A serialization of The Sound and the Shadows. Last week’s post is here.
Helen and Davy left the stolen car in JC Penney’s parking lot, lugged her suitcase full of loot, and the bags of his new clothes along Main Street, wandered down a side street where they found exactly what they needed: Andy Traver’s Used Car Jamboree, festooned with snapping carnival pennants.
Andy was standing out front, thumbs in suspenders, chewing on an unlit stogie, a straw boater shading close-set eyes from the wicked sun. A gut spilled over his belt. “Howdy, kids! How ya doin’ on this fine day? Praise th’ Lord!” His octave-jumping voice grated on Davy.
“Not too shabby,” said Helen. “We need a car, mister, a good reliable car. And we’d like a mobile home. Whatcha got?”
“Well, chiilun, you are in luck! Just last week my Auntie Grizelda passed away—rest her soul—an’ she left me a 1963 Studebaker Lark and an Airstream trailer. I’ll bet anything this is just what th’ doc ordered for you honeymooners! Am I right—or am I right? You’re newlyweds, ain’tcha?” he said, bent forward, hands gripping knees, shaking his head with pup-like glee.
“How could ya tell!?” asked Helen.
Slapping his thigh he said, “By th’ love beams comin’ out of your eyes, sister! Anyhoo, come ‘round back, lemme show ya th’ car and trailer of your dreams!” Davy hated this baloney-slinging cracker, but if he offers a good deal... Under tall willows sat the tan Lark sedan. “It’s got a 100 percent standard issue six-cylinder engine, not a speck of rust, nary a dent, hardly 8000 miles on it, more horsepower than a team of wild mustangs,” declared Andy, hands on hips, head tilted. Davy wanted to knock the grin off his fat face.
Several steps back from the yammering salesman and Helen, Davy ran his hand along the aluminum hull of the 27-foot Airstream. Then he got in the car behind the big white steering wheel, pretended he was driving. It wasn’t an XK120, yet somehow this vehicle spoke to him. It was perfect for their new life. From the extended side-view mirror he saw the fat man approaching. Andy stuck his sweaty face up to Davy’s and, waving his see-gar to the heavens, said, “Them four whitewalls is brand spankin’ new, friend!” Davy could count the pores on the Andy’s snout.
Andy gave them a tour of the Airstream. It was in pristine condition. Grizelda had treated her things with care. Helen said, “Oh Davy! Doncha just love this cute kitchen? I’ll fix you the finest meals! And just look at that cozy bedroom! Perfect for makin’ babies!” The men laughed, nervously. “What? What’d I say? I love my hubby! Is that a crime?” she said, feigning a pout, twisting a toe.
Davy said, “How much are you asking for the entire rig? If we pay cash on the barrelhead, sir?”
“Well, lemme see here, lemme think... Cash? How does five grand sound? And I’ll you off th’ tank, t’ boot! With high-test”
They motored south along the seaboard, windows rolled down for the Atlantic’s salt air. In South Carolina they spotted Granny’s Olde Gun Shoppe. Parking their car and trailer in the sandy lot, they went in, the screen door slapping shut behind them. As their eyes adjusted to the dark, they found the place to be empty except for Granny behind the counter. On the walls: pistols, rifles and shotguns of all descriptions climbed right up to the ceiling 20 feet overhead, ladders on wheels to gain access to the upper reaches. In the center of the room, a Confederate cannon stared down anyone stepping in the door.
“Don’t be bashful! It ain’t loaded! Least I don’t think so,” hooted Granny. “What can I do for you young ‘uns?”
“We need us some guns, ma’am,” said Davy. “I’d like a .45, nickel-plated, and my wife would like a pair of six-shooters, complete with holsters, like on the old TV Westerns.”
“Well, that ain’t no prob! Not at Granny’s, b’gosh!”
Helen posed with a pair of Smith & Wessons, looking quite the Hollywood cowgirl, while Davy hefted the automatic, loving its weight, just right, the same gun Anne owned. Anne: he’d forgotten all about her until he held the .45. Love is funny, isn’t it? Here today, gone tomorrow. Where does it go? The feel of the gun turned him on like a gas stove’s burner.
Helen crouched, pistol-packing fists extended, spraying the room with imaginary bullets, slaying phantom bad guys. “Pow! Pow! Pow! Gotcha, ya varmints!”
They paid cash for the arms and several boxes of ammo, kept driving south, to Florida, the land of eternal sunshine and sweet juicy oranges and ever-hungry gators, until they came to Brainardville, population 612, about six miles from the Everglades.
Main Street Brainardville was short, a Baptist church at one end, a police station at the other. Between the two: Brainard’s Five-and-Dime, Brainard’s Café, Brainard’s Dry Goods, Brainard’s Guns & Ammo, Brainard’s Real Estate & Insurance Company, Brainard’s Barber Shop, several bungalows, a storefront for rent, The Hotel Brainard and Brainard’s Market. Around the corner and down the hill stood Brainard’s Hardware & Lumber and Brainard’s Service Station. A village green ran down the center of Main Street, in its gazebo a couple of codgers frittered away their final days betting dimes on checkers.
On a side street, Philmont Road, they found Brainard’s Trailer Park, a respectable and trim affair surrounded by scrub pines, geraniums decorating front yards, and mockingbirds singing their tail feathers off. Twisty lanes were dotted with mobile homes, everything neat as a pin, in apple pie order. “Oh, Davy! This is just picture-perfect! Let’s settle here! Gosh, if they have an opening for us... Let’s see!”
Inside the front office, they met Bob Brainard, a slight man of 47, rimless specs clouding his beady eyes, a tentative smile revealed a gold front tooth. Spindly arms poked out a pale-yellow Sanforized short-sleeve shirt, his reddish hair was thin and slicked straight back. Before sundown Davy and Helen had signed the papers, paid cash for a year’s stay and were hooked up to utilities. So dazzled by their new spot in Brainardville they'd been blind to the cottonmouths and diamondback rattlers slithering about flowerbeds and lawns.
Windows open, a cross-breeze caressing, Helen stood behind their trailer’s screen door, looking out. She slapped a skeeter on her forearm, flicked away its red smudge and told Davy, “I wanna go legit now that I’m a married woman and soon to be a mom. Let’s take some of the money and start a business. I was always good with sewing. I’d like to open a dress shop, right in town. You can help, you can run the cash register, do the books and deliver the finished products. It’ll be wonderful! I just love this little town, everything about it! I think we’ve found paradise!” She went quiet for a minute, fantasizing about Raboy’s Dress Shop, a hint of a smile crossing her face.
Her reverie was broken by, “Oww! Gosh darn it all to heck!” Helen turned to see an elderly woman, a few doors down, hit the ground, hugging a knee to her bosom, a floral print dress hiked up to her waist revealing old lady underwear. The woman's husband bolted out of their trailer, coming to her aid as quickly as an arthritic geezer’s able. She’d been bit by a venomous viper. Knowing the drill, he sucked poison out of the calf wound, spat it on the grass, muttering, “Jay-zuz! Fuggit t’ hail!”
Maizey kicked at him with her free leg and said,” Watch your filthy language, Horace, or you’ll burn for eternity!” as a gator crawled from bushes. Their tiny white poodle yipped at it, a brave attempt to protect his masters before the big lizard swallowed him whole.
“God damn!” yelled Horace.
“Watch your language, sinner man!”
“But Frenchie just got ET!”
“He’s in heaven now! Focus on the living—focus on me! Call Reverend Quimby! I’ve been bit by a minion of Satan, in case you forgot, you lummox! I’m filled with sin! Call Reverend Quimby! Move, man!”
“I should feed you to the damn gator, woman!” He was about to slap her face when she kicked him in the nuts and shrieked, “Fetch Reverend Quimby, you mangy swamp rat!”
Clutching his crotch, Horace limped into their blue and white trailer, hobbled to the phone and did as ordered. Then, sitting on the sofa, he held his groin with both hands, it hurt so bad he could hardly see straight, the agony coming in waves. And he wept thinking about poor Frenchie. “Damn fuggin’ gators! Damn ’em all t’ hail!” he thought, not daring to voice the sentiment: even a wounded Maizey was more than he could handle.
On the teeny lawn, Maizey lay fuming, waiting for the preacher. Pained like the Dickens by her poisoned leg, she screamed, “Horace! Git out here an’ hold my hand until the reverend gits here! Come on! Git out here! Keep an eye out for more demons!”
Around the corner from the trailer park, Bob Brainard was home for the evening, in his bungalow’s den, sitting under a lamp in his La-Z-Boy, puffing on a corncob pipe, reading Mein Kampf for the third time. At certain passages, he’d take the pipe out of his mouth, holding its heat, nod knowingly and squint into space as if viewing Valhalla. His bookshelves are stocked with a wealth of white supremacist volumes: works by or about Nazis, neo-Nazis, The Confederacy, The KKK, etc. A Civil War-era Florida flag hung from one wall. Enshrined behind glass doors, his pride and joy: a collection of Third Reich memorabilia, including a few loaded Lugers with SS insignia. Under an army cot in Bob’s bedroom, a steamer trunk filled with complete runs of ACG comic book titles: Unknown Worlds, Adventures Into the Unknown and Forbidden Worlds, more than enough Ogden Whitney panels for any one man. Above, framed photos of Hitler and Himmler; on his nightstand, framed photos of General Robert E Lee and Bob’s parents, Mam and Pap Brainard. Every night before lights out, Bob threw an adamant Nazi salute to der Fürher, then flipped the bird at his folks.
When Reverend Quimby arrived, Maizey said, “Oh! Oh, Reverend Quimby! It’s so good to see you! Please, pray for me! Hold my hand! Join me in humble prayer to our Lord and Savior!” Tom Quimby, a 35-year-old square-jawed man, knelt next to her, knees on cool green, nauseated by her old lady smell, her old lady clothes. He didn’t like old women; teenage boys were his thing. Nevertheless, he knelt and held her old lady hand, looked to the sky and called upon the Good Lord to bestow His blessing upon His poor little lamb, Maizey Martin.
Maizey fluttered her eyes, conjuring up the come-hither stare she’d used to trap and sap Horace lo those many decades ago, and said, “Oh, Reverend... Tom, how you soothe my troubled soul...”
A tight fist to his taut mouth, Quimby fought back his gorge.
Welcome to the neighborhood, Mr. and Mrs. Raboy, welcome to Brainardville: population (now) 614.
The next morning Helen was making flapjacks while bacon sizzled when she stepped out for a little air. From the stoop she saw seven or eight cottonmouth hatchlings wriggling in seven or eight directions, eyes gleaming, ready to take on the world. Then she saw a full-grown rattler essing across their patch of grass. “Holy moly!” she cried. “Davy! This place is just lousy with snakes!” In bed, still dreamy from lovemaking, Davy covered his head with a pillow, he didn’t want to worry about anything. Last night they were up late, in bed. He’d heard much of her story.
“...I hated my father, we were always at loggerheads, for as long as I can recall. So when I was 16 and could get a job, I just split, got a room at the Y, a job at a hat factory, on the assembly line, putting the bands in place. To hell with school. I hated school almost as much as I hated my dad. Show me a teacher and I’ll show you a loser. Eventually, I wised up, realized that factory work, any sort of job, was a road to nowhere. So I started to steal. I was good at it—a natural...” Lying on their sides, he held her close, his front to her back, his arm around her, an elbow on her stomach, a hand on a breast. He whispered in her ear, “I’ll love you forever. You’re safe now, baby.” Helen practically radiated in the dark; she’d never been so happy.
The two did some research at the local library and found that their Airstream was snake-proof—nothing would come crawling through the floors. That settled, they decided to venture out armed from now on, prepared for attack, Helen with her six-shooters and Davy with his .45, everything holstered and ready. In town that afternoon, to see about renting a storefront, they noticed that the local population was, by and large, packing. Even kids had guns. On a corner, a 10-year-old girl in a plaid dress twirled a pistol on her index finger. She raised the gun overheard, stuck a finger in one ear, closed her eyes tight and fired a shot in the air. No one flinched. Business as usual in downtown Brainardville: just a patriotic display of Second Amendment rights.
In Brainard Real Estate & Insurance, pale green linoleum underfoot, the Raboys met the local patriarch, Pap Brainard, a bundle of breathing anger who'd left an arm and an eye in Korea; a patch covered the empty socket and his right suit sleeve jacket was safety-pinned up. The Raboys signed papers and paid cash, sending roots ever deeper into Brainardville. The wall behind Pap was decorated with framed portraits of General Douglas MacArthur, Henry Ford, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Lindbergh, a blonde Jesus, Jefferson Davis, and certificates attesting to his good standing in The Concerned Citizens Council and The Sons of the Confederacy. The papers were yellowing, were just about the same shade as the walls. On his desk, a family shot, maybe 30 years old: Mam, Pap and teenage Bob. A clunky black dial phone with a straight cord was within reach. If Pap didn’t hate the Reds before going to Korea, he sure did after. An undying fury twisted Pap’s face like taffy, a testament to his humiliation and frustration. Most nights he lay awake, thrashing about, firecrackers exploding in his head as he cursed Truman for not just dropping some goddamn A-bombs on the commies. Pap’d had excellent penmanship as a rightie. He’d never gotten the hang of using his left.
“Well, yes indeedy, Mrs. Raboy, we do have a few of them slimy critters crawlin’ about. But like anything else, you learn to live with ’em, you get a sixth sense. Right here in town you won’t find ’em. Your dress shop will be fine, little lady, just fine! You can take my word for that—and a Brainard’s word is his bond! Yes, indeedy!” Davy hated his false good cheer, but Helen went for it, anxious to believe.
After clearing some junk out of the shop-to-be, and sweeping the floor, the couple went to Brainard’s Café, its old wood floor squeaking as they walked to a window table covered with a red and white checked cloth. At the counter, Sheriff Corley Brainard smoked a Pall Mall and sipped an iced tea while poking at a plate of franks and beans. From the kitchen a Bakelite radio played Buck Owens & His Buckaroos. Helen leaned forward and whispered to Davy, “There’s something peculiar about this town...”
“Yeah, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. You mean besides everyone having guns, right?”
Their waitress, a tall cool brunette, brought them menus. A name was sewn above her heart on the salmon-colored knee-length dress: Esmerelda.
That night, around 2:30, Helen got up to pee. From the bathroom window she noticed a glow in the distance, but had no idea that it was a night rally, a cross burning in a field, pickup trucks scattered about, a gathering of two strains of local white supremacists: an old guard of robed Klansmen and a younger generation of neo-Nazis in regalia. Although their passions overlapped, there was a schism between those who pledged their fealty to Christ and blamed America’s problems first and foremost on blacks versus those who worshipped Norse gods and blamed America’s problems first and foremost on Jews. It was a generation gap, one that caused Mam Brainard untold woe, fretting about the soul of her pagan son. Reverend Tom was something of a stealth free agent, an outsider—born and raised in Louisiana, as well as the only one with a college degree—ostensibly a man of the cloth but a surreptitiously worshipper of Greco gods in appreciation of their allowance of frowned-upon sexual practices. A Boy Scout troop leader, he was constantly tempted by a smorgasbord of tender flesh, but able to resist, so far.
On a flatbed truck, The Brainardville Boys swaggered bluegrass, acoustic guitars and banjos sparkling like a country brook, a washtub bass thumping time, do-si-dos called out with a high-pitched effeminate twang by a clapping Sheriff Corley. The swampbillies kicked up their heels. On the sidelines, ladies’ auxiliaries dished out blueberry pie and sarsaparilla for winded revelers, barbecued gator steaks and diamondback fillets for the famished. “Step right up, sugar! Plenty for ever’one!” Whatever their ideological differences, tonight wasn’t for fussin’ an’ feudin’, it was a time of tribal cheer and community spirit! Many here weren’t official Klansmen or Nazi Party members, just sympathetic neighbors ripe for a good hoedown and some right tasty victuals, eager to unleash the squirming hyper-paranoia seething in their skulls, spiking their soda pop with grain alcohol. “Grab yer partner, do si do! Hold ’em tight, never let ’em go! Let ’em go now: one, two, three! Stomp on a rattler: A-B-C! Promenade, now! Circle left! Circle right!”
Volatile as a jar of nitro, especially when spirits invade, the Scotch-Irish Johnny Reb psyche routinely races down Tragedy Highway. Offenses are too easily taken, guns drawn, shots fired, a corpse tossed in the swamp for gator feed, the dead man's family winds up on relief. Tonight though, folks were feeling autumnally mellow. Ergo, nothing worse than a few fistfights worth of cracked ribs, blackened eyes, a busted nose. The night’s climax was a 15-foot cross set afire, blazing a furious orange against a silent ebony sky, the constellations blotted out.
The cross reduced to collapsing embers, families headed to trucks as the church ladies’ choir sang a fare-thee-well. “Look away! Look away! Look away, Dixieland!”
The next day, returning home with groceries, Davy and Helen passed a haggard-looking Bob coming out of his office. It’d been a rare late-night out for the frail fellow. Without a hello, he looked up at Davy and Helen and then quickly away, scooted past, his forehead too sweaty for today’s cool November afternoon.
Helen paused. “He seemed so friendly the other day. What’s up?”
Davy hadn’t noticed Bob, didn’t hear Helen. His mind was on another planet in another galaxy with the waitress, Esmerelda. She was so sweet—that accent just slayed him—he couldn’t stop thinking about her, her raven hair. And there was something about Helen that was beginning to bug him, something about getting mired in a dress shop in this crummy town. And back in a stinking trailer! That’s not what he’d bargained for in Bridgeport. There was a hunger in Esmerelda’s green eyes: she wanted out, too. Of this he could tell. After all, his vision is perfect: 20/20.