Table of Contents
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Dog of the South
Masters of Atlantis
First published in the United States in 1999 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
141 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10012www.overlookpress.com
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Copyright Â© 1966 by Charles Portis
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Norwood / Charles Portis.
eISBN : 978-1-590-20666-9
NORWOOD HAD TO GET a hardship discharge when Mr. Pratt died because there wasn't anyone else at home to look after Vernell. Vernell was Norwood's sister. She was a heavy, sleepy girl with bad posture. She was old enough to look after herself and quite large enough, but in many ways she was a great big baby. Everybody out on the highway said, “What's going to happen to Vernell now?” Several people out there on the highway put this question to Brother Humphries and his reply was a thoughtful, “I don't know. I'm trying to work something out.” He talked to a man in Texarkana who worked something out with the Red Cross man at Camp Pendleton and the Red Cross man in turn worked it out with the major who handled hardship discharges. Norwood had to see the major three times and talk to him about personal and embarrassing things. The major had a 105-millimeter ashtray on his desk. He was not an unkindly man and he expedited the matter as best he could. Norwood took his discharge, which he felt to be shameful, and boarded a bus in Oceanside that was bound for his home town of Ralph, Texasâwith, of course, many intermediate stops. The big red-and-yellow cruiser had not gone far when Norwood remembered with a sinking heart that in all the confusion of checking out he had forgotten to go by Tent Camp 1 and pick up the seventy dollars that Joe William Reese owed him. This was a measure of his distress. It was not like Norwood to forget money. Joe William should have come by and paid him.
would have if
had owed the money. But no, that was not Joe William's way.
Thinking about it, on top of this discharge business, sent Norwood further into depression. He decided he would sit up straight all the way home and not look at the sights and not sleep and not push the Recline-o button and not lean back thirty or forty degrees the way he had planned. Nor would he talk to anyone. Except for short answers to direct and impersonal questions such as “Do you have the time?” or “What town is this?” But he did not sulk long. He slept for 335 miles, leaning back at the maximum Trailways angle, and when he awoke he struck up a conversation with a friendly young couple name of Remley. The Remleys had been picking asparagus in the Imperial Valley and were now on their way home with their asparagus money. Traveling with them was their infant son Hershel. Hershel was a cheerful, bright-eyed little fellow. He was very well behaved and Norwood remarked on this.
Mrs. Remley patted Hershel on his tummy and said, “Say I'm not always this nice.” Hershel grinned but said nothing.
“I believe the cat has got that boy's tongue,” said Norwood.
“Say no he ain't,” said Mrs. Remley. “Say I can talk aplenty when I want to, Mr. Man.”
“Tell me what your name is,” said Norwood. “What is your name?”
“Say Hershel. Say Hershel Remley is my name.”
“How old are you, Hershel? Tell me how old you are.”
“Say I'm two years old.”
“Hold up this many fingers,” said Norwood.
“He don't know about that,” said Mrs. Remley. “But he can blow out a match.”
Norwood talked to Mr. Remley about bird hunting. Mrs. Remley talked about her mother's people of near Sallisaw. Hershel made certain noises but said no words as such. Mrs. Remley was not bad looking. Norwood wondered why she had married Mr. Remley. One thing, though ... he knew about bird dogs.
Norwood invited them to stop in Ralph and stay with him for a few days. He would borrow Clyde Rainey's dog and they could go quail hunting. Vernell was in bed sick with grief and beyond comfort when they arrived. She had not even been able to attend the funeral. Norwood put the Remleys in Mr. Pratt's old bedroom and he set up a cot for himself in the kitchen. Brother Humphries did not like the looks of the Remleys and he told Norwood as much. Or rather he told him that with Vernell here in bed and in the shape she was in and all, it might not be the best thing to be bringing in boomers like that off the bus. Norwood said they would only be there for a couple of days. Sometime during the night the Remleys decamped, taking with them a television set and a 16-gauge Ithaca Featherweight and two towels. No one could say how they got out of town with that gear, least of all the night marshal. The day marshal came by and looked at the place where the television set had been. He made notes.
Norwood and Vernell did not live right in Ralph but just the other side of Ralph. Mr. Pratt had always enjoyed living on the edge of places or between places, even when he had a choice. He was an alcoholic auto mechanic. Before his death they had moved a lot, back and forth along U.S. Highway 82 in the oil fields and cotton patches between Stamps, Arkansas, and Hooks, Texas. There was something Mr. Pratt dearly loved about that section of interstate concrete. They clung to its banks like river rats. Once, near Stamps, they lived in a house between a Tastee-Freez stand and a cinder-block holiness church. There had been a colorful poster on one side of the house that said ROYAL AMERICAN SHOWS OCT. 6-12 ARKANSAS LIVESTOCK EXPOSITION LITTLE ROCK. On the other side of the house somebody with a big brush and a can of Sherwin-Williams flat white had painted ACTS 2:38.
They later moved to a tin-roof house that was situated in a gas field under a spectacular flare that burned all the time. Big copper-green beetles the size of mice came from all over the Southland to see it and die in it. At night their little toasted corpses pankled down on the tin roof.
The Pratts did their washing and shaving on the front porch because that was where the pan was, and the mirror. You could see better out there. Little Vernelâwhen she
littleâwould stand out in the yard in her panties and wave a stick or a carburetor at all the transcontinental motorists. She may well have caught some of them going both waysâthe salesmen in black Dodge business coupÃ©s with no back seatsâso frequently did the Pratts move from one side of the road to the other. Mr. Pratt did not prefer one side of U.S. 82 over the other.
When they moved to Ralph, Norwood quit school and went to work at the Nipper Independent Oil Co. Servicenter, and with his first money he built his mother a bathroom. He did all the carpentering and put in the fixtures himself. Most of the stuff was secondhandâthe water heater and the commode and the lumberâbut he bought the bathtub new from Sears, and it
a delight. It was low and modern and sleek, with a built-in thing for the soap. There was a raised wave design on the bottom. Mrs. Pratt was well pleased and said so.
But she was gone these many years and now the old mechanic too, he who had shaken his head and wiped his hands and told at least a thousand people they were losing oil through the main bearing, had joined her. Norwood missed the funeral but Clyde Rainey had gone and he said it had all been very nice. More people came than reasonably could have been expected. There were a good many flowers too. The funeral home had scrubbed Mr. Pratt down with Boraxo and Clyde said he had never seen him looking so clean and radiant.
Norwood picked up his old job at the Nipper station and Clyde was glad to have him back. Norwood was a good worker and was not known to be a thief. The station featured dishes and cheap gasoline. All credit cards were honored. The rest rooms were locked for the protection of the customers. Inside the station itself there was a tilted mirror along the back wall to deceive the eye and make the place look bigger. Outside, eye-catching banners and pennants and clever mobile signs fluttered and spun and wheeled over the pumps. On top of the station there was a giant billboard showing a great moon face with eyeglasses. It was a face beaming with good will. It was, of course, Nipper himself, the famous Houston oilman. A little cartoon body had been painted on beneath the face, with one hand holding a gas hose and the other extended to the public in a stage gesture, palm outward, something like Porky Pig when he is saying, “That's all, folks.” Along the bottom of the sign there was a line of script, in quotation marks, indicating that it was a message direct from the Nipper pen.
“Thank you for riding with Nipper,”
“Won't you call again?”
Vernell cried and moped around the house for almost two months. Brother Humphries' wife and the other ladies of the church were good about bringing food over. They brought fried chicken and potato salad and coconut cakes and macaroni and cheese and baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows melted on top. The Home Demonstration agent came by and gave Vernell some housekeeping tips and some printed matter. When the woman left, Vernell went back to bed and forgot all the tips. But in time she came around. One morning she got up and washed her face and cooked Norwood's breakfast. She was still a little sickly though and the doctor told Norwood not to let her work too hard. He continued to do most of the cooking and housekeeping, and he stayed close and busied himself with little personal projects.
Sometimes he sat on the back steps wearing a black hat with a Fort Worth crease and played his guitarâjust three or four chords reallyâand sang “Always LateâWith Your Kisses,” with his voice breaking like Lefty Frizzell, and “China Doll” like Slim Whitman, whose upper range is hard to match. The guitar wasn't much. It was a cheap West German model with nylon strings he had bought at the PX. He also put in a lot of time on his car. He had bought a 1947 Fleetline Chevrolet with dirt dobber nests in the heater and radio for fifty dollars. He put in some rings and ground the valves and got it in fair running shape. He loosened the tappets and put up with the noise so as to keep Vernellâwho
race a motorâfrom burning the valves. She burned a connecting rod instead.
He made home improvements too. He ripped off the imitation brick siding on the houseâMr. Pratt had called it nigger brickâand slapped two coats of white paint on the walls in three days. He cleaned up the front yard and hauled off all the truck differentials and engine blocks and disembodied fenders, and took down the I DO NOT LOAN TOOLS sign from the persimmon tree. He thinned out the weeds in the big ditch in front of the house with a weed sling and gave the mosquitoes down there fits with twenty gallons of used motor oil. He had two loads of pea gravel dumped and spread over the driveway and he whitewashed some big rocks and laid them out for borders. There was some lime left over so he soaked some more rocks and laid out a globe-eagle-and-anchor emblem on the ditch slope facing the highway. He put his serial number under it.
One night he came home from work and said, “I'm tard of working at that station, Vernell.”