Born in Enterprise, Alabama, in 1950, Michael McDowell attended Harvard College and received his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He has been a theatre critic for several publications and wrote the screenplay for
his first novel. He is currently working on his fourth.
Mr McDowell lives in Medford, Massachusetts.
Available in Fontana by the same author
COLD MOON OVER BABYLON GILDED NEEDLES
First published in the USA by Avon Books 1979 First published in Great Britain by Fontana Paperbacks 1982 Copyright © 1979 by Michael McDowell
Made and printed in Great Britain by William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, Glasgow
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To David and Jane
Had I but all of them, thee and thy treasures, What a wild crowd of invisible pleasures! To carry pure death in an earring, a casket, A signet, a fan-mount, a fillagree-basket!
In March 1965, Fort Rucca - in the southeastern corner of the state of Alabama - was a busy, crowded area. Here new army recruits underwent basic training, and were further instructed in helicopter piloting and helicopter maintenance. It had become known what a terrible war was being fought in the jungles of Vietnam, and how little prepared our soldiers were against that tropical foliage, where thousands of men, and whole factories of machinery and weapons could be moved along supply trails that were invisible from the air. The'earliest veterans of the war had come back, and were frantically training more men, with the terrain of Vietnam in mind. The Chattahoochee River is not far from Fort Rucca, and the basin of that slow-moving, wide stream is very similar in density and quality of vegetation, and was the ideal proving ground for those men who would soon see combat.
Fort Rucca is located in the most unfriendly section of Alabama, a flat, featureless landscape, that seems always hot, always menacing, always indignant when farmers try to scratch their meagre livings out of the hard soil. The vegetation is coarse, and sharp, and not much good for anything. The only plants that seem to grow well are trees whose lumber is worthless, and shrubs with thorns and briars. The four kinds of poisonous snakes indigenous to the continental United States are found together in only one place: the Wiregrass area of Alabama. That seems only natural to the people who live there.
In one corner of the crowded camp, 'wiregrass', the coarse ground cover that gives the area its nickname, had been shorn close, and an extensive firing range constructed for the rifle instruction and practice of army inductees from all over the country. One very hot Friday morning, shortly before noon, and underneath a blazing, cloudless sky, about seventy-five men, in three equal groups, were shooting at targets cut in the shape of men, with yellow faces and slanted eye-slits.
Well behind the line of prone, firing privates were the other fifty who were waiting their turn. Two men, not much different from the others, leaned against the wire fence that separated the camp from the dusty peanut fields belonging to an Alabama state senator. The senator had made a fortune out of this soil, obtaining government subsidies for not raising cotton and corn, and taking a tax loss on his income each year, because somehow or other, the peanut crop always failed. He was one of the very few who could make money off the land of the wiregrass.
The two privates could not have cared less about the senator's peanut fields. One of the men was of middle height, coarsely handsome, and in extraordinary health; from his thick accent it was apparent that he was very much at home in this part of the country. His companion was somewhat taller, but more delicate; his features had a distinctly Jewish cast to them.
The first man, whose name was Dean Howell, said to his companion, 'You look here at this, Si.'Dean held upthe rifle he carried, and thrust the butt of it before Simon's eyes. 'You see that pinecone?'
Si nodded. He had already noticed the small pinecone embossed in the lowest corner of the butt of every rifle on the firing range.
Dean continued: 'This rifle was made - start to finish - in Pine Cone, Alabama, and my wife Sarah is right there on that 'ssembly line. She had her hands on this piece 'fore I did. It's like it was blessed, in a way.'
Si nodded. 'How far is Pine Cone from here?'
'Oh', said Dean, 'if you was to stand on my shoulders, you could see it. It's about thirty miles.' He pointed vaguely over the senator's peanut fields. 'We got pine trees and cotton fields and the Pine Cone Munitions Factory and that's about all.' He waited a moment, while the line of men fired at the targets again, and then continued, 'But the pine trees get burned down, and the cotton gets eaten up, and so there's the rifle plant that's left. Ever'body I know works in that place. You know why?'
Si shook his head, and asked, 'Why?'
Dean Howell spoke harshly now. 'I tell you why.' The rifles fired once more.
'Why?' Si repeated his question. Dean Howell was being deliberately mysterious.
Dean's strange smile turned sour. "Cause', he said, with unexpected bitterness, 'you get a job there, and you get a deferment - ' 'Services necessary to the National Welfare and Security." Ever'body I know works in that place', he repeated, with angered significance.
'And you wanted a job there too?' said Si, who had begun to understand Dean's apparent disgust with the Pine Cone Munitions Factory.
'You're right, you're exactly right', said Dean, 'and I ought to be there right now myself. I ought to have a good job there,
, not out in the sun like this, building these damn things, or carrying 'em from one place to another.
firing 'em off. I
to be there, 'cause I know the man who's in charge of hiring there, I know him real good, 'cause we used to go after the quail together ever' year.'
'Why didn't he hire you then?'
'Well, he said he didn't have no place for me, and that he just had to wait until something opened up, but goddamn I'd have taken anything, I tell you, not to have to go to goddamn Asia. I love this country, but goddamn, I want to have both my legs this time come three years. Well, he was "waiting for something to open up" when I got drafted, and here I am.'
'But your wife had a job there, you said.'
'Yeah', said Dean Howell, 'Larry thought he could make ever'thing all right by putting Sarah on the line. That's what they call the 'ssembly line in Pine Cone - the ' 'line" and ever'body knows what you're talking about. But Sarah being on the line didn't make nothing all right. Sarah and I hadn't been married more than a year when I got drafted. Even the people down at the draft board said it was a shame I was getting taken away like that, but they said there wasn't nothing they could do about it, either.'
'Dean', said Si, it sounds like you got the wrong end of the stick.'
'Listen, Si, you listen to me - we both did.' The two men shook their heads, for neither of them was happy to be in Fort Rucca, with only the prospect of jungle combat before them. There were many rumours just then going around the camp, about tortures that the Vietnamese had designed just to prolong the deaths of captured American soldiers, of the terrible things they could do to a man that would make him beg for immediate execution. Dean pulled a handkerchief out of his back pocket and wiped his forehead and his hands of the sweat there, and then handed it to Si, who did the same. They were being called forward by the platoon sergeant to take their places on the firing line.
They moved quickly through the crowd of shifting men, and dropped to the ground beside one another. Once again, Dean silently pointed out to Si the pinecone on the butt of the rifle, smiled, and winked; he evidently considered the pinecone insignia a kind of good luck charm.
At the other end of the range, the spent targets had been replaced with fresh ones, and the sergeant took his place at the end of the row of prone, expectant men. 'Ready!' he called out. 'Aim! Fire!'
Briefly the noise was deafening to Si, but the sound continued longer than was usual; then he realised it was not a firing rifle, but a man screaming that he heard. Si turned instinctively to his friend.
Dean Howell was struggling slowly to his feet, both hands clapped over his face. Blood spurted out between his fingers, and poured down over his sweat-stained khaki fatigues. He reeled with the injury, and still screaming, fell back into the stiff brown grass. The Pine Cone rifle lay blown in pieces beneath his writhing body .
Si moved closer, and pulled Dean's hands away from his face, to try to quiet him and determine the extent of the injury. But when he saw the corrugated, bloody mess that was hardly recognisable as a face, with one of the eyeballs dangling by the distended optic nerve, Si staggered backward with unconquerable disgust, and Dean continued his inarticulate screams until he gagged on his own blood.
He was on his feet again, and reeled blindly into a group of men who had watched all this in shocked immobility. They scattered as he fell over into their midst.
Pine Cone, Alabama, is located on the western edge Wiregrass region, tantalisingly near the border of the pine barrens, which are more lonely perhaps, but infinitely more profitable. Another town had been settled in the same spot about 1820, and called by another name that no one remembers, but it was burned down by three Union soldiers, not because it was a rebel stronghold, but because they were drunk. It was not built up again until late in the nineteenth century, and no one knows why.
The town is not on a railroad line, and in fact, after the munitions factory became a place of importance to military leaders, it was necessary to build a spur from the L&N tracks, which run about ten miles east of Pine Cone. Burnt Corn Creek, which meanders through the town and much of the adjoining countryside, is not navigable, even by Boy Scouts in their canoes, who for boating exercise must go many miles south to the junction of Burnt Com with Murder Creek. (Both were named after certain common practices of settlers in an earlier period of Alabama history.) The water is filled with rapids, and interrupted by trees that fall across the breadth of the narrow watercourse after every heavy rain. It is not even good for swimming, for the margins of the river breed leeches and water moccasins in staggering numbers.
Nor is Pine Cone the centre of extensive farming lands. The tracts and small farms around produce few substantial cash crops, though cotton, peanuts, soy, potatoes, corn, and pecans are in moderate favour with farmers who, with pitiful regularity, fall one by one into insolvency and bankruptcy. Occasionally one of these hard-pressed men will relieve his financial troubles by suicide.
At one time there was a chenille mill in the town, but it folded during the Depression. Now there is the Pine Cone Munitions
Factory, and that keeps the town going. Other than this, the principal industry of Pine Cone is said to be three crippled black women who spend their days constructing patchwork quilts which are sold in the North for fabulous sums.
The town is proud of its population of two thousand, and it might well be, since there is nothing to keep them there except stubborn civic pride, overwhelming inertia, or a perverse moral self-discipline bordering on masochism. Eleven churches minister to the needs of unregenerate souls in Pine Cone, and nearly two dozen retail establishments vend articles that the inhabitants of the town may or may not require. There is a public library, not much used, which was set up and maintained by a spinster in the 'twenties. Now it is run by her first cousin once removed, also a spinster, and even nastier to the few children who go there than the first woman had been. The only building that survives from the burning of the town during the Civil War is the jail, a shell of a brick building, with bars on the front windows. It is now almost hidden by vines, and cannot boast of a roof. It is located on property belonging to the hard-shell Baptists, and is supposed to be haunted by the ghost of a slave who starved to death in it.
The police force is limited, but there is not much belligerent crime in Pine Cone, though it must be admitted that what there is, is usually of a violent and often fatal nature. The town has more murders than robberies. This is because most homicides arise out of quarrels among family and friends, and are crimes of passion. A robbery is cold-blooded, and the citizen of Pine Cone, though he will not hesitate to plunge a butcher knife into his wife's heart when he discovers her in bed with his domino crony, is at heart a law-abiding man.
Sheriff Phelon Garrett has been head of the police force for twelve years; under him is Deputy Ray Barnes. Garrett is often heard to complain that Barnes has a bad aim and a thick head. Officer James Shirley is reliable, though he does not lead a happy domestic existence. Two more policemen spend the greatest part of their time on duty in a cafe near the train tracks which is known more for the friendliness of the two waitresses than for the quality of the food.