..... I was out in the barn sneaking a cigarette and trying not to think about the hole that the old man would soon have me digging when the girl came weaving her way past the puddles in our washed-out drive. I pegged her to be seventeen or eighteen. She was dragging a suitcase behind her and not having an easy time of it. Watching her made me think of a little girl trying to wrestle a reluctant dog towards bath water. Every few steps, she stopped to look around with a scowl on her face and her hands on her hips. They looked like pretty good hips from where I was standing. Maybe they were a little on the skinny side but good nonetheless. She shook free a cigarette and bent her head to light it. With her rolled dungarees and her powder-blue blouse tied beneath her breasts, she looked just like one of those wild girls who was always hanging on the arm of Marlon Brando or Vic Morrow in the movies, the kind of girl you dreamed about but hardly ever saw in real life, at least not here in Paradise, Kentucky, where a girl in dungarees would have been as horrifying as President Eisenhower making a speech in a cocktail dress or Nixon coming on live television to announce he was a Red.
..... She dragged her suitcase to our backdoor, knocked. It took a couple of minutes, but Carol Ann answered. She was the latest stray my old man had brought home from one honky-tonk or another. It was clear that she knew the girl but didn’t seem particularly happy to see her. That wasn’t much of a surprise. Carol Ann hadn’t seemed particularly happy in the four and a half weeks she’d been shacked up with my old man. As far as I could tell, bored and edgy, drunk and boisterous, hung over and sullen pretty much covered the extent of her emotional range.
..... “Now won’t you look here,” my old man said from the shadows deep in the barn.
..... The old man had a knack for sneaky. Sometimes it was as if you could conjure him from thin air by just thinking too hard
..... He stepped up beside me and laid his heavy hand on my shoulder. “It’s a fine old world, ain’t it?” he asked, his blue eyes flickering to the cigarette in my hand.
..... I swallowed hard and said a silent prayer that whatever this girl’s business, it would distract him from the pack of Lucky Strike I’d filched from his dresser. Now I watched while Carol Ann shook her head no, listened a minute and then opened her palms in an I-guess-I-don’t-have-a-choice gesture. She stepped aside so the younger girl could drag her suitcase through the door.
..... “Yes, sir, a fine world when pretty women just drop out of the sky. Ain’t that right, Jackie?”
..... I said I couldn’t argue with that, and he winked and said he was going to take a walk down to the river. He had some thinking to do. I didn’t ask him what about because I already knew the answer, just like I knew that despite what he said, he’d already made up his mind. I’d seen the flicker in his eye when Carol Ann burned yesterday’s biscuits. Of course the burned bread wasn’t the real reason he intended to kill her and have me bury her on the back of the farm. Like I said, Carol Ann didn’t have the sweetest disposition, and he’d already grown weary with her, and she’d seen too much of his business for him to just boot her out the door. When it came to killing, my old man could always find a reason.
..... He stopped and turned back to me. “Hey, Jackie,” he said as if something had just occurred to him. “You know what they do to thieves over there in them foreign countries? They chop off their right hands, so they won’t forget what they done wrong and won’t be tempted to do it again. I read about it in the National Geographic.”
..... He was smiling, but that didn’t mean a thing. My old man was always smiling.
..... “They got some peculiar ways in them foreign places, don’t they?”
..... I said yes sir they did and then added, “I got a quarter in my pocket.”
..... “Put it on the dresser where you found those cigarettes,” he said. “Then thank the Good Lord you was born and raised right here in America instead of one of them heathen foreign lands.”
..... They were about half drunk and dancing to Patsy Cline songs that they played over and over on our hi-fi. Carol Ann still wore the silky, cream-colored slip she’d had on at breakfast, and her hair was mussed and her lip stick smeared, but my old man kept pinching her ass and telling her she was as pretty as Marilyn Monroe. She’d cackle and tell him to hush his nonsense and bat her eye lashes in hopes he’d say it again.
..... My old man was ignoring the bourbon and sticking to dripping bottles of Miller High Life. He was in a fine mood.
..... “Who would have thought it?” he said more than a couple of times. “Pair of rough old west Kentucky hicks like us passing a summer evening with two genuine beauties like these girls? I tell you, Jackie. We must be living right.”
..... Carol Ann cackled some more. Her daughter, Ellie, rolled her eyes. I liked that she wasn’t buying my old man’s bullshit. There was a lot I liked about her--the tanned skin of her bared belly and the rise of her breasts and the natural redness of her lips. She wasn’t a beauty. Even at fifteen, I knew that. Her chin was a little too pointed, her teeth gapped and small, her eyes squinty and too close together. But the way she sipped her beer and smoked one Chesterfield after another made her seem glamorous and mature.
..... “You don’t have anything but Patsy Cline?” she asked when my old man started “Walking After Midnight” for the fourth time.
..... “Ain’t nothing wrong with Patsy Cline,” he said.
..... “Don’t pay her no attention,” Carol Ann slurred, glowering at her daughter.
..... My old man flared a match with his thumbnail and lit a Lucky from the pack that he’d taken back from me even though I’d left my quarter on his dresser. “I bet you like that Negro music don’t you? Chuck Berry or Little Richard or Elvis?”
..... “Elvis is white,” I said.
..... His eyes flickered in my direction. “Not beneath his skin”
..... “I like all kinds of music,” Ellie said. “I even like Patsy Cline only not when I hear the same song every ten minutes.”
..... I opened myself another beer even though I was feeling queasy at the thought of what was coming. The old man had already said something about how we were going to party all night and then take a blanket, some beer and some sandwiches outside to watch the sunrise. Carol Ann had said it sounded romantic to her, and her eyes had pleaded with her daughter until Ellie said sure, it might be fun. I figured that’s when he’d shoot them, while it was still pitch black but close enough to dawn so I’d have first light to help me see where I was digging.
..... I wasn’t sure why the old man was the way he was. Maybe there was something missing in him or maybe he was sick or maybe he was just mean to the bone. I didn’t know. I just knew that I’d worshipped him when I was a little kid and he’d swing me up on his shoulders and parade me around or slip me a lemon drop when my momma wasn’t looking. Things changed after she got run over by a drunk. As I got older and realized some of things he’d done I learned to fear him. Now it seemed that all that love and fear were so mixed up that I couldn’t tell where one left off and the other began.
..... My old man made his living by running bootleg liquor into dry counties all over west Kentucky, by cheating in card and dice games and, on occasion, by pimping out the women he brought home. But what he really was, was a killer. I’d helped him bury a half dozen women, a couple of irate drunks who’d figured out they’d been cheated in five card stud, a Negro who’d come to the door with a razor when he’d heard my old man had bedded his daughter, and a rookie deputy who didn’t believe he had to abide by the arrangement my old man made with Sheriff Keeling.
..... “I’d give you a penny for your thoughts but I’d feel like I was over charged,” the old man said, winking over Carol Ann’s shoulder.
..... “I need some fresh air.”
..... “Sure you do,” he said. “But you take it easy on them beers, Jackie. The night’s young.” His stare felt as cutting and jagged as broken glass. “I don’t want you all pooped out before the fun really gets started.”
..... I’d been down to the barn for ten or fifteen minutes, just sitting there smoking and watching the bugs swarm the gas lanterns when she came out to find me. She had two beers in each hand.
..... “I figured it was the bullshit not the beer that was making you sick at your stomach.” She passed me one and grinned. “I brought an opener. It’s in my back pocket if you can manage to get it out.”
..... She turned her hip towards me. My mouth went real dry and my hands shook, but I reached in there and promised myself I’d never forget the feel of her denim-covered cheek against my hand.
..... “Thanks,” she said when I handed her the opener.
..... She sat down on a hay bale and took a drink and reached into her blouse pocket for her pack of cigarettes. I wanted to act natural and cool and charming, but I couldn’t stop thinking about reaching into her pocket. Then I felt myself getting hard, so I tried to sit in such a way that she wouldn’t notice.
..... “The turtle raises its sleepy head,” she said and giggled, the first hint I’d had that she was tipsy.
..... My face burned hot. I stared down at the mud tracks and hay on the barn’s floor. For that one moment, I couldn’t wait to dig the hole.
..... “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping lips on the back of her hand. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you.” She gave me a slight, teasing smile. “I think it’s sweet that you like me.”
..... “I’m not a little kid,” I said although only God knew why.
..... “I didn’t say you were.”
..... “Good,” I said. “Because I’m not.”
..... But I felt like one. At supper I’d picked up a little about her past. She’d lived with Carol Ann until she was eleven, but when her momma had taken up with some man, Ellie had been sent to live with her maternal grandmother, a tight-fisted Pentecostal who’d somehow gotten confused about the difference between home and prison. After three years, Ellie had had enough and took off with a traveling salesman she’d met outside the IGA. He’d ditched her in Lima, Ohio, but she hadn’t come home. She’d lived all over—Louisville and Cincinnati and Columbus and even Detroit, Michigan. Then on her eighteenth birthday, she’d made the trip back home. After ten days of banging on doors and hassling her momma’s old friends and acquaintances she’d finally tracked her down to our farm three and half miles outside of Paradise, which meant three and a half miles on the far side of nowhere.
..... “Why’d you come back?” I asked now, wanting to change the subject. “If I ever got away from here…”
..... “You’d be surprised,” she said.”When the money runs out, home don’t seem like such a bad place to be.”
..... “Did you miss your momma?”
..... “You’re kidding, right?”
..... I shrugged. “You came looking for her.”
..... “I didn’t have any other place to go.” She gave me an earnest look. “You think your daddy will let me stay here with you all?”
..... “Sure,” I said.
..... “But probably not for long.”
..... “Longer than you think,” I said.
..... She smiled at that, and I felt guilty seeing it. “He seems like a nice guy.”
..... “He isn’t.”
..... She laughed and flipped back her hair. “I didn’t think so. It just seemed like something I ought to say.”
..... Crickets chirped from the weeds at the edge of the barn. They sounded like off key fiddles as they blended with Patsy Cline’s muted voice drifting from the house.
..... “What’s it like living in a city?” I asked.
..... “I love it. Detroit especially. Soon as I can get some money together, I’m going back. There are all kinds of things to do and places to see and foods to eat. There’s buildings so tall it hurts your neck to look up at them, and bright lights and music that goes on right through to the morning.” She took a long drag from her cigarette and exhaled in my direction. “I ain’t going to stick around these pissant towns any longer than I have to, you believe me.”
..... I tried to imagine it, a big city with broad sidewalks and buses and taxis that could take you anywhere, a place where men wore suits to work and women had real diamonds sparkling in their ears. Most of all I thought about the lights, about how they’d burn all night and drive back the dark. City folks never know pitch black, not the kind you have in the country. I thought how in a place like that you’d never have to sleep if you didn’t want to and how you’d always be able to see what was waiting to grab you.
..... “It sounds great,” I said
..... There didn’t seem to be much else to say, so we drank our beers and smoked our cigarettes. I listened to the crickets and tried not to think about what would come later. My eyes were restless, so I watched Ellie and studied the way her hair curled around her neck and the way her chest rose and fell with her breathing. I wished she hadn’t come here, wished that she would have just stayed in the splash of all those lights far away from me and my old man. Then I thought about what my daddy would have said about such a hopeful way of thinking. Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one gets full faster.
..... “Sounds like Patsy’s turned in for the evening,” she said after a moment.
..... It took a second for me to understand what she meant. The crickets were singing solo now. The music that had been drifting from the house was silent, and all that silence scared me. My first thought was—he’s done it, and any minute now he’ll be down here to finish the job. Then Ellie suggested another possibility, and the air came back to my lungs.
..... “I wonder if they made it to the bedroom, or if they’re screwing on the living room floor,” Ellie said.
..... “Probably they are,” I said, giggling with relief.
..... She rolled her eyes. “My momma’s such a whore. She wonders why I ain’t Miss Prim and Proper.”
..... I let that alone and slowly my heart returned to its normal beating. That good feeling didn’t last long though. Probably it hadn’t happened yet. My old man didn’t like to kill in the house because it left him with too much cleaning to do. But it would happen. I knew that as surely as I knew that once the dark really settles on the world, it’s a long time until morning.
..... “So,” Ellie said. “How old are you, Jackie? For real.”
..... “Fifteen,” I said. “Sixteen in a couple of weeks.”
..... “Well hell,” she said. “That’s not that young.” She tipped her beer bottle in my direction. “You ever been with a girl?”
..... “Sure,” I said.
..... “For honest?”
..... I wasn’t a hundred percent sure if it was technically true. On the last day of school, Peter Franklin and Merle Henry and I had bucked up our nerve enough to visit Roseanna Epley’s house trailer out in Cleaton. Roseanna was about fifty and only charged two dollars a pop. She didn’t let me put it in her though. She had me push it in between her thighs until I was finished. I still couldn’t help but feel that I’d been cheated, although to be fair I hadn’t done a lot of complaining at the time.
..... Now I figured it was close enough for horseshoes so I said, “Hell, yeah, I have.”
..... “Good. I wouldn’t want to be robbing the cradle or nothing like that,” Ellie said.
..... Then she stood up and untied her blouse and began to work on the buttons. When she let it fall away from her shoulders and wobbled over to me and took my hand, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way the shovel sounded when it first struck in unbroken ground.
..... In the end, it was the thought of all those bright lights that did it. Even while Ellie and I was lying there in the hay, both of us sweaty and tired, I couldn’t stop thinking about them, about how they’d blink through the night and keep away the dark. By the time I heard the backdoor slam and my old man and Carol Ann calling our names, I was grieving over those lights, as if they were part of a world where I’d once belonged but had been yanked out of-- even though I’d never been to a town bigger than Owensboro in my whole life.
..... “I ain’t going to ask what you two have been doing,” my old man said, winking at me.
..... He had a knapsack filled with beer bottles and sliced ham and a half dozen of Carol Ann’s burned biscuits slung over one shoulder and a flashlight in his other hand. He had his big old .45 automatic tucked into the front of his belt, too, but he’d pulled out his shirttail to cover it.
..... Carol Ann was carrying a folded up blanket and saying something about what a beautiful night it was and how it had been ages since she’d watched the sun rise and wasn’t this just the most romantic thing anyone had ever heard of. As drunk and groggy as Ellie was, she seemed willing to play along. Me? I just kept thinking about how the shovel would blister my hands and how all those winking bright lights of the city were fading further and further away.
..... “Run up to the house and get the twelve gauge,” my old man said to me. “We might come across some varmints, and I’d hate for them to get away.” Even in the dim light of the gas lantern I could see his blue eyes sparkling. “It’s in the hall closet!” he called after me.
..... I knew where it was. Ever since I was nine, he’d had me carry that shotgun in case someone made a run for it or things went wrong somehow. So far I hadn’t used it.
..... When I came back with the Browning short barrel, all three of them had fresh beers. Even Ellie was laughing at some joke my old man was telling about the Pope, the Nun and Senator Kennedy.
..... My old man led us along a path that winded in and out of a Cyprus thicket and sloped down to the river. He talked a lot about the view of the sunrise over the water, but I knew he was just doing me a favor. The ground was softer down here in the bottoms.
..... At one point Ellie took my hand and squeezed it. In the dim beam of the old man’s flashlight, I could see that she was looking up at me, expectant and needy. It struck me then how odd it was that the thing we’d done had changed her. Earlier, she’d seemed so much older and smarter and worldlier than me, but now she was looking at me as if I needed to protect her, as if I was the one in charge. No one had ever looked at me like that.
..... When we came out of a copse to level ground, he set down the knapsack and told Carol Ann to spread the blanket. Then he pulled her close to him. She’d changed into slacks and a loose sweater, and he worked his hand up under there and kissed her. Ellie looked away, but I couldn’t. It made me a little sick to my stomach to see the way he pawed at her, knowing he was going to kill her at any moment. I promised myself that I would never be like him. I wouldn’t be a pimp and a user. I’d never tell a woman that I loved her and then have her spread her legs for every hayseed willing to hand over five dollars. I’d never have that twinkle in my eye. I’d never kill for the sake of killing.
..... “Here you go!” my old man said to the women. “You all step right up there and look down where the bank drops off.”
..... “What?” Ellie said, holding onto my hand.
..... The old man broke our grip. “Those beech trees block the view. Jackie’s already seen it. You and your momma just step right up there. You won’t regret it.”
..... She gave me a questioning look and I nodded. Then she and Carol Ann moved forward , both on wobbling legs.
..... “Don’t let no varmints get away,” my old man whispered in my ear.
..... He took a deep breath and held it, wanting the moment to last, I guess. Then he flipped his shirttail and pulled the .45 automatic from his waistband. He thumbed off the safety and leveled the gun at the back of Carol Ann’s head. I heard crickets. I thought about what was going to happen. Two shots. That’s all it would take. Then he’d turn to me and tell me to get the shovel and be quick about it. I’d finish before noon and he’d hand me a cold beer when I walked through our door. A few days from now, he’d bathe and shave and put on his most expensive aftershave and go out to the Yellow Rose or some other bar. It would all just be one more thing I’d seen and done, one more thing to bind me to him.
..... I thought about killing him then. I had my finger on the trigger. But a thought flickered through my head. If I saved them, I’d be responsible for them. With Ellie that didn’t seem like such a bad thing, but Carol Ann was old and a drunk and she might not understand why I’d had to do it.
..... “Look for it,” my old man said to them. “Just wait for it to come.”
..... He pulled the trigger. Carol Ann jerked and then crumpled, and Ellie started screaming and my old man let out his breath with a shudder and turned the gun on her. It was the bright lights that did it. I could see them winking out one by one, and I didn’t want to let them go. I pointed the twelve gauge right at the old man’s kidneys and fired both barrels.
..... He stumbled forward, tried to turn around but couldn’t quite make it. He went face first into the dirt. I didn’t look down at him. I just dropped the shotgun to the ground and held onto Ellie until she stopped screaming.
..... “He was crazy,” I said. “He was going to kill you. Do you understand?”
..... She nodded against my chest. “What are we going to do?”
..... “We’re going to bury them,” I said. “Then we’re going to take the nine hundred or so dollars my old man’s got hidden in the root cellar and we’re going to catch the first bus out of here, wherever you want to go just as long as they got bright lights and music.”
..... “I’m scared,” she said.
..... “I know,” I said. “But we got to do…”
..... She glanced down at her mother. “He killed her.”
..... “Yeah,” I said. “He was going to kill you, too.”
..... She nodded and then kissed my cheek. “Just tell me what to do.”
..... And of course I told her to go back to the barn and get the shovel. I handed her my old man’s flashlight to help her on her way.
..... It seemed to take her forever. While I waited there in the dark, I swatted mosquitoes and bent down on one knee and took the pack of Lucky Strike from my old man’s shirt pocket and my quarter from his pants. I smoked three cigarettes and listened to the crickets. Then Ellie was there, dragging the shovel along behind her.
..... I took the shovel and kissed her forehead and when I turned around, the sun was rising. It streaked the sky purple and red and gold. I stood there a second and watched it. It seemed as if I was being born again, and I made that new dawn a lot of promises. I swore that I’d never be like my father. I glanced back at Ellie and vowed that I wouldn’t use her or hurt her. I promised myself that I’d never kill anyone ever again.
..... But there was a lot I didn’t know then. I didn’t know how those bright lights could melt and shift until they weren’t an illumination but just a part of the dark. I didn’t know how quickly nine hundred dollars could go away or how hard your stomach could ache when it was empty or how easy it was to convince a woman to use her mouth or open her thighs to pay for a good night’s sleep or a warm dinner. I had no idea how her needy, I-love-you-look could dig barbs under a man’s skin. I didn’t know how a finger can itch to pull a trigger.
..... All I knew was that for the moment I had Ellie beside me and a new day was beginning. For that one moment, I believed my promises mattered. And I was foolish enough to believe that as I broke the ground, I was digging my last my hole.