Cold in july, p.5
Cold in July, p.5Joe R. Lansdale
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Ann went through all the arguments I had given Price, and I gave her all of Price’s arguments back. She didn’t like my answers any better than I had liked them coming from Price.
“I think you and Jordan should leave town,” I said. “Stay somewhere until this blows over.”
“I don’t like that,” Ann said.
“I don’t want the idghalada, daddy, I want chips.”
“It’s enchilada, son, and don’t talk when we’re talking. It’s not polite.”
“But I don’t want—”
“Will you hush, son? I’m trying to talk to your mother. Or she’s trying to talk to me… Christ, I don’t remember who was talking to who.”
“I just want chips,” Jordan said.
“Eat the chips then,” I said, “but let mommy and me talk.”
Jordan started eating out of the bowl of corn chips, looking quite content with himself.
“I was saying,” Ann said, “that I don’t like that idea. I don’t think we should leave. He could follow us. If we went to your mother’s for example, and he did follow us, we could put her in jeopardy as well as ourselves. I say we do as Price suggested. We get a gun and watch out. We’ve got burglar alarms and bars now. That should be worth something.”
“We could take Jordan out of school a few days,” I said. “And maybe you could get some time off. I could let James and Valerie run the shop and we could all stay home for a time. Wait Russel out.”
“It seems like the best idea to me,” Ann said. “Let’s go home.”
I drove out ahead of Ann, and Jordan rode with her. I began to relax some. I began to see everything in a different light. I felt silly. Just because Russel was trying to scare me, didn’t mean he had the balls to do anything. It didn’t necessarily mean anything more than he was upset about his son, which was normal. He was certainly no cream puff, I could see that, but he was still an old man and my house was barred and full of alarms and I had a shotgun in the garage and tough as he might be he couldn’t eat lead, as they might say in a B gangster movie.
I thought about the shotgun. Like the pistol, it was something I had acquired more on the spur of the moment than by design.
About five years back, in a town close to LaBorde, some nut had broken into a house and killed a family while they slept. Two of the victims were kids. Ann was pregnant with Jordan at the time, and I guess I was overcome with paternal instincts. I had never owned a gun and had never wanted to, but I went out and bought the .38 that had eventually killed Russel. I told Ann’s father about the .38 on a visit to Houston, and he had given me the shotgun, told me it was better than the revolver. Said it was less likely to penetrate walls and injure family members. It was a short-barreled Winchester pump, and he gave me some double aught loads and I took the shotgun and the shells home and they went into the garage and the pistol stayed in the shoe box. As my hysteria faded, I forgot about the shotgun and nearly forgot about the .38.
To the best of my memory the shotgun was broken down and was in the garage storage cabinet in the original box with oilcans and tools in front of it. I told myself I would get it out of the box when I got home and load it, put it under my bed, but in the end, I was certain I would feel silly with it there because nothing was going to come of my mental cowboy movie. Russel would lose interest in his dead son, as he had probably had little interest in him when he was alive, and he would go away and things would return to normal.
But when I pulled up in our drive and Ann and Jordan pulled in behind me, the fear and uncertainty returned. Even with the bars and the alarms, or perhaps because I had to have them, I knew I might never feel safe in that house again. And I was more certain of this when I went ahead of them with my key in hand ready to unlock the door.
It was cracked open about three inches already.
I turned and scooped Jordan up with one arm and grabbed Ann’s elbow with the other and directed them back to Ann’s car.
“Get in,” I said.
“We just got here, Daddy.”
“Get behind the wheel, Ann. The front door is unlocked and open.”
She gave me a strange look, then turned and opened the car door. I put Jordan inside and Ann climbed in behind the wheel.
“Get to the Ferguson’s and call the police. Ask for Price.”
“Come with us,” Ann said.
I closed the door and walked back toward the house. I listened for the sound of the car’s engine behind me, hoping my hardheaded wife would do as I asked, and finally I heard it crank and heard the familiar sound of tires on the gravel drive, heading toward the road.
I didn’t go through the front door, but went around the side of the house, trying to be quiet about it, though I figured that wasn’t necessary. If he was in there, he had heard us drive up and probably knew I had stayed and sent them away.
I knelt down and dug out of the sand an old two-by-four that had been there for the longest time, since the carpenters expanded our garage, and tested its strength against my palm. It was still solid enough to crack a skull. I moved around to the rear of the house, expecting any moment that the bastard would jump me. I wondered what in hell I was doing, and why I hadn’t gone with Ann and Jordan, but in truth I knew the answer to that. The sonofabitch had me mad and there was too much macho Texas culture in my blood in spite of myself. The sonofabitch had offended me and my family and I wanted to get hold of him and use the board on his head until my arm got tired and I had to switch to the other hand.
A part of me knew there wasn’t much point to what I was doing. It was stupid. Russel had already proved he could handle me, and I didn’t imagine the board amounted to much in my favor. He might even have a gun, like his son.
When I got around back I was going to use the key, but the door was open here too. The grill and the alarm hadn’t done a damn thing to stop him.
I cocked the board back and stepped inside. The air-conditioning hit me like a blue norther, and the sunlight had been so harsh outside, my vision was affected. Standing there, half-blind, I felt as if I had put my balls in a vise and was waiting for someone to turn the crank.
But nothing happened. My eyes adjusted and I saw the living room was empty and so was what I could see of the kitchen. I checked out the rest of the kitchen and went out in the enclosed garage and found the shotgun. I had remembered wrong. It was put together. The shells were with it. I loaded it and went looking through the rest of the house. I looked Jordan’s room over extra hard. No one was under the bed or in the closet or hiding behind a Mickey Mouse curtain.
I tried the hall bathroom, half expecting, half hoping, Russel would come out from behind the shower curtain after me. I wanted an excuse to kill him. It wasn’t that I had acquired a taste for blood, but right then I was a little crazy and I just wanted to end things between him and me, and I wanted the end to be final.
Using the barrel of the shotgun, I swept the curtain back, but he wasn’t waiting for me in the tub. I went on into the master bedroom.
On the bed was the shoe box that had been in the closet and had held the gun the night of the burglary. Price still had the gun, but there had been some shells in the box, and they had been poured onto the bed and the shoe box had been ripped to shreds.
Jordan’s favorite teddy bear lay there among the pieces.
“It doesn’t take a fucking mental giant to know he’s been here,” I said.
We were in the kitchen, at the table. The police had escorted Ann and Jordan home. Jordan was in the living room watching a Casper the Friendly Ghost videotape, and the uniform cops and detectives were going over the house like starving mice looking for crumbs. So far all they had was a torn shoe box and some .38 shells he might have touched. But I doubted he’d been that stupid. The guy was a pro. You could tell that from the way he’d handled the locks and alarms.
“We know someone has
Ann looked at Price. “Are you for real? I guess it was Goldilocks. There’s a bear and a bed involved and if you guys can find a broken chair and some spilled porridge, you can wrap this case right up.”
“Price,” I said, “you know as well as I do that it was Russel. He found that shoe box with the cartridges and the gun oil stain and he put two and two together. He tore that box up and put Jordan’s teddy bear on our bed as a threat. He was just showing us he can get in and get to Jordan anytime he wants.”
“You’re right, I think it’s Russel, but I can’t prove it. Since I do suspect him, we can have tabs put on him and we can watch your house. I can get official protection without any problem now. But he may be too clever for anything that obvious and we might be able to surprise him.”
“Are you suggesting something?”
“We could put some obvious protection around the house for a couple of days, then pretend to be satisfied that things are normal and withdraw it—or seem to. Your son would have to start back to school then, and you and Mrs. Dane would have to return to work. Then, when he makes his move, we’ll be waiting.”
I looked at Ann. She got up and went over to the kitchen sink and looked out the window. I followed and put my arm around her waist.
“What do we do, Ann?”
She continued to look out the window. Finally she said, “Let’s nail the bastard.”
The uniform cop they left with us was built like an industrial water heater and was a decorated Vietnam vet and a black belt in jujitsu. He was ugly too. I don’t know why, but that kisser of his made me feel better. He didn’t look like the sort to worry about his native good looks if it came down to serious business, and I figured it would take someone like him to handle Russel, even if Russel was in the ballpark of sixty years or so.
The cop’s name was Kevin and they put him in a chair in the hallway, then the rest of them went outside to make their watch. The plan was simple. They would do this obvious watch for a couple of days. Not laying in the yard or anything, but staying in the woods behind the house, and patrolling regularly, posting a man in the ditch that ran to the far right of our property. They would not be overly sloppy about it, but they’d do things in such a way that if an old pro like Russel were around, he’d spot them. Then, when the couple of days were passed, they would leave. Except Kevin. He would remain in the house, having never revealed himself to the outside; he would remain and wait. Close surveillance would be maintained where we worked and where Jordan went to school. Police officers in unmarked cars would be waiting to follow us in the mornings at a safe distance and in the afternoons when we returned. Weekends, police would be hidden in the woods surrounding the house, only this time with the intent of not being seen. “Very organized, and very safe,” Price said.
So we started that night. The police went away except for the few who were supposed to be in the woods behind the house and the man in the ditch. Inside, we turned on the alarms and pulled the grills in place. Considering how easily Russel had gone through them before, I felt almost silly bothering with them.
The cop had food and a coffee thermos next to his chair in the hallway. Except to go to the bathroom, he didn’t plan to move. In fact, he didn’t look like he could be moved; he looked as solid as a stone gargoyle.
Price called about ten. They hadn’t seen Russel, but they had found his car. It was not far from our house, parked on a little dirt road that wound into the woods and ended at a dead end of trees and garbage that some of our less environmentally conscious citizens had tossed out. It seemed likely that Russel was somewhere in the area. Maybe creeping up on the house at the very moment. If Russel saw the cops and went away, more cops would be waiting at his car. If he abandoned the car, we still had our old plan. Wait a few days, make things look easy for him, then surprise him. We just had all kinds of plans.
I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep, but I was more tired than I thought; worry had gnawed me down. As I was drifting off, I tried once again to imagine Russel with little Freddy, but nothing came of it. I thought then of my own father, Herman Dane. I missed him. I didn’t know exactly why. He had never spent much time with me. He went hunting and fishing a lot and took me only once. He worked the rest of the time just to put food on the table. My mother called him names at night when I was supposed to be asleep. I think he loved me, but he always looked at me with a kind of astonishment, as if I had been landed in his house by aliens. I’ve been told I look just like him.
When I was twelve he took his beautiful Winchester rifle from the closet and loaded it in his station wagon with his rods and reels, and said he was going on a fishing trip. He let me walk him out to the car. He got down on one knee and told me he loved me and held me. That’s the only time I remember such a thing. He drove away and I never saw him again. They found him in a fishing camp with the Winchester barrel in his mouth, his naked toe on the trigger. The top of his head was gone. There was talk of too many bills and another man my mother loved. I never knew for sure. I didn’t go to the funeral.
My Uncle Ned, dad’s brother, used to say, “He was a man of honor and integrity.” I didn’t understand what he meant then, but as I grew older and heard more about my dad from others, I came to understand what my Uncle Ned meant. He lived by his word and had a simple code of justice. I suppose it could have been called a Hemingway code, or some such thing. He didn’t bother people and he didn’t allow himself to be bothered. He stood up for himself and didn’t expect others to do it. And I guess he shot himself because my mother’s infidelity was just too much. Maybe being an honorable man living in a dishonorable situation was more than he could stand.
After the suicide, my mother went into a blue funk and went away, leaving me to live with my grandfather and grandmother. Two years later we heard she had died in what was then called a tourist court just outside of Amarillo. Too many pills and too many men. I didn’t know how to feel about her.
But I never stopped thinking about my dad. The big hands (like Russel’s) holding me, hugging me. The smell of King Edward cigars on his breath as he told me he loved me. The hollow tubes of his eyes.
I doubt I really remember his eyes. That may be a thing I’ve created to remember. An extra frame slipped into the motion picture of my past. But his eyes must have been that way when he left that day. My mother was a beautiful woman.
I thought of the baby Ann and I had lost, relived that horrible scenario again. Then I thought of a few nights past when Ann’s elbow brought me awake and our horror cycle had begun. I reviewed the entire incident, ended it with me standing over the dead man who was sitting on our couch, his eye gone, his blood on our painting and wall.
Finally I tumbled down into the deepest part of sleep where the unremembered dreams live, and what happened next I’m not entirely sure of. But it went something like this:
Russel was even smarter than we thought he was. Breaking into the house earlier, leaving the doors open, had been a ploy. Instead of leaving, he had found the opening in our closet that led to the crawl space above, and he had pulled himself through the trap door and up there to wait among the rafters, wiring, and insulation. Even with the central air cooling the house, he would have been steaming up there. That was where all the heat rose and became trapped. He would have been basted in his own juices, his clothes clinging to him as damp and tight and hot as a thin swathe of tar. But he lay up there, not moving, silent, waiting. The day wore on and cooled near evening, and finally, when we were asleep, he opened the sliding trap in the closet and eased himself down, gently opened the door. That would have put him in a position to look right at Ann and me, helpless while we slept. But it wasn’t us he wanted.
He stepped out of the closet and went to the bedroom door, closed this night due to our visitor in the hall, and he cracked it open. Our cop, thinking it was either Ann or me said, “Mr. Dane?”
I heard that down
But already Russel had jumped our cop, and there was a yell from Kevin and the sound of something slamming against the wall in the hall, and I was rolling out of bed, grabbing at the shotgun under it, rushing for the bedroom door.
I got out in the hall just in time to see our Vietnam vet, black belt policeman take a marvelous left hook on the chin that bounced him over his chair even as his hand was in mid-draw for his revolver. The sound of the punch and the way Kevin went down like a broken manikin told me he wouldn’t be getting up for a while.
It was me and Russel. He turned just as I put the shotgun on him and tried to pull the trigger, but found it was on safety. As I thumbed at the switch, Russel moved across the hall and knocked up the barrel of the gun, and as it was in action now, and my finger was firm against the trigger, it went off and a shot went into the ceiling, raining plaster on us like snow.
Through no great technique of my own, I went back and my feet got tangled with Russel’s and we fell halfway into the bedroom. The shotgun went sliding away, under the bed, I think, and Russel didn’t pursue it. He hit me a hard right on the forehead and my mind filled with blackness and glitter.
When the glitter fell away, I came awake to Ann yelling, “He’s in Jordan’s room!” And we were both up and running, me wobbling as I went.
I heard Jordan yell, “Daddy,” and a weakness went through me like the worst disease you can imagine. I felt like the slowest, stupidest, most mortal person on earth. I had allowed Russel to hornswoggle me, whip me, and now he had my son.
Cold in July by Joe R. Lansdale / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes