- Introduced by Crime Fiction Coordinator Scott Montgomery
Les Edgerton joins us for our next Noir At the Bar on May 12th, alongside Jordan Harper, Con Lehane, and Jesse Sublett. The man has had a life and he puts in his writing. His style pulls no punches, takes no prisoners, yet always finds the humanity in a situation, no matter how dark. When we asked him for a story, he was kind enough to give us this tale-within-a-tale complete with sly references to fellow authors Anthony Neil Smith and Joe R Lansdale.
Come by Threadgill’s off of Riverside on Thursday, May 12th, at 7 PM for our next Noir at the Bar, with readings from Les Edgerton, Jordan Harper, Con Lehane, and Jesse Sublett. Each author’s latest works will be available for sale at the event.
“Lurleen” by Les Edgerton
“She could also eat glass and showed us how to do that. The trick is, you get a piece of thin glass, kind of like on those beer glasses. It has to be thin or it won’t work. The trick is, you break off a piece about an inch and a half in diameter and then put it back on your back teeth. You start applying pressure and grinding the glass back and forth between your teeth slightly and if you have faith and don’t chicken out, pretty soon it starts to break and not into pieces but into sand.”
So here I am, sitting at a table with Mauro Falciani in his fine bookstore, the Libreria Mucho Mojo inside the nightclub Speakeasy 23, drinking grappa and swapping stories. I ask him about the club I hear whispered about.
“So, Mauro, what about this ‘Mucho Mojo’ club Joe Lansdale and Neil Smith tell me about? How does one become a member?”
Mauro smiles. “You are already in that club, Les. You have been Mojo, real Mojo all your life, I think, with the breath of the big American stories. For you to become a member, I ask what I asked of Neil of Joe of others… and ask you for a story celebrating the club, a story that will help build a cultural association to support us. One story that mentions the club and something bad, crazy or funny that happened inside.”
I thought about his request for a moment.
“What if I tell you a story that I’ve never told anyone? One that I’ve held close to my vest for more than sixty years? For reasons that will be obvious once you hear it. A truly noir story? Will that get me in?”
Mauro looked at me intently. “I think yes. Tell me the story and I will judge.”
I took another drink of the grappa. How to tell Mauro this story? Then, I knew how I’d tell it. By beginning with the town in East Texas where it took place.
“Okay, Mauro. Better get a new bottle of wine. This may take awhile. I’ll begin with the town I grew up in.”
And so it begins…
Entering the town of Freeport, Texas in the year 1954, you drive to the town square. At one end is the Dow Hotel. On the opposite end is a vacant lot. In the middle is a grassy park with a tall palm tree. If you walk across the park, a huge crow who makes his nest thirty feet high in the tree, will swoop down on you and try to peck your head. Maybe it’s your eyes he’s after, who knows? On the two sides are stores and businesses. On the left (looking toward the Dow Hotel) is a café, owned by Mrs. Stringfellow. I forget the name. The Stringfellow Café? Maybe… Down that side of the block is the Lack’s Sporting Goods. I once broke into it with my friend Richard Barnes and we stole fishing reels, hooks, lures and other things ten-year-old boys found valuable. And a snub-nosed .38 Police Special and a box of shells for it.
On the opposite side of the street, stands my grandma’s bar, the Sweet Shop. Next to it on the right is another honky tonk, for which I forget the name also. I remember it was owned and run by Red, a one-armed drunk. Sometimes, I set up my shoeshine box in front of Red’s and shined the shoes of the drunks coming and going. The drunker they were, the more they tipped.
On the other side, was a vacant lot and a small shack which served as the dispatch office of the Star Taxi, which my grandma also owned. Next to it was the town movie theater. When I was ten I had a job there, hauling up the movie reels in exchange for free passes to the movies. Further down the block was Thom McAnn shoe store. Some other businesses and shops I’ve forgotten. A flower shop, I think, on the far corner by the hotel.
Grew up in the bar, listening to Norwegian sailors singing along with Hank Snow in accented English. Lapsing into their native German or whatever it was when they got liquored up and mixed up in a fight over Lurleen, the retarded white girl who cleaned tables for my grandma.
The first guy who bought a beer for Lurleen earned her love. For the moment, that is. If another man came over to the table with a new beer, her loyalty was instantly transferred, along with her ready smile. That’s when the fight usually started. Her problem was her disability to focus. New man—new beer—new boyfriend. Neither man—the first one or the second—were aware of her fidelity issues. The kinds of men my grandma’s honky tonk attracted weren’t men of deep thinking or great insights or in empathy in general. Mostly, they just wanted to get drunk and get laid.
Lurleen was my friend. My second-best friend. Richard Barnes was my very best friend. We did everything together. Fished, hunted for ducks sitting on ponds on the Dow Chemical ponds with our air rifles and .22 rifles, went floundering in the Bryan Beach shallows at dusk with gigs, hunted gators in the bayous with .22s. Broke into the Lack’s Sporting Goods store. Shit like that.
Sat in my next-door neighbor’s house one afternoon with Bobbie Ann my next-door neighbor who was fifteen when she showed us her boobies and let us touch ‘em.
I had a job washing dishes in the Sweet Shop and when I got snowed under, it was always Lurleen who came back and gave me a hand, catching up. She also showed Richard and me how to do a couple of neat tricks. She could pop off the cap to a Dr. Pepper with her teeth. She could also eat glass and showed us how to do that. The trick is, you get a piece of thin glass, kind of like on those beer glasses. It has to be thin or it won’t work. The trick is, you break off a piece about an inch and a half in diameter and then put it back on your back teeth. You start applying pressure and grinding the glass back and forth between your teeth slightly and if you have faith and don’t chicken out, pretty soon it starts to break and not into pieces but into sand. It’s a pretty cool trick and years later I made a lot of money doing it in bars on bets. Had to quit eventually, when I got cavities, ‘cause the glass didn’t cut me but it flat-out chewed up the fillings and whatever I made on the bar bets I had to use to pay the dentist to fix the fillings.
Lurleen was what we called “simple” in those days, which later changed to “retarded” and now is called “mentally-challenged” or some other stupid thing. She was pure-hearted and never had a bad thought about a single human being in her life. Sometimes other kids teased her and then we’d fight.
My grandma—Miz Vincent is what folks called her—had Lurleen a house trailer she gave her that perched in the weedy lot behind the bar. She paid Lurleen to buss tables. In those days, that had to be a white person. We had blacks working for us, but they couldn’t be out in the front. They had to be cooks and dishwashers and stay back in the kitchen.
We had lots and lots of sailors that came in the bar. My grandma was a smart cookie. Freeport is in Brazosport County which happens to be a dry county. In Texas, in those days, your county was either wet or dry. The Baptists had voted Brazosport to be a dry one. That meant you could get beer and wine in the local bars, but not whiskey or vodka or rum or anything hard. For that, you had to go to Houston or Galveston, both about a fifty-mile trip, one-way.
Grandma created the cab company, which ended up making her a millionaire. Freeport was a major port for off-loading sulphur, gas, oil and other chemicals into tankers bound for other parts of the world. Sailors would be in port while their ships were being loaded up and naturally, head for the nearest bar. Grandma’s own Star Taxis would pick them up at the docks and deliver them to her own bar. There was one other cab company in town—the 411—but they sucked hind tit to the Star Taxis. The 411 didn’t have a bar to go to. Mostly, they delivered to our bar and Red’s next door. There were a few other bars in town, but these two were the heart of the honky tonk district. And, then, when they got drunk on beer and wanted something harder, voila! there were our taxis standing just outside the bar doors to take ‘em to Galveston or Houston, a fifty-dollar bill the one-way toll in those days. She was just minting money.
For some reason, Lurleen was partial to Norwegian sailors. I think it was something to do with the fact that they were mostly all blonde, tall, and good-looking. I’m not a girl so I’m not sure what the attraction was, but I think that’s a pretty good guess.
And, it seemed like there was always a fight whenever Lurleen befriended one of them.
And, that’s what happened the night of February 13, 1954, which happened to be my birthday. My eleventh.
I was washing dishes that night, back in the kitchen, and even though it was February, it was a hot one. No air conditioning in the kitchen. There was in the bar itself, but not back in the kitchen. Just a big ol’ fan that barely turned and mostly just stirred the air around. Richard was there with me, sitting on a stool and drinking a Dr. Pepper. Richard was my best friend, but not the kind of guy who’d give me a hand. He preferred to sit around and razz me instead. Tease me about my “dishpan hands” and whatnot. Yuk it up.
After a bit, I took a break and went and got me a Coke-Cola out of the cooler up front in the bar. I couldn’t drink Dr. Pepper. My mother told me a long time before that it was made out of prune juice, so there’s no way I would drink it.
I saw Lurleen sitting at a table with a sailor and gave her a little wave and she caught my eye, grinned back and give me one back. I went on back and finished up my job and me and Richard were about to go home and get our gigs and go after some frogs, when Lurleen came through the French doors, with her sailor in hand. They were headed on back to her trailer, looked like.
“Hey, Butchie,” she said, and tousled my hair. “This here’s my friend Hans.”
It looked like Hans wasn’t a big kid fan and he barely acknowledged me and then they were gone, out the back door. I turned off the light and Richard and I exited the same way. Lurleen and her friend Hans were already in her trailer and we heard her squealing like girls do when they’re being tickled or just being girls and Richard and I just looked at each other and shook our heads and walked on past, out to the alley. Just as we hit the alley, we heard her scream, which made us stop dead in our tracks.
“C’mon,” I said to Richard. He didn’t say anything, just followed me back to her trailer. I got a wooden milk box from behind her trailer and hauled it over in front of the one window that looked into her bedroom, and perched it there and climbed up on it so I could see in.
God. The Norwegian guy was smacking her as hard as he could. Hard, Jack. So hard it looked like she was already unconscious. Her eyes were closed and blood was everywhere.
“Lemme see! It was Richard. He grabbed my arm, pulled me down, and climbed up on the milk box.
“Jesus, lordy!” he said, climbing back down. “He’s killed her, Butch!”
I climbed back up and it looked like he was right. The Norwegian guy wasn’t hitting her any more. In fact, he was just sitting there on the bed with her, his head down and it looked like he was panting, out of breath. Then, he just kind of fell over beside her and closed his eyes. Looked like maybe he passed out.
“We gotta tell somebody,” Richard hissed.
“Naw,” I said. “They’ll just let him go. He’s a foreigner and they got lots of money. Lurleen’s just a retard and they won’t nobody do anything about it. Naw. I got another idea.”
I told him what I was thinking and Richard just nodded. He was a true friend. He’d do just about anything I suggested.
We busted ass, got to my house just three blocks over and went out to the shed in back where we kept our fishing and hunting gear, stuff like that. Up along the eaves, I’d hid the gun I’d stole at Lack’s Sporting Goods, the .38 Police Special. Snubnose.
It was loaded and ready to go.
I grabbed it and we ran back to the Sweet Shop and Lurleen’s trailer.
The lights inside were still on and the milk box was still there. I climbed up and looked inside. The Norwegian sailor was still there. Still asleep or passed out. There was more blood.
We crept up to the door and eased it open. In a second, we were inside. We went back to her bedroom, and it was worse, up close and personal. There was blood everywhere.
The guy was snoring. Lurleen wasn’t. It was clear she’d never be snoring again on this planet.
‘Whaddya want to do?” It was Richard, whispering.
“Kill the fucker,” I said.
“Oh, no,” he said. “We can’t do that, Butch.”
“I can,” I said. “She’s my friend, Richard. You saw what he did to her. We don’t do this, he gets off.”
“Yeah, but…” He didn’t have an argument to offer.
“Go home,” I said to him.
“Just go on home, Richard,” I said.
He stood there a minute, not saying anything. Then: “You sure?”
I nodded. He stood there another minute and then didn’t say anything, just turned around and walked back out of the trailer.
I sat down on the bed with Lurleen and the Norwegian sailor.
I sat there for over two hours.
Then, the Norwegian sailor groaned and sat up. He looked around. Saw me and the gun I held. Saw Lurleen and all the blood.
“Wha?” he said. And then some stuff in German or whatever. I figured it was German. Sounded like a bunch of barnyard animals. Muck, yuck, actch, whatever.
“You killed my friend,” I said.
He was silent for a second or two, and then he grinned. “You can’t prove anything,” he said. “I’m protected. I’m a Norwegian national. She’s just a common whore. Call your police,” he said. He grinned the whole time.
“Yes,” I said and I shot him. In the stomach the first time and then in the chest. With the second shot, he just kind of wheezed and all the air went out of him and he bent over onto his knees. He didn’t fall over, but I knew he was dead.
I was only eleven but I wasn’t stupid. I knew some shit. I wiped the gun free of my fingerprints with my shirttail and then I put it in Lurleen’s hand. I aimed it up at the roof and used her own finger to pull the trigger again. I sat there for a few minutes looking at my friend Lurleen and then I left.
Later the next day, Richard and I met and went fishing for piggies and croakers on the wharf across the street from our house on the Brazos. He never asked me about the night before and I didn’t say anything about it. A couple of years later, my parents and my sisters moved north to Indiana and I never saw Richard again.
I don’t know what happened. I’m sure there was something in the newspaper, but I didn’t read the papers in those days. We didn’t have TV so I never saw anything about it there. There was talk around the bar, but mostly bullshit, people talking like they do. I just kept my head down and went to Lurleen’s funeral like everybody else in my family. After the funeral, we went back home to Grandma’s house where we all lived, and she changed out of her black dress to her white uniform and went back to work.
Until this very minute, Mauro, I’ve never thought about that time until now. You asked me for a story and here it is. It just came up back in my memory like it was yesterday.
Isn’t that some shit?
Is it good enough? It’s got some mojo, doesn’t it?
Say, Mauro, do you have a bottle of Jack anywhere? This grappa’s good, but what I really want is some whiskey.