Authors: Stephen Graham Jones
“[Jones’] writing is hallucinogenic, varied, fascinating. While reading the novel, big names in writing came to mind: Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, even Faulkner.” —
“The constant threat or fact of violence in [his] stories combined with Jones’s idiosyncratic, staccato prose makes for gripping and visceral reading.” —
“Imagine the laconic Sherman Alexie meeting the bombastic Stephen King on the Texas High Plains.” —
“Jones’ most powerful writing stems from his attempts to reconcile the two cultures by which he defines himself—or finds himself defined.” —
Southwestern American Literature
“For a while now I have felt that we Native American writers (and I most certainly include myself in the “we”) keep writing about the same damn things. Stephen Graham Jones writes with a whole new aesthetic and moral sense. He doesn’t sound like any of the rest of us, and I love that.” —
“Painfully real and utterly hypnotic.” —
“Jones’ brisk, clean, visceral prose gives the novel its edgy suspense.” —
The Fast Red Road: A Plainsong
All the Beautiful Sinners
The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto
Bleed Into Me: A Book of Stories
The Long Trial of Nolan Dugatti
It Came From Del Rio
The Ones that Got Away
Seven Spanish Angels
E-published in 2012 by
M P Publishing Limited
12 Strathallan Crescent
Douglas, Isle of Man
IM2 4NR, British Isles
Cover design © Monica Gurevich/Julie Metz, Ltd.
Author photo by Dixie Knight
Book Design by Maria Claire Snith
Publisher’s Note: All characters in this
photoplayfiction are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
This e-book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Jones, Stephen Graham, 1972-
Growing up dead in Texas / by Stephen Graham Jones.
Copyright 2012 Stephen Graham Jones
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
(a novel in 3 parts, 11 chapters)
paperback ISBN 978-1-84982-154-4
1. Families/Texas—Fiction. 2. Small cities/Texas — Fiction. 3. Arson--Texas— Fiction. 4. Texas— Fiction. 5. Domestic— fiction. 6. Detective and mystery stories.
n the summer of 2008, I finally, and for good, I think, left West Texas. I’d tried a couple of times before—Florida, Arkansas—but the moves didn’t take. Florida’s sticky green was a nightmare to someone raised on dirt, someone scared of water, and Little Rock was what I’d been trained my whole life to hate: a city. Where I grew up, we didn’t even have a post office. The church and the school were on the same grounds. Sometimes at recess the ball would go over the fence, into the graveyard, and then, walking stiff-legged through the headstones, you’d see the names of people who were sitting at your dinner table a year ago. What you do then is set your lips, focus ahead, and don’t let yourself run for the fence, once you’ve got that ball again.
If you ever start running, I mean.
Right now, writing this, I’m smiling to be there again, yeah, but it’s fake. My chest is doing that hollow kind of pounding. I still remember going across that fence. How guilty you can feel for playing while all these people are dead. I still remember finding a Hot Wheels car nosed against the base of a headstone I knew by touch, and knowing it hadn’t been there the day of the funeral. And how I wanted that car worse than anything, but I couldn’t even start to reach for it. Not in a thousand years.
And already, though I promised myself three paragraphs ago that there weren’t going to be any lies this time, that this
going to be a novel, still, I’m not telling you who’s headstone that was, am I?
I don’t know.
I probably shouldn’t even be doing this—I’ve never written non-fiction. Not even sure I believe it’s a possible thing, really. Sure, some of the stories I’ve had published, they’re me as the main character, just with a different name, a cooler truck. And, yeah, the novels—each one’s autobiography, never mind what kind of crazy stuff’s going on. Fiction’s always been my camouflage, the lie I hide behind, hoping nobody will recognize that that kid in the diner with his uncle, that kid wetting his pants from a grief so pure it scares him, makes him think he’s dying too, that’s me.
And now I’m in that diner again.
Fiction. I wish I were writing fiction this time. It’s so much easier.
This, though, it’s the only way I can go back, I think.
If I even should.
eople in Greenwood, Texas remember where they were that morning.
This is before the news trucks came in from Midland and Odessa, even in from San Angelo and Lubbock, places you only ever went for a basketball tournament, or to shop for school clothes in August. It probably would have gone national for a blip or two—not that morning, but what would happen later— except there were fireworks in the sky that week, and nobody was looking anywhere but up.
This is where it starts, though.
North of Cloverdale and just east of the school, about a mile in from the Graham place but on the same side of the road. A series of three houses going back, if you count the tack shed the wind finally blew over a couple of weeks ago, nearly a hundred years. A porcupine’s living in that tack shed now. There are no kids around anymore to chase it, to sneak in on their bellies, close their eyes and grab for a quill. Run away so fast that by the time they stop, their knees are stained green with cotton. The thin horseshoes are still there under the rotten boards, though, along with the buckles of saddles with stories nobody’ll ever know. Nails lumped with rust but still solid. An old yoke half chewed away by generations of puppies that should have known better than to ever grow into dogs. And spread all around for acres, so that they spill into the turnrows, old tractors and ramshackle plows, left where they broke, the husks of loyal trucks not for sale, faded beer cans on their dashboards, and trailers of every kind, their tongues hidden in last summer’s careless weeds, some of those trailers mounded with farm sale steals that were never unloaded. Two barns, slat-board stables leaning closer and closer to the ground, and then the new blue-pipe arena, dirt still bermed up from where the regulation plastic barrels used to be. Five-hundred-gallon silver tanks on racks, for gas and farm-grade diesel—gravity hoses, not electric pumps—and a rut road wandering through it all, a horse trap ran along the side of the property with gates at either end, a chute on the house-side, a rickety windmill cocked against the sky, its concrete tank cracked open twenty years ago, all the moss dried and gone, the goldfish carried away by birds.
The King place, right about dawn.
Arthur King stands in the doorway for a moment before pointing his boot down to the porch, giving it what’s left of his weight.
Out on Cloverdale a pumper flashes by, his truck chugging white smoke, his new tires singing on the asphalt.
Arthur King raises his cup to the pumper, groans down into his chair.
He still remembers when Cloverdale was 307. Hardly even that. A packed-dirt road that fell away sharp on both sides and went as far as you could see in either direction, connecting Midland with 137, which would crook you north into Stanton. Or, if you turned earlier, like everybody did back then, a cut-across to the gin.
Arthur King doesn’t use the Stanton co-op anymore, though. Hardly anybody in Greenwood does.
It’s not because of the low spot in the cut-across road where you can drag a low trailer if it’s too long—though pulling six or seven daisy-chained cotton trailers up that hill’s claimed a rear-end or two—it’s that everybody remembers Earl Holbrook some, the guy who runs the Midland gin now. He did his last two years of high school at Greenwood, and put a lot of hours on a lot of tractors back when he was trying to make a go of it. Before he washed out, like nearly everybody else did a couple years back.
Everybody who was taking it just a year at a time, anyway.
Out on his porch that morning, Arthur King isn’t smoking a cigarette to wake up, not anymore, but he can’t seem to break the habit of stepping outside either. It’s got to where he wonders if that was what it was all about in the first place, the smoking. He just wanted a few breaths to himself.
It’s foolish. He smiles at it all, stands up just to lean down on the railing, spit a brown line down into his wife’s flowerbed, survey the morning.
Inside, it’s breakfast. Mrs. King is watching the news from the couch. The news is on, anyway.
Out here on the porch, it’s just him, King. And his empire.
In every direction he looks, he’s got land. Not all of it’s his, but there’s a section directly to the south, a half-section across the road from it to either side, and to the west, closer to the school, a half-section he still insists on running himself, won’t lease out. Most of it irrigated, and more besides, patched together in a fifteen-mile spread.
At one time nearly all of it had been King land, but that was two generations back already. Inheritance has turned a continuous spread into a game of hopscotch, what with cousins selling their quarter-sections off, sometimes just ten acres at a time. King’s bought what he can, sometimes secondhand even, at a mark-up, but still, more than he’d prefer’s already in development. Everybody wants to live in tight little clusters of homes for some reason. Close enough to the school to see the stadium lights on Friday night, hear the drums rattle, the crowd swell with noise.
And there are the oil derricks, too, of course.
Even the cousins, hocking their land out for RVs and houses in town, have been smart enough to hang onto the mineral rights. Most of them, anyway. The ones who still make it to the reunion in the summer.
As for the rest, well.
Driving down Cloverdale, from Midland to Big Lake or wherever business or pleasure’s taking them, they probably don’t even know that either side of the ditch has their name on it, more or less.
The King land—in Greenwood, Texas in 1985—it’s most of Greenwood. The Ledbetters still have a few patches, but ever since Old Man Marty died and there was no one to take the operation over, the fields are leased out, the Ledbetter girls, all but one of them with different names now, just waiting until the developers come knocking. The husbands they’d met at college in Abilene waiting too.
King’s met all those husbands at one time or another— church, mostly, during the holidays—and has managed just to nod, shake their smooth hands, welcome them for the ten minutes they’re investing in their future.
All they’ll have’s money, though.
When Arthur King was still too young to really understand, his granddad had knelt down to one knee, nudged a toy tractor forward with the back of his index finger, and told Little King—surely someone had to have called him that—that the trick with farming, it isn’t so much being a good farmer, though that helps, yeah. The trick, the secret—he’d have had to whisper this part, his old-man breath smoky—it’s farming your own land.
All boys being groomed to run a place, this is what they get told at one time or another.
It’s what King told each of his four sons.
Two of them it scared off, into lives their great-grandfather never could have even guessed at, but for the one left alive, it finally stuck.
It’s why King can have his coffee on the porch like this some mornings. Even early December mornings, when every other farmer in Midland county hasn’t been home for two or three nights running.
If King had been out on the porch just before light, like usual (Mrs. King had been in the bathroom pawing at the tub faucets, and it had taken him a while to get her to understand that nobody had to get to school today), it would have looked like the Germans were invading. Lights shivering through thick dust, dust that shouldn’t be raised like that in the nighttime.
You don’t stop stripping cotton just because you lose the sun, though.
King remembers pulling thirty-hour shifts up in the seat, until the golden haze of his cab lights was the only thing that made any kind of sense, and his brain geared down to a kind of necessary stupidity, where all it knew anymore was how to line the headers up with the rows, how to tip the basket over into the buggy. How to start it all over again, and again, and again, listening for the brushes hard enough that their thrush seemed to come from his own chest, listening with enough of himself that he wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to unsnap his shirt and see cotton churning in there.
Now, though, he has hands, good ones, dependable ones, and a son too, who knows the work anyway, even if it’s just a fallback.
Not that King’s letting go anytime soon, mind.
He nods to himself and clamps onto the porch railing, guides himself back into his chair.
Out there, blowing in, there’s the cold dust the strippers are shaking up, and, under that, the oily tang of diesel, which, for reasons King’s never understood, still makes his mouth water.
But there’s something else this morning too.
King guides his coffee away from his face, to taste the air better. Cocks his head over like he can hear it, if he tries.
Finally, to be sure, he stands again, a jack-in-the-box of an old man, his coffee cup tumbling off the railing, finding a rock in the flowerbed, some old sandstone grinder his dad brought in forever ago, when they were everywhere, a nuisance.
King doesn’t register the thick glass shattering. The steam holding to the grinder for a moment before letting go.
Instead he purses his lips, stares hard down the rows of naked reaching stalks spoked out from his house.
It can’t be.
But he knows the smell too, has smelled it like this one time before.
“Cecilia!” he bellows from the porch, and she’s inside on the couch, her hands curled in her lap, her posture a sparrow’s posture, her small head turning all at once to this sound, this disturbance, this emergency.
What he wants is his hat, his keys, the goddamn phone.
The fields are on fire.