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Authors: Robert Olen Butler

The Hot Country

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The Hot
Country

Also by Robert Olen Butler:

The Alleys of Eden

Sun Dogs

Countrymen of Bones

On Distant Ground

Wabash

The Deuce

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain

They Whisper

Tabloid Dreams

The Deep Green Sea

Mr. Spaceman

Fair Warning

Had a Good Time

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction

(Janet Burroway, editor)

Severance

Intercourse

Hell

Weegee Stories

A Small Hotel

The Hot Country

A Christopher Marlowe Cobb
Thriller

Robert Olen Butler

The Mysterious Press

New York

Copyright © 2012 by Robert Olen Butler

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including the information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Scanning, uploading, and electronic distribution of this book or the facilitation of such without the permission of the publisher is prohibited. 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. Any member of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or anthology, should send inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003 or
[email protected]
.

A portion of this book originally appeared as a short story entitled
“The One in White” in
The Atlantic Monthly
and subsequently in
the Grove Press collection
Had a Good Time.

Another portion of this book originally appeared in
Narrative
magazine.

Published simultaneously in Canada

Printed in the United States of America

ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9399-5

The Mysterious Press

an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

841 Broadway

New York, NY 10003

Distributed by Publishers Group West

www.groveatlantic.com

For Otto Penzler, who inspired and encouraged this book and the ones that will inevitably follow. And for Bradford Morrow, my dear friend and literary brother, who brought Otto into my writing life.

1

Bunky Millerman caught me from behind on the first day of Woody Wilson's little escapade in Vera Cruz. Bunky and his Kodak and I had gone down south of the border a couple of weeks earlier for the
Post-Express
and the whole syndicate. I'd been promised an interview with the tin-pot General Huerta who was running the country. He had his hands full with Zapata and Villa and Carranza, and by the time I got there,
el Presidente
was no longer in a mood to see the American press. I was ready to beat it back north, but then the Muse of Reporters shucked off her diaphanous gown for me and made the local commandant in Tampico, on the Gulf coast, go a little mad. He grabbed a squad of our Navy Bluejackets who were ashore for gasoline and showers and marched them through the street as Mexican prisoners. That first madness passed quick and our boys were let go right away, but old Woodrow had worked himself up. He demanded certain kinds of apologies and protocols, which the stiff-necked Huerta wouldn't give. Everybody started talking about war. Then I got wind of a German munitions ship heading for Vera Cruz, and while the other papers were still picking at bones in the capital, I hopped a train over the mountains and into the
tierra caliente
. I arrived in Vera Cruz, which was the hot country all right, a god-forsaken port town in a desolate sandy plain with a fierce, hot northern wind. But I figured I'd be Johnny-on-the-spot.

Anyways. That Bunky Millerman photo of me. I saw it for the second time some weeks later, after a bit of derring-do that gave me what I expected to be the scoop of a lifetime and a king beat on the other boys, who were all stuck in Vera Cruz sparring with the Army censors over an invasion that clearly wasn't moving out of town. Seemed there'd been something else going on all this time, right under our noses. When I'd finally gotten the real dope on that and figured out how to cable it to the home office uncensored, I got an immediate wire back from my editor in chief, Clyde Fetter. He called it a knockout of a story—and it was—the only problem being his wire ended with a “but” as big as Sophie Tucker's wagging away at me: Before he could go to press with this, he needed me back in Chicago in person, as soon as I could get there.

So I found myself in Clyde's Michigan Avenue office at the
Post-Express
on a hot afternoon in May. His eighth-floor windows were thrown open to the lake but it wasn't giving us
nada,
not enough breeze even to nudge the match flame he'd just struck up. What he didn't do was cross his feet up on the corner of his desk for what has become the traditional cigar-lighting at the start of one of our big-story sit-downs. I was still attuned to ominous signs after all I'd been through lately, so I didn't miss the significance of his feet being on the floor. He had more on his mind than figuring out the front-page layout and how to ragtime up our leads. Whatever he really had on his mind was awkward enough that he went cross-eyed focusing on the end of the cigar in his mouth, and he wasn't saying a word.

“So,” I said. “Is our man going to file for the Senate race?” By which I meant Paul Maccabee Griswold, the Hearst of Hyde Park, Clyde's and my überboss. He had till June 1 to file for the primary and he was getting itchy for power of a different sort. I intended the remark simply as small talk to loosen Clyde up.

“Word is,” he said, without so much as glancing from the end of his cigar.

And then I saw the postcard on the cork wall behind his desk. It was surrounded by clippings and Brownie shots and news copy, but it jumped off the wall at me. Clyde was still stalling, so I circled around him and looked close.

It was me all right. Bunky had snapped me from behind as I was walking along one of the streets just off the
zócalo
,
which was the main square they call the
Plaza de Armas,
and there'd been a gun battle. Bunky had it printed up on a postcard-back for me, and I sent it off to Clyde. I'd inked an arrow pointing to a tiny, unrecognizable figure way up the street standing with a bunch of other locals. In the foreground I was striding past a leather goods shop. The pavement was wide and glaring from the sun. Even from behind I had the look of a war correspondent. There but not there. Unafraid of the battle and floating along just a little above it all. Not in the manner of Richard Harding Davis, who came down for another syndicate after the action got started and who wore evening clothes every night at his table in the
portales
. Not like Jack London either, who was in town looking as if he'd hopped a freight from the Klondike. I had a razor press in my dark trousers and my white shirt was fresh. We boys of the Fourth Estate love our image and our woodchopper's feel for words. It's an image you like your editors to have of you, and so I sent this card, even though by the time I did, I'd already begun to learn a thing or two I wouldn't put in a story for the
Post-Express
or anybody else. Did the lesson of those first few days help lead me to the big story? Maybe. I'd have to think that over.

But first I pulled the card off the wall and turned it over. I'd scrawled in pencil, “After the battle notice the pretty Señorita's in this photo. The one in white does my laundry.” I drew my thumb over the words, compulsively noticing the dangle of the first phrase, which was meant like a headline. I should have put a full stop. “After the battle.” And I've made “Señorita's” singular possessive, capitalizing it like a proper name. Maybe this was more than sloppiness in a hasty, self-serving scrawl on a postcard. It was, in fact, true that I had no interest in the other girls. Just in whatever it was that this particular señorita had inside her. Luisa Morales.

Clyde took a guess at where my mind was. “Good thing we've got a copy desk,” he said, a puff of his relit cigar floating past me.

“If I were you I wouldn't trust a reporter who bothered to figure out apostrophes anyway,” I said. But I wasn't looking at him. Now that I had him small-talking, I didn't care. Something more absorbing was going on.

I turned the card over once more and I looked at Luisa, dressed in white, far away. And I was falling into it again, the lesson I was about to learn in the photo seemingly lost on me. Because what I was
not
looking at in the picture or even while standing there in Clyde's office, really, were the two dead bodies I'd just walked past, still pretty much merely an arm's length away. A couple of snipers, also in white, dead on the pavement. That's what they paid us for, Davis and London and me and all the rest of the boys. To take that in and keep focused. I got the head count and I worked out the politics of it, and I could write the smear of their blood, their sprawled limbs, their peasant sandals without a second glance. I could fill cable blanks one after the other with that kind of stuff while parked in a wisp of sea breeze in the
portales
over a glass of
mezcal
. If I got stuck finding the right phrase for the folks on Lake Shore Drive or Division Street or Michigan Avenue, I just tapped a spoon on my saucer and along came a refill and inspiration, delivered by an
hombre
who might have ended up on the pavement the next morning showing the bottoms of his sandals.

“So what became of your señorita, do you suppose?” Clyde said.

I looked over my shoulder at him. He'd drawn his craggy moon of a face out of his collar and had it angled a little like he'd just sprung a horsewhip of a question on a dirty politician.

I ruffled around in my head trying to think if at some point I'd suggested any connection to him between the one in white and the one in black. It felt like a year ago I'd sent him that story, though it was only a few weeks. But I felt certain I hadn't. “Did I get drunk and send a telegram I don't remember?” I said.

“Nah,” Clyde said. “Call it a newsman's intuition.”

I shrugged and looked away from him again. But I wasn't talking. And that shrug was just for show. It was all still there inside me. The whole story.

2

She more or less came with the rooms I rented in a house just off the
zócalo
. I'd barely thrown my valise on the bed and wiped the sweat off my brow when she peeked her head in at the door, which I'd failed to close all the way. These two big dark eyes and a high forehead from her Spanish grandfather or whoever. “Señor?” she said.

“Come in. As long as you're not one of Huerta's assassins,” I said in Spanish, which I'm pretty good at. I figured that accounted for the smile she gave me.

“No problem, señor,” she said. She swung the door open wide now, and I saw a straw basket behind her, waiting. “I'll take your dirty things,” she said.

“Well, there was this time with Roosevelt in San Juan . . .” I said, though it was under my breath, really, and I let it trail off, just an easy private joke when I was roughed up from travel and needing a drink.

But right off she said. “You keep that, señor. Some things I can't wash away.” She did this matter-of-factly, shrugging her thin shoulders a little.

“Of course,” I said. “It's probably a priest I need.”

“The ones in Mexico won't do you much good,” she said.

She kept surprising me, and this time I didn't have a response. I just looked at her, thinking what a swell girl, and I was probably showing it in my face.

Her face stayed blank as a tortilla, and after a moment, she said. “Your clothes.”

My hand went of its own accord to the top button on my shirt.

“Please, señor,” she said, her voice full of weary patience, and she pointed to my bag.

I gave her some things to wash.

“I'm Christopher Cobb,” I said. “What's your name?”

“I'm just the local girl who does your laundry,” she said, and I still couldn't read anything in her face, to see if she was flirting or really trying to put me off.

I said, “You've advised me to keep away from your priests even though I'm plenty dirty. You're already more than a laundry girl.”

She laughed. “That was not for your sake. I just hate the priests.”

“That's swell,” I said. Swell enough that I'd said it in English, and I spoke some equivalent in Spanish for her.

She hesitated a moment more and finally said, “Luisa Morales,” and then she went out without another word, not even an adios.

And I stood there staring at the door she'd left open at exactly the same angle she'd found it when she came in. And I'll be damned if I wasn't disappointed because I couldn't explain to her about my name. Christopher Cobb is how I sign my stories but Christopher Marlowe Cobb is my full name and my editors right along have all wanted me to use the whole moniker in my byline, but I find all those three-named news boys—the William Howard Russells and the Richard Harding Davises and the George Bronson Reas—and all the rest—and the host of magazine scribblers and the novelists with three names are just as bad—I think they all make themselves sound pompous and full of self-importance. And it's not as if I don't like the long version of me: My mother gave me the name, after all, when she first laid me newborn in a steamer trunk backstage at the Pelican Theatre in New Orleans and she went on to become one of the great and beautiful stars of the American stage—the eminent, the estimable, the inimitable Isabel Cobb—and Christopher Marlowe was her favorite, though he didn't understand women and probably didn't like them, because he never wrote anything like a true heroine in any of his plays, and maybe that tells you something about my mother's taste in men. She did love her Shakespeare as well, and she played his women, comic and tragic, to worldwide acclaim, but she named me Christopher Marlowe and she called me Kit like they called him, and Kit it is. I just keep the three names packed away in a steamer trunk, and if Luisa Morales had only stayed a moment longer, I would have told her to call me “Kit”—­everyone close to me does—though no doubt that would have meant nothing whatsoever to her, and if I'd actually explained all that about my name the day I met her, she would have thought me a madman. Which is what I was thinking about myself. I was a madman to want to explain all this to a Mexican washer girl.

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