Cities of the plain, p.1
Cities of the Plain, p.1Part #3 of Border Trilogy series by Cormac McCarthy
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About the Author
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Books by Cormac McCarthy
I will be your child to hold
And you be me when I am old
The world grows cold
The heathen rage
The story's told
Turn the page.
THEY STOOD in the doorway and stomped the rain from their boots and swung their hats and wiped the water from their faces. Out in the street the rain slashed through the standing water driving the gaudy red and green colors of the neon signs to wander and seethe and rain danced on the steel tops of the cars parked along the curb.
Damned if I aint half drowned, Billy said. He swung his dripping hat. Where's the all-american cowboy at?
He's done inside.
Let's go. He'll have all them good fat ones picked out for hisself.
The whores in their shabby deshabille looked up from the shabby sofas where they sat. The place was all but empty. They stomped their boots again and crossed to the bar and stood and thumbed back their hats and propped their boots on the rail above the tiled drainway while the barman poured their whiskies. In the bloodred barlight and the drifting smoke they raised their glasses briefly and nodded as if to salute some fourth companion now lost to them and they tilted back the shots and set the empty glasses on the bar again and wiped their mouths with the backs of their hands. Troy jutted his chin at the barman and made a circling gesture with one finger at the empty glasses. The barman nodded.
John Grady you look like a goddamned wharf rat.
I feel like one.
The barman poured their whiskies.
I never seen it rain no harder. You want a beer back? Give us three beers.
You got one of them little darlins picked out?
The boy shook his head.
Which one you like, Troy?
I'm like you. I come down here for a fat woman and that's what I'm havin. I'm goin to tell you right now cousin, when the mood comes on you for a fat woman they just wont nothin else satisfy.
I know the feelin well. You better pick you one out, John Grady.
The boy turned and looked across the room at the whores.
How about that old big'n in the green pajamas?
Dont be puttin him on my gal, said Troy. You'll be the cause of a fight breakin out here in a minute.
Go on. She's lookin over here.
They're all lookin over here.
Go on. I can tell she likes you.
She'd bounce John Grady off the ceilin.
Not the all-american cowboy she wouldnt. The cowboy'd stick like a cocklebur. What about the one with the blue windercurtain wrapped around her?
Dont pay no attention to him, John Grady. She looks like her face caught fire and they beat it out with a rake. I'm goin to say that blond on the end is more your style.
Billy shook his head and reached for his whiskey. They aint no reasonin with the man. He just aint got no taste in women and that's a mathematical fact.
You stick with your old dad, said Troy. He'll get you onto somethin with some substance to it. Parham yonder actually claimed that a man ought not to date anything he couldnt lift. Said what if the house caught fire.
Or the barn.
Or the barn.
You remember the time we brought Clyde Stapp down here?
I do and he was a man of judgment. Picked him out a gal with some genuine heft to her.
JC and them slipped the old woman a couple of dollars to let em go back there and peek. They was goin to take his picture but they got to laughin and blew the deal.
We told Clyde he looked like a monkey fuckin a football. I thought we was goin to have him to whip. What about that one in the red yonder?
Dont listen to him, John Grady.
Value per pound on a dollar basis. He dont even want to consider a thing like that.
You all go on, said John Grady.
Pick you one out.
That's all right.
You see there Troy? All you done is got the boy confused.
JC told everbody that Clyde fell in love with the old gal and wanted to take her back with him but all they had was the pickup and they'd of had to send for the flatbed. By then Clyde had done sobered up and fell out of love and JC said he wasnt takin him to no more whorehouses. Said he hadnt acted in a manly and responsible fashion.
You all go on, said John Grady.
From the rear of the premises he could hear the rain rattling on a metal roof. He ordered another shot of whiskey and stood turning the glass slowly on the polished wood and watching the room behind him in the yellowing glass of the old Brunswick backbar. One of the whores crossed the room and took him by the arm and asked him to buy her a drink but he said he was only waiting for his friends. After a while Troy came back and sat on the barstool and ordered another whiskey. He sat with his hands folded on the bar before him like a man at church. He took a cigarette from his shirtpocket.
I dont know, John Grady.
What dont you know?
I dont know.
The barman poured his whiskey.
Pour him anothern.
The barman poured.
Another whore had come up to take John Grady's arm. The powder on her face had cracked like sizing.
Tell her you got the clap, said Troy.
John Grady was speaking to her in spanish. She tugged at his arm.
Billy told that to one down here one time. She said that was all right she had it too.
He lit the cigarette with a Third Infantry Zippo lighter and laid the lighter on top of his cigarettes and blew smoke down along the polished wood and looked at John Grady. The whore had gone back to the sofa and John Grady was studying something in the backbar glass. Troy turned and followed his gaze. A young girl of no more than seventeen and perhaps younger was sitting on the arm of the sofa with her hands cupped in her lap and her eyes cast down. She fussed with the hem of her gaudy dress like a schoolgirl. She looked up and looked toward them. Her long black hair fell across her shoulder and she swept it slowly away with the back of her hand.
She's a goodlookin thing, aint she? Troy said.
John Grady nodded.
Go on and get her.
That's all right.
Hell, go on.
Here he comes.
Billy stepped up to the bar and adjusted his hat.
You want me to go get her? said Troy.
I can get her if I want her.
Otra vez, said Billy. He turned and looked across the room.
Go on, said Troy. Hell, we'll wait on you.
That little girl the one you're lookin at? I bet she aint fifteen.
I bet she aint either, said Troy.
Get that one I had. She's five gaited or I never rode.
The barman poured their whiskies.
She'll be back over there directly.
That's all right.
Billy looked at Troy. He turned and picked up his glass and contemplated the reddish liquor welling at the brim and raised and drank it and took his money from his shirtpocket and jerked his chin at the watching barkeep.
You all ready? he said.
Let's go get somethin to eat. I think it's fixin to quit rainin. I dont hear it no more.
They walked up Ignacio Mejia to Juarez Avenue. The gutters ran with a grayish water and the lights of the bars and cafes and curioshops bled slowly in the wet black street. Shop
Caballeros, he said.
They ate steaks and drank coffee and listened to Troy's war stories and smoked and watched the ancient yellow taxicabs ford the water in the streets. They walked up Juarez Avenue to the bridge.
The trolleys had quit running and the streets were all but empty of trade and traffic. The tracks shining in the wet lamplight ran on toward the gateshack and beyond to where they lay embedded in the bridge like great surgical clamps binding those disparate and fragile worlds and the cloudcover had moved off down from the Franklins and south toward the dark shapes of the mountains of Mexico standing against the starlit sky. They crossed the bridge and pushed through the turnstile each in turn, their hats cocked slightly, slightly drunk, and walked up south El Paso Street.
IT WAS STILL DARK when John Grady woke him. He was up and dressed and had already been to the kitchen and back and had spoken to the horses and he stood in the doorway of Billy's bunkroom with the canvas curtain pushed back against the jamb and a cup of coffee in one hand. Hey cowboy, he said.
Let's go. You can sleep in the winter.
Let's go. You been layin there damn near four hours.
Billy sat up and swung his feet onto the floor and sat with his head in his hands.
I dont see how you can lay there like that.
Damn if you aint a cheerful son of a bitch in the mornin. Where's my by god coffee at?
I aint carryin you no coffee. Get your ass up from there. Grub's on the table.
Billy reached up and took his hat from a wallpeg over the bed and put the hat on and squared it. Okay, he said. I'm up.
John Grady walked back out up the barn bay toward the house. The horses nickered at him from their stalls as he passed. I know what time it is, he told them. At the end of the barn a length of hayrope hung from the loft overhead and he drained the last of his coffee and slung the dregs from the cup and leaped up and batted the rope and set it swinging and went out.
They were all at the table eating when Billy pushed open the door and came in. Socorro came and took the plate of biscuits and carried them to the oven and dumped them into a pan and put the pan in the warmer and took hot biscuits from the warmer and put them on the plate and carried the plate back to the table. On the table was a bowl of scrambled eggs and one of grits and there was a plate of sausage and a boat of gravy and bowls of preserves and pico de gallo and butter and honey. Billy washed his face at the sink and Socorro handed him the towel and he dried his face and laid the towel on the counter and came to the table and stepped over the back of the empty chair and sat and reached for the eggs. Oren glanced at him over the top of his paper and continued reading.
Billy spooned the eggs and set the bowl down and reached for the sausage. Mornin Oren, he said. Mornin JC.
JC looked up from his plate. I guess you been fightin that bear all night too.
Fightin that bear, said Billy. He reached and took a biscuit and refolded the cloth back over the plate and reached for the butter.
Let's see them eyes again, said JC.
Aint nothin wrong with these eyes. Pass the salsa yonder.
He spooned the hot sauce over his eggs. Fight fire with fire. Aint that right John Grady?
An old man had come into the kitchen with his braces hanging. He wore an oldfashioned shirt of the kind the collar buttoned to and it was open at the neck and no collar to it. He had just shaved and there was shaving cream on his neck and on the lobe of one ear. John Grady pushed back his chair.
Here Mr Johnson, he said. Set here. I'm all done.
He rose with his plate to take it to the sink but the old man waved him down and went on toward the stove. Set down, he said, set down. I'm just gettin me some coffee.
Socorro unhooked one of the white porcelain mugs from the underside of the cabinet shelf and poured it and turned the handle facing out and handed it to the old man and he took it and nodded and went back across the kitchen. He stopped at the table and spooned two huge scoops of sugar out of the bowl into his cup and left the room taking the sugarspoon with him. John Grady put his cup and plate on the sideboard and got his lunchbucket off the counter and went out.
What's wrong with him? said JC.
Aint nothin wrong with him, said Billy.
I meant John Grady.
I know who you meant.
Oren folded the paper and laid it on the table. Dont you all even start, he said. Troy, you ready?
They pushed back from the table and rose and went out. Billy sat picking his teeth. He looked at JC. What are you doin this mornin?
I'm goin into town with the old man.
He nodded. Out in the yard the truck started. Well, he said. It's light enough to see, I reckon.
He rose and crossed the kitchen and got his lunchpail from the counter and went out. JC reached across the table and got the paper.
John Grady was sitting behind the wheel of the idling truck. Billy got in and set the lunchpail on the floor and shut the door and looked at him.
Well, he said. You ready to put in a day's work for a day's wages?
John Grady put the truck in gear and they pulled away down the drive.
Daybreak to backbreak for a godgiven dollar, said Billy. I love this life. You love this life, son? I love this life. You do love this life dont you? Cause by god I love it. Just love it.
He reached into his shirtpocket and shook out a cigarette from the pack there and lit it with his lighter and sat smoking while they rolled down the drive through the long morning shadows of fence and post and oaktree. The sun was blinding white on the dusty windshield glass. Cattle standing along the fence called after the truck and Billy studied them. Cows, he said.
They nooned on a grassy rise on the red clay ranges ten miles south of the ranch house. Billy lay with his rolled jacket under his head and his hat over his eyes. He squinted out at the gray headlands of the Guadalupes eighty miles to the west. I hate comin out here, he said. Goddamn ground wont even hold a fencepost.
John Grady sat crosslegged chewing a weedstem. Twenty miles to the south a live belt of green ran down the Rio Grande valley. In the foreground fenced gray fields. Gray dust following a tractor and cultivator down the gray furrows of a fall cottonfield.
Mr Johnson says the army sent people out here with orders to survey seven states in the southwest and find the sorriest land they could find and report back. And Mac's ranch was settin right in the middle of it.
Billy looked at John Grady and looked back at the mountains.
You think that's true? said John Grady.
Hell, who knows.
JC says the old man is gettin crazier and crazier.
Well he's still got more sense crazy than JC's got sane so what does that make JC?
I dont know.
There aint nothin wrong with him. He's just old is all.
JC says he aint been right since his daughter died.
Well. There aint no reason why he should be. He thought the world of her.
Maybe we ought to ask Delbert. Get Delbert's view of things.
Delbert aint as dumb as he looks.
I hope to God he aint. Anyway the old man always had a few things peculiar about him and he's still got em. This place aint the same. It never will be. Maybe we've all got a little crazy. I guess if everbody went crazy together nobody would notice, what do you think?
John Grady leaned and spat between his teeth and put the stem back in his mouth. You liked her, didnt you?
Awful well. She was as nice to me as anybody I ever knew.
A coyote came out of the brush and trotted along the crest of a rise a quarter mile to the east. I want yo
Let me get the rifle.
He'll be gone before you get done standin up.
The coyote trotted out along the ridge and stopped and looked back and then dropped off down the ridge into the brush again.
What do you reckon he's doin out here in the middle of the day?
He probably wonders the same about you.
You think he seen us?
Well I didnt see him walkin head first into them nopal bushes yonder so I dont expect he was completely blind.
John Grady watched for the coyote to reappear but the coyote didnt.
Funny thing, said Billy, is I was fixin to quit about the time she took sick. I was ready to move on. After she died I had a lot less reason to stay on but I stayed anyways.
I guess maybe you figured Mac needed you.
How old was she?
I dont know. Late thirties. Forty maybe. You'd never of knowed it though.
You think he's gettin over it?
No. You dont get over a woman like that. He aint gettin over nothin. He never will.
He sat and put his hat on and adjusted it. You ready, cousin?
He rose stiffly and reached down and got his lunchpail and he swiped at the seat of his trousers with one hand and then bent and got his jacket. He looked at John Grady.
There was a old waddy told me one time he never knowed a woman raised on indoor plumbin to ever turn out worth a damn. She come up the hard way. Old man Johnson was never nothin but a cowboy and you know what that pays. Mac met her at a church supper in Las Cruces when she was seventeen years old and that was all she wrote. He aint goin to be gettin over it. Not now, not soon, not never.
It was dark when they got back. Billy rolled up the window of the truck and sat looking toward the house. I'm a wore-out sumbuck, he said.
You want to just leave the gear in the truck?
Let's bring in the come-along. It might rain. Might. And that box of staples. They'll rust up.
I'll get em.
He got the stuff from the bed of the truck. The lights came on in the barn bay. Billy was standing there shaking his hand up and down.
Ever time I reach for that son of a bitch I get shocked.
It's the nails in them boots.
Then why dont it shock my feet?
I dont know.
He hung the come-along on a nail and set the box of staples on a framing crossbrace just inside the door. The horses whinnied from their stalls.
He went on down the barn bay and at the last stall pounded the flat of his hand against the stall door. There was an instant explosion against the boards on the other side. Dust drifted in the light. He looked back at Billy and grinned. Egg it on, said Billy. He'll put a foot through that son of a bitch.
Cities of the Plain by Cormac McCarthy / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes