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The acres and acres of fertile soil, the two-hundred-year-old antebellum house, all gone. And so is the woman who gave it to Jack, the foster mother only days away from dying, her mind eroded by dementia, the family legacy she entrusted to Jack now owned by banks and strangers.
And Jack’s mind has begun to fail, too. The decades of bare-knuckle fighting are now taking their toll, as concussion after concussion forces him to carry around a stash of illegal painkillers and a notebook of names that separates friend from foe. But in a single twisted night, Jack loses his chance to win it all back. Hijacked by a sleazy gambler out to settle a score, Jack is robbed of the money that will clear his debt with Big Momma Sweet — the queen of Delta vice, whose deep backwoods playground offers sin to all those willing to pay — and open a path that could lead him back home. Yet this sudden reversal of fortunes introduces an unlikely savior in the form of a sultry, tattooed carnival worker.
Guided by what she calls her “church of coincidence,” Annette pushes Jack toward redemption, only to discover that the world of Big Momma Sweet is filled with savage danger. Damaged by regret, crippled by twenty-five years of fists and elbows, heartbroken by his own betrayals, Jack is forced to step into the fighting pit one last time, the stakes nothing less than life or death. With the raw power and poetry of a young Larry Brown and the mysticism of Cormac McCarthy, Michael Farris Smith cements his place as one of the finest writers in the American literary landscape.
To be alive at all is to have scars.
When he was two years old the boy was dropped off at the donation door at the Salvation Army secondhand store in Tunica wearing nothing but a sagging diaper. A Planet of the Apes backpack stuffed with more diapers and some shirts and mismatched socks and little green army men was dropped on the ground next to him. Then a hungover woman banged a scabbed fist on the metal door and a hungover man blew the car horn and she ran around and got in as the child watched with a docile expression. Out of the car window the man called out some sort of farewell to the child that was lost in the offbeat chug of the engine and then the foulrunning Cadillac rattled out of the gravel parking lot, leaving the child in the dustcloud of abandonment.
The door opened and two women in matching red Salvation Army t-shirts stared down at the boy. Then they looked into the parking lot at the still lingering cloud. Out into a gray morning sky. They glanced at each other. And then one said I guess we’re gonna have to hang a sign next to the one that says no mattresses that says no younguns. The other woman lifted the boy and held him up beneath his arms as if to make certain he was made of actual flesh and bone. When she was satisfied she hugged the child close and rubbed her hand across the back of his head and she said I pity those who have to live behind me in this weary and heartless world.
The police were called and while they waited the women washed the boy in the bathroom sink with paper towels and hand soap. Filthy feet and filthy hands and the diaper was two changes past due. After they had wiped him clean and filled the trash can with dirty paper towels the boy stood naked and fresh on the smooth concrete floor of the bathroom and they admired his innocence and beauty. He was then dressed in a new diaper and a Spider-Man shirt taken from a rack in the kids’ section. The boy did not cry and did not talk but instead sat satisfied between the women on a tweed sofa marked fifteen dollars as if he had already decided that this was his new home and he was better off.
He was better off but this was the beginning of a childhood spent in the company of strangers. The next ten years saw him move from one Delta town to the next. Four foster homes and two group homes. Five different schools. A handful of caseworkers. Teachers whose names he could not remember and then stopped trying to remember because he knew he would not be in their classrooms for long. The steady and certain build of restlessness and anxiety in this child who was certain neither where he had come from nor where he was going.
When he was twelve years old the assistant director of the group home told him to gather his things. Again. He sat on the bench seat of a white van with the home logo on the side and he watched the fields of soybeans and cornstalks with sullen eyes as he was driven from the sleepy, bricked street town of Greenwood to his fifth foster home. Moving northwest and closer to the great river, to the fringes of Clarksdale, the once bustling Delta hub of trade and commerce that now wore the familiar faded expression of days gone by. His eyes changed when the van pulled into the dirt driveway that led to a two-story home. A white antebellum with a porch stretching across the front on the bottom and top floors. Flaking paint on the sun side and vines hanging in baskets along the porch with their twisted and green trails swaying in the wind. A woman sat in a rocker and she rose to meet them. She wore work gloves and she pulled them off and tossed them on the ground as she approached the van as if readying herself for whatever may be climbing out.
She took him to his upstairs room and opened the dresser drawers to show him where he could put his things and he told her there was no use.
I won’t be here long enough to mess up the covers on the bed.
Sure you will, she answered.
No I won’t, he said. A twelve-year-old certain of the workings of the world.
Are you gonna run away?
I don’t know. Are you?
Because unless you run away this is where you live now.
So you think.
So I know, she said.
You don’t know nothing, he said and he walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs and out into the backyard.
She stood at the window and watched him between the slit in the curtains. He did not stop in the backyard but crossed it and walked out onto the dirt road that ran on and on between the rows of cotton. The sun high and a short shadow followed him. She did not chase. She stood in the window and watched until he was nearly out of sight and she was one step toward the door to run after him when he stopped. A tiny figure in the distance.
He stopped and stayed in the same spot for several more minutes and she could not know that he was talking to himself. Telling himself I don’t wanna do this no more. I don’t know why I can’t have somebody. With the space between them she could not have noticed that he looked back at the big house and said that place right there don’t want me neither and that woman can’t catch me. I’m gonna take off running and she won’t never catch me. Won’t nobody. I don’t wanna do this shit no more. She could not have heard him or seen him with any detail but she waited. Only could see that he had stopped. She whispered a prayer without moving her lips as if even the slightest flutter would spook the boy and send him fleeing on furious and reckless feet. He stood still talking to himself and she stood still whispering a quiet and motionless prayer. And then from the distant sky a hawk flew toward the boy. It flew low and its wings were spread wide and when it reached the vicinity of the boy it swooped and seemed to hold there out in front of him. Begging the boy to admire its eloquence. Begging the boy to notice something other than himself and his troubles. Begging the boy to think of something other than running from that woman. The hawk rose and fell again and the boy saw it and his eyes followed the hawk as it turned long and graceful curves in the bluewhite sky. From the window Maryann spied the hawk and she shifted her eyes from sky to land, waiting to see what the boy would do. The breath she had been holding was let go when the hawk turned toward the house. And the boy followed.
HE PASSED THROUGH VICKSBURG AT MIDNIGHT, THE DULL lights of the nonstop convenience stores and fast food restaurants fading in the rearview mirror as he drove onto Highway 61 and made his way north and into the Delta. The great alluvial plain spanning for thousands of acres, centuries of flooding from the Mississippi River creating deposits of the most fertile soil in the world, soil that for generations had made many rich and many more poor. Hundreds of flat miles. Haunts of slaves and soldiers. A land of the forgotten covered by boundless skies.
Between his legs a pint of Wild Turkey. Between his fingers a skinny, woodtip cigar. In the cupholder a gas station cup of coffee. On the passenger seat an open plastic bag with two dozen red pills that killed the pain. His eyes scattered and alive and his cigar hand tapping the steering wheel to the stiff metal beat from the radio and the thumpity thump of the uneven highway. Halfwired, halfdrunk, fully loaded. There were few other headlights and out on the empty highway he floated from his lane and into the other and back again as if the truck itself was bored with the night.
On the seat next to the bag of pills was an open box of the woodtip cigars, a pile of shirts and jeans, the belt he had taken off as he hurried across the parking lot of the casino in Natchez a couple of hours before. Getting to the truck and opening the door, removing his belt and tossing it inside and shoving the envelope of cash into the glove box and driving away before anyone found the man he left lying facedown on the bathroom floor.
The truck seat and floor were littered with shiny cartridges to a pistol he no longer owned and crumpled pawnshop receipts and a spiral notebook filled with dates and names and notes he had written to himself. By each name he had written friend or foe. By each address he had written safe or stay away. The pages were filled with fragments of directions and phone numbers and what he owed and who he owed it to and other notes he had written out of frustration or anger or despair, notes to remind him of which world he belonged to. Two pages were committed to Maryann and only Maryann, halfsentences about her deterioration and when he had last seen her. Tucked behind the pages for Maryann was the folded foreclosure notice and across the top of the notice were checkmarks to keep track of the days because the clock was ticking. He had looked at the notice before he drove out of the casino parking lot and he had been gone from Clarksdale for twenty-two days. Eight left before the notice of sale would be delivered. He was not yet so detached from his own memory to need every note and name and warning but he was preparing for that day to arrive as chunks of his past had disappeared and little by little the recent had begun to flake away as if skinned with a sharp and shiny blade.
He smoked the cigar to the tip and then let down the window and the night air whipped and momentarily chased the squalid smell out of the truck cab. He tossed the cigar butt and an orange trail of sparks danced and disappeared into the night. He drank from the Wild Turkey and drove a little faster. Drank from the coffee cup and turned down the radio. A pinch in his shoulder as he reached for the dial. A grip in his lower back as he situated in the seat. The clock read 12:27 and he tried to remember how long it had been since the last pill and he reached over into the plastic bag and took a tiny red one. He popped it into his mouth and chased it with the bourbon and reared back his head and stretched his neck and his eyes watered as the pill and liquor went down hot. The wind was strong in the window and he leaned out and spit and then rolled it up. Opened the glove box and took out the envelope to make sure it was still there. That he hadn’t imagined it.
It was a folded manila envelope with the Magnolia Bluffs Casino logo in the top left corner. A sprawling magnolia flower that spoke more to debutantes than roulette. He steadied the steering wheel with his knees and opened the envelope and took out two stacks of cash, five grand each. A rubber band held a smaller stack of bills and he looked at the three stacks, smelled them, stuck them back into the envelope. He took out the note he had written to himself—12K straight to Big Momma Sweet. He stuck the note in the front pocket of his jeans and the envelope into the glove box and then he took out the photograph of the woman and child.
He flipped on the light in the truck cab and looked at himself and Maryann as they stood in front of his first car. A boy of sixteen with his shirt off and brown from the sun. Her kneehigh skirt and her sandals and her hair dirty blond but beginning to show silver streaks and each with a hand propped on top of the hatchback. Rusted bumper and the hood a different color from the rest of the car but bought and paid for. Still a year before he stepped into the cage for the first time. Another twenty years before her mind betrayed her to the point of being a risk to herself. Still time for us both to be saved, he thought.
His life was filled with drug dealers and illegal gamblers and men who killed dogs with other dogs and fighters like himself who lived in violent and unforgiving worlds. There had been women and even when he had found a small sympathy or something tender he knew that it was not true but part of the trade. The only one who loved him was sitting in a nursing home in Clarksdale and could no longer recognize his face or his name and he had betrayed her beyond even his own imagination but he had eight days to bring her home.
He turned the photograph over. In recent ink he had written ME AND MARYANN. He brushed a thumb across the words and then set the photograph on top of the casino envelope. Turned off the light. For three weeks he had crossed the Mississippi River back and forth between Natchez and Vidalia. Hiding out in a motel room in Vidalia and driving over the bridge and to the casino when he had enough cash to play. Getting hot and going cold and then going to the abandoned sawmill on the outskirts of Vidalia when he was flat busted, where the moon stared down upon the empty land and they fought on Friday and Saturday nights. Getting on the card and doing what he could to survive another night of fists and knees, doping himself into slow motion to keep the crippling headache at bay while the knuckles went into his ribs or the side of his neck. Managing to stay upright long enough to get paid and then going to the motel room. Running the bathtub full of hot water and then settling his tired body into the water and his head back against the tub and his eyes closed and waiting. Waiting for the moment when he could rise again. Take the two hundred dollars they had given him for the fight over to the casino and this time would be the time. All you need is sixty great minutes, he told himself. And you can pay Big Momma Sweet and then you can pay the man at the bank and go and get Maryann and no more fighting and no more of this other shit and you can sit with her where she belongs, move her bed out to the porch and watch the sun cross the sky and the shadows shift and just be there with each other.
But they were on him. Someone had seen him at the fights in Vidalia and knew he owed Big Momma Sweet and that someone made a call and then they came. A price on his head. He had headbutted one in the alley behind the motel and knocked another unconscious in the casino bathroom after he had a big run. He had to get back to Maryann and he had to clear himself with Big Momma Sweet or else they would find him and hurt him. So he had stepped across the man on the bathroom floor, the blood coming from his nose and puddling on the glossy tile and he hustled to the cashier and emptied his pockets that were full of one hundred and five hundred dollar chips and he had just enough to get clear with her and a few hundred left over to get him started at the next casino. He believed in the miracle of getting hot one more time, just one more time, without her goons looking over his shoulder. With nothing to do but get to thirty thousand and rip the foreclosure notice into shreds and take Maryann out of that place.
He was hellbent toward the Delta now, going to see Big Momma Sweet way out there in that deadend spot of the world where the river was wide and black and where the old graveyards wrestled to keep the dead in their graves and where man vanished if he didn’t pay what he owed. Deliver, he told himself. Deliver and then fill the canyon you have dug for yourself with rocks and dirt and then cover it with sod and plant flowers and trees and if somebody walks by they’ll never know how deep and cavernous and jagged was the canyon.
He punched the truck ceiling and let out a quick, vicious scream. He’d had the chance to score it all, the twelve thousand for Big Momma already in his pocket, and as he walked into the casino bathroom he knew all he needed was two more sets of kind cards at the blackjack table. He would go and sit back down and bet it all and get to twenty-four. Bet it all again and get to forty-eight and without looking at the dealer again or the waitress again and without listening to the gasps and cheers from those who would be standing around the table he would simply gather the chips and walk to the cashier. Drive back to Clarksdale and when the sun came up the house would belong to her and not the bank. His life would belong to him and not to Big Momma Sweet. He punched the truck ceiling in quick thrusts, knowing he should have never gotten up and gone to the bathroom. Knowing he should have sat still at the table with the fresh ice in the drinks, with the bullshit smiles from the dealer. With the smooth, green felt of the tables, with the fake red leather cushions of the table chairs. Knew he should have stayed there while his blood was running right and while the cards laid down like he needed them to and while the woman across the table was leaning forward in her lowcut dress and telling him with the flap of her long lashes, I’m yours if you want me. Stay hot, baby. Stay hot.
But instead he was driving through the night. The dangerous debt in the glove box. The miracle still on hold. This midnight concoction of caffeine and nicotine and bourbon and the sweet little pills for the busted parts of his body. It all kept him running so that he could get back into the black land where he could walk into the ramshackle cabin where they played for blood and sometimes more and say to Big Momma Sweet here you go and toss the envelope into her broad, cushy lap. Here you go and if one of your boys follows me out of here and comes my way in some parking lot or sits down across from me anywhere I’ll break him in half and bury the top part and send you the bottom part so you can kiss his dead ass.
He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Looked at himself in the rearview mirror. Short brown hair, gray filtering in above his ears. Long sideburns that hid a jagged scar that ran from his earlobe and along the jawline of the left side of his face. A crooked nose. Scar slices across his forehead. Jack Boucher, he whispered and he shook his head. You ain’t nothing but a broken down dirty dog. Then he said his name louder, dragging out each syllable. Boo-shay. Boo-shay. Remembering Maryann teaching him how to say it. Almost thirteen years old and hearing his name pronounced correctly for the first time. She listened to him repeat it and then she interrupted and said do you know what it means in French?
Le Boucher, he said to himself in the rearview mirror. The Butcher.
He rubbed at his temple and shifted in the seat and with each move he felt it. He felt the twentysomething years of granite fists and gnarled knuckles beating against his temples and the bridge of his nose and across his forehead and into the back of his head. The sharp points of elbows into his kidneys and into the hard muscles of his thighs and into his throat and the thrust of knees against his own and into his lower back and against his ears and jaw. He felt the twist of arms and legs and wrists and ankles, being turned and wrenched in ways that God didn’t intend for them to be turned and wrenched. He felt the breaking of his own teeth and the blood in his mouth and the swollen fingers and swollen eyes and the ringing in his ears and the chainlink fence mashed against his face. He felt the scars and the slit in his tongue and the small knots across his body that had risen but never fully disappeared and he felt the rust in his joints when he wiggled his fingers or turned his head or raised his arms to pull on a shirt. The crash of his body against the hard floor and against any of the four steel poles of the cage corners. He felt the pain in his head from concussion after concussion after concussion after concussion and he lived in the blurred world of a rocked mind. He felt the streaks of pain through his eyes and down his spine and he felt the burst of bright lights and the sharp, unexpected noises of the modern world that screamed through his brain. Broken fingers and dislocated kneecaps and sprained neck and gashed skull and again and again and again the fists and knuckles and knees and elbows and he felt it all as if every blow he had absorbed and every blow he had delivered still existed somewhere in an invisible cloud of pain that draped and held him like some migrant soul in search of home. The years passing and his body rusting and his mind like some great wide open space with howling and twisting winds and swirls of memory that could not differentiate between now and then and he felt it all.
He drove north and the earth flattened and the night opened up her wide, welcoming mouth and took him in. Stay awake, he thought. Stay hot. Rumble through the dark with abandon.
TO THE WEST HEAT LIGHTNING STRUCK AGAINST THE eternal horizon and provided his drunk and doped eyes with something to chase as he drove on between the low black fields. It had been a hard summer and headhigh metal sprinklers stood tall in the cotton and soybean crops and worked through the relief of night, shooting widereaching sprays out across the thirsty land. Bugs raced past in the headlights and he crushed an armadillo or possum and he yelled for the truck to get on up as he goaded the engine like he was pushing a hardworn horse across a hardworn land.
He was only a dozen miles from Clarksdale when he had to stop for gas at an allnight store in Alligator where they smoked ribs day and night in black steel drums. It was a cinderblock building with a crooked aluminum awning covering the single gas pump. From behind the building the smoke wafted up and into the night and after Jack put gas in the truck he let his hunger guide him around behind the store where a huddle of old black men sat in folding chairs and drank tallboys. On a table beside them were three packs of cigarettes and a gallon milk jug filled with homemade barbecue sauce. A pile of wood and halfbags of charcoal stacked beside the smokers. The back door of the store was open. Inside half a dozen people sat on milk crates and a ratty loveseat in front of the beer coolers and in front of them a duo played. The thump of a kickdrum and the shrill of a harmonica kept the knees of the nocturnals bouncing.
Jack approached the men sitting outside and asked who he needed to pay for the gas.
“I’ll take your money honey,” said a graybeard. He put his hand on the shoulder of the man next to him and pushed himself up. “How much you get?”
Jack held out a twenty dollar bill. “All that.”
“Good cause I ain’t got no change.”
“In my whole life of stopping at this store y’all never have.”
“Whole life? I ain’t never seen you,” the graybeard said.
“I come and go.”
The graybeard turned to the other old men. “Y’all know this boy?”
All shook their heads but one. He wore a straw hat cocked on his head and he got up and moved close to Jack. “Yep,” he said. “He’s that boy that cost me all that damn money over in Itta Bena one night.”
The huddle laughed and one of them said, “What the hell you doing in Itta Bena anyhow?”
“Losing my damn money on this old boy. Way out in the damn sticks in this dirt pit where shouldn’t damn nobody be. Like to got my ass carried off by mosquitoes. And got my pockets holed out.”
“Holed out because I won or lost?” Jack asked.
“Because if you lost when I won then you should’ve known better.”
“You don’t look like you never won much of nothing,” the man in the straw hat said and he craned his neck to get a better look at Jack’s scarred and crooked face.
“You got anything to eat?” Jack said.
“Not for you,” said the man in the hat.
“Naw. Come on now,” the graybeard said. “If you gonna bet, you got to be a man if you lose it. Cause your snakebit ass damn sure knows you gonna lose it.”
The others nodded and said you know that’s right. That’s right.
The graybeard grabbed a halfrack of ribs wrapped in tin foil from the table. He held it out to Jack and Jack reached for it but staggered.
“Shit,” said the graybeard. “You need to sit your ass down.”
Jack got his hand on the ribs and the man held tight. And then he reached in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled ten and handed it to the old man.
“You better sit down,” he said again.
“I’m all right.”
“Sit down and eat them ribs. Sly over there’ll give you one of his beers.”
“Say what?” Sly said.
“Y’all quit being so damn greedy.”
Inside, the kickdrum and harmonica stopped. Jack walked over and leaned against the table and began to unfold the tin foil. The graybeard told Sly to give the boy a beer and he reached into a cooler and set a tallboy on the table next to Jack. He ate and drank while the men went back to jawing about the mean women they had loved and the hot ass sun that made them that way.
In the doorway of the store the harmonica player lit a cigarette. He was skinny and taut and wore a t-shirt with the sleeves and neckline cut off. He watched Jack and smoked his cigarette and then slid the harmonica into his pocket. His teeth were gray and scraggly hairs dripped from his chin. He watched Jack slurp the beer and gnaw at the ribs and he slid back inside. He picked up the telephone and dialed. It was the middle of the night but he knew she would want to know what he was looking at. And if he could deliver what he was looking at then he could save his own skin that Big Momma Sweet had threatened to peel off his back.
A deep voice answered.
“She up?” Skelly said.
“Who is this?”
“Does that make a difference whether or not she’s up?”
“Yep. It do.”
“Then it’s Skelly.”
“She ain’t up.”
- On Sale
- Mar 20, 2018
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Little, Brown and Company