing in, blubbering and rolling his eyes and slobbering all over his chin.
"What you done to Myra?" he says, spraying spit for about twenty feet. "What you gone an' done to her, Nick?"
I didn't say anything, being busy dodging the spit. He went stumbling over to Myra, and she took him into her arms, glaring at me.
"You beast! Now look what you've done!"
I said, what the heck, I hadn't done nothing. Far as I could see, Lennie was pretty near always bawling and slobbering. "About the only time he ain't," I said, "is when he's sneaking around town, peeking into some woman's window."
"You—you bully!" she said. "Faulting poor Lennie for something he can't help! You know he's as innocent as a lamb!"
I said, "Yeah, well, maybe." Because there wasn't much else to say, and it was getting close to train time. I started toward the hall door, and she didn't like that, me walking out without so much as a beg-pardon, so she blazed away at me again.
"You better watch your step, Mr. Nick Corey! You know what will happen if you don't!"
I stopped and turned around. "What will happen?" I said.
"I'll tell the people in this county the truth about you! We'll see how long you'll be sheriff then! After I tell them you raped me!"
"I'll tell you right now what will happen," I said. "I'd be run out of my job before I could say scat."
"You certainly would! You'd better remember it, too!"
"I'll remember," I said, "an' here's something for you to remember. If I ain't sheriff, then I got nothing to lose, have I? It don't make a good gosh-damn about anything. And if I ain't sheriff, you ain't the sheriff's wife. So where the heck will that leave you—you and your half-witted brother?"
Her eyes popped and she sucked in her breath with a gasp. It was the first time I'd spoken up to her for a long time, and it kind of took the starch out of her.
I gave her a meaningful nod, and went out the door. When I was about halfway down the stairs, she called to me.
She'd moved real fast, throwing on a robe and working up a smile. "Nick," she said, kind of cocking her head to one side, "why don't you come back for a few minutes, hmmm?"
"I guess not," I said. "I'm kind of out of the mood."
"We-el. Maybe, I could get you back in the mood. Hmmmm?"
I said I guessed not. Anyways, I had to catch a train, and I'd have to grab a bite to eat first.
"Nick," she said, sort of nervous-like. "You—you wouldn't do anything foolish, would you? Just because you're angry with me."
"No, I wouldn't," I told her. "No more'n you would, Myra."
"Well. Have a nice day, dear."
"The same to you ma 'am," I said. And then I went on downstairs, into the courthouse proper, and out the front door.
I almost took a header as I came out into the dusky haze of early morning. Because the danged place was being painted, and the painters had left their ladders and cans scattered all over everywhere. Out on the sidewalk, I looked back to see what kind of progress they'd been making. The way it looked to me, they hadn't made hardly any at all in the last two, three days—they were still working on the upper front floor—but that wasn't none of my butt-in.
I could have painted the whole building myself in three days. But I wasn't a county commissioner, and I didn't have a painting contractor for a brother-in-law.
Some colored folks had a cook-shack down near the railway station, and I stopped there and ate a plate of corn bread and fried catfish. I was too upset to eat a real meal; too worried about my worries. So I just ate the one plateful, and then I bought another order with a cup of chicory to take on the train with me.
The train came and I got on. I got a seat next to the window, and began to eat. Trying to tell myself that I'd really got Myra told off this morning and that she'd be a lot easier to get along with from now on.
But I knew I was kidding myself.
We'd had showdowns like the one this morning a lot of times. She'd threaten what she was going to do to me, and I'd point out that she had plenty to lose herself. And then things would be a little better for a while—but not really better. Nothing that really mattered was any better.
It wasn't, you see, because it wasn't a fair stand-off between me and her.
She had the edge, and when things came to a showdown, she knew I'd back away.
Sure, she couldn't lose me my job without being a loser herself. She'd have to leave town, her and her low-down half-wit of a brother, and it'd probably be a danged long time before she had it as nice as she had it with me. Probably she'd never have it as nice.
But she could get by.
She'd have something.
All I'd ever done was sheriffin'. It was all I could do. Which was just another way of saying that all I could do was nothing. And if I wasn't sheriff, I wouldn't have nothing or be nothing.
It was a kind of hard fact to face—that I was just a nothing doing nothing. And that brought up something else for me to worry about. The worry that maybe I could lose my job without Myra saying or doing anything.
Because I'd begun to suspect lately that people weren't quite satisfied with me. That they expected me to do a little something instead of just grinning and joking and looking the other way. And me, I just didn't quite know what to do about it.
The train took a curve and began to follow the river a ways. By craning my neck, I could see the unpainted sheds of the town whorehouse and the two men—pimps—sprawled on the little wharf in front of the place. Those pimps had caused me a sight of trouble, a powerful sight of trouble. Only last week, they'd accidentally-on-purpose bumped me into the river, and a few days before they'd accidentally-on-purpose tripped me up in the mud. And the worst thing of all was the way they talked to me, calling me names and poking mean fun at me, and not showing me no respect at all like you'd naturally expect pimps to show a sheriff, even if he was shaking 'em down for a little money.
Something was going to have to be done about the pimps, I reckoned. Something plumb drastic.
I finished eating and went up to the men's lounge. I washed my hands and face at the sink, nodding to the fella that was sittin' on the long leather bench.
He wore a classy black-and-white checked suit, high-button shoes with spats and a white derby hat. He gave me a long slow look, letting his eyes linger for a moment on my pistol belt and gun. He didn't smile or say anything.
I nodded at the paper he was reading. "What do you think about them Bullshevicks?" I said. "You reckon they'll ever overthrow the Czar?"
He grunted, still not saying anything. I sat down on the bench a few feet away from him.
The fact was, I wanted to relieve myself. But I wasn't sure that I ought to go on into the toilet. The door was unlocked swinging back and forth with the motion of the train, and it looked like it must be empty. Still, though, here this fella was, and maybe that's what he was waiting for. So even if the place was empty, it wouldn't be polite to go in ahead of him.
I waited a little while. I waited, squirming and fidgeting, until finally I couldn't wait any longer.
"Excuse me," I said. "Were you waiting to go to the toilet?"
He looked startled. Then, he gave me a mean look, and spoke for the first time. "That's some of your business?"
"Of course not," I said. "I just wanted to go to the toilet, and I thought maybe you did, too. I mean, I thought maybe someone was already in there, and that's why you were waiting."
He glanced at the swinging door of the toilet; swinging wide now so that you could see the stool. He looked back at me, kind of bewildered and disgusted.
"For God's sake!" he said.
"Yes, sir?" I said. "I don't reckon there's anyone in there, do you?"
I didn't think he was going to answer me for a minute. But then he said, yeah, someone was in the toilet. "She just went in a little while ago. A naked woman on a spotted pony."
"Oh," I said. "But how come a woman's using the men's toilet?"
"On account of the pony," he said. "He had to take a leak, too."
"I can't see no one from here," I said. "It's funny I couldn't see 'em in a little place like that."
"You calling me a liar?" he said. "You saying a naked woman on a spotted pony ain't in there?"
I said, no, of course not. I wouldn't say nothing like that. "But I'm in kind of a hurry," I said. "Maybe I better go up to one of the other cars."
"Oh, no, you don't!" he said. "No one's calling me a liar and getting away with it!"
"I'm not," I said. "I didn't mean it that way at all. I just—"
"I'll show you! I'm telling the truth! You're gonna sit right there until that woman and her pony comes out."
"But I gotta pee!" I said. "I mean, I really got to, sir."
"Well, you ain't leaving here," he said. "Not until you see I'm telling the truth."
Well, sir, I just didn't know what to do. I just didn't know. Maybe you would have, but I didn't.
All my life, I've been just as friendly and polite as a fella could be. I've always figured that if a fella was nice to everyone, why, they'd be nice to him. But it don't always work out that way. More often than not, it seems like, I wind up in a spot like I was in now. And I just don't know what to do.
Finally, when I was about to let go in my britches, the conductor came through taking up tickets, and I had a chance to get away. I tore out of there in such a hurry that it was maybe a minute before I could get the door open to the next car. And I heard a burst of laughter from the rest room behind me. They were laughing at me, I guess—the conductor and the man in the checked suit. But I'm kind of used to being laughed at, and anyway I didn't have time to think about it right then.
I dashed on up into the next car and relieved myself—and believe me it was a relief. I was coming back down the aisle, looking for a seat in that car so's I wouldn't run into the checked-suit fella again, when I saw Amy Mason.
I was pretty sure that she'd seen me, too, but she let on that she didn't. I hesitated by the seat next to her for a minute, then braced myself and sat down.
No one knows it in Pottsville, because we were careful to keep it a secret, but me and Amy was mighty thick at one time. Fact is, we'd've got married if her Daddy hadn't had such strong objections to me. So we waited, just waiting for the old gentleman to die. And then just a week or so before he did, Myra hooked me.
I hadn't seen Amy since except to pass on the street. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, and try to explain things to her. But she never gave me the chance. Whenever she saw me, she'd toss her head and look away. Or if I tried to stop her, she'd cross to the other side of the street.
"Howdy, Amy," I said. "Nice morning."
Her mouth tightened a little, but she didn't speak.
"It's sure nice running into you like this," I said. "How far you ridin', if you don't mind my asking?"
She spoke that time. Just barely. "To Clarkton. I'll be getting ready to leave any moment now."
"I sure wish you was riding further," I said. "I been wanting to talk to you, Amy. I wanted to explain about things."
"Did you?" She slanted a glance at me. "The explanation seems obvious to me."
"Aw, naw, naw," I said. "You know I couldn't like no one better'n you, Amy. I never wanted to marry anyone in my life but you, and that's the God's truth. I swear it is. I'd swear it on a stack of Bibles, honey."
Her eyes were blinking rapidly, like she was blinking back the tears. I got hold of her hand and squeezed it, and I saw her lips tremble.
"Th-then, why, Nick? Why did y-you—"
"That's what I been wanting to tell you. It's a pretty long story, and—looky, honey, why don't I get off at Clarkton with you, and we can get us a hotel room for a couple hours and—"
It was the wrong thing to say. Right at that time it was the wrong thing.
Amy turned white. She looked at me with ice in her eyes. "So that's what you think of me!" she said. "That's all you want—all you ever wanted! Not to marry me, oh, no, I'm not good enough to marry! Just to get me in bed, and—"
"Now, please, honey," I said. "I—"
"Don't you dare honey me, Nick Corey!"
"But I wasn't thinking about that—what you think I was thinking about," I said. "It was just that it'd take quite a while to explain about me and Myra, and I figured we'd need some place to—"
"Never mind. Just never mind," she said. "I'm no longer interested in your explanations."
"Please, Amy. Just let me—"
"But I'll tell you one thing, Mr. Nicholas Corey, and you'd better pass the word along to the proper quarters. If I catch your wife's brother peeking in my windows, there's going to be trouble. Real trouble. I won't put up with it like the other women in Pottsville do. So you tell her that, and a word to the wise is sufficient."
I told her I hoped she didn't ever do anything about Lennie. For her own sake, that is. "I got no more use for Lennie than you have, but Myra—"
"Humph!" She tossed her head and stood up as the train slowed down for Clarkton. "You think I'm afraid of that—that—her?"
"Well," I said, "it might be better if you was. You know how Myra is when she takes out after someone. By the time she gets through gossiping and telling lies, why—"
"Let me out, please."
She pushed past me and went on up the aisle, her head high, the ostrich plume on her hat dipping and swaying. As the train pulled out, I tried to wave to her where she stood on the platform. But she turned her head quickly, with another swoop of the ostrich plume, and started off up the street.
So that was that, and I told myself that maybe it was just as well. Because how could we ever mean anything to each other the way things stood?
There was Myra, of course, and there was going to be Myra, it looked like, until her or me died of old age. But Myra wasn't the only drawback.
Somehow, I'd gotten real friendly with a married woman, name of Rose Hauck. One of those involvements which I've always kind of drifted into before I knew what was happening. Rose didn't mean a thing to me, except that she was awful pretty and generous. But I meant plenty to her. I meant plenty-plenty, and she'd let me know it.
Just to show how smart Rose was, Myra considered her her very best friend. Yes, sir, Rose could put on that good an act. When we were alone, me and Rose that is, she'd cuss Myra until it actually made me blush. But when they were together, oh, brother! Rose would suck around her—honeyin' and dearie-in' her—until heck wouldn't have it. And Myra would get so pleased and flustered that she'd almost weep for joy.
The surest way of gettin' a rise out of Myra was to hint that Rose was something less than perfect. Even Lennie couldn't do it. He started to one time, just kind of hinted that anyone as pretty as Rose couldn't be as nice as she acted. And Myra slapped him clean across the room.
Maybe I didn't tell you, but this Ken Lacey I was going to visit was the sheriff a couple of counties down the river. Me and him met at a peace officers' convention one year, and we kind of cottoned to each other right away. He wasn't only real friendly, but he was plenty smart; I knew it the minute I started talking to him. So the first chance I got, I'd asked him advice about this problem I had.
"Um-hmmm!" he'd said, after I'd explained the situation and he'd thought it over for a while. "Now, this privy sits on public property, right? It's out in back of the courthouse?"
"That's right," I said. "That's exactly right, Ken."
"But it don't bother no one but you?"
"Right again," I said. "You see, the courtroom is on the downstairs rear, and it don't have no windows in back. The windows are up on the second floor where I live."
Ken asked me if I couldn't get the county commissioners to tear the privy down and I said no, I couldn't hardly do that. After all, a lot of people used it, and it might make 'em mad.
"And you can't get 'em to clean it out?" he asked. "Maybe sweeten it up a little with a few barrels of lime?"
"Why should they?" I said. "It don't bother no one but me. I'd probably call down trouble on myself if I ever complained about it."
"Uh-hah!" Ken nodded. "It'd seem right selfish of you."
"But I got to do something about it, Ken," I said. "It ain't just the hot-weather smell, which is plenty bad by itself, but that's only part of it. Y'see, there's these danged big holes in the roof that show everything that's going on inside. Say I've got some visitors in, and they think, Oh, my, you must have a wonderful view out that way. So they look out, and the only view they get is of some fella doing his business."
Ken said, "Uh-hah!" again, kind of coughing and stroking his mouth. Then, he went on to say that I really had a problem, a real problem. "I can see how it might even upset a high sheriff like you, Nick, with all the pre-occu-pations of your great office."
"You got to help me, Ken," I said. "I'm getting plumb frazzled out of my wits."
"And I'm going to help you," Ken nodded. "I ain't never let a brother officer down yet, and I ain't about to begin now."
So he told me what to do, and I did it. I sneaked out to the privy late that night, and I loosened a nail here and there, and I shifted the floor boards around a bit. The next morning, I was up early, all set to spring into action when the proper time came.
Well, sir, the fella that used the privy most was Mr. J.S. Dinwiddie, the bank president. He'd use it on the way home to lunch and on the way back from lunch, and on the way home at night and on the way in in the morning. Well, sometimes he'd pass it up, but never in the morning. By the time he'd got that far from his house his grits and gravy were working on him, and he just couldn't get to the privy fast enough.
He went rushing in that morning, the morning after I'd done my tampering—a big fat fella in a high white collar and a spanking new broadcloth suit. The floor boards went out from under him, and down into the pit. And he went down with them.
Smack down into thirty years' accumulation of night soil.
Naturally, I had him fished out almost as fast as he went in. So he wasn't really hurt none, just awful messed up. But I never saw one man so mad in all my borned days.
He hopped up and down and sideways, waving his fists and flinging his arms around, and yelling blue murder. I tried to toss some water over him to get the worst of the filth off. But the way he was hopping around and jumping every which way, I couldn't do much good. I'd throw the water at him in one place, and he'd be in another. And cuss! You never heard anything like it, and him a deacon in the church!
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- Dec 25, 2011
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