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Authors: Joe R. Lansdale

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BOOK: Sunset and Sawdust
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It was odd to realize she and he were both killers.

Sunset lay back down after Hillbilly left. She did so with the intention of resting a moment, but surprised herself by falling asleep. She awoke from her nap with a hand stroking her cheek.

For a moment she thought it was Pete, in one of his rare sweet moods, but then she remembered it couldn’t be Pete.

It was Karen.

“I didn’t mean to say all them things, Mama.”

Sunset managed to sit up. She had her hand in her dress pocket, had hold of the revolver. It was hard to open her hand and let it go. She had slept with it in her fist, her finger out of the trigger guard, just holding it by the hilt as if it were a club. She had held it so long and hard her hand was cramping and for a long moment she couldn’t extend her fingers.

“I just couldn’t take the beating,” Sunset said. “Wasn’t the first one he give me, Karen. You just didn’t know about it. He hit me so it wouldn’t show. Except this time. He was a good daddy to you, but he wasn’t no kind of husband to me.”

“Why did he do it, Mama? What did you do to make him hit you?”

“What did I do? If I’d have done something, got crazy mad, started beating on him and he got crazy too, I could forgive that and understand. Maybe I could understand if something bad happened to him that was my fault, or he was sick and not thinking clear, but it wasn’t nothing like that. Wasn’t just him hitting out at me. He really went to work on me. Did it because he liked to do it.”

Karen hung her head. “He didn’t never hit me. You’re the only one ever spanked me.”

“He loved you. He adored you.”

Sunset put her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. Karen let it rest there.

“He always told me good night,” Karen said. “He can’t do that no more. We can’t go fishing no more. And we always sang together. He taught me to sing. Said I was as good as Sara Carter.”


“You could have done something else. Didn’t have to kill him. You could have just left him.”

“I was going to, but I didn’t know how to tell you. Wish I had told you. It’s better than having to tell you what I told you last night. And I couldn’t just go and leave when it was happening, baby. Right then he wasn’t letting me go nowhere. I was afraid he got through I wouldn’t go nowhere again, ever. Look at my face, child.”

Karen turned to look. Sunset noted, painfully, that Karen resembled her father.

“My nose is broken, my lips are busted up. Lucky I got all my teeth. Can barely see out of my left eye. Think your daddy loved me, Karen?”

Karen started to cry, laid her head against her mother. Sunset held her like that for a long time.

When Karen stopped crying, Sunset said, “Your daddy wasn’t always bad to me. We had some good times. I loved him once. And I know he loved me. We met when I was sixteen and he was nineteen. That was too young. But we wanted one another and thought what we had was love, and it was, of a kind. But it was young love. We just wanted to play house, Karen. Thought being in bed together every night was love. Hear me? Keep that in mind you get all tied up with some boy and think you just can’t live without him around you and in you.”

“Mama, don’t talk like that.”

“That’s the truth, and I got to talk that way now. We ain’t got time for pretty words, just the truth. You save yourself from getting married till you’re old enough to know who and what you want. That Jerry Flynn you’re seeing. He’s a good boy. But you’re too young to think about marriage, and so’s he.”

“I ain’t said nothing about marriage.”

“No. But you could be thinking it. I thought it when I was your age. Got married and your daddy wasn’t through with other women. He wouldn’t never have been through with other women. I don’t know any more to say. Wouldn’t know what to say he died some other kind of way. But like this. There ain’t no words . . . Do you hate me?”

Karen shook her head. “I don’t know how I feel . . . What we gonna do now?”

“You could go to your grandma’s. You could stay there till I could figure some things out.”

“I don’t want to go there by myself.”

“You been there by yourself plenty.”

“I know. But Daddy’s there. Can’t we just go home?”

“There ain’t any home, Karen. It blowed away.”

“Can’t we just go there anyway?”

“If I can walk that far. I’m getting so stiff I can hardly move. Get there, all you’re gonna find is the house is blowed away. There’s just the floor.”

“I want to go.”

They walked out to the road, caught a ride with a man driving a rickety transport truck full of squawking chickens. The man, who had four teeth poorly arranged in his mouth, looked at Sunset when she climbed in next to him, Karen by the passenger door. He said, “You been in some kind of accident?”

“You could say that,” Sunset said.

The man drove them most of the distance and let them out where they didn’t have to walk too far, which suited Sunset fine.

When they got there it was noon and they were both hungry and had nothing to eat. As Sunset had said, there was only the floor left and a few items strewn about. The chicken house out back was gone, except for two posts with a tangle of net wire between them and a twist of feathers and meat where the storm had driven a chicken through it. The outhouse was gone too, leaving only the deep pit full of stinking waste. The yard was no longer littered with fish. There were a few left and they had dried up and shriveled in the sun and they stunk to high heaven. As for the rest of the fish, it was obvious what had happened to most of them. There were coon tracks in the dirt where they had come to feed. It looked like every coon in East Texas had attended a shindig there, dancing and leaping to cricket-leg music by the light of the moon.

In the not too distant trees they could see clothes and lumber and snarled limbs. There was a gap where trees had been knocked down by the tornado, and there was the overturned car wedged between two abused oak trees.

The walk had actually helped Sunset. She was moving more easily, feeling some oil in her joints, but she was tired and ready to rest.They sat on the flooring of the house and looked around.

Karen said, “I don’t know what I expected. You told me it was all gone.”

“Yeah, honey. Long gone.”

“I’m so hungry.”

“We can pick blackberries.”

They went down by the creek where the berry vines grew thick and picked some blackberries and ate them as they went. The berries were warm and sweet and the vines were close to the ground. While they picked they were cautious to watch for snakes. After a while they went back to the flooring and sat on the edge of it and looked out at the day as the sun staggered past noon and began to tumble to the other side of the sky like a ball rolling downhill.

When Sunset felt strong again, they went and looked at the car. No doubt about it, it was ruined. Pete’s files were strewn around it. Sunset began picking them up.

“These might be important to the next constable,” she said.

Karen helped her. They tried putting the files back inside the wooden file cabinet, but it was too busted up. They gathered all the files, even those still in the cabinet, and put them in the car.

About two in the afternoon they went to sit on the flooring of the house again. Karen sang, a little halfheartedly, but her voice when it was perking was really sharp, and Sunset thought: Yeah, she’s good as Sara Carter, but with less nose in the notes.

After a while a truck came clattering down the little road in front of the house. Sunset looked up, saw the driver was her mother-in-law.

Karen broke and ran toward the truck, yelling, “Grandma.”

Sunset said, “Watch you don’t get run over.”

The truck slowed and stopped. Karen jerked open the door, grabbed her grandma and hugged her.

Sunset walked over, said, “How’d you know we was here?”

“Where else was you gonna go? Don’t you think you ought to come home?”

“I don’t think Mr. Jones would like that.”

“Honey, far as I’m concerned, there ain’t no Mr. Jones no more.”


When they arrived at Marilyn’s house the body was in the basket and it was covered with a scrap quilt. Karen said, “I want to see him.”

“I thought you didn’t,” Sunset said.

“I do now.”

“You’re sure?” Marilyn asked.

“No. But I want to see him.”

“All right, baby,” Marilyn said. “I fixed him best could be done. He ain’t dressed now. But he’s covered in ice. I’ll show you his face.”

Marilyn lifted the quilt and they took off the basket lid. Marilyn raked ice away from Pete’s face. Sunset stared at the candle wax pushed into the bullet hole. Marilyn had added some rouge to Pete’s cheeks and a touch of lipstick to his lips, powder to the rest of his face. This had been done before the ice, and the ice had turned it all to a mess. Sunset thought Pete looked like someone about to try out for the circus.

“It’s kind of overdone,” Marilyn said. “But he looked so pale. So blue around the lips. The ice messed it up. I didn’t know at the time we were gonna put him on ice. I’ll redo him before the funeral.”

“Cover him,” Karen said, and staggered off toward the sleeping porch. About the time she made it there, she began to cry.

Sunset started that way, but Marilyn caught her by the arm. “She needs to be let alone for a bit.”

Sunset nodded.

Marilyn pushed ice over Pete’s face, put the lid on the basket with Sunset’s help. They covered the basket with the quilt.

Sunset swallowed, said, “Can you have me around? Knowing I done this?”

“Come on, girl. Let’s go on the porch and sit.”

They sat on the warm front steps and from there they could see the men and animals working at the mill. They could hear the saws whining, especially the Big Saw in the Big Saw House. The air was stuffed with the sappy smell of fresh-cut sawdust and the black smoke from the power house and the gray smoke from the drying kilns. The sunlight shining through smoke and sawdust made the air over the mill, and much of the camp, look green, but where the smoke was thin, some of the tin roofs caught the sun and threw it back to the sky in a silver flash that made Sunset squint.

She reminded herself that Mr. Jones was not far away, up there in the Big Saw House most likely, doing paperwork to the grinding sound of the saw. He did a lot of that these days, a lot less of the hard manual labor, a lot more of the firing and hiring and distribution of lumber. He had earned the right, she supposed.

She idly wondered if the man she had met by the creek had actually asked for a job. He may have been a hobo, but he didn’t look like it. His clothes were not perfect, but she could tell right off he was a man who cared about his appearance, and he had a good one. She could tell too that he would only work hard work if he had to. He was not the kind of man who looked forward to a life holding a plow, stepping in mule mess, or working at a sawmill, for that matter.

There was something about that that appealed to her.

Then she thought: If I am such a good judge of character, then why did I marry Pete?

Marilyn said, “When I was a girl my great-granddaddy decided lumber was the future. He was born up North but moved to East Texas and went to work here doing farmwork. He looked around, saw this land was full of houses yet to be cut, and thought the thing to do was to start up a mill business. This was in about nineteen ten. He come here and took it over from a few loggers who cut trees and hauled them all the way to Nacogdoches. He hired them to work for him, instead of freelancing. He put in a real mill, and the mill took. It made money and he got rich. I own a big chunk of that mill, along with Jones, and Henry Shelby. You know all this.”

“I do. Except I didn’t know you owned part of the mill. I guess I should have, but I hadn’t thought about it. I don’t think about women owning much of anything. I just figured Jones owned all your share when he married you.”

“Here’s some more things you don’t know. You don’t know that my daddy liked Jones all right at first, but later not so much, so he made a contract that says if I ever decide, for whatever reason, to not want Jones to have any part of the mill, I can make that decision. Cause Henry married Daddy’s sister, Henry gets his share no matter what.”

“Are you saying you’re going to fire Jones?” Sunset said.

“No. I even plan on letting him keep a large part of the mill. Less than before, but a large part. He’s earned that.”

Sunset nodded, not exactly sure where this was going, why Marilyn was telling her stuff she already knew, even why she was telling her stuff she didn’t know. She could hardly look at her mother-in-law without feeling like she wanted to burst out crying.

“I met Jones when we come here from Arkansas, and I wasn’t nothing but a girl and he wanted to marry. Wanted to get into a family had money. Mine had money cause of the mill. I think I knew that then, that he wanted to marry me because of the money, but I didn’t care. I thought Jones was a good man. But he wasn’t. He beat me. Of course, you know what that’s like, don’t you? I wanted to make the marriage work. I was told a woman made the marriage work. That it didn’t matter how many whores your husband laid with, if he beat you or cussed you, or whatever, you made it work, you made it work for the children.

“Pete, he growed up seeing his daddy talk to me a kind of way you wouldn’t talk to a dog, and he seen his daddy ‘correct’ me, as Jones liked to call it.”

“That’s what Pete called it,” Sunset said.

“I took it, because I was making my marriage work. What I was doing was teaching my son to be like his father. Now, his father has good points. He’s a hard worker, and he never just laid back and lived off money that was mine cause of who I was. He liked the fact it got him a position in the mill. Position was everything to him. Big man. Big house. Big job. Wife that knows her place and a good strapping son that doesn’t take anything from anybody. Jones had other good points. He treated Pete well. He got angry, he didn’t take it out on Pete, he took it out on me. Jones was strong too, and when I was younger, I liked that. A strong man. Later, when he held me down and did what he wanted, I wasn’t so proud of him being strong. I loved him once.”

“I loved Pete once.”

“I know you did. I saw the light in your eyes.”

“He was good sometimes. He could be funny when he wasn’t mad, and he had a fine voice. He was good to Karen, and she has a good voice too. He taught her to sing. But he had spells. Ways.”

Marilyn nodded.

“I thought Pete wouldn’t be like his daddy, but I was wrong. Another trait Jones has is he’s hung like a horse. But I never really got to enjoy it. He just sort of jumped on me and did it, you know. If I’d have blinked, I’d have missed it.”

Sunset blushed. She had never heard a woman discuss such things, and had certainly not expected it from her mother-in-law.

Well, she thought. In for a penny, in for a pound.

“Pete got that trait. The horse part. And the jump on you part. He didn’t ever love me good but once. And I reckon that’s the reason Karen was born from it. He wanted other babies, but I didn’t never take again and didn’t want to. With him it was like I was some kind of breeding stock.”

“You not getting pregnant again shows God watches out for good folks.”

Sunset thought: He was watching out for me, he wouldn’t have let me marry that sonofabitch Pete Jones in the first place. And when he mounted me, God would surely have made it more fun.

She remembered that every time Pete finished, he made a little noise like a sick mouse trying to clear its throat. It came out when he finished. His hips died and the sick mouse went to work. A kind of cough followed by a soft choking sound, like maybe there were cobwebs down there. Then silence, and drool along her shoulder. She never did figure what that was about, the mouse sound, but it was constant and Sunset wondered if he did it with his whores and mistresses. Mount them, squirt, and make that little sick-mouse noise.

“Reckon you’re wondering what I’m leading up to here,” Marilyn said.

“I know Mr. Jones is gone,” Sunset said. “I know that.”

“Last night I had enough. That boy in there, he wouldn’t be dead today had I not taken that hitting business from Jones without fighting back. Had I stood up for myself or took Pete and left, it wouldn’t have happened.

“I didn’t want my boy dead, Sunset, but I figure I’m to blame as much as Jones. I know you done what you had to do. Last night, I near done it to Jones. You hadn’t done what you did, you might have got killed, and in time Jones might have killed me. I reckon he’d finally got too old to have the full fire in him, but he had enough to hurt me. Had days when hurting me made him feel better. He’d say I was off with some man, when he knew I wasn’t and couldn’t have been, cause I had been around all day. But reason had nothing to do with it.

“When I saw Pete in there, it all come to the surface, and I had had enough. I didn’t care about making nothing work no more. I sewed Jones to the bed while he was sleeping and beat him with a yard rake.”

“A rake?”

“That’s right. Then I got Jones’s shotgun and I sent him packing.”

“What are you going to do now?”

“What are we both going to do now? I suppose we’ll stay here together. I got money, dear. And I got me a resolve now. That’s the word, ain’t it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Yeah. That’s what I got. A resolve. I haven’t felt this good and strong in years.”

“I can’t live on your money, Marilyn, and won’t.”

“Don’t be too high and mighty. What else you going to do?”

“I’ll do something.”

“It’s best for Karen you live here. In time, you’ll find another husband, or if you’re lucky, maybe you won’t.”

“All men can’t be that way.”

“My experience is limited, and not good.”

“I want to work, Marilyn. I want my own money for me and Karen, and I don’t want to be dependent on a man. I been in that situation, and I didn’t like it none.”

“That ain’t easy to do, dear. Not unless you’re willing to accept my taking care of you until you can do better.”

Sunset said, “I don’t know if Karen will ever really forgive me.”

“She ought to. I have. I don’t like the fact my boy’s lying in there dead, but I don’t want to lose you and my granddaughter too. We’re gonna do okay, Sunset. I promise. Know what?”


“We need to go inside and let me work on that face of yours. I got some stuff will help take the bruising out and bring the swelling down. And I got some clothes might fit you better than those I gave you. I wasn’t always so thick in the middle. Come on, dear.”

Marilyn stood, smiled, held out her hand, and Sunset, after a brief pause, took it.

The funeral was on a little hill under a large oak. Pete was buried near the oak, next to the grave of Jones’ mother and father, not far from the unmarked grave of a family hound that had traveled with them all the way from up North, then to Nacogdoches, and Camp Rapture, and finally, at the ripe old dog age of fifteen, had choked to death on a chicken bone at a family celebration.

The crowd was large. Many were there because they knew Pete, and many were there because it was the polite thing to do and there was not much else happening. They knew that afterward, at Marilyn’s house, there would be lots of food brought by women from all over the camp.

Sunset didn’t attend. Karen went to the funeral with her grandmother. Mr. Jones came, stood on the opposite side of the grave. He gave a good-soldier smile to his granddaughter, and she smiled at him. When he looked at his wife, the smile went away.

The preacher said good things about Pete and wished him to heaven, then the crowd walked away and two colored men, hired on for the day, threw dirt over the coffin.

There was a gathering at the Jones house. There was food and there was talk about Pete. About how brave he was. The times he did this or that. And there was the story of Three-Fingered Jack, of course. Finally the talk turned to crops and animals, the tornado, and the mill. Gradually that petered out, and everyone came by and spoke kindly to the family and left.

In the end, there was only Marilyn and Karen and Jones.

“There ain’t no way we can get past this?” Jones asked.

“Karen,” Marilyn said, “you run out so the adults can talk.”

Karen hugged her grandfather, then, reluctantly, left.

“Can’t believe you’re doing me this way,” Jones said, “after all these years being together, and our boy dead too.”

“Should have done it years ago.”

“I ought to slap your face, woman.”

“Want your granddaughter to know how you treat me? She don’t know that. I told her I just wasn’t happy with you being around. But I didn’t tell her the whole of it. Hit me now and hear me scream all over camp. I held it all them times before, but no more. You want that on the day we put our boy down?”

“I didn’t never mean nothing by it.”

“It meant something to me.”

“You’re letting that murderer stay here?”

“She did what she had to.”

“How can you say such a thing?”

“Go, Jones.”

Jones took his hat from the chair beside the door, where he always put it, placed it on his head and went out. Then he came back. He said, “This ain’t over, you know. Not between me and Sunset, not between me and you.”

He went away. She could hear his heavy boots pounding on the porch and down the steps. She stood at the screen door and watched him walk away. She was surprised to discover it hurt her to see him look so sad and small, his feet throwing up clouds of dust.

BOOK: Sunset and Sawdust
7.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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