I look out across the limestone gravel street and watch the dust rise up in little wisps and puffs as if the rocks can think. Heat is in my nostrils and covers my face. The sunlight is blinding. August, noon, towering clouds in the sky, full moon shining white just like the sun, everyone dead to the world, hiding somewhere in the small town. I’m here swinging on the front porch of my Nanny’s Sears and Roebuck prefabricated house. It cost $1,100 in 1933. She bought it with the proceeds of the bank-forced sale of her father’s ranch out on the Colorado River. Nanny is asleep on her raw cotton mattress as arthritis eats her fingers. I can hear the fan whirling with a confident sound that gives people hope on hot days, but I have other things in mind. I have no hope since I don’t know what hope really means. Hope…don’t care about that…just give me a glass of cold milk and a sandwich.
Across the street I see Carl come out of the church basement. He lives there, underground, and I help him with the little things he does in the church and the cemetery: fix lights, pick up trash, rake leaves off the graves, stuff like that. He seems like God or Santa Claus to me. He has long white hair, a white beard and teeth he keeps in a full water-glass. “I can’t sing without my teeth,” he often says, but I’ve never heard him sing. I think he must be about 75 years old because when he walks he limps and always seems about to fall. His face looks like a hide map. The kind the explorers unrolled when they were discovering America on the backs of buffaloes, but his eyes are as blue as the Texas sky.
I run across the street and ask, “What are we doing today, Carl?”
The church tower rises up and it seems like there is always the shadow of a cross somewhere on the ground. The main church building, where people pray in groups and look at the dead faces and hear Bible stories from the new, young preacher man, is made out of limestone and rough timber. It’s what you might call an “Old West Church” and it affects me the same way as a tangle of scrub cedar and cactus on the side of a steep hill leading down to the river. There is something foreboding about it that smells of mean men on horseback and women going insane on isolated ranches and everyone coming to the church for healing, redemption and forgiveness.
“Nothing today, son…nothing here anyway. I want you to do me a favor.”
“You know where the jail is, don’t you?”
“Yeah, by the courthouse on the corner.”
“Well, I want you to take this pack of cigarettes down there and knock on the backdoor. The jailer is Jesse. Tell him you want to give these smokes to Robert. He’ll know what to do. I’d go myself, but I don’t feel so good. What’a you say?”
“Okay,” and then he hands me the pack of Camels and turns around and goes back into the basement. I notice Carl limping way worse than normal. On the outside of the pack of cigarettes is a piece of paper folded over and Scotch taped down tight. I can see the name “Robert” printed on the paper. It must be a note, I think to myself as I walk toward the main town square.
Walking barefoot on a hot day is a source of adventure. I run from shadow to shadow, wait for my soles to cool, run again for the shade river, creep along the edge of burning stone, and finally make it to the jail. When I get there I knock on the door, but my hands are too small, too soft and my fist hits the door like rabbit fur. I pick up a rock and pound and within a few seconds Jesse swings the big iron door open and looks down on me. He is a large man with a pot belly and a pair of thick glasses that make his eyes look like spot lights glaring outward. “What’a you want, bub?”
“I brung this from Carl. He said give it to Robert, please.”
“Carl, huh? Well, I guess that’s okay. Carl told me he’d be coming. Where is he?”
“He ain’t feeling so well and asked me to do him a favor.”
“Okay,” and then he slams the door and I can hear the key turn inside the big lock.
A few months passed and right before Christmas Carl died. They found him out in the sandbox where the Sunday schoolers played. They buried him in the cemetery he and I kept clean.
The next summer I visited Nanny just like always. I had asthma and the high plains and limestone hills were good for me. One night as I was lying in bed I asked about Carl.
“Well, Carl was a good man, but when he was young he made a mistake.”
“Oh, it was a bad mistake and he had to go to prison, but he found the Lord and was forgiven and when he came home they gave him a job at the church. I’m so proud of you for helping him. You’re such a good boy.”
“Well, it was fun. The new guy is not so friendly as Carl. He won’t let me help cause of the insurance.”
“I know. The church is different now what with the new preacher and all. Everything changes.”
“Who was Robert?” I asked.
“Who do you mean?”
“Well, one day last summer Carl asked me to take a pack of cigarettes to the jail to give to Robert.”
“He did?” she was surprised. “You never told me that. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I don’t know, Nanny. I just didn’t.” We were silent for a long time and I could hear her breathing heavy and then she went to sleep.
In the morning at breakfast she told me the story of Carl and Robert. “I knew both of them when I was little,” she said, “but they were older than me. They were both gamblers and drunkards and ran together, real wild cowboys. Anyway, Carl and Robert opened a gambling parlor and whorehouse. Everybody called it the ‘Slop Shop’. One night Carl and Robert got into a fight and Carl accidentally killed a man playing poker at one of the tables. Your PawPaw used to go there and that’s why I divorced him. He wasted all our money. He was a bastard. Don’t tell your aunt or father I’m telling you all this, okay?”
I nodded. “Well, anyway, Robert was a real bad man, not like Carl. They caught Robert burning down houses a few counties over. He was threatening people who didn’t pay him money and one night he burned down a house and everybody inside died. It was a family of four, two little ones.”
“Why did he do that?”
“Money…just money, you need to always doubt money, it’s not what it seems.”
“What happed to Robert?”
“Well, they took him over to the county seat where he burned the house and killed those poor people and before the trial a mob busted in the jail and killed him.”
“They broke into the jail? How’d they do that?”
“Oh it was terrible, just terrible. I don’t want to tell you.”
This was my beginning as a writer. Nanny never told me exactly what the mob did to Robert, so I had to write the details in my mind. I learned not knowing the truth of death was far more important to the fertility of the imagination then knowing the exact particulars of how a person died. It is the difference between a photograph and a painting. There was also the mystery of Carl giving Robert a gift of Camels. Why would he do that? I had to make up the reason in my mind. I am sure there was something in the note that would have explained everything. But now I don’t care, because over the years I have written the note a thousand times and the contents change with every hard experience of my life. Relationships between people are always coming out of a fog; maybe striving for the light, but eventually passing into the darkness, and everything is lost, no one knows, no one can tell. Carl and Robert are still fresh in my mind and are sitting in front of me at this very moment. In a way I will always be thankful to the owners of the “Slop Shop”. They embody everything right and wrong in this world: crime, redemption, justice, and mystery. Nanny is also here, watching over me from the porch swing of her Sears and Roebuck house. She’s shining like an angel as I help Carl in the cemetery beside the old church of my lost youth. He and I are standing along the row of tombstones where all of them would eventually be buried: Carl, Robert, and Nanny, underground yet still talking to me.