Even when I’m doing something enjoyable, it seems death and destruction lurk nearby. I might not recognize those dual demons right away, but they’re out there.
They might arrive in a pickup truck, and those in it may seem at first like a lot of people I might see. Just folks going about their business.
But they may be carriers of a repulsive kind of disease, and there are many symptoms. Hate and prejudice, ignorance and a profound pride in what they don’t know. They are those who go with their gut, which is about as accurate as throwing chicken bones or reading signs in frog entrails.
I don’t know they’re coming until they’re there, and even then, I might not understand exactly what has walked into my life. I may think, considering my experience, that I’ll know right away if something is going to go dark and wet, but I still get fooled, and their kind of disease can have a ripple effect; it’s not just their viewpoint, it’s how their viewpoint affects others; they spread their germs without even being aware of it.
I was in the side yard with Brett, enjoying our Saturday, and a fine April afternoon, cooking up burgers bratwurst and weenies on the grill. Their aroma in the air was thick enough if you smacked your lips you could taste them.
We were celebrating. Three hours before me and Brett had gotten married by the LaBorde Justice of the Peace. No Bible, no preacher, just the law. Me and her had talked about pulling that trigger for some years, and finally we had gone and done it. I couldn’t have been happier.
When we got married we had a small crowd there at the J.P.‘s office, close friends, and a few strays we had taken in, and they were coming over in a little while to enjoy our wedding picnic. We had a long folding leg table laid out with paper plates and cups and an ice chest with a bag of ice in it. We had folding chairs stacked on the ground, ready for use.
I was scraping a burger off the grill, flipping it.
“I thought we might go to Paris for a honeymoon,” Brett said, “but then I got to thinking about a cook-out in the yard and nixed it.”
“Yeah. French cooking can kiss my ass, baby. I’m doing burgers and dogs.”
“Don’t burn them this time,” Brett said.
“Nope. I’m on it. And you know what, everything goes well, we can play horseshoes after lunch, and later tonight you can play with my ass.”
“Oh, you charmer.”
“That’s right, baby. Stick with me and you’ll be farting through silk.”
A white pickup coasted to the curb in front of our house, and parked next to the oak tree that grew near the street. It wasn’t a truck that belonged to one our guests. It wasn’t a truck that belonged to anybody I knew.
The tires on the truck were so high that when the door opened, the driver, a thin, thirtish man with wiry muscles and sandy blond hair, practically had to dangle himself down to the curb. On the other side a woman worked her way out of the passenger’s side and came around the front of the truck. She had lowered some kind of step stool to make her exit. I caught a glimpse of it from under the truck. Both of them probably had nose bleeds from sitting so high.
They started across the yard. It made me a little nervous, especially when I saw the tee-shirt the man was wearing. It was white with blue lettering on the front that read WHITE IS RIGHT. Not one of my sentiments, even though my skin is as pale as milk when it isn’t tanned or sunburned.
The young man had on black jeans and lace up boots and so many tattoos visible on his arms and neck, from a distance, I thought he was wearing long sleeves. Close up I could see more tattoos through the thin fabric of his tee-shirt. I assumed he might have others in places less interesting to see, and a box of stick-on tattoos at home along with a pointed, white hood for those special evenings out with the Klan. That may sound judgmental, but hey, that T-shirt told me a lot.
The woman was probably in her late fifties, dressed in what I think of as traditional Pentecostal garb, meaning her brown hair was up in a bun so tall and wide she could have hidden an electric mixer under it, and she was wearing a blue jean dress that fell almost to her ankles and was capped off by clunky, black boots that looked one grade up from orthopedic shoes. She didn’t have on any make-up, not even lipstick or eye-liner. From certain religious points of view, God and Jesus get all worked up about hair-dos and make-up, but couldn’t seem to end a war anywhere, or kill a disease that doesn’t require research by scientists. I thought maybe God had his priorities out of whack.
Those two looked so much like stereotypes it wouldn’t have surprised me to discover they had venomous snakes in their pockets and could speak in tongues.
The man slowed and let the woman take the lead. She came right to me, stuck out her hand, and I shook it. She didn’t offer it to Brett. The man didn’t offer his hand to either of us. He stood there with his hands in his pockets. One eyelid spasmed from time to time, as if continually electrocuted. I could have sworn I saw one of his neck tattoos crawl under his shirt, but I suppose it was a shifting of the light.
Up close I could see some of the tattoos were professional and some were the sort you do yourself, or get in prison, or perhaps a three-year-old child with a carving knife and a bottle of ink had been hired to mark him up.
“You’re the one’s got that private detective agency, aren’t you?” the woman said.
“She does,” I said, nodding at Brett. “I work for her.”
“Oh, I thought you owned it, and had her and that … colored fellow working for you. What’s he do there?”
“Eats cookies and drinks coffee, from what I can tell,” I said.
“He works there, same as this man, who, by the way, is my husband.” I liked the way Brett said that. I felt like a big dog. I was so happy I wanted to wag my tail.
“You work for your wife?” the man said. It was like his mind had just snapped to attention.
“It’s either that, or she doesn’t let me eat.”
“Sometimes, when he’s sassy, or acting a little hysterical, I make him stand in the yard and hold a heavy rock over his head,” Brett said.Up close I could see some of the tattoos were professional and some were the sort you do yourself, or get in prison, or perhaps a three-year-old child with a carving knife and a bottle of ink had been hired to mark him up.
The woman grinned a little, but the young man looked at me as if concerned I not only didn’t wear the pants in the family, but might have accidentally cooked my dick on the grill in place of a sausage.
“We looked you up in the phone book. Drove by your office a few times,” the woman said. “We asked around about y’all, trying to decide.”
“Decide what?” Brett said.
“We got this problem, and truth is, everyone else turned us down.”
“Who’s everyone else?” I said.
“The other private detective in town.”
“There’s another one?” I said.
“And all them over in Tyler and Longview, too. Ain’t none over in Marvel Creek, which is where we’ve got the problem, so there wasn’t no one to ask there. Cops here can’t do nothing. It’s out of their jurisdiction.”
“Thing is, we heard you had that nig…colored man working there,” the young man said, “and that put us off some. At first we thought he just cleaned up the office.”
I thought, bless your little ignorant heart.
“Here’s something might put you off even more,” I said, and pointed.
Marvin Hanson’s car pulled up at the curb, and he and Officer Carroll, as we always called Curt, got out.
Hanson was carrying a twelve pack of diet sodas under his arm, and Officer Carroll had a twelve pack of beer under his. The sodas were mostly for me, the beers were for some of the others.
From the backseat came the niece of Leonard’s ex-boyfriend, John. Her name was Felicity, and she was just out of her teens and had her hair in pigtails today, tied up on both sides with bright blue ribbon.
Finally, there was Reba, the little girl Leonard called the Four-Hundred-Year-Old Vampire Midget. Truth was, twelve years old or not, Reba could be a bitch. She had a mouth like a sailor and a mind as sharp as a butcher’s knife. I had to make sure she didn’t get in the beer when no one was watching.
All of them, except Officer Carroll, were black as black could be, and you could see the man and the woman taking that in the way a soldier might count their enemies’ artillery mounted on a hill. Officer Carroll was Leonard’s boyfriend. I kind of figured same sex relationships were probably on the pair’s no-no list as well.
“What’s all them colored people showing up for?” the young man said. The way he said that, you could tell he didn’t go out and about among those who held different beliefs than his own.
“We’re filming a Tarzan movie after lunch,” Brett said. “Need a lot of them colored folks for that. Cannibal scenes, you know.”
“Yeah, I get to play Tarzan,” I said.
“No. You get to be Tarzan’s monkey,” Brett said.
I made a soft chattering sound. I thought it sounded like a monkey, and a damn sexy monkey.
“By the way,” I said, introducing Marvin and Officer Carroll, “this gentleman is the police chief, and this white fellow works for him.”
No hands were shook. Everyone merely looked at one another for a moment as if all fingers had been dipped in shit.
Marvin said, “We’ll put these in the ice chest,” and he and Officer Carroll went to do just that.
I heard the screen door slam and looked up to see Chance step out on the porch with a large bag of potato chips in either hand. She wasn’t going to please them either. Physically she was not only made up of whatever I was made up of, but she had her mother’s coloring, dark skin, fine Native American and Hispanic features, long black hair tied back in a ponytail long enough to use for a lariat. She was beautiful.
Right behind her came Leonard, in charge of a box of vanilla cookies, his black face split with a bright white smile.
I watched the man fold his arms across his chest, obscuring the writing on his shirt.
Everyone came over and wished us congratulations again, except our surprise guests, of course.
It was then a second wave of guests arrived. Our friend Manuela Martinez got out of her car carrying a large paper bag. She was looking fine and petite in tight jeans and an equally tight orange top, her black hair cut to the shoulders, the white scar that ran from below her left ear to the tip of her chin gave her near model features a kind of rugged class. I watched her walk toward us. I watched very carefully.
Brett elbowed me. “Watch it, mister.”
“Hey, what was that for?” I said.
“You know,” she said.
On the other side of the car, Cason Statler got out. He too had a paper bag with something in it. We were going to have enough food to feed the proverbial army. I had introduced him to Manny, as we called Manuela, and since that time they had become as tight as super glue in a gnat’s ass.
Cason was one of those guys that got better looking as he got older. White guy with thick, dark hair and a cock-of-the-walk stride, always in shape.
Brett said, “Now I got something to look at.”
“Then we’re even,” I said.
“Not exactly,” she said.
The woman and the man from the two-story pickup truck stood stiff, like trees growing in the yard. We had sidelined them. And realizing we were being dicks, even though I thought they deserved it, I said, “Look, you want to talk, we can. On the porch.”
They pulled roots and went to the porch and sat down on it and waited for us.
Leonard walked up to me, said, “Who are those crackers?”
“Why those are racists who are a little worried we might have a colored boy working for us.”
“Ah, now, Massa Hap, you know I’m one of the good ones.”
“Yes, but don’t forget your place.”
“You mean with my foot up your ass?” he said.
Chance listened to us and smiled. She carried the chips to the table. Me and Brett greeted everybody while Leonard went on over to the porch to make the honkies nervous. He smelled blood in the water.
I gave the spatula to Manny, said, “Don’t let the food burn.”
“I warn you,” Manny said, “what I cook best are kitchens. I’ve burned down two of them.”
“No worries,” Brett said. “We’re outdoors. If the meat starts to smoke, use the spatula and take them off the grill. If they catch fire, use the spatula to beat out the flames.”
“Gotcha,” Manny said.
From Jackrabbit Smile. Used with the permission of the publisher, Mulholland Books. Copyright © 2018 by Joe R. Lansdale.