The Evening Road


By Laird Hunt

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Two women, two secrets: one desperate and extraordinary day. In the high heat of an Indiana summer, news spreads fast. When Marvel, the local county seat, plans to lynch three young black men, word travels faster. It is August, 1930, the height of the Jim Crow era, and the prospect of the spectacle sends shockwaves rumbling through farm country as far as a day’s wagon-ride away.

Ottie Lee Henshaw, a fiery small-town beauty, sets out with her lecherous boss and brooding husband to join in whatever fun there is to be had. At the opposite end of the road to Marvel, Calla Destry, a young African-American woman determined to escape the violence, leaves home to find the lover who has promised her a new life.

As the countryside explodes in frenzied revelry, the road is no place for either. It is populated by wild-eyed demagogues, marauding vigilantes, possessed bloodhounds, and even by the Ku Klux Klan itself. Reminiscent of the works of Louise Erdrich, Edward P. Jones, and Marilynne Robinson, The Evening Road is the story of two remarkable woman on the move through an America riven by fear and hatred, and eager to flee the secrets they have left behind.



I was working the crank on the new pencil sharpener, feeding it fresh Ticonderogas, trying to get the points just right. Sharp enough was the idea so you could stab without pushing too hard, dull enough so the tips wouldn't snap straight off, leave important evidence behind. The personage I would introduce those sharp pencils to was my boss, Bud Lancer. I'd shed my heels and stocking-foot up on him when he was leaned back in his chair, deep into some afternoon snores. He was awful big so I'd take two Ticonderogas in each hand. Give out one chuckle when I did the work, another when I wiped the pencils clean. Bud, who was the one who had come up with the game, would laugh loud when I told him about it. I'd sit on the corner of his desk and swing my foot and shine my eyes over at him the way he liked it and hold up my perfect murder pencils and make him roar. Meantime, though, all the new machine was doing was eating up good writing implements and making my arm tired and obliging me to swear.

I broke another pencil, spit into my wastebasket, said, "Shit goddamn," and that's when Bud burst out of his office with a cigar in his hand.

"You can't tell me you haven't heard."

"Heard what?"

"About the lynching over in Marvel."

"The what?"

"Some cornflowers shot a cornsilk and set a hundred houses on fire and ran a rampage over the countryside. They got them over in the jail but they won't be in that jail for long. There's some boys going to get them out with sledgehammers if the sheriff won't open the door."

"And do what with them?"

"Didn't I just say it? They're going to hang them up like chickens. Pluck them first too."

Bud laughed and told me to put the pencils away, he would give me a ride over, we could go in his car.

"But I was planning on killing you with them first," I said.

Bud grabbed his hat, then groped in his desk for his keys. He said it wasn't time for games, that there hadn't been a real public lynching in Indiana in he didn't know how long. We ought to get on over there if we wanted a spot. He said for all he knew they would be auctioning off the good places beneath the tree, that it would be better than any picture show. If we wanted to see it we ought to get a start. I told Bud that I didn't know. Game or not, I had those pencils to sharpen and two policy-adjustment letters to prepare, not to mention I had to get dinner for Dale and there was things we needed from the store.

"Dale, hell," said Bud, taking a quick suck on his cigar. "If he ain't over there already you can bet he's fixing to go."

"You think?" I said.

"There isn't any thinking to it. You know when it comes to fun with cornflowers, he's always the first one in the line."

I gave out a laugh, but I didn't deny it. After all, Bud was Bud. He had been my boss for five years and six weeks, and one of the things you didn't do when you were in the workplace and he had a cigar in his hand, no matter how high his spirits, was contradict him. He had a cigar in his hand. I knew that when he got into his car and had started up the engine he would take one last long pull, then toss it out the window. Then he would put the car into gear and put his hand on my leg. One time, when he had his cigar in his hand and was fixing to get to some groping, I told him the file he had been talking about earlier was on his desk, which it was, but he had just the minute before said it wasn't. I argued the point and wasn't asked to go for any car ride with him that day or any other for a month. It got so stale in the office before the ship got steered back right, I thought he would fire me out onto the street. Then I'd have had to explain things to Dale.

Not that Dale, I thought, would have made anything out of it. Bud Lancer was the size of man to spit all the Dales of the world out of his mouth like old teeth. Once, of a Friday, I saw Bud pick a full-grown man up by his arms, turn him over, shake him good, then drop him like some pig trimmings into the trash. Bud Lancer had been a fullback to ruin them all in his high school days and now he was my boss.

"Come on, Ottie," he said.

"It's cornflowers they're fixing to put ropes on?"

"How many times do you want me to say it. Who else? Put those goddamn pencils away and get your things."

I thought the great big bright idea was to head straight off to Marvel, but Bud got stopped by some of the boys who worked in the print shop down the hall and they had to colloquize awhile about how it was going to be the biggest thing anybody ever saw. One of the boys, Charley Goodwin, who Bud Lancer had gone to school with and who hated Bud and who Bud hated right back, claimed to have been to a lynching when he was making a delivery down to Kentucky, but they all said they didn't believe him. He said whether they all believed him or they didn't wasn't any concern of his because it was true. They had hung a cornflower janitor right from a saloon sign, hadn't cut him down for a week. Folks down in this Kentucky town Charley said he couldn't remember the name of had set card tables out in the street and there had been a turkey banquet right there under the show. After the turkey was served a little girl sang "Dixie" and juggled five blue balls, then when the juggling was done they squirted the dead man with fuel oil and set him alight.

"Dinner right there under a dead man and a fire show on top of it," Bud Lancer said. "Did you hear that, Ottie?"

Then of course the boys had to chuckle on awhile about that dinner and even if I didn't think it was that funny I chuckled along with them. Bud liked my way of chuckling. He always said that and the way I could fill out a shirt that wasn't even snug was what had got me my job.

Charley Goodwin would have liked to offer me a job if he had had any to hand out. He was just the press operator, though, and didn't have anything to offer but some bean-field charm and the orange ink under his nails. That didn't keep his eyes from tiptoeing over my way about every two seconds, and it didn't stop Charley, when we were finally fixing to leave, from asking Bud to let him ride with us to see the show.

"When hell freezes over and heaven takes in all the frozen chickens, Charley boy," he said.

"It might freeze over sooner than you like," said Charley.

"What's that supposed to mean?" said Bud.

"Means there's plenty wondering. Plenty asking questions."

"Questions about what?" said Bud and took a big step closer to Charley when he asked this. Charley shrugged and gave a nervous laugh.

"I'm just talking."

"Well, stop talking."

"You know I'm kidding you."

"Yes," Bud said, puffing his chest out a slice, "I guess I do."

Bud had me wait out on the street under Frisch's awning while he went to get his car. While I was waiting, I got to thinking about that little girl and that burning man and gave out a shudder started at the tips of my toes and went crab-walking up my legs because you couldn't help but wonder if they were going to burn and lynch them both over in Marvel, but then there came Sally Gunner out of the drugstore across the street. Sally Gunner was part cornroot through her father. She worked three days a week over at the lumberyard and said every other time you talked to her that she saw angels in the morning when she ate her breakfast. One of the angels liked to dip its finger in her oats and say if they were too hot or if they were too cold. Another lived in a painting Sally had of Abraham Lincoln. Sally said that angel was her favorite and that it would sometimes smile at her and tell her stories about heaven. She had little bitty eyes and a handsome hawk nose so it always looked like she had to be somewhere fast. I had known her about my whole life. She had been my first friend outside the Spitzers' Happy Home, which was where my own piece-of-shit old man would leave me for months at a time when he went on the road during my early years. Sally and me weren't friends anymore like the way we had been, but not one week past when I was coming out of that same drugstore she had caught me up in a hug right out on the street and said, "My Abraham Lincoln angel told me this morning there was something special on its way for you, something you can't miss, something that will make it all come clear!"

"Make what come clear?" I had asked her.

But she had just beamed and shrugged and gone hurrying along. That was Sally.

"Hi, Ottie Lee Henshaw!" she called out now.

"Hi, Sally Louise Gunner!" I called back.

I watched her hurry off on her way for a minute, her head full of who knew what, until a group of three other gals I knew came by all dressed like they were off to see the sailors and sit on their laps. One of them, Candy Perkins, had out her lipstick and mirror.

"Careful there, Candy, or you might trip and smack your head and wouldn't that hurt the sidewalk something awful?" I said as she passed.

"You waiting on big Bud Lancer to take you for one of his special rides, Mrs. Dale Henshaw?" she said right back.

It was about the hottest day there had ever been and I won't say that once Bud Lancer got me in his car and the air—oven-warm as it was—came streaming in I was sad to be sitting there. He had tossed his cigar out the window and had his left hand on the steering wheel and his right hand on my leg, and the air came flapping its buzzard wings into the window. He was talking about the lynching and getting there early enough for a spot and how his cousin had told him on the phone how they had hung a bloody shirt from the jail and everyone was riled up and so forth and so on, but I could tell by the syrupy tone of his voice that his hand wasn't going to stay happy just to set there aflop on my thigh. Sure enough, even though Bud kept saying he had to get me over to Marvel early enough for me to see it all, he turned off sharp when we came to the lane where he liked to take me.

The lane went past a pair of barley fields and a spread of run-down horse pens I expect they have long since knocked over or burned down. There was a stand of hickory trees next to a small pond where the frogs croaked like something big was about to jump in the water and set to destroying them. The pond wasn't big enough to fish so there wasn't ever anyone around. Bud was excited, what with the lynching to get to and all, so he went straight from putting his hand on my leg to making his try on me—which never went anywhere besides a fair amount of arm action and heavy breathing and pawing of my hair, especially pawing of my hair, since in those days it was long and thick and red—extra-quick. Still did all his regular damage to my makeup and the press of my clothes, though. Sometimes a blue jay came and watched us while Bud was at his pawing, but I didn't spot him that day. I missed him a little because he gave me something handsome to look at while Bud was at it. King of the countryside. Elegant and true. I thought I heard him give out a squawk a way off in the distance.

"Did you hear that jay?" I asked Bud when he was done splashing his sweat on me and had sat back in his seat.

"My name ain't Jay," Bud said.

That asinine remark was cause for some additional laughter and four or five pinches on my thigh. Then Bud's spare hand left my leg and went up to the steering wheel and he started to whistle like he'd just scaled the mighty mountain and planted his flag instead of scrabbling around in the rocks down on the flats. I have never liked a man to whistle and long ago trained up Dale to keep his whistling to himself, but even if Bud couldn't get it done, he paid me bonuses to let him act like he could, so I endured his whistle and looked out the window and wondered, now that I was off the clock and could think my own thoughts, what it was we had coming when we got to Marvel. Once, as a girl, when I was still doing those stints at the Spitzers', I had seen a cornflower or some such who'd been selling bad tonic get beaten around the block, but never a lynching. A lynching was something else entirely.

I thought about what Sally had said. Maybe this was it, that special thing. Thinking about what it might be and what it might look like and what I might learn made me gander at my hands, then at my legs in their not-so-nice stockings, then at my feet in their good goat-leather heels, then at the soft backs of my hands, then at my nails, then finally at my long red locks. My hair weighed about twenty pounds if it weighed an ounce and through good times and bad, Dale had never allowed me to cut more than an inch of it at a time. And I expect if I had come in to work with it all cut off Bud would have just fallen right over backward and died. I straightened myself up then smiled big at Bud, but he wasn't looking. He was whistling and bobbling his head back and forth to the tune. Terrible sight and sound that might have got me glum but then it popped into my head that Candy Perkins and her friends had been heading to the show and that I might see them. And whether or not I had any special message coming, by God, I'd have a thing or two set to say to them when we got there.

I was fixing to try a line out on Bud to see what he thought when he belched and said, "We ought to go on over to your place and see if Dale needs a ride."

"If Dale needs a ride?"

"You said yourself his truck was broke."

I had said that and anyway this wasn't the first time after Bud had had his fun with me that he had thought of Dale. He liked to see Dale after he and I had been for a ride. He liked to clap him on the shoulder and throw him over a few play punches. Dale seemed to like it too. Bud wasn't just my boss, he was a big piece of cheese in the community and—problems with his people maker or not—probably could have sold Dale and any number of smiling others, I thought, tickets to get punched by him in the mouth.

"Let's go get that sorry critter, then," I said.

Bud gave a grin and turned off the blacktop and plumed the dust down the three or four roads to our house. I had thought Dale would be out in the shed or looking to the animals but there he sat on the one of our front steps that wasn't broken in a pair of clean overalls, just like he had been expecting us.

"I was waiting," he said when Bud pulled up.

"Waiting on what?" Bud said.

"On a ride to Marvel."

"Well, here you got you one."

"I can see that."

Dale didn't smile, because his teeth were so bad, but he raised his eyebrow and nodded then climbed in the backseat and we drove off again.

How did you hear about it?" said Bud. "Was it on the radio? My cousin said he heard a special announcement down at the barbershop. Said they put it through three times. You get the radio way out here?"

"Jesus Christ, 'course we get the radio out here. Don't we, Dale?" I said.

Dale didn't answer me. He had an awful lot of chaw in his mouth.

"I got to check on my pig," he said.

"You what?" said Bud.

"No, you don't," I said.

I'd known pigs all my life but that pig of Dale's scared me. She was giant-big and shiny and terrible smart-looking, glowed even in the noon light, would gander out the side of her head at you like she was a whale or a dolphin fetched up far away from its water and had a throat full of things to say you didn't want to hear.

I said no thank you again to seeing the pig, but Bud turned down the damn lane and we rode a bumpy half mile to the back forty where Dale kept that creature in a pig house he'd spent a year building out of wood we couldn't afford. You would have thought she'd cast a spell on him the way he swooned over her, that sow the size of three he kept swaddled up in perfumed straw and fed better than us. She was kind of just a huge puddle of pink half buried under her covers when we were still rolling, but when we stopped she hopped right up, trotted over to the rails, and gave a good deep snort you could hear straight over the engine.

"There she goes with that talking," I said.

"Be a jiff," Dale said.

"I got to see this," Bud said.

I didn't have to see it, I'd seen it plenty, but I got out and followed them around the car. Bud took the chance of being outside to hit Dale a couple of his good ones on the arm and Dale took a pretty good crack back at him.

"Here she is," he said.

"Good Lord in heaven," said Bud.

"I know it," said Dale.

"That's some piece of pork!"

"I'd like to see someone show me finer in this county."


"American Yorkshire. She come out all alone like she'd ate up all the others and not too far off this size."

"You could win a prize with a pig like that."

"Money in the bank."

"A bank full to bursting, she keeps on growing."

"She'll keep on."

While they talked sloppy like that, I looked at the pig and she looked at me. You want to tell me something, don't you? I thought. You want to tell me things about this world or your world. About the world far away. You got things to say about me, I can see it. Nasty things. Whisper them at me, then chew off my ear. Bite off half my head. Lie down on me and sleep your beastly sleep. I shivered, then laughed out loud and the boys looked at me, then went back to their talking.

There was a spot down by the creek kind of had indentations where I could fit my feet. I liked to visit there whenever it was my turn to look in on the monster. I had a view from where I squatted down, and once I got myself settled I looked out over the countryside. Corn and wheat and barley and more corn. It all looked burned up about right and had those wavy squiggle marks in its airs from the heat. I could see six barns and four silos from where I sat. It was good country. Not big but rich and you could live on it. Pull a life up out of its dirt. At the Spitzers', when we didn't behave, old Mrs. Spitzer would make us go out to the woods to do our business. There wasn't a one of us knew how to act just right so we were all out in the woods all the time. Wandering and bleating like sheep in a field. Pigs in the muck. Somewhere over there in about the direction I was looking was Marvel. You couldn't spit and hit it but you knew it was close and that thought made my stomach get the tinglies and the last time I had had them was when Sally had give me that hug and told me I had something special coming. That something I now had my mind settled on that would make it all come clear.

When I finished up I hurried back over to the pig palace expecting they'd be in the car and raring to get to the show, but there they stood at the rails. Dale was pulling carrots from my garden out of his pockets and handing them to Bud, and Bud was handing them in to Her Royal Highness—carefully, like he thought he might be bit. One time I had put my hand on the flank that bulged out through the fence slats when you slopped her. I had thought she would be soft and hot, hotter than a star in its furnace, but she was hard and cool, cold almost, like the grave had already come calling and shoved some coffin in her.

"Get that pile of pork chops snacked up and let's get on the road," I said.

But Dale kept pulling my carrots out of his pockets and Bud kept taking them and that beautiful giant pig kept getting fed and that went on and on and on.

Now that he'd pawed at me then made it up all nice with Dale, who didn't even know he was being made up with, anyone had half a head could have guessed what Bud would come up with next, which was that he was hungry and wouldn't mind tracking down some food.

"Catfish supper today over to Ryansville," said Dale.

"Well," said Bud, rubbing those heavy hands over the steering wheel, "let's get over there and get us some."

There were so many vehicles at the Ryansville church it looked like they were having the lynching there. Cars and trucks were parked as far as a quarter mile up the road, and I said I didn't want my supper that bad but Bud went right ahead and stopped the car.

"You'll want your energy up for what we got coming this evening," he said.

"I'll want some energy left so I can enjoy myself is what I'll want," I said.

"Get out of the car, Ottie Lee," Dale said.

I didn't move a muscle until he added a "please" and would have probably kept sitting there until they either left me alone or hauled me out if about that time a whiff of fried catfish hadn't swished its way in through my window and set my stomach curious. I'd had exactly two crackers and a caramel candy since breakfast, and that catfish smelled so good I yanked the door open and shouldered Bud and Dale straight out of my way.

I was ready to do the same to anyone else ahead of me but when I got to the church I could see I wouldn't have to. Everyone was packed out onto the lawn and those clunkerheads weren't eating catfish at all. Some oversize boy in a brown suit didn't flatter his figure was standing on a soda crate and treating the smoky airs to a speech about democracy and freedom and corn crops and fresh flowers, or at least that was what I caught as I crossed the lawn and stepped into the church.

You would have thought there would at least be a few of them down in there to get their supper but I didn't see a soul as I followed the CHRISTIANS GIT YOUR WORLD'S BEST CATFISH HERE! sign down to the basement. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the little lightbulbs they had hanging from the ceiling but it didn't take me long to see the piles of fish they had down there. They had so much catfish you had to stand a minute and take it in. And it wasn't just catfish—they had slaw and rolls and potato salad and two tables covered up in pies. There was steam in the air and everything came up glittery. It looked like you'd stepped into one of those old stories they were always telling us at the Spitzers' where Jesus gets Himself stirred up and casts a spell. Mr. Spitzer liked to lift his arms out to the side when he would tell that part. Lift his arms out and let his hair fall down over his face. In the church, they had a jar for your money and I opened my purse and took out some coins. Then I got my eye on the plates and stepped my way straight over. That's when I saw there were serving ladies down there. Three of them. Each about as old as Methuselah's uncle. They had on matching blue calico dresses and had covered their splash zones with aprons.

"Supping it alone this evening?" one of them said.

"I'm with two others," I said.

"Probably stopped to hear the speech," said another.

"I'm surprised you didn't stop yourself," said the third.

"I'm hungry," I said. "Hungry, hungry, hungry."

"I think every one of them up there is hungry," said the first.

"Is there some reason you aren't serving me? Money's paid and I'm standing here holding a empty plate," I said.

"Why, is there some reason we shouldn't?" said the second.

I studied on it a minute. 'Course there were reasons. I could think of a hundred but who in hell couldn't.

"I'm a sinner. How about you gals?"

"Oh, we've been friends with sin."

"But we found our way here."

"Yes, we did."

As the third one said this, the crowd outside let out a roar and about five seconds later it sounded like the host of the Apocalypse was starting down the steps.

"Do I get my catfish or don't I?" I said.

"Of course, dear," said the first.

"What would you like?" said the second.

"Make sure you pick out some pie and don't forget to praise the Lord before you eat it!" said the third.

I got my food, stepped back upstairs through the side door as the swarm went swarming in and made me think of the swine Christ cast those demons into and then thought of Dale's pig's cold flank and then sat down at one of the long tables they had set up on the back end of the lawn. It was a handsome place. Everywhere there was big trees giving out their shade and all around in the distances were the summertime fields. There wasn't any breeze but they had set out smoke buckets to work at the flies and mosquitoes. There were black-eyed Susans blooming all about and a great rose of Sharon bush standing at the back of the lot. My eyes lingered a minute on that bush. Because it looked a little, and just for a second, like the whole thing was covered in eyes instead of hardy pink blooms.


On Sale
Feb 7, 2017
Page Count
288 pages

Laird Hunt

About the Author

Laird Hunt is the author of The Evening Road. His previous novel, Neverhome, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selection, an IndieNext selection, winner of the Grand Prix de Litterature Americaine and The Bridge prize, and a finalist for the Prix Femina Etranger. A resident of Boulder, CO, he is on the faculty in the creative writing PhD program at the University of Denver.

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