Cold in july, p.3
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       Cold in July, p.3

           Joe R. Lansdale
 
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  Valerie and James stopped working and came over to the desk.

  “What’s all this?” James asked.

  “Dick got him one last night,” Jack said.

  First of all, I hated being called Dick. It’s the nickname for a man’s sexual equipment, and as far as I’m concerned you might as well call me Prick. And I sure didn’t like Jack calling me that; I wouldn’t want that bastard to call me to dinner.

  “He shot the bastard right through the head,” Jack said, not waiting for me to answer. “Killed his ass.”

  “That’s enough,” I said.

  “No need to be modest, Dicky.” Dicky? “Hell, I’d be proud. Sonofabitch breaks into my house he better sure be ready to pick his teeth out of his asshole. I keep a pump 12-gauge right under the bed, and if—”

  “Drop it, Jack,” I said. “Just drop it.”

  “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Jack said. “If it were me—”

  “It wasn’t you. It was me. And I’m not ashamed of it, just not proud of it either. You got some mail for me, leave it. If not, get out.”

  Jack’s face turned red and his mouth went slack. “You kill some asshole, and you get to talking pretty damn tough. Think you’re fucking Clint Eastwood.”

  “Just leave,” I said.

  “All right, cowboy.” Jack reached into his bag and tossed a handful of letters on the counter. They slid off and fell on the floor. “Enjoy your fucking mail, Dicky.”

  He gave me a parting glare and stomped out, holding the door open long enough to let in some of July. “Hope your fucking air conditioner goes out,” he said.

  “And I hope a rabid dog chews off your nuts,” Valerie said.

  James and I both jerked our heads toward her. Valerie?

  Jack stood in the doorway, shocked. “That’s not very ladylike,” he managed.

  “You got it,” Valerie said.

  Jack swallowed, let go of the door, and walked away. He looked back through the showcase window just before he was out of sight, and Valerie shot him the finger.

  Valerie looked at us and blushed redder than her dress. “Well,” she said, “I just don’t like him.”

  6

  I told James and Valerie the whole story and they were good about it. They didn’t ask for any gory details. I finally left things in their hands and drove over to Kelly’s. I just didn’t want to talk about it anymore or be around anyone that knew about it for a while. I needed, as they say in California, some space. Or as we say in Texas, I wanted to be left the hell alone.

  I passed Jack on the sidewalk on the way over there. He was still making his rounds. He had his head down and was walking furiously. I thought about how Valerie had put him down, and I almost honked at him so I could remind him, but I didn’t. My sense of humor wasn’t up to it.

  Kelly’s is an old-fashioned cafe on the west side of town, and I eat there often. I like it because it reminds me of my high school days. I’m not the type that lives in the past, but I don’t mind thinking about it some. I used to take dates to Kelly’s and we’d drink malts and eat hamburgers there. It was actually owned by a man named Kelly then. But that was quite a few years back. He was out at the LaBorde Cemetery now, holding up a plastic flower arrangement.

  I couldn’t go into Kelly’s without thinking about Stud Franklin who went in there one Saturday and shot himself through the head with a .22 pistol. I didn’t see it, but I heard about it from plenty who did. He just walked in there and, said, “Fuck him and his pig too,” and put the gun to his head. He was upset because he didn’t win the FHA contest. He’d raised a pig for it, worked all year on that pig and put all his money into it, bought fancy food and medical supplies. He was beat out by some backwoods farmer who raised his pig on stale bread and cakes and fed him chewing tobacco to kill worms. Later, they found Stud’s pig hung up in the fancy concrete pen Stud had built for him. No one suspected the pig of suicide. Stud had seemed stable up until then.

  And the back booth, the one with the rip in the leather that had been badly taped over and over for years, was where my first real romance ended. I had put my hand on Kathy Counsel’s knee and tried to slide it up under her dress for a better prize and she had slapped me, the sound of that slap went through the place like a mortar shot. I went out of there with her yelling at me and the other lads laughing, and I didn’t go back in there for a month. Kathy Counsel got knocked up about six months later by our star quarterback, Herschel Roman, and they had to quit school and Herschel threw his last ball and started throwing nozzles into gas tanks down at the Fina on Main. He was still there. He owned the place now and he watched lots of football on the TV next to the Coke machine. Kathy had gotten fat and had a tongue sharp as a meat fork. Their kid played football and was bad at it and hated it, or so the rumor went. Occasionally, I had the urge to call up Cathy and thank her for that slap.

  Out back of Kelly’s was where I had my only two fights. Lost both of them. I couldn’t even remember what they were over. They had both been with my best high school friend, Jerry Quail. He got drafted after graduation because he wasn’t college material. He never saw action in Nam. The week before he went over there he fell out of a helicopter on maneuvers and was killed. I attended the funeral.

  I didn’t take one of the booth seats. I sat down at the counter and Kay came over. She was the only waitress in the place that time of day, and I liked her. She was pretty in a peroxide, too-much-makeup sort of way, and happily married or not, I couldn’t help but enjoy the way her hips worked beneath that starched white outfit she wore. She had some of what Valerie had; an element women wished they could buy bottled and so did their men.

  I smiled best I could and ordered coffee. She poured it up and said, “I heard what happened.”

  “Christ,” I said. “People in this town are goddamn telepathic.”

  “They just have big mouths,” she said. “Anyway, I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s tough.”

  “That was just the right thing to say, Kay. Thanks.”

  She smiled and I moved over to a booth. I sat with my head back against the old, red, leather cushion and closed my eyes. Immediately last night jumped through my head.

  I opened my eyes and drank half of my coffee in one gulp. It was bitter. I called to Kay to bring me a Coke. I sipped it. It wasn’t any better.

  “Use your phone?”

  Kay was behind the bar wiping up a water spot “Have at it. You know where it is.”

  I went through the back door, into the stockroom. The phone was sitting on the directory on a shelf next to an economy-sized can of tomatoes. That would be for the chili they served. It said: Good stuff, but hot as a potbellied stove.

  I leaned on the shelf and used the directory to look up a number. It was on the first page in big letters. I dialed.

  “LaBorde Police Department”

  “I’d like to speak to Lieutenant Price.”

  “Just a moment.”

  When Price came on the line, I said, “This is Dane. I just wanted to know what happened to Russel’s body.”

  “He’ll be buried day after tomorrow. Would have been today, but they did an autopsy.”

  “Why?”

  “Fairly standard procedure. Why do you want to know about burial?”

  “This Russel, he got any family besides his old man?”

  “I don’t think so. None that we know of. The county is paying for it. A pauper’s funeral we call it.”

  “Where’s he going to be buried?”

  “Greenley’s Cemetery. You’re not planning on coming, are you?”

  “It crossed my mind.”

  “Guilt?”

  “Something like that.”

  “I know how you feel, but you’re letting this get out of hand. You’ve got to accept the fact that you killed him in self-defense. He broke into your house.”

  “Just got to thinking about it. Doesn’t seem right he’ll be buried without anyone there.”

  “You think his spirit
s going to feel cheerier with you there? The man who killed him?”

  I was quiet for a moment. When Price spoke again, his words seemed packed in ice. “Look, I’m not trying to make you feel shitty, okay? I’m just saying there’s no point. I doubt if he’d killed you he’d be attending your funeral.”

  “Not the point—”

  “Maybe it is the point. Just do your best to forget it. Get on with your life. People are going to talk about it and you’re going to hear it. It’ll be rough for a while. But it’ll pass.”

  “What time are they burying him?”

  “You’re stubborn, aren’t you?”

  “Just humor me, Price. I don’t know I’m going to do anything, but it would make me feel better to know. Day after tomorrow when?”

  Price sighed. “One-thirty. But Dane, do yourself a favor. Stay away.”

  I hung up and dialed a good friend of mine who’s a house painter, gritted my teeth and told him what had happened. I tried to make it simple and clear.

  “Hell, Richard, I’m sorry.”

  “No need to be,” I said. “It’s done. Look, what I need is for you to paint my living room. It’s not that there’s still blood on the wall, but it would make me feel better to have a fresh coat on the room.”

  “I understand, I’ll get my boys and we’ll be over there about noon.”

  “Thanks, Ted. And I’m calling a locksmith and the furniture store. You beat any of them there, let them in. Best way for you to get in is to take some wire pliers and go around back and cut through the wire rig I made last night.”

  “No problem,” Ted said.

  “Thanks.”

  I used the book again and got the number of a furniture store.

  “I want a couch,” I said, and I gave them the colors of the room, the general dimensions. They described what they had and I picked. I hoped Ann would like it well enough. Buying it sight unseen was not a good idea, but I just didn’t want to deal with people face to face any more than I had to.

  “When can you deliver? I’d like it today if you could.”

  “That will be fine. About one o’clock all right?”

  “That’s good. There’ll be a painter there named Ted Lawson to let you in. Could you take my old couch off my hands? It’s not good for anything, but I’ll pay you extra to carry it off.”

  He thought on that a moment. “I suppose we can do that. No charge.”

  “Good. And could you cover the new one with plastic?. I don’t want to get paint on it.”

  He said they could, and I hung up, then dialed the locksmith.

  “Truman’s Locks, Truman speaking.”

  “My name is Richard Dane, and—”

  “You’re the fella shot that burglar last night, ain’t you?”

  Great Godalmighty, word sure did move.

  “That’s right. I need a lock on the door he tore up. Can you do it today?”

  “I can start today. Depends on how bad the door is busted. You might have to get someone out there to fix that first”

  “It just needs a lock,” I said.

  “All right. Hey, they gonna put you in jail?”

  “It was self-defense.”

  “That don’t mean nothing these days. You can’t trust the cops any better than the crooks. What’s that address?”

  I told him.

  “Say, Mr. Dane. How about a burglar alarm and some burglar bars? I could fix you up real good. Goddamn Houdini couldn’t get in your house once I got you secured.”

  I knew he was working on my paranoia, and I knew I’d regret it later. "Yeah," I said. "Let's shoot the works."

  “Good move. We’ll get that lock and the bars in today. Start on that alarm system tomorrow. That sound okay?”

  “Peachy,” I said, and hung up.

  I went up-front and sat at my booth again and finished my Coke. It tasted a little better. I looked at the clock behind the counter and over the mirror. Eleven. Too early for lunch.

  To hell with that.

  “Kay,” I called, “how about you get that cook in back to fix me up a fried egg sandwich, and don’t hold the grease.”

  “Got it,” she said, then yelled to the back. “Clyde.”

  A black man in a stained white apron appeared at the cook window. “Two baby chicks, dead on bread and don’t hold the grease,” she said.

  Clyde tapped two fingers to his forehead in salute and disappeared. I heard grease splattering in a pan a little later.

  Kay came over with a Lone Star beer and sat it on the table. “On the house,” she said.

  I took my time drinking the beer, and later eating the sandwich, listened to a couple of Dwight Yoakam songs on the jukebox, then drove back to the shop.

  7

  A few people who had heard about the killing came into the shop, and at least one of them was nothing more than a morbid curiosity seeker. He didn’t even try to pretend he had business there, he just wanted to know about last night. I told him all I felt like telling him, then went to the bathroom in the back and stayed there until James and Valerie got rid of him.

  Rest of the day I worked on frames by myself and had James and Valerie stay up front. There wasn’t that much work for them up there, and I really could have used one of them on the frames, but I wanted to be left alone and I wanted to stay away from bullshit conversation. Talk about the weather and the Dallas Cowboys wasn’t going to cut it today. It would only remind me I was putting up a veneer against the real concerns, and that would be worse.

  About four-thirty, I was working on a limited-edition print, putting 100 percent rag matt around it, when the phone rang. James answered and said it was for me.

  It was Price.

  “There may be a problem,” he said.

  “What kind of problem?”

  “Ben Russel. Freddy’s father. He got out of Huntsville yesterday. He knows his son is dead, knows he was killed in a burglary, and word is he’s coming to the funeral. He could be dangerous. Don’t go to the funeral.”

  “I’ll think about it.”

  “Stay away from Ben Russel, Mr. Dane. He’s dangerous. You being at his son’s funeral would just make matters worse. You stay home and maybe he’ll just let things be and move on. He probably doesn’t care one way or another about the boy. His type is vengeful. Just looking for an excuse.”

  “Thanks for the advice, Price.”

  “Heed it, Dane. Trust me on this.”

  I hung up and went back to my matting. I backed the print and got a piece of no-glare glass for it, but found I couldn’t make it fit the frame. My hands didn’t work right.

  I had James finish it. I drank a cup of coffee I didn’t need, then went to the bathroom to think. I tried to picture Ben Russel and imagined him long and lean with a crew cut and a scar on the side of his face. I figured he had a gravelly voice and was the kind of guy that had killed a fellow inmate in prison with a spoon he had sharpened in metal shop. I could imagine the warden talking to him when they let him out, telling him, “Go straight, Russel,” And I could imagine Russel thinking, “Yeah, soon as I finish a little job in LaBorde.”

  I washed my face and went home early.

  8

  Ann picks Jordan up from day school every day when she gets off work, so when I got home he was sitting at the table eating a bologna sandwich. Mayonnaise was dripping out of it and there was a circle of the stuff thick as mad dog foam around his mouth. The mayonnaise jar and the table were covered with it too.

  “Hi, Daddy.”

  “Hi, son.”

  I looked at the table and the spoon and the jar and went over and got a paper towel and cleaned up best I could. I made a point of not saying anything to him about the mess. Usually I jumped him. But I was trying to put things in better perspective this day, and suddenly the mess seemed a lot less major than it might have the day before. And for that matter, who was I to cast the first stone. I wasn’t that neat and organized now, and I was thirty-five.

  I saw that Ted
and his boys were in the living room, painting away. They had the floor covered in plastic sheets, but there was very little splashed on it. They had their backs to me, and as I had come in through the garage, they hadn’t noticed me yet. I watched them work a minute, then looked at my watch. Six o’clock. That was one good thing about hiring a man who worked for himself. He worked until the job got done, not until five o’clock. Besides, a painter had to take work where he could find it. They didn’t get the offer on a daily basis.

  I kissed Jordan on the head and he told me a story his teacher had read the class that day. It was about Clifford the Big Red Dog. He liked the story a lot. He retold it loudly and with lots of gestures. During this time Ted and his sons turned to look and I gave them a nod. When Jordan finished his story, I poured him a fresh glass of milk to spill, and went into the living room for a full view of the work.

  They looked to be about finished. The room was strong with the smell of paint, a smell I normally despised, but today it seemed fresh as a spring morning. And the old couch was gone. The new one was in the center of the room covered with a plastic sheet as I had instructed.

  Ted wiped his hands on a rag he had in his back pocket and came over. “I’d shake,” he said, “but I might get some paint on you. We’ll be out of your hair in about an hour or so. If you can keep your boy off the wall, it’ll look better than new soon as it’s completely dry.”

  “I’ll do my best,” I said.

  “Locksmith came by. He put the bill in the kitchen.”

  “I didn’t see it,” I said.

  “It’s stuck to your refrigerator with one of those fruit magnets. I looked. He overcharged you. He said he’d be back tomorrow to try and finish. And, you can see the couch came.”

  “Yeah.”

  “You’re all right, I suppose?”

  “Sure.”

  “Well, get so you think you aren’t, give me a call. Hell, remember how we used to talk about things in high school? I’m still here. We ought to just get together for a beer anyway. It’s been a long time.”

 
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