a NOVEL excerpt from Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney's Books, 2014)
Enrique worked the irrigation on the Valencia grove until midnight. Gustave got tired around eleven, and Enrique drove him home. Then he took the truck back to the grove to check the gopher traps. 109 yesterday. The gophers were chewing through PVC pipe like it was hollow peppermint stick. In August, the trees would wither in a few days without water.
He stood in the kitchen drinking one last cup of coffee when he heard his son’s truck. The tools bouncing loose in the metal bed like always on the gravel road.
He went to the front window. Lafayette was carrying a woman up the lawn.
A thin woman. Her head lolling back like an actress in some horror movie, but then Lafayette moved his arm up and the head nestled back against his chest. Her hair fell over his arm like a black waterfall.
Enrique saw her only a few times a year, when Gustave had him drive to whatever apartment she’d landed in – each place a dim cave where her son would look up from his bed on the floor. What they called it – some Japanese word. They went if the boy was sick or needed money.
Her hair was always in a twist on top of her head. Chignon, the women used to call it back in Louisiana. So high it was a complicated structure. But tonight the hair was loose over Lafayette’s arm, swaying against his leg.
They came up the slope, Reynaldo just behind. Like they were killers. Her feet in high heels, dangling.
They put her on Marie-Claire’s couch. Pale green. Enrique never sat on her couch. He was always dirty from the groves. He sat on the porch to drink his coffee, and left his boots in the wooden orange crate she put on the side of the house for him. Then he went straight to the bedroom to change.
Glorette lay with her feet splayed, her mouth open. The first thing he thought - Marie-Claire come out here, she see a body on that couch.
“Quo faire?” he said to his sons.
Lafayette held out his hands, palms up, like he didn’t know whether he should wash them, like he didn’t know how his hands had done that.
Reynaldo kept rubbing his thick eyebrows like he always did when he was confused, when he was waiting for his older brother to talk first, to see if there was anything he needed to refute or deny or explain.
“Man, I ain’t never touched a dead body before,” Lafayette said, quiet.
Reynaldo said, “Me, neither,” which he didn’t need to say, because he did nothing without his brother.
Then Enrique smelled urine. Like when he’d killed the German. His heart felt a hot bloom – a dried plum fattening up in hot water.
He looked down at her face. The most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, even more beautiful than her mother, who’d been famous in Louisiana when they were young. Her mother Anjolie was Marie-Claire’s distant cousin. Gustave had gone back to Louisiana to get her, taken her from the house where she’d been locked up in an armoire to protect her until Enrique killed --.
Killed the third one.
His sons looked up.
She’d been just one of the children running in and out of the house, where Marie-Claire always had food. His daughter Fantine, and Glorette – racing the boys in the groves, the soles of their bare feet like pink shrimp. Then Fantine refusing to hoe the weeds out of the irrigation ditches, hiding in trees and behind hedges to read, always reading, grown paler and thin and narrow-eyed and hateful. Glorette’s face suddenly shaped like a pansy, with that same symmetrical shape but her cheekbones gleaming. Skin gold as a mothwing. Men following her everywhere.
One day, when he was a boy and he’d been taken to New Orleans to help an old man deliver sacks of oysters, they’d walked out of the restaurant on Royal Street. Djokic, the old man, had told him to wait outside a doorway. Niggers couldn’t shop in the French Quarter. But a boy could wait near the window, if he was on an errand with a white man. The sun shone on the glittering stones inside. One made into a dragonfly. Emerald wings, ruby eyes, gold thorax. And a dragonfly lighted on the wooden ledge of the window, facing its twin. Dragonflies were everywhere, that spring, hovering while his aunt washed clothes in her yard. But this one didn’t move for a long time, waiting for the other, until Djokic came out slamming the door.
Glorette’s forehead was darker gold now. Her eyes were closed, her mouth open. She had dust on her elbows.
He felt the hotness and blood moving velvet soft because his brain was already considering the pieces. Place to place like roof corner to low tree branch – the first strand of a spiderweb – random threads at first. The complicated puzzle and planning. The smell was already deepening, in the heat.
He lifted up her hand – thin and small as a child, but with long fingers held curved and graceful even in death. Fantine had always been jealous of Glorette’s effortless beauty, the way she moved. No blood under her arm, near her ribs. She wore a black bra like runners on TV, and tight pants, and her stomach was unmarked. Her feet dirty. Her high heels worn down – miles of walking – and brown with dust. A pink scar – perfect circle – that must have been a cigarette burn on one ankle. He moved her head just for a moment, to see her neck, but he didn’t want to touch her hair. No blood. She hadn’t been shot. Not even with a small-caliber bullet. She hadn’t been cut.
He looked outside. Gustave’s house was just down the gravel road. Gustave was walking slowly up the lawn with Lafayette and Reynaldo. And now he saw a man sitting in the truckbed, head in his hands. Shirtless, dark-skinned, looking away from the house.
If he was the one, he wouldn’t be sitting in the truck. Because even though no one knew how many men Enrique had killed, everyone knew about Mr. McQuine.
Glorette worked the alleys. She was probably found there or in some dirty apartment. And now it was the terrible exhilaration of the puzzle that made him wide awake, already seeing the apartment stairs and wrought iron railings, the place where he would watch. He felt as if he were thirty again. The complicated pieces of tracking, and how he’d find the man, or figure out if it was the young man in the truck.
He turned to see his wife in the doorway. He was ashamed of the quickening inside his chest and throat and behind his eyes. He hadn’t even thought of her. Just of Gustave and how his face would look coming into the room, seeing his only child. And he’d forgotten the grandson.
“You bring me a body? Like we in Louisiana?” she whispered, wrapping her arms around herself like she was cold, even though the heat hadn’t broken yet for the night. “That Glorette?”
She moved toward the couch and touched the loose hair on the forehead. “You bring her here?”
Enrique said, “Them two.” What he always called his sons. The shorthand of being married.
She bent over the couch, her spine like a rope of tiny boudin sausage showing through the nightdress. She was shaking.
But when Gustave came inside, Enrique couldn’t look at his face. The face he had seen more than any other his whole life. Not mother. Not wife. Not children. Only Gustave, since he was four and Gustave seven. Every single day except when Enrique was in Germany, and when he’d first come here to California after the war, alone.
Gustave touched her shoulder, and her forehead. Like he and Marie-Claire were baptizing her. The sweat under his white t-shirt made darker maps at his back. When he raised up, his face was like a mask. Enrique was relieved. They had both learned how to keep their faces that way since they were small, since they were orphelin on the riverbank and they knew the rest of their lives, people would use crying - even the stretched-out mouth of wanting to cry, of considering tears - as weakness. Reason to beat them with a stick.
Tite mulee, Gustave used to whisper to him, in whatever shack or camp they lay, shivering in their clothes. We just baby mule. Mule don’t cry. Mule kick. Or bite.
He went to the kitchen to wash his hands.
Two new boxes of cereal on the counter. That meant his grandsons were asleep in the back bedroom. Lafayette’s wife always brought two boxes because it was expensive and the boys ate it dry out of bowls – like little dogs. An old man pirate cartoon. Cap’n Crunch.
That damn cartoon his grandson had drawn. The box with the knife and dripping blood.
His granddaughter staring at the man on the TV, saying, “Serial means a row?”
Enrique didn’t see the face of the German he’d killed until he turned him over. The helmet covered the face – ice crystals on the eyebrows. But he smelled it, sometimes, the smell of sweat that froze and then melted and froze again. The smell of shit from the woods, and cheese. The German had cheese in his pocket, probably stolen from a farmhouse nearby.
It was the forest outside a village in France. Why couldn’t he remember the name? The Germans were as scattered as the Americans after the firefight. For each farmhouse, Enrique didn’t know who was watching – for a lone man moving through the trees. So he’d taken days to circle back. The snow piled like soapsuds on the pine branches. Sodden gray under his boots.
Even though Enrique hadn’t eaten in almost two days, he didn’t touch the cheese. Milky and ripe from the pocket, from the body. White. White. The snow and the cheese and the eyebrows and the teeth, when the lips curled back after the body lay in the snow and he turned it over. The blood on his knife already freezing.
Would killed me, him. Called me nigger first. That’s what he told Gustave, when he got back. Gustave nodded.
But he knew that wasn’t true. Maybe the German would have pretended not to see him. Let him walk past, in the forest, to keep trying to find his company. Maybe the German would never call someone nigger. Maybe he would have thought Enrique was Mexican, like some of the other soldiers thought.
He was the only man Enrique regretted killing, sixty years later.
He heard his wife walk down the hallway. Was she looking for a winding sheet? That’s what they used to call it back in Louisiana, when they wrapped the body and placed it on the kitchen table. The winding sheet.
This was 2000. No one used a winding sheet. You took a body to the mortuary. But he and Gustave would bury Glorette here, on his land. The orange groves, the small chapel, the cemetery between his land and Ramon Archuleta’s grove.
His land because he’d killed Atwater. Who said he’d never sell to a nigger.
He had shot at countless others in France, but their bodies lay tangled in the distance, and no one knew whose bullets had killed them, or whose grenades. But four men he had killed with his hands. The only one that sent a wash of guilt along his back – like a hand passed along his shoulderblades – was the German. Because his teeth were so small, his gums so pink and new, and his throat unshaven – that Enrique knew he was a boy. He might have scared the boy off, and gone past him.
The other three men had to die. The boy from New Orleans would have shot him. Enrique knew he had a gun inside the shirt. Mr. McQuine would have murdered Marie-Claire or another girl.
Atwater never threatened him. Not his body.
Every time he saw the nights he’d killed them – dark blue of past midnight and trees black each time – he remembered that there was no other way. Different birds but night sounds.
Now he was 76 years old, and he would have to take care of whoever had killed Glorette.
A row. No other way to put it, because he was planning every detail.
“What the hell are you drawing?” his daughter-in-law Clarette said to Reynaldo Jr. last week. Enrique was watching TV with his grandsons. He liked to see the backs of the boys’ heads, the small skulls through hair. He tried to imagine which one might work the groves.
Reynaldo Jr. said, “This band Green Jelly – they got a song called Cereal Killer. Everybody’s drawing what they think it looks like.” He’d sketched a long knife through the blue coat of the old man pirate, and red blood dripping from the cereal box.
Danae said, “Like that man – he picked up boys and killed them and threw them on the freeway.” On the television was a white man with glasses and fat cheeks like uncooked biscuit.
His daughter-in-law said, “I told you not to listen to that. Serial means in a row. Like a series,” she said. “A guy who kills several people in the same way. Nobody evil like that coming all the way out here. Now stop being in grown folks business.”
“But Capn Crunch could be a good cereal killer name,” the boy said softly. “Like, a dude that crunches the bones after they’re dead. That would be funny.”
“Don’t joke about that,” she said. She was in her uniform. She was a guard at the youth prison in Chino. “Not funny.” She put a bag with other clothes on the table. She had to work Saturdays, and the kids stayed with Marie-Claire. He always got dirty in the groves, and Marie-Claire made him change.
“Alfonso said when he was in Chino he knew a serial killer.”
“He met a lot of people he didn’t like.”
“Alfonso didn’t say he didn’t like him. He just said he was a serial killer. He calls Chino like, The Club. He always says, When I was in The Club…”
“Alfonso’s an idiot,” Clarette said.
Rey Jr. said, “There’s a boy from Ireland in my class. He says eejit instead of idiot.”
“You need to close that mouth before you get in trouble.”
“I can’t chew with my mouth closed.”
“You better try.”
He had killed the first two quickly, without thought. Water and knife. He had planned the other two. Fire and poison.
That was not a row.
Gustae came into the kitchen and said, “She ain’t had none to steal. Why they kill her?” He washed his face at the sink, and then said, “They taken Chabert son to the barn.”
They drove down the dirt road. At the wooden tables near the open barn door, his sons waited. The shirtless man was Sidney Chabert. Same age as Lafayette. His arms gone soft, his navel a deep darker hole in his belly when he squatted in front of Gustave to apologize, to say he hadn’t done it. Then he walked away.
Maybe he had. He had the look of love, and years of sadness around his eyebrows. One of those downturn-mouth, down-slant eyes young men.
Could be him. He’d never had her.
You act like God before, his wife had said. Maybe Chabert’s son had acted like God.
Enrique had the 45 in the dash drawer. He had the rifle in the truckbed, in the toolbox.
But they picked Chabert up on the road outside the gate, because Gustave needed him to point out the apartment. He wanted his grandson.
The alley was a narrow dusty lane, almost like a tunnel in places from the pepper trees and bushes. Enrique drove past slowly. This wasn’t like hunting McQuine, where he’d known every place the man drank. It wasn’t like Atwater, where he had months to think while Atwater taunted him.
No shopping cart. No one walking. Glorette’s tall friend – with the ruined face – was nowhere. He’d have to find her, too. Unless whoever had killed Glorette had come back for her.
The apartment was Jacaranda Gardens, but only three palm trees stood dusty in the courtyard. No garden. Gustave brought her son down the apartment stairs. The boy with hair in those little twists. Sticking up from his head like when Lafayette’s boy drew pictures of the sun with rays coming out.
Victor. He climbed into the truckbed and sat with his back against the cab. A bag at his feet. Gustave had told him nothing yet. Enrique could tell. Enrique said to him, “You know Sidney?”
“Some dude work at the video store?”
“He ever with your maman?”
Victor frowned. “No. Why? She at the hospital again?”
Gustave said, “She get sick, and he call us. We take her home.”
Victor said, “How sick?”
“She bad off. She okay when she leave you tonight?”
“I wasn’t home. I was checking out registration for city college.”
Enrique said, “Where Alfonso?”
Victor squinted up at him and said, “How would I know?”
Enrique knew he couldn’t press the boy, that they needed to get back to Sarrat, but the alley was only two blocks away, and men still walking, and Alfonso had to have seen something. He rode with the boy who sold drugs at the Launderland on the corner.
“He your cousin,” Enrique said.
Victor leaned his head back against the cab’s window and looked up at the sky. “Sorry, Uncle Enrique. Even in the complicated arcane way we identify family, he’s not really my cousin. Alfonso’s pops and Clarette are brother and sister, so that makes them related to Lafayette and Reynaldo. But my moms? Nope. And whoever the motherfucker was responsible for my genetics – he definitely isn’t hanging around here for Alfonso to identify as someone who might want to buy rock. So let’s just go.”
He spoke like a professor, someone just visiting with them. Getting a ride to a dinner.
“I’ma find that knucklehead,” Reynaldo said, getting in the truckbed.
Victor shrugged and closed his eyes against the streetlight above him.
SUSAN STRAIGHT has published eight novels and two books for children. Her new novel Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney’s) is the final book in the Rio Seco trilogy. Take One Candle Light a Room (Anchor Books) was named one of the best books of 2010 by The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and Kirkus, and A Million Nightingales (Anchor Books) was a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 2006. Highwire Moon was a Finalist for the 2001 National Book Award. "The Golden Gopher," published in Los Angeles Noir, won the 2008 Edgar Award for Best Mystery Story. Her stories and essays have appeared in The O Henry Prize Stories, Best American Short Stories,The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Harpers, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Salon, Zoetrope, Black Clock, and elsewhere. She has been awarded The Lannan Prize for Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Gold Medal for Fiction from the Commonwealth Club of California. She is Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UCRiverside. She was born in Riverside, California, where she lives with her family, whose history is featured on susanstraight.com.