They Don't Dance Much: A Novel, страница 1
THEY DON’T DANCE MUCH
JAMES ROSS, STILL DANCING
SO, WE ARE SITTING in a greasy spoon, a tavern, a living room, talking about books we love that didn’t catch a break, hard-luck books of such obstinate appeal that, though they died early, just won’t stay dead. There are canonized books most of us know too well and yawn when we speak of them one more time, but far, far better are the little known literary wonders we’ve come across at flea markets, garage sales, up in grandma’s attic; read with the delight of treasure hunters hitting gold in a parking lot; and can now urge upon our friends, catch them by surprise, propose a new name for a seat at the table. Since sometime in the 1970s, the book I most often brought up first, almost always to complete silence, was They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross. I only read the book because the covert avant-gardist George V. Higgins vouched for it as both literature and a good time. Higgins was quickly proved right, and only became more right as each page was turned—They Don’t Dance Much coulda, woulda, shoulda, baby, but for some reason didn’t, a fate that is eerily in keeping with the ethos of the novel.
We are down south in these pages, where the scent of piney woods spreads thickly on summer nights, the moon always seems to be standing around gawking, and the daily grind gives no quarter to any man, woman, or beast. It is the sensibility, though, not the region, that gives this work a heartbeat. The narrator is Jack McDonald, a scuffling country boy, no better than he ought to be, maybe, but not a lot worse, either. Jack has just lost his land to the bank, which he resents, is broke, which he resents, and is in the mood to try most anything that might turn a buck or two or maybe a bunch. Smut Milligan is a local bad boy now grown up, sells corn whiskey, runs a little gambling hall, has a roving eye, and looks out for number one. The two men work at a booze and poker joint owned by Smut, skinning rubes and peddling drink, and things go sweetly, then they go rough, then they go worse. This is rural North Carolina in the 1930s and everybody seems to recognize everybody else, know their faces if not their home addresses and hat sizes. The opening below shows what James Ross can do, as he does in a few quick artful strokes that foreshadow the major movements of what lies ahead.
I remember the evening I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn … Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola, too, but I looked at her anyway.
She had on dark glasses and she was sunburned brown as a penny. She had on some sort of short-sleeved jersey and it looked like she had left her brassiere at home.
Ross writes in classically laconic, wised-up American prose. His voice suits then and now, and will still carry well tomorrow. He knows the fresher gambits and attitudes of the time, uses repetition with subtle skill, displays an oblique but not hidden class-consciousness that lightly flavors the book from front to back, and is scandalous, for his day, with his depictions of human beings and various natural acts. His dialogue is quick and smart, and the back and forth patter makes a sweet, snappy music much like that written by a couple of the greats among his immediate predecessors, Ernest Hemingway and James M. Cain. Ross apparently disliked being mentioned with Cain (Hemingway didn’t seem to bother him), said he found the comparison odious, but writers often get defensive that way (Cain in his turn claimed to be innocent of Hemingway), denying any interest in or debt to those who famously, and obviously, cut the path they have chosen to travel; the man is a writer, first-rate, too, but he knew his Cain, okay? He knew Cain, sure, and plenty of others, as we all do, but also understood furious needs and homespun tragedy, the calm power of a man’s voice telling it to you straight without any flapdoodle or varnish.
There has been a very slow build of recognition for this novel—readers at the time of original publication (1940) may have felt they’d already read it, more or less, during the vogue for the works of Erskine Caldwell, and the setting is a roadhouse not too far removed in spirit from the little roadside joint famously featured in The Postman Always Rings Twice. But James Ross seems also to be kindred to writers whose novels are usually called Depression or proletarian literature or something else that separates them from literature that requires no further categorization: Edward Anderson (Thieves Like Us, Hungry Men), Tom Kromer (Waiting for Nothing), Horace McCoy (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, I Should Have Stayed Home) and William Faulkner, especially Sanctuary, published in 1931.
I don’t care for blabbermouth introductions that spoil the tale for all who might now have an appetite for reading the book under discussion. They Don’t Dance Much, a novel that was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried, offers a persuasive portrait of a rough-and-ready America as seen from below, a literary marvel that is once again on its feet and wending its way toward the light.
I REMEMBER THE EVENING I was sitting in front of Rich Anderson’s filling station and Charles Fisher drove up and stopped at the high-test tank. The new Cadillac he was driving was so smooth I hadn’t heard him coming. He sat there a minute, but he didn’t blow the horn. I stuck my head inside and said, ‘You got a customer, Rich.’
I heard Rich push his chair back. ‘Yes, sir,’ he said. He hustled out. There was a long yellow pencil stuck over his right ear.
‘Yes, sir, Mr. Fisher; how many, Mr. Fisher?’ he said.
Charles Fisher looked over his shoulder. ‘Fill it up,’ he said.
Fisher’s wife was with him. She had looked at me when they first drove up, but when she saw who it was she turned her head and looked off toward the Methodist Church steeple. She sat there looking toward the steeple and her face cut off my view of her husband. But that was all right with me; I had seen him before. I had seen Lola too, but I looked at her anyway.
She had on dark glasses and she was sunburned brown as a penny. She had on some sort of short-sleeved jersey and it looked like she had left her brassiere at home. She was taller than Charles Fisher.
Rich got the tank filled up and came back to the front of the car.
‘Anything else, Mr. Fisher?’ he asked.
Fisher shook his head. He paid Rich for the gas and drove on down the street. Rich came back and stood in the door; he put the money in his pocketbook, then took out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his face. Rich was a young man, but he looked droopy and old standing there. I never had noticed how bad his teeth were, nor how bald he was getting, until then. He had on a dark green filling-station uniform and it made his skin look green in what little light there was left.
‘Been one more hot day,’ he said. ‘Wisht I was going to the beach.’
‘Hell, ain’t got the money. You don’t think I stick around this filling station just because I’m crazy about filling stations, do you?’
‘I thought maybe you loved a filling station,’ I said. ‘Was your friend Fisher going to the beach?’
‘To Daytona Beach, Florida. His nigger brought the car down here yesterday for me to grease it. He said they was going to Daytona Beach, Florida.’ Rich said ‘Daytona Beach, Florida’ like some religious person talking about heaven.
‘That’s a long ways off,’ I said. ‘Why don’t he go to Myrtle Beach, or Wrightsville Beach, or Carolina Beach?’
‘Cost him more to go to Daytona Beach, I guess. He’s got so much money it worries him how to get rid of it.’
‘He could leave a sackful on my porch some night,’ I said.
‘Or mine,’ Rich said. He went inside and back to working on the books.
I sat there warming the bench that was already hot. I ought to have gone on home. I had a cow to milk and a mule to feed. I had my supper to get too, unless I went to bed hungry. I had been making out with grapes, peaches, bread, and raw tomatoes, for I didn’t like to cook in such hot weather. But my mouth was a little sore from eating so much acid, and thinking about eating I got hungry and decided I would cook supper that night for a change, and have some solid food. I made up my mind to cook an omelet when I got home, provided the hens had laid an egg since I left.
But I couldn’t get started. I got up to go and I dreaded walking four miles. The sun had gone down, but it was still hot. The back of my shirt stuck to me. I went inside and got a ten-cent beer.
The beer cooled me off and I thought it was ten cents well spent. I had another one. While I was drinking it I picked up the Corinth Enterprise and began reading. Fletch Monroe publishes the Enterprise when he’s sober. The folks around Corinth subscribe to it mostly to get rid of Fletch. He goes on a three-weeks’ bender and then sobers up and asks what-all happened while he was drinking. By the time he gets it published it’s so old that it’s right interesting. Last summer he had a picture of Babe Ruth on one page and above the picture it said, ‘Going Good This Year.’ Babe had been out of baseball about three years then, but maybe Fletch hadn’t found it out.
I had beer number three, and by then the situation looked better to me. I quit trying to find any news in the paper and started looking at the special notices and the want ads in the back. There was half a page listing the names of the folks that were going to have their land sold for back taxes. I looked down in the M’s and there I was: ‘McDonald, Jackson T., 45 acres, West Lee Township.’
I hadn’t paid the taxes in two years and I might have known it was coming. Just the same it wore me out to see my land advertised for taxes. My prospects for a crop that year were lousy. I had a land-bank payment to meet that fall. My mule had the gout, or something like it. I saw I was going to have to trade him or quit trying to farm at all. Now this had to come up. It knocked all the comfort out of the three bottles of beer and I was cold sober. I felt like pitching a big drunk.
Rich slapped the ledger book shut. It sounded uncommon loud because there wasn’t any other fuss going on right then. He got up from the desk in the corner and pulled put his watch.
‘Closing up?’ I asked him.
‘Don’t close till ten,’ he said. ‘I was just wondering when Charlie’s coming back.’ (Charlie was the boy that worked for him.) ‘I’m hungrier’n a hound, but I can’t go till he comes back from his supper.’
‘What time is it?’ I said.
‘Listen, Rich,’ I said, ‘you don’t happen to have any liquor, do you?’
‘No, I don’t sell liquor,’ he said.
‘I didn’t think you did,’ I said. I went outside and started walking up the street.
It looked like everybody had gone home for supper, and I walked along thinking about where to get some liquor and about the taxes I owed. But LeRoy Smathers hadn’t gone home to supper. Just as I came up even with Smathers Furniture & Undertaking Company, he stepped out in front of me. I started to duck around the building, but the back edge was too far away. Then I tried to breeze by like I hadn’t seen him. But LeRoy can see in the dark the same as a cat, specially if you owe him money. He grabbed my shirt-sleeve like he was tickled to death to see me. Maybe he was.
‘What’s your hurry, Jack?’ he said.
‘Why, hello, LeRoy,’ I said. ‘I like not to have known you.’
‘How you getting on, Jack?’ he said. It was twilight-dark then, but I could see his smile all right. It was kind of a threatening smile. I wished I had a couple of drinks inside me to bolster me up.
‘My health’s not so good,’ I said. ‘My finances still worse.’
‘You been sick?’ he said, like he cared a damn. He was a wormy-looking little runt, with two different kinds of teeth in his mouth. Gold teeth and rotten teeth. His eyes sunk back in his head and there were blue-looking rings under them. But the rings didn’t come from drinking. LeRoy was a church-going man and was down on liquor. It didn’t agree with his stomach. He was a puny fellow, but I dreaded him worse than anybody else in Corinth.
‘Not exactly sick,’ I said, ‘but I worried a lot lately.’
‘That’s too bad,’ he said.
‘Pretty bad. I hope you’re well as common, LeRoy,’ I said, and started to go.
He grabbed me with both hands. ‘Jack,’ he said, ‘you’ll remember we put away your mama three years ago.’
‘I remember all right,’ I said, ‘but—’
‘It come to a hundred and twenty-five dollars,’ LeRoy said. ‘One and a quarter. You ain’t paid us but thirty-five dollars.’
‘LeRoy, I’ll pay you the rest as soon as I can,’ I said.
LeRoy wore a vest under his coat, summer and winter. He stuck his thumbs in the vest-pockets. He was smiling that cloudy smile.
‘You been promising that for some time,’ he said. ‘What say you start paying us a regular monthly sum? Say ten dollars a month, till it’s all paid. ’Course we handle such things a little different from what we used to.’
‘Different? How?’ I asked.
‘I’ll tell you. We started the Smathers Finance Company here a couple of weeks back. We put all our old accounts in it and we’re fixing it so the folks that owes us can pay in monthly installments. We make a carrying charge, and all, in addition to the regular six per cent interest.’
‘How much you figure I owe you all now, LeRoy?’ I said.
He figured there for a minute or so, in the dark. ‘Let’s see. A hundred twenty-five to start with. Thirty-five two years ago. Leaves ninety dollars. A little over a hundred dollars. Say a hundred five. The way I’m going to have to finance that now it’ll come to a little more’n that.’
‘LeRoy,’ I said, ‘I just ain’t got the money to make monthly installments. I doubt if I can pay anything on it this fall. Looks like my cotton won’t pay the guano bill.’
‘Jack, you wouldn’t want it to get out that you refused to pay for your mama’s burying, would you?’ he said.
I hated to hear him talk like that. ‘Damn it, LeRoy, I got nothing to pay with,’ I said. ‘Nor any way to make anything. If I had I’d have paid you before now.’
He kept on smiling. ‘Well, it ain’t our policy to cause trouble,’ he said, ‘but we got to have our money. We can get judgment, you know, and sell your property.’
‘What property?’ I said.
‘Why, your real estate,’ he said.
‘My real estate?’ I said. ‘Listen, pal, the Land Bank’s got a mortgage on the place that’s more’n it’s worth. My household furniture ain’t worth more’n twenty dollars at the outside—doubt if it’d bring ten. I owe forty dollars back taxes. That’ll have to come before your bill. I got some farming tools—about fifteen dollars’ worth. I got a mule too. He ain’t worth a damn. There’s a few hens out there, but if they’ve laid a
‘You got a cow,’ LeRoy said.
‘She’s a good cow too,’ I said. ‘But I owe Yonce & Company fifty dollars on a guano bill. They got a mortgage on my crop and on the cow.’
‘You in bad shape, ain’t you?’ LeRoy says, and smiles worse than ever.
‘I am for a fact,’ I said.
‘Yes, sir,’ LeRoy said, ‘a man’s in pretty bad shape what’ll have his mama buried on the credit and then not pay for it.’
‘Damn it, LeRoy,’ I said, ‘go on home and drink your glass of skimmed milk and swallow your poached egg. I’ll get you the money if I have to rob a bank to do it.’ I jerked away from him and marched down the street.
I always despised LeRoy. I was a little afraid of him too. He looked like a ghost that’s got a bad disposition and stomach trouble. One night I was in the back of the Smathers place and LeRoy was putting Dick Whitney in his coffin. Dick had got his neck broke in an automobile wreck that afternoon, but after LeRoy worked on him a while he looked fresh as a daisy. It looked to me like Dick ought to have climbed out of that coffin and put LeRoy in. LeRoy did the dirty work in that place. Old Bud Smathers, his daddy, just sat around and talked and now and then sold some furniture. Fred Smathers ran the business and kept the books. Len Smathers was a clerk and when there was a funeral Len drove the hearse. LeRoy was the boy that got the fresh corpses. He stuck his icepick in their chests and stomachs to let the water and the blood get out. Then he embalmed them and fixed them up. He could take a fellow that had been cut all to pieces in a knife fight, or had his head busted open in a bad wreck, or had a stick of dynamite explode under him, and make him look better dead than he’d ever looked living. When he wasn’t working on dead folks LeRoy was the bill collector.
After I got loose from LeRoy I felt like I had to have a drink. Rich had said he didn’t sell liquor, but he was a lie. I reckon he didn’t have any that night. It’s usually easier to get liquor in Corinth than it is to get flour, but that night everybody was either out or didn’t trust me. I went to every filling station around town. They all said they were out. It was the same way in Shantytown, but I didn’t much care if they were out over there. I wasn’t crazy about tackling that nigger liquor. They cut it with water and then give it kick with some sort of tablets. Sometimes it runs folks crazy.