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Joe R. Lansdale

Sunset and Sawdust

For Kasey

In East Texas, myth, lies, legend, and reality are all the same.

– H. Collins, lifelong East Texas resident

1

On the afternoon it rained frogs, sun perch, and minnows, Sunset discovered she could take a beating good as Three-Fingered Jack. Unlike Jack, who had taken his in the sunshine, she took hers in her own home at the tail end of a cyclone, the windows rattling, the roof lifting, the hardwood floor cold as stone.

She was on her back wearing only the top half of her dress, because the bottom half had been ripped away when Pete, during the process of beating her, had stepped on it, and the dress, rotten as politics, had torn and left her clothed only from waist to shoulders.

It went through her mind that she was down to two dresses now, and that she hated to see this one go, as it, though faded, had a flowery pattern she liked and the colors blended well with the stains.

But this was a passing thought. She was mostly thinking: How can I stop him from hitting me? She was trying to do this by holding her hands up, but he was beating them down, and her own arms and hands flying back into her face were doing near the damage his fists might have.

Finally, he hammered her to the floor, followed her down, spread her legs, went to tearing and clawing off the rest of her clothes.

When the top of her dress ripped open and he jerked loose one side of her bra, revealing her, he said, “There’s that tittie.” His speech was slurred and his breath seemed to bleed alcohol.

He raked at her undergarments, tore them and tossed them. When he snapped his gun belt free, he tossed it nearby, and while he was on her, tugging at his zipper, trying to put the mule in the barn, Sunset reached over and slipped his.38 revolver from its holster, and without him being aware, put it to his head, gave him one in the temple.

When she pulled the trigger the shot was loud as Gabriel blowing her up to heaven, but it was Pete who went to heaven. Or departed anyway. Sunset liked to think he got a nice chair in hell, right next to the oven.

But in that moment, the shot made her scream, once, sharp and hard as if she had taken the bullet, or as if she had just received a slap on the bottom at birth.

Pete went limp, not only in the organ he had intended to use, but all over. He said not a word. No “Ouch,” “Oh shit,” or “Can you believe that?” Things he liked to say under normal circumstances, moments of surprise and duress.

He just took the hot load, cut a fart near loud as the.38 shot, collapsed, and rode on out on Death’s black horse.

If it wasn’t bad enough she had lost her dress, underclothes, and dignity, now all the windows on the east side shook like Marley’s chains, then exploded. The door leaped apart as if it had never been anything other than a loosely connected puzzle, and the wind took the roof away.

She lay there on her back, fragments of clothes fastened to her body, her old flat-heeled shoes still on her feet, a piece of window glass poking out of her shoulder, Pete lying heavy against her. She still had the gun in her hand. The shot had gone in small and hadn’t come out big like she expected. It must have been a bad load, jumping around in his brain, making jelly of it. Blood ran from the wound, out of his nose and onto her.

She rolled him off and looked at him. No mistaking. He wasn’t going to recover from this.

“Surprised you, didn’t I?” Sunset said.

She studied Pete for a long moment, then started to scream as if a banshee were inside of her. But it wasn’t screaming you would have heard if you had been in the other room. It was loud enough, but the storm was louder. The house rocked, squeaked, squealed, and whined.

Then, except for the floor, two ugly chairs, an iron cookstove, Sunset and the dead man, it was all sucked up and thrown lickety-split on down country.

Sunset, screaming, clung to the floor while the storm raved on.

The moment the storm passed, the sky turned clear and the sun poked out and stoked up the heat. It was as if the cool wind and rain had never been.

Sunset stood up, weak and bleeding, fragments of her clothes falling from her. She pulled the piece of glass from her shoulder. It came out smooth without causing too much damage, hardly any blood.

Naked, except for her shoes and the gun she was holding, she wandered off of what remained of her house, stumbled down the muddy clay road in front of the place, frogs, minnows, and perch hopping and flapping beneath her shoes.

She felt as lost as Cain after he killed Abel.

She saw Pete’s car, turned over and smashed up, bent in half between two big oak trees as if it had been made of wet licorice. Nearby, his wooden file cabinet was burst open and there were files all over the place.

Fatefully, she came across one of her curtains, made from a flour sack and dyed blue. It had wrapped itself around a scrub tree limb and was hanging there like it was on the arm of a valet.

Sunset draped it around the lower part of her body, pulled her long red hair down over her breasts, started down the road again, mud squishing around her shoes.

Stooping to yank a mashed frog from the bottom of her shoe, she looked up to see the colored knife sharpener, Uncle Riley, coming down the road with his two mules and wagon. Uncle Riley’s son, Tommy, was walking alongside him, spearing sun perch from the ground with a sharp stick, flipping them into the wagon bed.

Uncle Riley pulled on the reins when he saw her, said, “Oh, hell. Now I ain’t looking, Miss White Woman. Really. And Tommy, he ain’t neither. We ain’t seeing a thing.”

But Tommy was seeing plenty. Sunset’s breasts were poking through her red hair, and Tommy had never seen breasts before, white or black, except those of his mama when suckling, but that was a long-lost memory.

Sunset, at that moment, didn’t care who saw what. She was bleeding from nose and mouth and her eyes were starting to swell shut. She felt as if she had been set on fire and put out with a yard rake.

“Uncle Riley,” she said, “it’s me, Sunset. I been beat.”

“Oh, Lord, chile, you sure have. I’m gonna get down and help you. Don’t shoot at nothing now, you hear?”

Sunset staggered to one knee, tried to get up, couldn’t.

Uncle Riley, who was six-four and forty-four, weighed two-twenty and had a slick bald head he covered with a droopy hat, climbed down from the wagon, took off his work shirt, kept his head turned as he walked toward her.

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