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280 pages, Kindle Edition
First published April 2, 2013
Late afternoon sun baked the clay and plaster buildings of the town. Its dirt streets lay empty, packed as hard as iron. The boarding house sweltered. Luke Honey sat in a chair in the shadows across from the window. Nothing stirred except flies buzzing on the window ledge. The window was a gap bracketed by warped shutters and it opened into a portal view of the blazing white stone wall of the cantina across the alley. Since the fistfight, he wasn't welcome in the cantina although he'd seen the other three men he'd fought there each afternoon, drunk and laughing. The scabs on his knuckles were nearly healed. Every two days, one of the stock boys brought him a bottle.
Every autumn for a decade, several of the Redfield Girls, a close-knit sorority of veteran teachers from Redfield Memorial Middle School in Olympia, gathered for a minor road trip along the hinterlands of the Pacific Northwest. Traditionally, they rented a house in a rural, picturesque locale, such as the San Juan Islands or Cannon Beach, or Astoria, and settled in for a last long weekend of cribbage, books, and wine before their students came rushing into the halls, flushed and wild from summer vacation. Bernice Barber; Karla Gott; Dixie Thiess; and Li-Hua Ming comprised the core of the Redfield Girls. Li-Hua served as the school psychiatrist, and Karla and Dixie taught English—Karla was a staunch, card-bearing member of the Dead White Guys Club, while Dixie preferred Neruda and Borges. Their frequent arguments were excruciating or exquisite depending on how many glasses of merlot they'd downed. Both of them considered Bernice, the lone science teacher and devourer of clearance sale textbooks, a borderline stick in the mud. They meant this with great affection.
From the pages of a partially burned manuscript discovered in the charred ruins of a mansion in Ransom Hollow, Washington:
That buffalo charges across the eternal prairie, mad black eye rolling at the photographer. The photographer is Old Scratch's left hand man. Every few seconds the buffalo rumbles past the same tussock, the same tumbleweed, the same bleached skull of its brother or sister. That poor buffalo is Sisyphus without the stone, without the hill, without a larger sense of futility. The beast's hooves are worn to bone. Blood foams at its muzzle. The dumb brute doesn't understand where we are.
But I do.
CP, Nov. 1925
This is the house my father built stone by stone in Anno Domini 1898. I was seven. Mother died of consumption that winter, and my baby brothers Earl and William followed her through the Pearly Gates directly. Hell of a housewarming.
The leaves were turning.
Lorna fueled the car at a mom and pop gas station in the town of Poger Rock, population 190. Poger Rock comprised a forgotten, moribund collection of buildings tucked into the base of a wooded valley a stone's throw south of Olympia. The station's marquee was badly peeled and she couldn't decipher its title. A tavern called Mooney's occupied a gravel island half a block down and across the two-lane street from the post office and the grange. Next to a dumpster, a pair of mongrel dogs were locked in coitus, patiently facing opposite directions, Dr. Doolittle's pushmi-pullyu for the twenty-first century. Other than vacant lots overrun by bushes and alder trees, and a lone antiquated traffic light at the intersection that led out of town, either toward Olympia, or deeper into cow country, there wasn't much else to look at. She hobbled in to pay and ended up grabbing a few extra supplies—canned peaches and fruit cocktail, as there wasn't any refrigeration at the cabin. She snagged three bottles of bourbon gathering dust on a low shelf.
Lancaster graduated from college in 1973 and landed a position in the sales department of a well-known Wichita company that manufactured camping gear. He hated the outdoors but was naturally manipulative, an expert at affecting sincerity and bright-eyed chumminess of variable intensity. Despite this charm that wowed the socks off clients, he never made much headway with management or co-workers, two species immunized against snake oil and artifice.
"The other night I dreamt about this lowlife I used to screw," Carol said. She and Franco were sitting in the lounge of The Broadsword Hotel, a monument to the Roaring Twenties situated on the west side of Olympia. Most of its tenants were economically strapped or on the downhill slide toward decrepitude, not unlike the once grand dame herself. Carol lived on the sixth floor in a single bedroom flat with cracks running through the plaster and a rusty radiator that groaned and ticked like it might explode and turn the apartment into a flaming wreck. "I mean, yeah, I hooked up with plenty of losers before I met you. Marvin was scary. And ugly as three kinds of sin. He busted kneecaps for a living. Some living."
When I was six, I discovered a terrible truth: I was the only human being on the planet. I was the seed and the sower and I made myself several seconds from the event horizon at the end of time—at the x before time began. Indeed, there were six billion other carbon-based sapient life forms moiling in the earth, but none of them were the real McCoy. I'm the real McCoy. The rest? Cardboard props, marionettes, grist for the mill. After I made me, I crushed the mold under my heel.
Darkness lay stone heavy as men roused, drawn from inner night by the tidal pull of blood, the weight of bones sagging outward through their flesh. Floorboards groaned beneath the men who shuffled and stamped like dray horses in the gloom of the bunkhouse. Star glow came through chinks in slat siding. Someone had lighted the stove and smoke drifted among the bunks, up to the rafters. It had rained during the night and the air was ghastly damp. Expelled breath gathered on the beams and dripped steadily; condensation oozing as from stalactites of a limestone cave. The hall reeked with the stench of a bunker: creosote and sweat, flatulence and rotten teeth and the bitter tang of ashes and singed tobacco.
On the afternoon train from Poughkeepsie to New York City for a thing at the Kremlin Bar—John and me and an empty seat that should've been Jack's, except Jack was dead going on three years, body or no body. Hudson out the right-hand window, shining like a scale. Winter light fading fast, blending the ice and snow and water into a steely red. More heavy weather coming, they said. A blizzard; the fifth in as many weeks. One body blow after another for the Northeast and no end in sight.