See a Problem?
We’d love your help. Let us know what’s wrong with this preview of Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke.
Not the book you’re looking for?
Preview — Black Cherry Blues by James Lee Burke
Read between January 13 - January 25, 2019
Her hair is curly and gold on the pillow, her skin white in the heat lightning that trembles beyond the pecan trees outside the bedroom window.
The sheet is torn, drenched with her blood, embedded in her wounds. The men have gone now, and I sink to my knees by my wife and kiss her sightless eyes, run my hands over her hair and wan face, put her fingers in my mouth. A solitary drop of her blood runs down the shattered headboard and pools on my skin. A bolt of lightning explodes in an empty field behind the house. The inside of my head is filled with a wet, sulphurous smell, and again I hear my name rise like muffled, trapped air released from the sandy bottom of a pond.
The rain spun in the yellow arc lights over the café parking lot.
Because if you’re forty-nine and unmarried or a widower or if you’ve simply chosen to live alone, you’re easily flattered by a young woman’s seeming attention to you, and you forget that it is often simply a deference to your age.
He was the real article, an honest-to-God white blues singer. He learned his music in the Baptist church, but somebody in that little cotton and pecan-orchard town rubbed a lot of pain into him, too, because it was in everything he sang and it wasn’t manufactured for the moment, either.
Her body looked put together out of sticks, and her skin was covered with serpentine lines. She dipped snuff and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes constantly, and bossed me around in my own home, but she could work harder than anyone I had ever known, and she had been fiercely loyal to my family since I was a child.
My boat dock was in full sunlight now, and I could see Batist, the other black person who worked for me, loading an ice chest for two white men in their outboard.
She had put my three-legged raccoon, Tripod, on his chain, which was attached to a wire clothesline so he could run up and down in the side yard. She pulled him up in the air by the chain. His body danced and curled as though he were being garroted. “Clarise, don’t do that.” “Ax him what he done, him,” she said. “Go look my wash basket. Go look your shirts. They blue yesterday. They brown now. Go smell, you.” “I’ll take him down to the dock.”
At four o’clock I would hear the school bus stop, and five minutes later I would hear Alafair’s lunch box clatter on the kitchen table, the icebox open; then she would come looking for me in the backyard.
When I still refused to respond I heard her walk across the grass to the clothesline, unsnap Tripod from his chain, and suddenly he was sitting on my chest, his whiskers and wet nose and masked beady eyes pointed into my face. Alafair’s giggles soared into the mimosa tree.
His muscles seemed so tightly strung together that one muscular motion seemed to activate a half-dozen others, like pulling on the center of a cobweb with your finger. If anything, he reminded me of a pile of bricks.
But fear is an irrational emotion that floats from object to object like a helium balloon that you touch with your fingertips.
I am not going to get involved with his troubles, I told myself. When you use, you lose. A mean lesson, but when you become involved with an addict or a drunk, you simply become an actor in a script that they’ve written for you as well as themselves.
“I can’t come, Sister. I’m sorry,” I said. She paused. “Is that all you want me to tell him?” she asked. “He needs a lawyer. I can give you a couple of names in Lafayette or St. Martinville.” She paused again. They must teach it in the convent, I thought. It’s an electric silence that makes you feel you’re sliding down the sides of the universe.
“I’ll tell you a story I heard Minnie Pearl tell about Hank. This was right after he brought the whole auditorium down singing ‘I Saw the Light’ at the Opry. Backstage he turned to her and said, ‘But, Minnie, they ain’t no light. They just ain’t no light.’ That’s when your soul is hanging on a spider’s web right over the fire, son. That’s right where I’m at now.”
“What do you want me to do?” “Nothing. You tried. Don’t worry about it.” “I’m not going to leave you on your own. Give me a little credit.” “I ain’t on my own. I called Sally Dee.” I looked again at the roses in the green vase. “Floral telegram. He’s a thoughtful guy, man,” Dixie Lee said. “It’s your butt.” “Don’t ever do time. You won’t hack it inside.” “What you’re doing is not only stupid, you’re starting to piss me off, Dixie.” “I’m sorry.” “You want to be on these guys’ leash the rest of your life? What’s the matter with you?” “Everything. My whole fucking life. You want to pour yourself ...more
And so I left him to his own menagerie of snapping dogs and hungry snakes.
The Appaloosa was steel gray, with white stockings and a spray of black and white spots across his rump. He snorted and pitched his head against the bridle, and Alafair’s brown eyes went back and forth between the horse and me, her face filled with delight. “You think you can take care of him and Tripod and your rabbits, too?” I said. “Me? He’s for me, Dave?”
I wasn’t making it easy for her, either. I hadn’t offered to pay for either of her drinks, and I had made no overture toward her.
“I don’t want trouble.” “You shouldn’t pimp.” “How about lightening up a bit?” He looked at the two remaining customers in the bar. They were young and they sat at a table in the far corner. Behind them, through the opened blinds, headlights passed on the wet street. “Two of your girls are in room six. You need to get them out,” I said. “Wait a minute…” “Let’s get it done, Don. No more messing around.” “That’s Mr. Mapes. I can’t do that.” “Time’s running out, partner.” “Look, you got a beef here or something, that’s your business. I can’t get mixed up in this. Those broads don’t listen to me, ...more
Five minutes after the bartender phoned Mapes’s room the two prostitutes came out the front door, a man’s angry voice resounding out of the room behind them, and got into a convertible and drove away. I opened the wooden toolbox in the bed of my pickup truck and took out a five-foot length of chain that I sometimes used to pull stumps. I folded it in half and wrapped the two loose ends around my hand. The links were rusted and made an orange smear across my palm. I walked across the gravel under the dripping trees toward the door of room 6. The chain clinked against my leg; the heat lightning ...more
I heard the chain clink and sing through the air, felt it come back over my head again and again, felt their hands rake against the side of my face; my ears roared with sound—a rumble deep under the Gulf, the drilling-rig floor trembling and clattering violently, the drill pipe exploding out of the wellhead in a red-black fireball. My hand was bitten and streaked with rust; it was the color of dried blood inside a hypodermic needle used to threaten a six-year-old child; it was like the patterns that I streaked across the walls, the bedclothes, the sliding glass doors that gave onto the ...more
I took a breath, stopped the truck, and went around to Alafair’s side. I opened her door and lifted the loops of chain off the floor. They felt as though they were coated with paint that had not quite dried.
We went back to the house, and Alafair helped me weed my hydrangea and rose beds. Our knees were wet and dirty, our arms covered with fine grains of black dirt. My flower beds were thick with night crawlers, all of them close to the surface after the rain, and when we ripped weeds from the soil, they writhed pale and fat in the hard light. I knew almost nothing of Alafair’s life before she came to Annie and me, but work must have been a natural part of it, because she treated almost any task that I gave her as a game and did it enthusiastically in a happy and innocent way. She worked her way ...more
The place where you unstrap all your fastenings to the earth, to what you are and what you have been, where you flame out on the edge of the spheres, and the sun and moon become eclipsed and the world below is as dead and remote and without interest as if it were glazed with ice.
“I blamed myself when my husband got killed. I’d locked him out of the house the night before. I’d found out he was cheating with a white girl who worked in the truck stop. He had to stay all night in the car in zero weather. He went to work like that in the morning and a bulldozer backed over him. He was like a little boy. Always in the wrong place. He always got caught. He spent a year in Deer Lodge for stealing game meat out of some rental lockers at a grocery. He used to lie about it and tell people he went to jail for armed robbery.” “Why do you tell me this?” “You shouldn’t hurt yourself ...more
“I’m with Clete.” “Clete’s going to take a big fall with that guy. Or he’ll take a fall for him, one or the other. Down inside, he knows it, too. Until he started screwing up his life, he was the best partner I ever had. He carried me down a fire escape once while a kid put two .22 rounds in his back. He used to put the fear of God in the wiseguys. They’d cross the street when they saw him on the sidewalk.” “He’s been good to me. Inside he’s a good man. One day, he’ll see that.”
One day at a time, easy does it, I told myself. Don’t live in tomorrow’s problems. Tomorrow has no more existence than yesterday, but you can always control now. We live in a series of nows. Think about now.