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THE GAUDY PLACE

by

Fred Chappell



Arkie


Consider Arkie.

(But it breaks your heart.)

Teacher used to tell him he didn't exist.

Arkie shook his head angrily. "Yes I do. I do that." Immediately belligerent. He wasn't sure what it meant, to exist, but he knew that whatever it was it was no good for Arkie. Some sort of con, he bet. Arkie would bet you.

"You got a driver's license?"

"No."

"You got a social security number?"

"No."

"Birth certificate?"

"I don't know. Maybe I got that."

Teacher grinned. "And no school records and no vaccination scars and no doctor's records and no dentist's records. I guess you don't even have a mailing address."

"I got places I can get letters."

"How do you know? You never got any letters. You can't be sure, can't be sure of anything." He still grinned that skinny grin. He got a Herbert Tareyton between thin trembling fingers and took a long time getting it lit. "Don't you see?" He coughed: sound like metal scraping metal. "Officially you don't even exist. Nothing proves it'" In a desultory voice: "I do though." Arkie was bored now.

"Have you got a real name?"

"James Parker McClellan."

"Not that anybody ever uses it. And how old are you?"

"Sixteen."

"Horseshit. You can tell the cops that when they come around checking. You're fourteen years old. Fifteen, maybe. You wouldn't know which yourself."

"Gimme a stab."

"Maybe in a minute I will." He propped his chin on a shaky hand. "What's your mother and father's name?"

Arkie shrugged and went away, leaving Teach sitting at the bar. Teacher was a fat waste of time always. This was in the Ace and ten-thirty in the morning and there was nothing moving, nothing, or Arkie wouldn't have spent this long with him. All the time he'd known Teacher he'd never got a thing out of him, not a penny. Teacher was O, absolute. Not a teacher anyhow. Everybody called him that because he always wore this grimy corduroy jacket, color of dago red, with cigarette burns in unlikely spots. The jacket had wide side pockets, and always in one of the pockets was a paperback book, a gangster or a fuck or a cowboy. Teach sat in the bars and read the books until he got too blind drunk to see the pages. But talk. He'd talk. Jesus God, he'd cave your ears in.

He looked into the other, room, the bigger room with the dance floor, but nothing was happening. A tall guy with an open white shirt and a dirty apron was bending over a mop bucket. Arkie could smell the bitter disinfectant even from where he stood.

"Hey John, you seen Clemmie?"

The big fellow looked up without straightening his body. He had a wide face, white as sugar. "Not since last night I ain't. She ain't been in this morning yet."

When he went back through the other room Teacher had already planked open a book and was staring at it, leaning his head on his left hand. Arkie made out not to look at him, silly bastard. He went out the door into the cool sunlight of early May. He had to shield his eyes, glancing across the street a few doors up and down. Juanita's Place didn't look any more lively than the Ace, the whole scene was a cold deck. This was the very worst time of day, with the hardasses at their nine-to-fives and the pigs still laying up. Most Arkie could hope for was to run into some hung-over gungho who still had a few bucks and maybe juice him for a couple of quarters. If he was woozy enough. More likely all he could get was a cold drink here and there off the bread men or beer men or meat men on their daily rounds. He hated these hours, nothing moving, and the joints not really wanting anything to move yet, trying to get last night's crud off the floors. Arkie never felt right until about two o'clock in the afternoon, when the bars closed their solid front doors and the air conditioning went on and the soft lights came up, the game machine lights and the juke lights. Just wait till he'd found his con and got a little dump laid by: you wouldn't see Arkie all day till the moon came out.... It-was awful what a headache he got from sunlight.

He jingled the coins in his pocket, turned right abruptly and down Gimlet Street he went, listlessly jingling. Today he'd staked himself to seven bucks, feeling when he'd got up this morning that he was going to be lucky or unlucky, pretty big one way or the other. (He hoped to hell.) Seven, man, was a heavy one- third of what he had in the world. But with an hour's maneuvering he'd upped it by only fifteen cents, piling trash bottles out on the curb down at the Rebel Cafe. Gimlet Street ran up a steep slouched hill, and Arkie was going down, past remnant goods stores, secondhand furniture stores, past dingy newsstands, upholstery shops, sandwich factories. Three blocks down he turned right on Flint Street, starting uphill again. It was a hilly goddam town, Braceboro. Bunker County was a hilly goddam county. The whole western slab of North Carolina was nothing but rocks, briars and goddam hills. —But suppose he'd turned left coming out of the Ace. Four short blocks and he would have been standing in the Braceboro town square where he could have inspected a big green metal statue of a guy on a horse. Zebulon Johns, it said on the marble base of the statue. Patriot and Philanthropist. 1834-1906. Green Zeb, Arkie knew, was some kind of old-time gungho (holding a sword) and politician. Pieraker. All statues were of pierakers…That's the kind of crazy apple this town was, rotten at the heart, but bright and shiny on the outside, jacketed with golf links and shopping centers.

He went into the Big Bunny. Squelch was behind the counter, a short red-haired bulgy man. His arms were folded, his big steel-rimmed shoe was propped up on the drink cooler.

"Squelch. Like you for a quarter.

No, he wouldn't move. Not a flicker.

"Come on."

You might as well talk to the fireplug.

"Come on, Squelch. A little action. Make it a dime, make it a dollar, If I ain't like you I rare up and holler."

Heavily he unfolded his arms and refolded them. Gave Arkie a clear bottle-green eye. "See you for five." Squelch had a soft voice, low, and it always sounded ominous.

"Christamighty."

He could almost take it. He could use the cash and he could ride the stolid barkeep for a month about losing it. If he won. But five bucks, no, man. Today was Friday and come Monday night old man Johnson was going to stomp up the stairs and gouge him seven bucks for that farthole he called a room. And if Arkie didn't have it he could just punch the t.s. card and head for citizensville. Sleep on the sidewalk with Dick Tracy and Orphan Annie tucked under his chin.... Well no, it really wasn't all that bad. If it gave plumb out, he could pile in with Clemmie or one of the other pigs, as long as they weren't jockeying a john. But what kind of life was that for a man?

"You know I can't go no five bucks. Bring it down to man-size." Arkie did his little dance. "if you fly too high, Then you sure gonna die."

Squelch spent a long time getting ready to talk. "Been a slow week, Arkie. Here it's Friday already. I ain't got time for no chickenshit bets with ever gutterpickins that comes dragging in."

"Ah hell." Dispirited, he straddled one of the short bar stools and twirled twice around. "Gimme a stab."

He took the Camel from Squelch and got it safely lit before he let the mild careful whine seep into his voice. "You got no call to cuss me like that, you know it? Gutterbaby or whatever you said."

Squelch shrugged.

"Hey." Now his voice was lively again, enthusiastic. "Did you get the line yet?"

"Not yet."

"What'll you give me to go and get it for you?"

"It ain't in yet."

"It'll come in about an hour. I'll run and get it for a quarter."

"What for? You know Walker's just going to call it in here. The fuzz ain't hooked into his phone no more." "What's the good of taking a chance like that? A quarter's the cheapest bail money you ever went."

"Let's just wait and see if he calls." He leaned slightly forward and began to sound confidential. "He'll know whether it's safe or not. He always knows how it stands. See? He's got to know. That's how he got where he is."

"Ah hell."

Day to day, minute to minute, vain hopes were what Arkie fed upon. Two months ago, Danny Walker, who received the out-of-state gambling odds on all the sports for the Braceboro bookmakers, had found out that his telephone was going to be tapped. Every day for two weeks Arkie had earned fifty cents a stop for bringing the line to Walker's customers. Harder work than you'd think, because Walker was jittery and wouldn't allow Arkie to write anything down. But he never forgot: "State and four; Villanova and eight; Florida State and two…" He could jabber it off like a radio announcer, faster than they could take it down, and never a mistake. He could carry policy numbers too, all in his head like that. Those had been rich days for Arkie; that was something else he hadn't forgot. And every now and then Walker would have another case of nerves and Arkie picked it up, but it was nothing solid, nothing regular.

"Ah hell." These were sour sad hours.


Squelch started picking his teeth.

"I'm on the move," Arkie said. "I'll see you later."

"Yeah," Squelch said. "I'm damn sure of that."

Big Bunny my ass. Big wad of nothing…And the harrying painful sunlight…Back on Gimlet he turned right again, still going downhill, edging into mule territory now. Here it looked more interesting, the traffic noisier, people talking, even a juke blaring away in one of the joints. But Arkie had the educated eye, knew it all already. There was nothing here but mules, standing around with their hands in the pockets of their bib overalls and mouthing at each other and spitting big resounding gobs of tobacco juice. They would squeeze a quarter or, a dime till you could slide it under the nail of your pinkie. Mules were what Arkie called truck farmers. They parked their dented pickup trucks at the bottom of the hill, where Gimlet joined Rance Avenue, and sold their produce off the truck beds. Open-air market. They were all dumb bastards. Arkie wished that he was getting just a little piece of what they all had to pay in to Burn Ryan so they wouldn't get their produce slopped and trampled, not get their tires slashed. He shrugged tiredly. That wasn't for Arkie, that heavy stuff. He had just turned fourteen (according to his own cloudy reckoning) and he was little for his age.

(Not that you could tell from his face. He looked whatever age you thought he did.)

He wandered into the Lucky Star and spoke to the first guy he saw, a mule sitting at the bar with a cup of mud. He was the mule type perfect and complete. Dumb from hairline to clodmashers. Lean, freckled, sandy-haired; the faded bib overalls and a red sweatshirt gone gray under the armpits.

"Hey. Match you for the piccolo," Arkie said. Piccolo, that was mule talk for the juke.

The guy looked him over, up and down, and Arkie stood easy, carelessly smiling. This was where you had to move very slowly; nothing scared away quicker than a mule.

"What are you going to play, then?" The farmer had to consider this a canny question. You wouldn't catch him putting up a good hard-earned ten-cent piece for some kind of city trash music he couldn't stand to listen to.

"Ever what you like," Arkie said. "Bill Monroe. Mac Wiseman. Lester and Earl."

"Just for a dime?"

"For one thin dime."

Look at him. Tight bastard had already sold his rutabagas and his pockets were probably running over with dump. But spend more than a dime? Not till it snows green money out of the sky.

The guy fished a quarter out of his bib pocket. Arkie listened to the change rattle, a good double handful. Arkie made sure, the mule saw him staring at the ceiling while he was shaking the coin in his loose fist; but he saw too that it was going to come heads. Arkie, man, he's got those sharp eyes. He pulled a dime from his pocket, turned it once and laid it on the counter.

The guy wouldn't uncover yet. Grinned at Arkie like he'd just sold him a bushel of rotten turnips at an outrageous price. "You're like me, that right?"

"You got it right," Arkie said. "I'm matching you." Patience, Lord, give us patience.

"Play that there piccolo, boy."

Arkie had put down tails.

"Well," he said, "I'm damn. You sure can't win em all." He picked up his dime and went back toward the juke. "What would you be wanting to hear?"

"They got 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' on that music box?"

"They got it."

They had it always, they're going to have it on forever.

He punched the buttons and came back and sat on the stool next to the farmer and ordered a Pepsi in a glass. "And could you give me cube ice in that, Bill?" He turned to the farmer. "Can't stand this mush ice in my cold drink," he said.

The mule was still pleased with himself: he hardly heard the fiddle and the banjo. "You can’t win em all," he told Arkie. Still grinning like a jack-o’-lantern.

"That's the dying truth," agreed Arkie. He shook his head ruefully and got out one of his own loose cigarettes and lit it. He led the index finger of his right hand curl over the edge of the glass and rest gently on the ice cube floating in the soft drink.

"You bring some truck into market this morning?"

"Yep."

"How's the market going."

"Pretty good. Ought to get better."

"Who's watching your stuff for you now?"

"I reckon my brother is. Leastways, that’s what I left him doing."

By now his finger felt cold enough to turn the trick and Arkie casually wiped the wetness from the finger on his pants leg. He really didn't care about the other chance; God knows, he didn’t have the stomach to sit out in that sunlight this morning, nursing some dumb mule's rutabagas. Suddenly: "Hey. I bet you I can hold this cigarette longer than you can. Hold it like this, I mean."

When the guy started grinning again Arkie knew he had him. If there was one thing mules had confidence in it was their goddam callouses. "All right," He said. "How much you want to bet?"

"Dollar."

"Well, all right," he said. "You sure are one betting man."

"Can't help it," Arkie said. "I got in my blood." He picked up the cigarette from where he had dropped it on the bar. "I’ll go first." He held it between thumb and forefinger for thirty seconds. The mule watched him intently, but he didn’t quiver a muscle, nothing showed in his face. Finally the live coal began to tingle through the coldness, and Arkie handed over the cigarette. "There you go," he said. "Thirty seconds by the wall clock."

The mule wasn't so dumb he thought he could do it, but he had to give it a try. He got seven seconds before he flung it down.

"They's some kind of trick to that," he said resentfully.

"Ain't no trick. Just takes will power."

"Yeah? Let's see your hand."

Arkie showed him. Nothing to see. "It's some kind of trick or other."

"No it ain't, I'm telling you. The secret is, you got to think about something else while you keep hold of it. The secret is, not to think about it. "He drank down his Pepsi in two heavy swallows and rose. "Well, I be seeing you, old-timer. You take it easy now."

"Wait a minute." The farmer was pondering; he wanted at least a piece of his dollar back. "What say we match one more time for the piccolo?"

"I can't stay to listen," Arkie said. "I got to go and see a feller. But I'll match you for the dime."

"No; match for the piccolo. We'll go for a quarter this time."

"Well," Arkie said, "if you think it'll make you happy."

They matched.

"Well hell," the mule said. "This ain't my day. This ain't my day and that's the living truth."

"You can't win em all."

Arkie departed.

Stupid, Christamighty stooopid.

And with mules it took practically forever. Look how much time and money he'd spent just to juice one slow farmer. Half an hour it took to make the dollar, just jollying the guy along. And then you had to count out a dime for the bait, that first bet on the juke, and then another eleven cents for the cold drink. In half a day's hard scrabbling he'd come up with ninety-four cents, and that was including the work he'd done with the trash bottles. A man could starve; buddy, you know it for true. Somewhere, Arkie was certain of it, somewhere there was a real fine con, not a big one, but a good solid one that it didn't take a lot of capital to get off the ground with. A good solid con he could work by himself. It had to be by himself; anybody you went in with was older and a lot bigger than you. So they paid you off in bottle caps and if you tried to mention, anything they stomped your ass around the block. He was going to ask Clemmie to ask Oxie for him. That Oxie, everybody knew about him, and a lot of people said they knew him, but hardly anybody really did. Clemmie knew him: she was one of Oxie's whores. And Arkie knew Clemmie. That would be his in. And if anybody had a con up his sleeve it was Oxie. Smart. Hadn't he come off Gimlet Street and got away clean? He wished he already knew Oxie; he wished they were a.h. buddies; wished he could call him on the phone right now this minute.

Where now?

He was beginning to feel a little hungry but it was close on to the lunch hour already. The hour that was either too early or too late for Arkie. When people were eating Arkie wasn't welcome in the cafes or joints. Everybody was too busy, running around taking orders and frying and wiping the tables and counting up the dump. They didn't want Arkie around trying to juice the eaters, getting underfoot and balling up the timetable. And they didn't want to take the time out to get him his cheeseburger. (Well done, with mustard and lettuce and tomato. No onions: Arkie was continually meeting the public.) But after lunch it was time to start drinking again and then they didn't care what he did. Actually they rather liked having him about. Good for business, if you looked at it right. He upped the take on the pinball machines and the bowling machines, the jukes and the pool tables. He was always matching for drinks. He kept people joking and hollering and talking and drinking, with his poems and that little dance of his, and that was maybe the best thing he did. Because when the johns were talking and laughing they weren't fighting, busting up the windows and bar mirrors and furniture. All that was fine. But not at mealtimes.

(Arkie: he could be an annoying little prick too.)

It was getting along in the day and he still hadn't run into Clemmie. No telling what that meant, he just never knew-. She might simply be laying up—she was lazy enough for two mauds her size—or she might be in the hospital with a busted jaw or lying in a muddy ditch somewhere with her throat ripped open. He shuddered. The mauds had it tough. He didn't like to think about it. Let's see: last night before she went off she had gouged him for a dollar. (So. He was more or less used to that from Clemmie.) He hadn't been able to place the john she had picked up; a stranger to Gimlet. He had looked all right, short, blue-eyed guy, pretty well dressed. But what did that mean? Not a goddam thing. By the time a maud found out that the john was crackers, had some weird hang-up, and was going to slice her, it was far too late. He didn't like to think about it. Not that it was any skin off Arkie's ass, not really; but he kept thinking about Clemmie in lots of different ways. He felt that something might be going to pan out there.

He wandered through the truck market. The crowd was thinning out now, though the housewives kept driving up in their shiny cars, still for Godsake dressed in pajamas and housecoats. Hair in funny-looking curlers. What made them get out of the sack? If he had that kind of money ... Parked at the curb was a brand-new dark green Buick with the windows down. The dame that owned it was, across the street, probably stridently trying to screw a mule down on his rutabagas. Arkie could just picture her. The windows were down, but there were no keys in the ignition. Arkie wasn't thinking about stealing the car, just because he didn't know how to drive. (How could he have learned that?) But he knew where he could have peddled the keys for a couple of bucks. Hyook. He hawked up and spat on the back scat, on the dark gray new-smelling felt. They hadn't got the plastic on the upholstery yet.

Here among the mules the number of flies had increased. Arkie rubbed his nose with his wrist, not caring for the smells of vegetables and jonquils and fresh earth. The sunlight seemed worse. When he cut the corner of Rance Avenue he was in the shadow of the buildings and he felt a lot better.

Up this hill and down, up this hill again.

If you went down Gimlet, then you had to climb Rance…Arkie’s universe was minuscule, actually comprising an area of about fourteen blocks, although he knew of course that there were other places he could go when he wasn't trying to gouge the dime, the quarter, the dollar. (When would that be?) But, you know, fourteen blocks is a pretty big territory, and this was the place where you could go not only round and round, you could also go up and down. On Gimlet Street you could go so far down you would never see daylight again…

Now he had reached his goal, the Teeny Tavern. Every now and then he would hole up in here over the lunch hours. It was a little bitsy place, about twelve feet wide and twenty feet long, stuck between a rundown tailor's shop and the warehouse for a roofing firm; Arkie could use it because it was too small to serve meals. Nothing to eat in here but stale potato chips and pretzels and peanut butter crackers in the dusty jar. Drink your beer and get out. When Arkie entered the little white-haired man behind the counter didn't come to see what he was up to. He was deaf and nearsighted and mostly oblivious to what went on; he seemed to be going over again and again in his mind something that had happened to him a long time ago. A nervous tic kept jerking below his right eye and now and then his lips flinched, trembled, as if the little old man were trying to form a word that had never been spoken on this human earth, a single word that would cleanse, heal and transform.... Arkie had a notion about him: once upon a time, years and years ago, some maud had given him the screw and this old guy was still trying to figure out what had happened. This was the kind of con Arkie longed for: one that warped the mind, so that twenty years later you were still blinking your eyelids and wondering where it had gone wrong.

No machines in here, except for an old beat-up Silvertone radio that Arkie had never heard turned on. No action of any kind in here. Guzzle your suds and get your ass out. Arkie dragged a slat-bottomed chair away from a table and sat, tipping the chair back against the wall. He shifted and reshifted; folded his arms; crossed his legs. And then he dozed off, dreaming.


—What does Arkie dream about?

—O Lord, please, let's don't talk about it. It's too garish and disconnected and bewildering. The kind of fantastic jungle no sound man will ever set foot in.

—But when he dreams of Arkie, how does he see himself?

—Just the way you and I do. As taller and stronger and wiser and tougher than he is on Gimlet Street.

—Is that all?

—That's enough. It's more than enough.



END OF SAMPLE


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