JOCK STEWART WOKE up this morning with an industrial strength hangover. An empty Scotch bottle lay on the floor next to an empty little black dress that wasn’t his. Last night, a fair amount of Monique Starnes wore it at the newspaper’s office party. Her cleavage, more out than in, was deep enough to kidnap a man’s dreams. Now, there would be hell to pay.
At first glance, he appeared to be alone in the bed. Maybe he stole the dress. Maybe he maxed out a credit card at an all-night Vera Wang shop, then came home and slung it on the floor in an ill-conceived pretense of having a life. “The second glance”—as Star-Gazer editor Marcus Cash always told him—“is always the beginning of trouble.”
Just past the far side of the bed, Monique lay face up on the floor in a 40-year-old birthday suit so worn out no Goodwill Store would take it. She looked like a corpse. Things went too far and he hadn’t bothered to conceal the murder weapon.
If more than one crime had been committed here, she was an accessory beginning with an illegal use of a little black dress—though many women contend that dresses don’t seduce people, people seduce people. When it got late enough last night for everyone to pair up with nobody cared whom—or was it “who”?—she dared him to dance with her. In spite of the chronic animosity between them she danced close enough to display her breasts in an arousing light.
The world resolved into a curious mix of limbo and dream after she said, “I like a man with a cocked weapon in his trousers.”
Now, the best approach to his future might be to draw a chalk outline around her before calling the police to report the accident. Chief Kruller would be pissed, not because he had any love for the newspaper’s gossip columnist but because coming by the house to clean up the mess would force him to give up his space at the counter of the Main Street Krispy Kreme.
Though he wasn’t being interrogated yet, Jock had to admit that Monique was a voluptuous, saucy, black-haired she-devil if there ever was one. It was her mouth and her typewriter that bothered him. No ass kicking, hard-boiled reporter he knew (including himself) could tolerate gossip columnists. They dragged the whole damn paper down to their level. While exciting in bed, that level was bad for the newspaper business.
She did have nice breasts—for a probable corpse.
Even so, newspapering didn’t need columns called "Hands Under Society’s Dress" with comments like: “Democracy demands that we celebrate the election process at one ball after another. Just think, in some countries, the winners aren’t allowed to have any balls.”
Her luscious brown eyes popped open like they were controlled by a zombified spirit who hadn’t “crossed over” properly.
He jumped back in fear or what looked like fear. “Jock!”
“Monique, what have we done?”
She sat up, partially covering herself with the sheer window curtain one of his former girlfriends with a name like Bambi or Barbie hung up in the bedroom either as a civilizing influence or to allow his neighbors the dubious entertainment of watching them (Jock and whoever) having sex during blue moons.
“We did what any self-respecting man and woman do when they find themselves drunk in bed,” she said. “Did I scream much?”
“Did I hurt you?”
“You gave me what I wanted.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“Want to take another shot at it?”
She put her hands where they didn’t belong—as an incentive. “Doesn’t either one of us need to take a leak or something?” he asked.
“Let’s do it together and be kinky.”
She stood up and stretched while running her hands through her hair in a way that made her look both wanton and innocent, an oh-God-Jock-you-caught-me-in-a-private-moment kind of way. He had seen such moments before in photography books.
“You go first,” he said.
When she flounced toward the bathroom everything shook. While she was there he got dressed. He heard the shower running, so he went out to the kitchen and made coffee and set out two cups. The mid-morning light was too bright. None of the cars out on Maple Street had mufflers. The birds were chirping like they were having hot sex in the locust tree. Air molecules careened into each other as though some asshole just lit a barrel full of cherry bombs.
After they finished the dinner they prepared together, after the meadowlarks’ piccolo-sharp whistles enfolded into the raspy songs of wind and creek, after darkness flowed up out of the cottonwoods, after they watched the stars materialize in the sky above the circle of box elders, after Anne’s Christian Brothers Napa Rose wine connected them to the light of the waxing crescent moon, they fetched an old horse blanket and a kerosene lantern and walked arm in arm up the bright path to the chokecherry tree. David hung the lantern on a limb below the ripe fruit while Anne flung out the blanket. The pale yellow light spun a cocoon within the night, extending outward just shy of the altar upon which the sweet lamb was slaughtered in the eagle’s dawn raid eleven years ago.
Anne stepped into the center of the blanket and lifted her arms above her head in a long, slow, cat-like stretch. Her figure was fine and young, and when her hair caught the light, the world stopped, cloaking the rising whispers of his blood within an immense silence, suspended and potent. She looked at him over her shoulder, eyes sweeping his body. Then they looked past each other and waited for signs.
Coo-hoooooooooo. The call startled them both. Coo-hoooooooooo. High-pitched and cold, the song carried from east to west as the bird flew overhead. Coo-hoooooooooo.
“Oh, wonderful,” said Anne. “Is it a dove?”
“A burrowing owl,” he said.
“No kidding. Where does it burrow?”
“In the logs stacked up near the fence.”
“I saw its silhouette soar across the Milky Way, but I couldn’t make it out.”
“Wolf trail,” he said. “Look, it’s smoldering in the fire of the northern lights.”
She fell back into his arms and watched the sky. Beneath the fire, her hair was smoke in his mouth.
“Hold me good or the night will carry me off,” she said.
“I’ve got you,” he said.
“What an uncommon sight,” she said. “Something we don’t see along the Gulf Coast.”
“I expect not.”
“You’ll visit me there this fall, won’t you?”
“I’ll visit you anywhere.”
“Careful,” she said, turning around. Their lips touched while she was saying, “Pledges and curses are sisters in crime.”
He inhaled the wine from her mouth, knowing only an owl’s call could shatter their destiny.
Pegasus, Cygnus and Draco were soaring across the quiet sky when Anne put out the lantern’s light.
They undressed beneath within the inviolate haven of leaves, without hurry, for time was infinite beneath their exploring hands.
“Goosebumps,” she said. “Are you cold?”
“Expectant. Oh, this small scar—how?”
“Ouch. Pull me closer, my burrowing owl.”
They spent the night beneath deep purple cherries and alternate leaves; they spent the night upon an ocean of grass along the ridge above the highway. They spent the night cradled by seedlings faraway into the lodgepole pine forest well past the property line. They spent themselves and they were electric beneath the blinding sky.
An hour before dawn, they heard the creek’s tender song and danced a long, slow dance around the chokecherry tree. They were saturated with sweat, and the breeze raised goosebumps across their salty skin except where they were crushed against each other. Anne whispered, “Night is liquid magic; we’re stirred together. You’ve taken me beyond myself, higher than the wolf trail stars, and what we have of each other, we own.”
His hands slid down her back and came to rest on her swaying hips and he felt a sweet tension rise up her spine, a lingering need they were too tired to acknowledge. When he said, “Forever, I am daring to say it to you,” she wrenched away, and he was unconditionally bare beneath her gaze.
It was then that she looked down at herself and saw she was covered in blood from the waist down. “For goodness sake, I’m bleeding like a stuck pig, but since you’re not looking away or hurrying off to wash, I’m saying yes before we wise up in the light of day.”
Here are the opening lines of this satirical mystery novel. Needless to say, everything already looks a bit sordid, a bit "not quite right," and a bit noir.
When the Goddess wrapped her in a warm blanket of rain, Sarabande felt new born, even now within the alien and empty streets between the Osprey’s house and Fairview Park. The houses were dark, and the streets were empty except for herself.
Near the Mimosa tree, Coyote stood next to the body. It lay face down where Osprey had left it. The cops had driven stakes into the grass around the corpse, connecting them with a circle of tape the color of Coyote’s eyes. The words “CRIME SCENE” were written on the tape.
Coyote, the Creator’s Dog, looked at her with blood on his teeth, for he had been eating the left leg. The meat was torn away down to the bone.
“Come, share my dinner,” said Coyote.
She smiled and got down on her hands and knees and crawled beneath the tape and saw that their food was clean within the rain. She yipped at Coyote in gratitude, and he backed away to give her room. Comfort food, she thought.
When Sarabande was full, Coyote ran west into the night, but the strong smell of his urine remained. To the casual observer, it might have been a young, rough collie dog playing beneath the cloudy sky, but when Coyote ran, he ran with his tail down and that was the first clue her father taught her when she asked how to distinguish between coyotes, wolves and dogs. Wapiti had also taught her to eat the raw meat of a kill when rain and other circumstances made a cooked meal impossible.
Coyote would return, but she was full. When she turned the meat over for him as a gesture of her thanks, Sarabande felt horribly ill. That despicable cur had tricked her into eating what was too vile for any creature other than a varmint. They had been sating themselves not on Dohver but on the flesh of Danny Jenks. His eyes were closed, but there was still Red Man tobacco juice on his chin.
She turned away from him and walked beneath the Mimosa tree, thinking that if fate were kind, she would be able to drown herself in Dreamland Lake before the morning came.
David and Anne meet as seasonal employees at a Montana resort hotel. On their days off, they drive down to his family's ranch and, finding nobody home, they fix dinner and sleep outside beneath the stars
In this sequel to "The Sun Singer," dreams and "real life" are often tangled. Dohver is an evil avatar and Danny Jenks is the crude truck driver who assaulted Sarabande.
“Show me what you got, River Granny Eden.”
Eulalie’s hands fluttered on the keys like they was speaking in tongues.
Two couples walked into the bar and there were more outside. Music carries a long way at night.
“Y’all ready to dance? Granny’s trills tell me she’s launchin’ the ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp.’”
Eulalie’s hands and the dancers’ feet moved too fast for a poor kitty to clearly see. Her left hand was thunder and her right hand as lightning and angels. The dancers stomped that floor to blazes: step, step, step-a-step, girls following the men through looks and light touches. And when a train came down the mainline, Eulalie’s left hand followed the wheels screaming in the curve and her right hand caught the diesel horn blowing for the crossing and the dancers’ feet caught the bang, bang, bang-a-bang of the cars’ noisy slack action when the engineer didn’t mind his train brakes the way River Eden minded those keys. The train was rolling south past the camps where Willie once worked, where Robert blew revile, where cat-faced pines took up the stomp and the energy and kept it going long after those bulkhead flats left the county.
Nobody was quiet when the song ended. Even the applause shook the floor, and the screen door was shouting as haints and living souls crowded inside to boogie.
“That’s the first time I heard anyone other than Albert Ammons on Blue Note Records play that left hand riff correctly.”
Eulalie smiled and adjusted the candle before it fell off the end of the piano, before a train or a new song came down the line.
“You have a good ear, Joseph. Now, here comes ‘Shout for Joy.’”
Her right hand hit the opening chimes like a Tate’s Hell rattlesnake finding Big Poison. Then her left hand found its way down into the basement again. The floor moved beneath my feet like I was riding Minnie through a cornfield. That ride didn’t end till the sun came up and the jook fell into quiet, after I was slapped silly by ears of corn, slap, slap, slap-a-slap while Eulalie shouted out the names of songs, “The Fives,” “Honky Tonk Train Blues,” “Jump Steady Blues,” Roll ‘em Pete,” and “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat,” infused every twenty minutes with encore presentations of “Boogie Woogie Stomp.”
As the night boogied on toward memories never to be forgotten, the dancers began to slow their step, step, step-a-step, and my Conjure Woman gave them an excuse to rest by singing a few of her favorite blues songs from Ida Goodson and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and people smiled even though it was hunger and the brothers and sisters fighting the Devil to scratch out a life. Wet-with-sweat money piled up next to the white candle as each couple said “goodbye” and “God bless you River Eden” and disappeared north or south along the silent railroad tracks toward breakfast.
Razz left at dawn, kissing Eulalie on the lips, making her act shy until he was out the screen door and into the gracious morning after. After that, nobody said anything.
Conjure Woman's Cat
Eulalie sits down to play the piano at the local juke point after the owner promised he'd help her if she could play well enough to fill the place with dancers.