It is the first week in August. The air is hot with the dust of brick and tar and pine straw and grass. There has been no rain for days, weeks, though in the absence of reliable memory, the weeks might just as well be years. And from out of this haze of heat and memory, a sandy-haired young man, everyone calls him Blue Henry, or just Blue, on account of the deep deep blue of his eyes, and a seriousness there which they mistake for sadness, he walks slowly, steadily, even purposefully down a dust-red road towards a small town, a sunken, washed-out kind of town, like footprints at the beach. His only thoughts concern the buying and wearing of a suit, though they aren't his thoughts exactly, they come from Mr. Dobbs, from before, Blue stumbling out of his bunk in the early early morning then into the kitchen, firing up the stove, a pot of coffee working to a boil, then Mr. Dobbs coming in, sitting down, stiffly, the two of them talking, then not talking, then talking some more, then Mr. Dobbs working his own mouth to a boil, the red of his face about to bust from the pressure of a too-tight collar, the words then tumbling out like steam,

"What do you mean you don't have a suit? You been working my place close to five years now and you saying you don't have a suit of your own? Christ Almighty, boy! Why you wouldn't have a pot to piss in if it weren't for me, now would you? Christ Almighty! You can't go to a funeral less you're wearing a good Sunday suit. You take this twenty dollars now and you go and buy yourself one. Don't take all day now. And don't go thinking this here's a gift, cause it aint. I'm taking it out of your wages. Now go on. Get moving."

So he had pocketed the twenty dollars, his features as calm and natural as unsifted earth in spite of the unexpected urgency of Mr. Dobbs' voice. It is only a suit for a funeral, after all, and for a man he never knew. He almost laughs at the thought. Then he crosses the old railroad tracks and turns down Dancy Street, past the red brick and the white awnings of the U.S. Post Office, past the unpainted clapboard austerity of Waldroop's Feed Mill, some men in short-sleeved shirts loading their wagons with cornmeal and flour and oats and lard, and when he nears the blackgreen porch of Laughlin's General Store, he stops. A couple of men in brown or beige hats are squatting down near the edge of the porch, a couple more are sitting on a hardwood bench set up against the wall, another is standing in the doorway, half-in, half-out, the screen door resting against his shoulder. The men seem content to pass the morning talking, older men they are, though not older than Mr. Dobbs, some chewing on dry stalks of grass, some not. They are talking about the murder of one Thomas Christian Cavanaugh, whose funeral is the reason Blue Henry needs a suit.

"Who do you s'pose done it?" says one with big red ears and bald and his scalp patchy with sunburn. His name is Jake.

"Could've been anyone in this here town," says a second voice. "That's the way I see it. Why most anyone in this here town would of been proud to pull that trigger."

"Well it don't matter to me who done the shooting or why he done it," says the one in the doorway. "Done is done. That's what I always say."

The other men mumble in stubborn agreement, their pebbly-colored eyes narrowing fiercely, their collective pride hurt, it seems, because they had been left out of the shooting. Then a few words of inveterate speculation from one of the men on the bench, not the one with the big red ears, this one is packing the bowl of a pipe with tobacco as he talks, the smell of stale smoke imbedded in his skin, an emptied pack of Granger Rough Cut in his shirt pocket.

"Well you'd have to say the fellow who done it had a pretty sharp eye whatever the reason. I've been down to where they pulled him out of the ditch and there wasn't any cover for had to been two hundred yards back on either side of the road. I figure whoever pulled the trigger he had to been waiting up in one of them live oaks on the Dobbs place. Had to had eyes like a goddamn panther too."

"Aint no one alive coulda done the kinda shooting you talking about, Earl," says Jake.

"Someone did it," says the second voice. The others nodding in unison, as if the unpretentious and somewhat vacantly expressed opinion that someone had done something was unequivocal proof of the doing. Then Earl continues.

"I figure how he had to been waiting up in them trees most of the day, and maybe he was getting stiff from sitting so long, and then again maybe he wasn't, but when he heard the steady hum of that black I-talian two-seater coming up the road, and when he saw how it was Mr. Thomas Christian Cavanaugh sitting sweet and pretty all by hisself, a goddamn clay pigeon sitting there, why he took up his Winchester, the kind with a silver breech, and whoever it was he just opened up and fired."

And with that the five men on the porch sink into a profound, if not astonished silence and contemplate the improbable death of Mr. Thomas Christian Cavanaugh. Blue Henry almost laughs at the mixture of awe and confusion spreading across their faces, but he too wonders who in the world could have shot at and killed someone from so a great distance, and at night too. Then he wonders how the five men could know all about the gun which had killed the unfortunate Mr. Cavanaugh and at the same time not know whose it was, how many Winchesters were there had a silver breech, and he is about to ask them outright when a black Model T truck with some pinewood side panels pulls up and the gravel crunching under the tires, but the driver he doesn't exactly get out, he cracks open the black door and stands up in the wedge of space between the door and the cab, him standing there on the greased side-step in a grease-stained fedora and waving at the men on the porch and his voice squawking away, say what you boys doing sitting there like lumps, hadn't you heard, there was some question about whether Mr. Cavanaugh was really dead or not, Farley Atkins said he saw him last night, he was coming home with his wife from her brother's house and the next thing he knew that blasted I-talian two-seater came blowing the dust off his front fender and there was Cavanaugh laughing like the devil to beat all, his wife didn't see it, she was asleep, but Farley swears by it, they all gathering down at Cooper's Funeral Parlor right now, they want to see the body but the Sheriff he aint letting them in, I don't know what's going to happen, but everybody's got a shotgun or a Winchester or something, I guess maybe they gonna see Cavanaugh in the ground one way or another. And with that the fellow in the truck slammed shut the door and his wheels spinning and the dust kicking up and off he went.

Cooper's Funeral Parlor was a one-story, brick building shaped like an el, and the bricks were painted a shiny, slick white. Out back there were dead azaleas up under the windows, and a hearse parked in the alley, and in the front there was a small, four-column porch and a scattering of white stone flower pots up around each column, though the pots were empty now except for the dust of a few unwatered chrysanthemums. There was also a narrow walk made from brick that wasn't painted white, the walk running from the steps to the street, the brick crumbling in places from the heat.

Half-a-dozen cars were parked along the curb and the Model T truck and a couple more cars had gone over onto the grass. A dozen rough-and-readies in work shirts and felt hats stood in front of the porch, their shirts stained with sweat and liquor and tobacco juice, the stains all up and down their backs and half-crescent moons under their arms, and them glaring at the white of the funeral parlor and the sun glinting off their shotguns. In the shade of the funeral parlor porch stood Sheriff D. W. Griggs, a skinny old bag of a man about sixty with a few strands of greasy white hair combed from one ear to the other and a few age spots or warts which had broken out on his neck, but with him in the shade and the others in the glare of the sun, it was impossible to see if he had a gun or not.

Keep Reading

Copyright ©1995-1997 Circuit Traces Communications. All rights reserved.