He himself might be one of just another confused but adamant sect. This idea had crossed his mind, since he was certain there was much to repay or regain from his past woes and he knew who had burned the small church on the verge of Wall Doxey Park that Wednesday evening. None but himself.
His wardrobe, the woman reminded him, improved past the penitent rags he had once stolen from Goodwill warehouses. He also quit stealing books. Formerly it just seemed he should, since he was outcast already. Before the church, he’d not burned anything for long months, either.
The woman he found himself with would barely leave home except to spend $200 almost exactly each trip to Wal-Mart. She watched television movies or she cleaned or threw out older new things. She rarely cooked. He figured this love would not last long but she had her good side when she was not directing scathing attacks on him or slapping him as he lay sleeping in the bed he had bought, in the diminished hacienda he’d bought for them. After the eruptions she was quiet a long while, which the deputy discovered after months with her was her form of apology. Because she was never wrong and never spoke an apology. He was to understand her moods, that was his constant homework.
Mainly she attacked him for once being a Montana deputy who refused to reattach himself at good salary to the law. She wondered where his money came from, anyway.
It was from his army savings and his father’s photographic inheritance, a prudent man young as he was when death popped him. His pension from Montana and an uncle’s inheritance, Old Ralph who loved him and pitied him in Toronto. But she would not leave him alone about the rest of his secret money for he was the sole source of her income now she had risen from near welfare and could throw out more old new things. She cleaned the house with the meticulous fury of a German analist, and she did enjoy dirty jokes. She was pleasant in the face, then grew pretty with expensive cosmetics. Her figure was in trim although she quarreled with her hips. She was angry about age, too. Her wrath and resentment were perfect like the work of flood or fire. No man or woman was spared.
He wondered idly sometimes why he did not kill her, but then in rare times she was good company and claimed to love him above all things in the world. She won him over, but he always knew what she was up to, which was to set him up for a sort of vicious theater where one character, himself, a bum with prospects, stands speechless while a harridan who owes everything to him attacks him up and down for not improving himself so that she could owe him even more. This debt was intolerable to her, she would never forgive him, especially now that she didn’t have to appear in the workforce at all.
He would leave slapping her to somebody else even though a comprehensive bitchslapping would help her. Her lone mission was to go out into town and berate others.
Now the taste for burning had left him he was practically a saint. Outside of the church, what he had burned was just a hobby, for god’s sake. He improved places by fire. He held himself in some esteem for not reattaching his talents to the law, the last career on his mind, and for doing almost nothing ardently except the secret trips. Like a great artist. His vocation was looking clean cut, now weeks away with a crop of recluse’s bush all around his head and chin, and staying awake for upward of eighteen hours. Even so, he owned an exceptional facility for falling asleep dead center of one of the woman’s attacks. This act calmed her and she was in awe of him.
Their house was a weathered one, old Spanish elegance as the realtors would have it, rented and tested by college men before they took it, the landlord negligent since many of the boys spirited themselves away to other quarters where mommy or granny lay waiting to spoil them and their creditors paid hard to find them. Our hero paid for a new roof and paint, white with slate trim, and a fence planted with Carolina jasmine soon thick and green, and her dogs could dig around the roots of the pecan and hickory trees safe from the highway out front. The dogs were a mix of corgi and shepherd, and he adored these oddly made creatures too. Our man, Franklin James, also paved the driveway where sat his carpentered hut with wheels, towed by a 600cc Ducati motorcycle from the seventies but in perfect repair. The hut’s roof was peaked, it had a shatterproof window on either side, a smart thing as huts go. Tan and lean, he could be handsome with his beard lost. He had lived in federal and state campgrounds for nearly four years. He’d lived almost without cost, for an adventure hostile to most. He had had a bad night, only one bad experience with a small pack of motorcyclists anointed wild by themselves and carrying their own priests and witches.
He carried a nickel-plated hammerless .38 but the weapon had acquired the status of a mere hammer about the cabin, a wide enough rectangle with a small electric heater so that he slept comfortably in innocence, doom, and fatalism all three.
James was Canadian French. In the early sixties his father was killed by suspicious gunfire called random because another had died, this at a campus riot against the entry of a black man to the university. His father was a photojournalist. The shooter was never found and barely sought. The state then was in apartheid hotly and there was little sympathy for outside agitators, as his father was labeled, a meddler with no credentials in this place of fire and blood. James himself was a lieutenant in the French Legion, riding a .50-caliber machine gun in a sand jeep during Desert Storm, but this was not important.
Important was that even though the Klan had been broken by the FBI and lawsuits, they and their fellow travelers might still live and worship or preach in certain wooden churches. Such people tended to stay undriven from their soil, holy to their feet regardless of their less genial reception or the rough success of integration decades-old now in the Magnolia State. The best band in these parts was a mixed pigment group, sons of the famous Dickinson, Kimbrough, and Burnside blues/rock geniuses. But old murderers and burners muttered against them, even as they were hauled to jail lately for crimes forty years old.
His father was Anglo-French, a Parisien by way of Toronto. A good-natured lively man who wrote and shot stirring photos heralded in many news magazines in both Canada and the States. He was strong. He worked long distances from home and always came back with happy presents from these regions. Franklin James had lost him when he was fifteen.
Now he was fifty-three, an ex-sheriff’s deputy from Missoula, sworn to fire anyway and also to a refinement to the precise gunman in golden years who now gained respect from his fellow churchmen and love from his teenaged grandchildren, which idea drove James near insane with rage. He would kill or find the grave of his father’s murderer. He tried to live out this disease, tried to burn it out of himself, but it was fickle with mere time and would rise like a flaming snake in even sublime nature, the staggering gorges and pools of America’s parks of prime natural glory. He hoped the killer played a fine fiddle and even rode on a scooter in a Shriner’s fez in a parade for the Christmas blind.
His woman, in her rages, never knew how he could snap her in two if she were the murderer’s niece, so her rages amused him, too. He did love her as she swore to love him. She knew nothing of his mission. He slipped ever easily into the brogue of love, that long hill-country moan that required slow action around the tongue and almost no lip opening to a song against coherence. Without her around he despised it, listening to men gossip at the barber’s, the cafés in Holly Springs and Oxford. General Grant was headquartered in Holly Springs, where the antebellum mansions still stood, although in a flat of lackness frozen in brine, much like those in Natchez, a back-lot set for zombies in a costume feed. The general had sent the drunker general, Smith, to burn Oxford three times, in reprisal for Forrest’s raids on his supply lines toward Vicksburg. Now Oxford had the university and life, restaurants, nightclubs, gorgeous women on its walks hurrying to nothing, cellphoning nothing, but gladly come spring wearing nearly nothing. Five hundred lawyers and a state-of-the-art county office building and jail, along with the storied Faulknerian courthouse, the pale redbrick Art Deco city hall, and it seemed five though only two state flags few high and wide here, one quarter of each the stars and bars of Dixie. James saw nothing but the Confederate flag and spat on the pavement until he had no spit. He cared little about the history of anywhere, but the irony of his lost father’s body among all this formal law brought on a near faint of resentment. Like blood and vomit with a flag on it.
With his new accent he led conversations among suspicious men. He did hear things but the men lied and invented so much it was a jam box of hell to get anything of substance from them. Two men claimed to know his father during his short tragic stay. Not a prayer. He heard men from the church he’d burned and surprised himself by this sympathy with them, poor country sorts looking for a new hall of fellowship. A poor giant boy savant played sacred tunes on its piano day and night all week and was burned terribly because he would not leave his instrument until the flames were on him. The injury to the boy savant was an injustice that depraved him and made him soberer in his hatred. He made daily trips to eavesdrop on the boy’s condition after he left the burn ward in a Memphis hospital and came for further therapy to Oxford’s Baptist one. He had meant nothing like that, nothing near it, and he hated that he had polluted his mission. He could not tell the boy or his parents his sorrow and guilt. He could tell nobody. At night he writhed as if sleeping in a coffin on a king-size bed he’d wanted, and this was mistaken by his wife Goodie Drake as amorous hunger, and she supplied him as he gave to her afraid to hurt her feelings. Neither of them was listless in bed.
Teresa was her proper name. She bought the bed a headboard of Byzantine pattern befitting this name, and elevated it to nearly four feet on risers, then put many comforters and a phalanx of fat pillows over these. He slept in the effeminate pomp of a bed and breakfast resort. When there was too loud a fight, excruciating for a half hour while he stood silent, he slept out in the cabin, which she called his “pouting house.” Be a man, she commanded him over and over. He couldn’t tell her the kind of man he was. She didn’t know he had received and returned much fire in Iraq with French troops. She didn’t know what happened to make him an ex-deputy and a runaway from Missoula, Montana. He was tall and windblown like the actor Sam Shepard, she said, and she’d proclaim her love for him without once apologizing for her rages, a condition that came on like epilepsy. Another man would have left months ago.
The destruction of the guilty one would not make him right. He killed without hatred in the desert once, perhaps twice. He was in no way made right. To kill a man perhaps twenty years older than he, an oldster in the hallowed years as some called it, would be no more than shooting down an old rabid dog. But you had a mix of religion, Dixie patriotism, and blind hatred down here as you did in the countries of Islam. The worst of them were often old farts who could lead younger ones by the nose. Much was owed them by history and the black man. Franklin James was happy to do his part. To annul this living figment and his church with him was his dream since a boy, deprived of his papa.
His mild vocation for setting things afire had made the miserable jobs of the military happier. Standing around big fires where once were men and carefully constructed vehicles or buildings of great ingenuity for beauty and safety against all the elements, but now to no avail, no use, was not a bad assignment. Very meditative. Many a child will concentrate for hours on end to build a small town of cardboard only to stand back and incinerate it with licked big kitchen matches which sailed, smoked, then burst into flames like missiles. He had. But he did not run to conflagrations in Toronto when he was young or to smoldering Russian tanks in the desert, kind as they were to his eyes and gut. In Toronto, to be sure, he had made conflagrations almost beyond his will.
He was in a tank in which there was a boom box playing only three tunes. Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” about shooting a woman and going down Mexico way. The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations,” about death. The Beatles’ “A Day In the Life,” about death, or most likely. They were the best three tunes he knew, still. They moved him. Over the gun sight he and his commander saw Iraqi tank fires while the music, funeral tunes, written for the men burning against the far orange twilight horizon, played away. Neither man thought the music apt to the point, though. Some unwritten song waited but they couldn’t guess what it should be. A tender symphony almost nonexistent as soon as it sounded. These days he listened to the tunes and smelled gas, cordite, and burned lamb, and saw tank carcasses against deep orange and black.
In the matter of his wife Goodie “Hey Joe” hung around his head but no song was exact to his suffering. Goodie despised lending her own possessions to him, she who took gifts from him — house, roof, bed, direct satellite TV — as a matter of natural transfer. She deepened her voice into one of a raspy carnival barker right in the microphone with loud hissing sarcasms about the low caste of his French mother and his infantile love for his murdered father. He had not described either of his parents to her. She’d had two husbands before James, and all he heard of them was their dullness and parsimony. James did not believe in Satan until a week after he married her.
Yet her beauty. She was quietly stunning in the face. Goodie, Teresa when she was kind and romantic. He would never know her. He wondered if, after his reckoning with the man who shot his papa, he’d be roused to more fury and annihilate her.
Her beauty, and she was hungry in bed. She was smart. After retirement from chief reference librarian once they were married, she used her pension to finish a college degree in Greek and Roman history. This was brave, a woman in her midforties sitting with spoiled children who drove BMWs. She called most of her professors fools and losers. She had dyslexia but memorized her way through tough biology and math classes. She dressed very well and owned a mink coat worth upward of thirty thousand. When she0 graduated, James took her to Paris, where she wore the coat as she believed the city demanded. He wore pressed jeans and a jacket, with suede boots. She could not bear his unconscious cowboy habits, as she called them. Once, when beauty and smarts mattered, she had been an airline stewardess. Now she found herself among lax slobs too often. A former husband had beaten her. Her attitude toward love was very rocky, very tense. Goodie seemed to like it that way. When would he ever find decent professional work? Versed in her own degree in history and art, she was decorating the house.
She did not know he had burned a Boston Whaler boat in berth at Pickwick Dam in Tennessee, or a white Cadillac Esplanade, or the church with the giant boy playing inside.
She only knew he was moody and once for four days hardly rose from his bed. Afterward he disattached his mobile cabin and rode the Ducati away to unknown parts while she cursed the motorcycle and the cabin both, standing in her driveway, the spectacle of a grease monkey, the sorry outhouse parked like a hillbilly joke in the drive. The front lawn had high cactuses, a rock garden, and a pool. Nothing like it stood near them in these rolling horse hills. The traffic on the highway beyond the entrance arch grew heavier. The house was something of a joke but Goodie meant to fix that by a high wooden fence around the grounds, and she goaded James into getting the cheap Latino labor for it. During their courtship she said his machine and abode were clever and cute. She made long protests over receiving all his gifts, rescuing her from that awful job at the library. Her vocation was a homemaker and landscaper now. She could see river birches all around the home, azaleas, roses. They needed the wooden fence for privacy and elegance. Their guests would be vetted by a Mexican in the right shirt. One day they might give a magnificent ball, people dressed to the nines, but her friends numbered two, a beautician and a gymnast.
Franklin James had no even near-friends but he studied the deep South with more care than Goodie suspected. On the matter of bad grammar, these people seemed to have taken courses in it. They took pride in being normal, dumb, and prejudiced, as if they’d won an award in these areas recently. Their voices dropped when the matter of race came up. To the man, they were close with good blacks but true niggers ran the show too much. Even those who lost children to cancer or car crashes believed in God. They spoke of secrets that should not be revealed. They knew crimes and killings the law could never uncover, just as it should not, because some needed killing. The murder of a bad seed who’d taken a life was ruled a suicide by the sheriff even though the instrument of his death, an axe, lay ready to hand. The men greatly admired James’s motorcycle. It would spark narratives long held secret and spoken in lowered voices.
He rarely thought of his own history, but now he did. He had turned hermit and built the wheeled cabin for good reason although he felt little eccentricity in himself, as most men believe. But he was wrong, wrong, wrong. Then he was slightly racist against black people. He’d known few of them, and these few were good soldiers, good lawyers, good whores, and good garbagemen. Then a few months ago he was assaulted by the motorcyclists in the Kentucky park. Even more he was racist against white Southerners and especially those who had religion. He imagined the white-hot righteousness of the man who shot his father during the confusion of the riot, which might be the essence of the man who’d told him the story about the slain bad seed. This righteousness, biblical, hailed by the loud and cowardly brethren, kept him awake at night when he was not copulating with Goodie. He twisted, he pretended to sleep, a haggard man in the morning, when it arrived with depressing horror. The Hendrix masterpiece “Hey Joe” would replay as an anthem over and over in his head. You only had to change “old lady” to “old man.” You could ride this tune through false sleep, sincere intercourse, and the solo trips he took on his motorcycle and in her Mazda with the sunroof down, CD of the sweet blue voice of Hendrix prevailing. Ride to where, where else but blowing the killer into his evil sky after all these years untouched by the depraved indifference of Southern law.
He did hate the Southern voice, with its presumed charm, even among its educated. The drawling masturbation of the mouth, the self-worship they knew as culture down here, and their frat-boy scions. He could shoot or burn down more than one killer with this rage.
Goodie was from California with a different voice or he couldn’t bear her, but even she was affected and went into a drawling mush-mouthed countryese when she needed more charm. In the service he’d known pleasant, smart, efficient Southerners. But their voices were an agony, a ball of grub worms in the throat.
With decent representation, given the overcrowded penitentiaries, a white man could expect about seven years or even less when he killed a man in the passion of revenge. You could premeditate and kill and be out in a tenure of med school, internship, residency. He might go down Mexico way or even study medicine in the joint. The newspapers and the NRA might hail him.
He’d once heard an adage: When you read military history, read standing and count yourself as one of the dead. In a book of essays on the Civil War, James read about Burnside’s stupid command in Fredericksburg as he fed regiment after regiment against Marye’s Heights, where rebel troops four and five ranks deep with nine-pound muskets and rifles loaded with ball and buckshot delivered volley after volley from behind a sunken wall and reaped a slaughterhouse against blind and ignorant Federals. Such a vast murder that Lee, atop his horse on the hill, commented, “It is well that war is so terrible or we would grow fond of it.” James threw the book down and sailed into a blind rage of swear words. He frightened Goodie, thinking the odd rage was directed at her. She stayed quiet for three days. Then she asked him if he was over whatever that was last Tuesday.
Now he held sway over her and heard no more scathing research of his personal clouded history or where his money was.
But he grew a new problem. He had lived in worse places than Lafayette County, Mississippi, much worse. On his sorties, people of all ages and callings were unfailingly kind to him, even whenhe was gruff or sarcastic. These were church people, pastors, police, riffraff, and elderly square-spitters, two Corsair pilots in the Korean War, a newspaper photographer, old blacks in Freetown, the county sheriff, old and young lawyers, and a professor who knew this Mississippi, a vertical rectangle of woe from the Gulf to the north hills, all the Indians, all the lynchings, and much about the ’62 riot. He spoke to the head of the university library and received patient guidance from him in the place he’d met Goodie and asked her out. Married her in days, maybe a fortnight, the ancient measure accounting for happy and tragic collisions forevermore.
He became a better listener although half-deafened by the running hound inside him. Young black men always asked him how much he would take for his yellow Ducati. This seemed to be a form of courtesy. They could not raise two hundred for it. They knew it, he knew it. Impossible to sell, he said. Know what you mean, they agreed. Smooth, smooth, you say Italian? He feared liking these folks, yet grew easier with them.
In Montana, Missoula, he used his deputy’s position to distance himself from men. In his office and patrol car he was a tyrant about silence, his conversation blunt, short, and dead-ended. Well respected though access to him was rare. Just a few years ago Montana, enormous and sparsely populated, its earth and humbling, humorless mountains stretched by horizons into beauty almost devastating to a man, was a force that drew mute isolators, some of them dangerous and armed. And free. You could drive ninety and salute an oncoming highway patrolman with a beer in your hand.
He was not a friendless man. He was close with pals in school and the Legion, who knew inside him was a big strange edifice he could give no key to. Grief is a strength after a great weakness, so he was told by his colonel once. Maybe that was Franklin James now and ever. The silence came on him when his woman quit loving him.
The Toronto of his youth was quadra-cultured, rich in art and big water, Ontario beyond the gorgeous wharf. A clean and efficient city. Safe for children to roam. His mother educated him early in two languages, her hands were soft on him. Her young beauty seemed permanent, but now he recalled only her long black hair pinned up or let down, and her mouth that kept whispering something out of shock long after his father was murdered. Possessed by disease and unaware her mouth moved while neighbors and his pals looked on, dismayed or embarrassed for her son.
He then despised his city for still carrying on and thriving, stupid as a giant horse towing a boxcar of shit. All things around him were noxious, frantic with idiocy.
He began to express himself in acts of sabotage and pointless theft and was never caught. He attended the very university where two statues were beaten headless by his sledgehammer. He was too sly. He loved himself as the professional innocent in the face of his good mother Celestine when she exclaimed about a firebombed city bus or his spray-painted masterpiece in the art museum. They were two against the world, but she never knew how far he took this war.
In Missoula his patrol was one through largely peaceable denizens and a few violent drunks, but once the actual Hell’s Angels stayed at a bar nearly a week. One of them beat up the girlfriend of a lawyer with a cocaine habit. After a night of sleepless fury fed by powder, he shot down dead this Angel in the street. James was first to arrive, before the city police. His hand never came near his weapon, snapped down by the tongue of his holster. The lawyer was staggering on the bricks near the body and its blood, waving his pistol toward everywhere and nowhere. With contempt and quick study of those who might be dangerous to him, he disarmed the man and led him uncuffed into the front seat of his cruiser. Wide fame for his coolness and restraint attended him. But he avoided interviews. No charges were ever brought against the lawyer. The Angel got what the Angel begged for. The lawyer cleaned up and praised Franklin James all over the town and all the Northwest where his practice led him into fortune and fame. James was promoted to deputy captain. He got a letter from his married ex- girlfriend congratulating him and assuring him of her true affection. He tore it to pieces.
He already planned to leave the force when out in the brown hill sticks toward Lolo Pass he drove a dirt road in the grounds of an Aryan survivalist cult and received a .223 round through his rear window from an unseen sniper. The act was so stupid he was incredulous. But he turned the cruiser around and told his sheriff it was a stray round from a deer hunter he had arrested and seriously warned.
Two days later he drove the same road with a new rear window in the car. He eased toward the settlement without incident.
Everybody was gone from the barracks, likely into their caves and bomb shelters, two of them Hitlerian bunkers smartly constructed. With a wheeled propane flamethrower he burned down all the barracks and the cafeteria, standing for an hour like a pest exterminator in a sculpture of boredom. He quit the force a week later. Then he knew he was capable of many, many more fires. Perhaps the art-movie house still run by his old girlfriend and her family, who now came to mind as gargoyles fallen off its roof and mocking him in roars and farts. He was wired his due salary and retirement money in Toronto while he visited his dying mother. The chief sent him a note pleading for his return to the force, at more salary.
He told Goodie only enough to satisfy her nosiness about his career and money. The French army continued paying him a good monthly amount for combat pay and the RPG fragments in his calf, for which he had due decorations. His mother had seen little of him for decades but she was proud of him now, even though she could do little but cry as the lung cancer took its last course to her brain. After he buried her he went completely within himself and away from the touch or voice of man.
He found the marvelous parks where ten or twenty dollars got you hookups without another demand. You chose your favorite season and moved to it on the Ducati with the hut in tow. His mother had left him more money. He spent almost nothing. Seeking further and further deprivations became as art for him, though he stole books and wrote with a pencil between the lines of these histories. He took two Gideon Bibles on rare visits to hotels, in whose rooms he slept for two days and destroyed the telephones, just for the hell of it.
To Goodie he told a true tale of unexpected riches.
“You mean off dead soldiers?” she asked.
“Yes. They coptered some of us over to Kuwait City and northward. We overran many corpses loaded with American cash and loot of all kinds. Some priceless diamonds. I got about half the amount of priceless in order to get the money in a bank account, but at prime interest rate. You might’ve seen the exodus of Iraqis on the highway cut up by our air, Mercedes, and Rolls-Royces.”
“I did see it. On teevee.”
“Other French and me were in the southmost tail of it.”
“A soldier of fortune.”
“You deserved it.”
He laughed. He liked his wife, silly as she was and screwed up, wrapped all tight. Everything was appearances to her, even when there was nobody to look on or give a damn. Our personal environment, she said, bespoke our tone, our pride.
“I’m working even when I’m not working right now. A long-distance project to make us even happier,” he said.
She nodded. “I’m hot for you, Franklin. Can I get some of that long-distance project from you right now?”
“I don’t notice one thing stopping us.”
He told her the next day he was fifty-four years old and that he’d been shaken by an episode in Kentucky when he realized his loneliness after four years as a vagabond in camps. The episode had brought him to Oxford and to the university library where he found her.
He was in his cabin reading and writing under his hundred-watt bulb at sunset in a Kentucky state park famous for its caverns. Came a knock on the door, not an odd event, and usually from a friendly ranger in aid to his safe and comfortable stay, say a black bear warning. From the war he was almost deaf in one ear but his right ear heard uncannily well. He found the .38 where he’d almost forgotten it in the toolbox. Strange and subconscious, because this rapping was different.
Thick woods stood fifty feet behind them when he opened the door. They were black motorcyclists. Their leader said they’d come to admire his Ducati and cabin. Like the Wise Men for the Saviour. But in leather and the minute he stepped out on the ground he knew he was in trouble. The leader said they would cut him bad with the knife in his hand and wanted everything he owned.
“Whether you dead or alive don’t matter to us but it’s up to you.”
The other three were opening the door to his hut when he told them, Stop. He had the pistol out of his back pocket. He felt the world and nature were begging him to kill them and, despite himself, he began to cry great tears of sorrow. All of his long grief broke out in his eyes. He could barely see the men under the station halo when they obeyed and spread out in a straight packed rank as if to die as one or rush him. He was cool when the tears stopped, very close to murder. He knew he would be exonerated if the law ever found him. All his service and medals backed him. They knew he would shoot and stayed as quiet as altar boys except for agreeing with him when he robbed them, Yes sir, Yes sir. In four bags was $104 thousand in baled hundreds. They put it all and also their crack cocaine and methedrine in his hut, the latter in big plastic freezer bags. They knew he was the law but could not imagine how he’d imagined this bust. They handed every bike key over to him and then stripped naked. He broke every spark plug he could see with his hammer, had a second thought and told them each to open the lid of their gas tanks and drop a lighted match into it. They were slow about this until he shot a round through the nearest gas tank.
When he’d got to Jackson, Tennessee, making only fifty miles per hour max, he had long since ceased being wily. He kept south into Mississippi, the very place he’d vowed never to go.
It was only when he rested in a motel in Holly Springs that he became aware of how lucky he was the black men were so befogged on their own product and he began weeping again, this time loudly, moans and rending sobs. Except for the Pakistani couple who lived in the office, no other people were in these rooms. This was a shame. He wanted others to hear him, hug him, and stay as company to his grief until it subsided.
The license tags on the motorcycles of the black motorcyclists read Mississippi. Once his weeping spell was over he was pleased by the idea they might find him again. He knew methedrine and carefully measured some grains into his morning coffee for the next several days. He kept a modest high putting eastward to Tishomingo and Iuka, where he bought two boxes of .38 hollow points simply because he was high. At the same Wal-Mart he bought new propane tanks. He felt free and less threatening than in ages, happy that somebody might kill him. He was not goofy, perhaps had never been, not once. James could not reckon what he was now but his dead father rose and stood inside him. He walked the earth of Tishomingo, but that chief’s magic was just a part of the spirit in his arms, legs, eyes, and preternatural ears so that he walked and glided on a narrow river impervious to harm and quite happy to be a burner and a killer when he met those who begged for him to guide their fates. He’d come near this feeling in the war but it had not filled him as in this time and place.
Immediately he went to work, which came easily. A tall lank man with acne scars, native of Oxford, swore to others in a café how his motherfucking yacht was tiresome to him now and he stood to gain more from the insurance on it. Another swore he’d had to drive up from Meridian in his wife’s Cadillac Esplanade, a nigger car, but his was in the shop. Still another with even more vodka in him was a wealthy minister built like a football linebacker. He had a televised Sunday morning sermon in his huge protestant cathedral surrounded by his wealthy congregation in Germantown, the affluent suburb of Memphis dense with white flight. This man too had a yacht on the Tennessee River. However, what called to Franklin James was this man’s erotic success with a divorcée who lived just off Highway 30 between New Albany and Oxford. Her real name was Teresa but she was called Goodie. He asked the men at the table to guess why. Grins went around. The minister had a wife and several other women, whom he described in detail for the delectation of the others. The church, he declared, was actually a castle and city unto itself as in feudal times. Here was much money to be made, many wives and single women in graduate school, medicine, the arts. These were often confused and lonely souls, you could not imagine the loneliness and compliance of these lovely, soft, and wet creatures, demanding he take them in all ways granted the healthy, wild prophet of God that he was. They may laugh, but he did believe and was beloved like King David of the Psalms, and what memory did we have of Solomon except for his wisdom and love songs? Men of many wives, concubines, the wives of other men. The other men grew quiet beneath this sincerity, a sermon itself, unexpected among drunks in a rib house built on stilts in a womb of granite hill near Pickwick Dam.
James harked to this minister four booths away. It seemed these men formed a club that met four times a year with the seasons. Each was a singular financial wizard, were men of the lusty world, and here was their chaplain, second-team All American out of Tulane in the late eighties. He could turn pro or turn demigod, so he went to seminary at Sewanee.
James was newly bathed, soap in a cold creek, but no longer had his thick bush of a beard, so his face was both sunburned and white. He might be a bargeman or professor. He wore round tortoise prescription spectacles that changed with light. He was happy, again mildly high from methedrine granules in his iced tea. Beside his plate of rib bones lay a Gideon Bible open to his pen, the matchless Pilot Precise rolling ball. Between the lines of Acts of the Apostles he wrote down much of what this minister said.
He was not unusual here. Most likely, since it was Saturday night, a deacon on vacation preparing his lesson for Sunday school, that was all. The minister who talked and bragged could drink an entire bottle of Stolichnaya vodka with no ill effects the next day. In fact he would preach on television tomorrow, a suntanned and berobed hunk of love with just a few white strands in his black hair. James was already in church with this man at the podium on the dais before him. He was a seeker of heat and light, attentive in the pews. The good pastor was not even drunk, just savvy and loquacious, as he described the geography, portfolio, and erotics of his circuit. He did not neglect his visits to the hospitals and to the shut-ins, the ancient lunatics of the rest homes so happy to will wild portions of their nest eggs to him. He told how his congregation loved him as a sportsman casting wide for bass and sauger, loved his prosperity, his fine auto.
But you might hurt and burn, thought James happily. This bliss I ride. On the edge of things there and then reduced to ash. He had just painted his cabin slate gray. After the fires he headed to Oxford. He threw away all the powder and crack in hides and kudzu all the way from Corinth to New Albany.
The minister had called his church the Neo-Fortress Village, out of California theosophy. The others were not too drunk to take him seriously. Franklin James also took him seriously. He watched him that Sunday on his motel TV.
The die was cast. He cared nothing for his body even though it was trim and well muscled from sprints through the meadows of everywhere.
After his heated affair with Goodie, after his marriage to her, once the preacher’s but available no more, he took trips to Jackson where he could stand the history of his father’s killing. There was the building with the newspaper whose clarion was well nigh the voice of Goebbels in the early sixties. Obfuscators of the weak search for the assassin. Then he was at the door of the First Baptist Church, a very big one on North State where the pastor remained a silent, good German with big hair, chicken guts, who never made a stand, never a whisper, about the Klan, the killer, their Old Customs, as racists would have it. These of the Southern Baptist Church bore the most sins as good Germans in apartheid sweetly. This is where the redundant sheep of fundamentalism took a stand on nothing, except for wanting the Jews to hurry up Armageddon in the Holy Lands.
Now he had burned a small church in the wildwood and despised the fact his guilt made him kinder toward small houses of worship.
He walked the grounds of the state capitol but did not go inside. He had no doubt that half its body were grandchildren of the blood that brought down his father. James knew that the advent of television and blacks owning their own guns had done as much for defeating the Klan and status quo as all the sermons and marches of Dr. King, because I told him so. He spat on the capitol grounds as much as salivation allowed him to. His hatred grew back to its perfect fury when he thought of his mother, a priest-bound sick woman who never achieved fury, only the flattened pre-senility of mourning, this vivacious French lady of culture, quickest to laugh a laugh in any room, the laugh that brought tears of thanks from James, then and now in his memory. She became a dead woman he could not bear to visit. All natural love was cut and down. He was too weary of his fury now, like bricks on his head until he ran down his man, who was very much alive and, a loud churchman, a tattooed deacon of the boondocks.
Why had he begun his mission so late then? Why had he circled it so long? Why the petty necessity of marriage to Goodie and in the near future the sophisticated immolation of the great cathedral in Memphis, venue of Goodie’s former lover, that pastor he had overheard in the Pickwick rib house? In which the organist died of molten pipes in avalanche.
He only half knew himself. And he could not have known the organist slept with the pastor and was thinking of suicide already.
I am still unclear whether after the first fires he appeared reincarnated as Captain Max Petraeus who began his long campaign of church arsons up and down the Mississippi Valley. He seemed too chastened for this after the woman died. He sent anonymous money to help the concert career of Jimmy Canarsis. But James’s vendetta against the old tattooed man was settled also, and you’d imagine also his love of flames, for a good long while.
The riot and anarchy on the Ole Miss campus in 1962 has often been called the last civil war, and I was square in the thick of it as a captain of the state National Guard. All that fire and shooting, three dead by gunshot and the shooter never found, against the entrance of James Meredith, a black man. What you had was both students and the Klan, with their fellow travelers. I had boys in my own command who wanted to join the rioters. It was rot, the last of an old cancer on us.
The Nobel laureate William Faulkner died in the hot July preceding the September riots. It was good he didn’t have to watch. He was a racial moderate, read nigger lover in these parts then, and left much of his estate to the United Negro College Fund. I mention him only to place this story on the map and call to memory, now I’m an old man, that not all of us were rot. I did understand much of Faulkner’s greatest books. Personally I disliked him as a snob who with no effort at all could have been kinder to the neighbors in the village we were then. He was passing strange and spiteful to many. You had to reckon with some conceit as birthright, which made him contemptuous of the very humble folk he was celebrated for taking to his heart on the written page. You will often see pure words in a great wash of self-atonement, no people necessary to them. Like your pastors of the pulpit James despised. If masturbation had an echo, he said.
Well James found me and made me honest, without threat. It was way high time I unburdened. I sit in front of a glass of peach schnapps on my lake south of town. Prime woodlands, thick elder pines, spruces. I was privy too long to the grievous matter. Now my hands are red, not a prayer of a peaceful death, but some wonderful living behind me with the wife and daughters so fine. I served in Korea, came home almost cursed with life after being with many gut-shot fellows with snow falling on ice, temp minus 30. It was nighttime, but I knew James’s man and had never divulged the true rot of him, although I brought him up on charges of cowardice. I believe I witnessed the event itself, him in a tree and raising the M1 Garand.
But there were all kinds of gasses in the air, all kinds of flares, gunshots, overturned cars burning. This done by handsome young frat boys. The man was dishonorably discharged from the army, but that was a slap on the wrist.
The town of Water Valley in Yalobusha County sixteen miles below us hired him, nevertheless, on its patrol force. One soggy night, say 1977, me and the old gang were coming back from an Ole Miss/State game that we’d won when a gust of wind like out of the Bible blew the state kicker’s try for an extra point backward from the goalposts. I mean dead missed a sitter. I was both drunk and speeding and this patrolman in Water Valley put his face in the window, sniffing around six old boys all soused and hollering. Guess who he was. He had his ticket book open and his gun hand on the butt. Oh he had some live ones. But he took a long look, went white in the face. Walked quick back to his black-and-white chariot all whipped around and ass-important with way high antennas, and just eased off ahead of us, like now, Captain, go ahead and arrest me please. All our gang, me and two of them who’d serve in the spoils of the Republican administration in three years, got soberer but I was white in the face, too, until I told them who that cop was, and they almost broke the car laughing, hooting. A charmed day all around.
But that’s when I learned the fellow had gone off into lay preaching and multiple deaconage around small county churches. I got white in the face as he was, all those pictures racing back from fifteen years ago, and the picture, the sickest. He did lay preaching along the white supremacy line, they said, not unusual for the race killers getting dug up nowadays by a reporter from the Jackson paper, the Clarion Ledger, and a special prosecutor out of the state attorney general’s office after forty-five years and more. I don’t believe I joined in the howling with the others in my van.
Somebody said something like all that is required for evil to prosper is the silence of good men. I count myself one of those. Too many of us stayed good Germans, a term I first heard in Eighth Army, Chosin Reservoir, 1950, staying quiet when a heinous thing is about like Hitler. The rest only knew him for a coward in the Guard, just now in the worst face-to-face you could pull on him. On race matters I remained quiet. You can’t overestimate the difficulty of my Guard command, largely filled by boys sympathetic to the rioters but serving John Kennedy much against their instincts. We heard this was a police action at Ole Miss, but there were eventually thirty thousand troops in town, tents everywhere, a way station for the movement of troops to south Florida during the Cuban missile crisis. Wild boys or insurgents from the Klan of neighboring states were dropping railroad cross ties into the windshield of Army Reserve troop carriers from the overpass on Jackson Avenue. Still, I sent the order down that if any live ammo was discovered off their belt clips there’d be hell to pay. We were pure bayonets regardless of provocation, just like the federal marshalls who were trapped inside the Lyceum with Meredith courtesy of a bulldozer driven against its door by the apostles of the lunatic General Edwin Walker, who led the assault himself with a goddamned cavalry sword. It was a miracle no more than three were killed, among them James’s father, a man I never put eyes on.
Our governor was Ross Barnett, a purebred mule-faced jackass rabble-rouser, about states’ rights and sovereignty, but when I was a young captain I did not think he was such a bad sort. He was our jackass, was the issue. Nevertheless I dressed my command and told them their asses belonged to the federal government and me, rough as it was. You had to keep an eye on them. You never knew what mean little bastard would break ranks and try to make a name for himself.
I told this to James at Smitty’s café just south of the courthouse and looked into his kind Canadian face, a face that had mesmerized me into this revelation over a good breakfast, eggs, country ham, redeye gravy, grits, the best big light biscuits. He ate the same as me, listened courteously without interruption. Then I saw the new look to him and knew that if the point of this story was that I killed his father, he would kill me on the spot with still the courteous look. It had been a long time since I had killed a gook or two. Not very long for him. Iraqis, the church organist.
The man was courtly. He out-captained me. We were just talking acquaintances, then, I don’t know how he did it. Suddenly when I got to his man in the tree that night nearly half a century ago, of all things I thought of the Lord. I mean Our Heavenly Father. I leave the Lord alone since Korea and hope He’ll do the same for me. You have to hand it to Him, He’s done a damned pro job of evaporating these last centuries. I can’t tell you the bodies, the pain. What was that about? Well, we turned South Korea Christian, and now our labor gets shipped off to them, Zenith TV and all. But it’s not worth one gutshot private, one lance corporal from Wyoming with a sucking chest wound. What Lord? What wondrous ways His works to perform?
The secret spoke itself like a tired bad ghost walking out of my throat.
Then for a while I didn’t see him, only heard about the acts. I had peace for half an afternoon. But then my hands were bloody. My calm had a frown on it. Yes I’m going funny. This peach schnapps ain’t doing it for me.
He made love with Goodie with a writhing ardor she’d not experienced, perhaps, ever.
“For the love of God, thank you,” she whispered. She put on her kimono and white slip-on Keds. Her body was remarkable. Without exercise except for five minutes of work and standing an hour around machines that would have perfected her in a Baptist hospital gym. Or remarkable because he stared at her as through a magnified pipe, and straight past her to their familiar replicants in a museum of devolution until the final sullen corpus, his man, stood at age twenty with the Ml Garand in his hand, a clip of live ammo snuck into its chamber, all the auto fires and tear gas and flares in the air, students shouting curses from as deep in them as the very heart of rot in Old Dixie. Punk Guardsman, punk city cop, his conversion to the Lord Jesus Christ and belting out hymns, earning thereby the right to walk among free men, even preach to them, the low son of a bitch. But he must have felt a bona fide hell at his shoulders these years, or something right around the next door he opened, especially after the firebombing of the little church where he had stood recently. Was the man his man, or was the man himself? What a stupid meditation.
He left two days later for the archives in the attorney general’s office in Jackson, three hours southward. The sunroof of the Mazda Miata was open. On the CD box was Led Zeppelin, Houses of the Holy. This sound like the reunion of a battalion in steel walls. Intense moments in Iraq, his sick mother. He needed more hate. Soon he was not rightly human. He could imagine himself howling on the street corner of a burning city. His eyes were wide. Purpose, what purpose did he serve against the lassitude of grief that filled his mother and himself all those years? Their avoidance of the topic and word Mississippi.
He found himself speaking aloud in French to his dead mother Celestine. In your hands how does the finish of this vendetta feel? He asked her. He recognized that all the earthly goods he’s heaped on Goodie, Teresa more now, woman of tears, were meant for his mother. He’d just bought her a new car, Saab SUV sculpted like a space shuttle. These days, like millions of the talentless, she’d developed pretentions to art photography. This black wagon would hold her leather and canvas cases. You were nearly a saint, Mother, and I deserted you, he spoke. Now “Hey Joe” by that Mozart of the electric guitar, Jimi Hendrix, grabbed and dragged him to Iraq, lolling beside the 105 as he watched men burn in their T-34s on the red horizon. Allons enfants to this good hell.
Unsolved, said the state. Unsolved means all senses hover, loom, linger, harken. Nobody, however, knows a thing for sure. But I do.
So his Teresa sleeps as his nightmare it moves across the meadow, hooves in wet clover, toward the charred ruins of the little church. Canarsis’s piano still stands, only half consumed, only half dead. The man, a sixty-four-year-old tattooed deacon and lay preacher. Destiny run toward him. James had the .38 and the wheeled propane and napalm flamethrower in the car.
Now in the cold January twilight he looked the man full in the face and told him to walk. The man had a round white ordinary face, more youthful than James expected. He held a pistol but James told him to throw it away and the man complied.
“Let’s walk to the pier where they found Jimmy Canarsis and saved him. You may have heard about his success on the concert circuit. He began at the Castellow Ford Center. Then Memphis, Philadelphia, New York.”
“Yeh. Why are you speaking these words?” asked the man, whose name was Dee Gale.
“Because Canarsis is so beautifully different from such sorry jackasses as us. Wouldn’t you like to have lived in complete innocence and made as much of your gift as he has, nearly burned to death?”
“You the man who burned the church?”
“Well, I did not finish. You seem to want something remaining in it, too. You came back to the charcoal. What would that be? Your pilgrimage?”
“It had a good true spirit to it, that giant boy on a piano that seemed like a kid’s toy measured to him. He brought God down from heaven with his music.”
“You killed my father, holy man. What was your favorite hymn? A man like you.”
They walked around the dam in silence. No creature stirred, all cabins were empty, the house ranger dulled like a sloth as he watched the evening news, settling in to his Pepsi and Orville Redenbacher’s sublime pour-over cheddar popcorn. The perfection of winter muteness, happily dead in the mind, his contented good woman close to hand. James imagined them in an alternate universe. The gun was in his right hip pocket, forgotten, the flamethrower easy on its wheels. They walked to the end of the pier in dogged duty. A beaver fell from a dead cypress with a loud percussive entrance to the water.
“‘Just as I Am’ would be the one. We all are worms with guilty secrets. He forgives all even though we are without one plea.”
“You don’t have one plea right now?”
“You notice I’m not screaming for help, like I could. I stand absolved.”
“I stand as your delayed executioner.”
“But I’ve got a feeling you’ve killed before. You stand guilty and unforgiven.”
“Can you do something for me then? Can you make up a hymn about why it was necessary to kill my father?”
“He was one those outside agitators helping bring on niggers adulterating our way of life. I only say this about the shooting. If the state thought I was guilty of anything but delaying these niggers I’d of been brought up on charges a long time ago. After what happened you didn’t find no French meddlers and liars in these parts.”
The flames were already reaching him then, and they kept reaching him as the napalm stuck. James was amazed the man could stand so long without taking to the water. He used a boat paddle to push the surviving stump of Gale into the lake. But the end of the pier was still on fire and he left in moderate haste to his car.
I watched him afterward. He was a kind of friend, always at Smitty’s talking over the good country vegetables, fried okra, collards, world-class cornbread. He had fantastic eyes, jarred awake like a man whose head had just been severed. He was the saddest man I’ve ever known.
I can’t know what you’ve heard of these parts, but there is law. More of the sheriffs voted, not appointed, into office, are college educated in criminology. Whatever that vague science is worth.
But no man showed at his door, no man raised a hand against him. Three men he knew, I was one of them, voiced the wish very sincerely that he would vanish from these parts, as he had from Montana. But no sheriff told him this. When James had swallowed it all he was dead for a while. He was in the tomb although the stone had been rolled aside for his free walk around the water or to the Arctic. This state with only a million whites is one backyard, and it is solid mouth to ear. Faster than you could trace it on the Internet, certainly faster than the sheriff ’s office women could find it on those grandmother computers, the worst is known, the gossip is dead-on to the comma. The lynching of blacks by vigilantes is gone forever, hope to God. We have a new aristocracy and they are black men. Morgan Freeman, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, the ghost of Robert Johnson making his deal with the Devil at a crossroads on Highway 61. But we are a state that still loves the vigilante. The climate is ripe for vengeance.
Franklin James became friends with a black emeritus professor out of Rust College in Holly Springs. Amos Pettigrew. They shared some subject, it was unclear what it was for a while. Pettigrew seemed to hold sway over whether James stayed, fled with or without Goodie, destroyed himself, or lived abundantly, propelled like a bird from the opened tomb into wild freedom. Pettigrew was a calm force for both James and Goodie. She did not know she might be deserted for a while or for good. I saw Pettigrew’s old Buick in their drive many times. James told the man his whole story. Goodie was much afraid. The terror was all over her. She began a series of very expensive shopping trips. James, the killer, said nothing about this mania. He just stared at the bags. She acted as if the purchase of some choice item might be her soul and she could catch it and hold it in a shopping bag. Some of the bags she never touched, although they were full of goods, jewelry, God’s own amount of purses.
Dr. Pettigrew had degrees from Dartmouth and Yale. He had worn himself thin striving against the darkness in young blacks. He had left his heart in the college. Now he was a hoarse and skinny man, going to frail. He knew every living fact about the struggle for civil rights in this area, every night attack, bombing, miscarriage of justice, even every fistfight. I don’t know what afternoon exactly he told James he had burned up the wrong man. The right man was dead of natural causes. He had killed a man who emulated the dead one, dressed like him, had the same tattoos, the same voice, and was even fiercer and louder about his lay preaching and deaconry church to church with the biblical evidence for white supremacy. Two churches had obtained restraining orders against him, a first within anybody’s memory.
When I noticed the yellow motorcycle was gone for several days, I crept up to their bedroom window, yes, like a common Peeping Tom and at my sadder age. I had to peep and eavesdrop. What I saw I call pornography, or some order of necrophilia. She was lying on the bed in a black nightgown revealing an amazingly fit nudity beneath. She did not move for an hour, as if commanded to lie still by a man out of sight. But James was long gone. I could not believe that frozen specter was all about grief. That’s why I said pornography, some militant sexual exercise. I was guilty I saw her. My hands felt heavy when I crept back to the highway. They were bloodier and bloodier.
© 2010 by Barry Hannah. This story will appear in LONG, LAST, HAPPY: New and Selected Stories to be published December 1, 2010, by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.