Bed of Ashes is copyrighted 2003 by R. Earle Harris (r dot earle dot harris at gmx dot com)
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
To Jehiel Harleston Crites,
who pointed me down the writing road
and taught me what a Texan is.
And ye shall tread down the wicked;
for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet
This is not a detective novel. Or a police novel. Or a crime novel. And then again it is. But that side of it is not the point. That's just the Shiner Bock that lets the meat go down sweet. You won't know what you've eaten until you've washed it down with a longneck -- and by then it will be too late. Ezra Pound, who was a great writer and a clear thinker, who committed treason and spent fourteen years in an asylum for it, tells us that novels are the moral mirror of a culture. I agree with Mr. Pound.
This book is the best moral reflection of Texas I can manage. You may disagree with my version of the truth; but it pretty clearly falls short of treason or insanity. So I'm doing better than Mr. Pound here -- how much better is up to you. I choose to serve up my dry but accurate knowledge in small servings, rather than all at once, because truths are like snakebites. Too much of either and the recipient swells up and turns black. Which is not pretty. In smaller doses, mirrors and rattlesnakes just stir things up a bit. They get people to run around and holler and maybe shoot something. And that's entertainment.
R. Earle Harris
Seguin, Texas - 2003
All characters in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. All commercial trademarks in this work are the properties of their respective owners, who retain all rights to their actual products. The names of actual persons, living or dead, or actual products, commercial or political, in this work do not refer to their correspondent realities but only to reified perceptions of digitized commercial-political infospace, introduced -- via pixels -- into individualized consciousness.
The blackened page was alive with tiny lines of embers, thin as hairs of fire. These glowing edges of destruction ran sideways across the buckled surfaces of the paper, leaving white ash in their wake. Joe Lon Trueno saw that this dying page was all that remained of his marriage certificate. The ghosts of his own name and the name of his wife lingered in the soft white ash, waiting for the first breezes of morning to roll down the hill and scatter them.
Joe Lon ran a strong hand through his short-cut black hair and looked at what was left of the single-wide trailer he had shared with his wife all these years. Her own ashes had been in a little walnut box on the coffee table. He had set them there last night and then he'd gone outside and burnt the trailer down. The fire was almost done. Soon Magdalena's ashes too would be scattered by the morning wind.
Their single-wide had been a nice one. It had had a roof added on that reached out beyond the trailer on either side. It had covered a new living room on one side and a fine open porch on the other. There had been flowers in the window boxes and Mexican candle-lanterns around the porch. All that remained were the tottering metal walls of the original trailer, heaps of black and white ash, and these fiery embers seething in the remains of night.
Their trailer had rested upon the low hills above Grajo, Texas, southeast of San Antonio. These were the last low hills that rolled down into the coastal plain as it ran to the Gulf of Mexico. The halo of light that announced the new day was climbing the eastern rise of these hills as Joe Lon heard the wail of fire trucks come up the highway.
Joe Lon could smell the rich scent of smoke on his clothes. A water hose with a gun-nozzle leaked water at his feet. He had been standing by the fire all night long to make sure he didn't burn down the hillside too. He wondered who had finally called the volunteer fire department.
"You're a little late," said Joe Lon, as their trucks came into view.
Joe Lon turned off the water at the pumphouse and closed the door of his old blue Chevy pickup. The fire captain's huge red pickup was at the gate below, its gaudy lights painting the brush red and blue, its siren scaring away two deer that had bedded down among the live oaks to admire the firelight. The gate was a quarter-mile away on the level ground along the highway. As the volunteer fire captain of Grajo, Texas was discovering that the gate was locked, Joe Lon leaned against the dark side of his pickup camper to see what the little man would do.
Although the fire captain could surely see that Joe Lon's trailer was nothing but smoke and ash, he cut the barbed-wire fence beside the gate with his own hands and ordered his pumper to drive in through the opening. Joe Lon watched the driver argue with the captain. Then he watched the pumper truck drive off the road, pass through the cut in the fence, and come to a stop as the rear tires of the heavy truck buried themselves in the sandy ground.
Trueno smiled. His wife had always said that Grajo's fire captain couldn't put a cigarette out without making a mess of it. Joe Lon Trueno stepped out of the shadow of his pickup and walked down the hill with the rising sun at his back.
"You could have come down and let us in," said the captain.
"I was watching the fire," said Joe Lon.
Joe Lon and the captain looked at the buried tires of the pumper truck. A second fire truck sat on the road just beyond the gate. Behind it were the idling cars and trucks of Grajo's volunteer firemen.
"Damn," said the captain. "I'd better call the wrecker."
"Again," said the driver of the pumper truck.
"Shut up," said the captain and he walked off with his shiny new cell phone to make the call.
"Again?" asked Joe Lon.
"Yessir," said the driver. "I buried this thing up to the axles just two days ago following that man's orders. Wade Foster lost his barn while we were digging ourselves out."
"Grajo should get itself a new fire captain," said Joe Lon.
"Sure should," said the driver. "And just as soon as money stops talking, we'll get rid of him. Whoops -- here he comes."
The fire captain came back, still holding his shiny phone.
"So what happened to your house, Trueno?" asked the captain.
"I burned it down," said Joe Lon.
"So you won't be needing us to squirt water on it?" asked the driver.
"No," said Joe Lon, "It's good."
"It's arson," said the captain. "That's what it is."
"Yes," said Joe Lon. "That's what it is."
"I'll have to investigate," said the captain.
The driver of the pumper snorted.
"And I'm not making any exceptions for you either, Trueno," said the captain. "You're just a civilian now. You're no governor's man anymore."
Joe Lon nodded.
"Fair enough," said Joe Lon. "Who called my arson in?"
"Your Mexican sister-in-law -- Imelda," said the Captain. "She's right down there."
The little fire captain of Grajo, Texas, pointed to a rusted-out old fourdoor at the back of the line of idling vehicles. A woman was waiting next to it, standing on the edge of the highway.
"I was worried about you," said Imelda.
She leaned against the driver-side door of her car and crossed her brown arms. At forty-something, she was two decades younger than Trueno, but the wear and tear of her life made her look almost as old.
"I'm alright," said Joe Lon.
"Oh, yes," Imelda said, "you're all fine. You just burned our Magdalena's house down."
"I couldn't live in it without her," said Joe Lon.
"You could have sold it," said Imelda.
Joe Lon shook his head.
"Didn't need the money," said Joe Lon.
"You don't need much of anything, qué no?" she said.
Joe Lon shrugged.
Imelda ran her hands up and down her arms as she watched her brother-in-law.
"Who you going to live with now?" Imelda asked him. "Your son?"
"Can't live with him," said Joe Lon. "I'll live in the truck."
Imelda looked up the hill at Joe Lon's truck with its rusting white camper on the back. She shook her head at him.
"You don't make no sense," Imelda said. "They should have a home for crazy retired policemen like you."
"Couldn't build one big enough," said Joe Lon.
"Your nephew needs your help," Imelda told him.
"My nephew?" Joe Lon asked.
"Salvador," Imelda said. "My son. That's why I came here in the first place."
"You came out here to get my help?" Joe Lon said.
"And then I saw you up there burning down your house," said Imelda. "I saw you watching it burn down and I knew you were being crazy again."
Joe Lon let that go by.
"So I called the fire department," said Imelda.
Joe Lon and Imelda looked over to where the local Texaco's wrecker began its struggle to pull the volunteer pumper truck out of the sand.
"They need to dump the water out," Joe Lon said. "Lighten up that truck."
"Good thing you didn't need their help," said Imelda, smiling.
Joe Lon turned back to his sister-in-law.
"So where's your Salvador?" Joe Lon asked.
"Up in Secaro," said Imelda. "He's been working there."
Secaro was a highway town an hour away from where they stood. It was about three times the size of Grajo and sat on the interstate between San Antonio and Houston like a tumbleweed about to pull up roots. Secaro kept from drying up and blowing away completely by supplying low-wage workers to a big plant there that made integrated circuits for cars and trucks and power boats. One day those low wages would be too high for the big company's profit margin and the plant would blow on down to Mexico its own self, leaving Secaro to wither in the heat.
"Your son's working in that factory that makes those OnStar things?" asked Joe Lon.
"He couldn't pass their test," said Imelda.
Joe Lon shook his head and wondered whether that meant Salvador couldn't read English or couldn't do simple fractions -- or both.
"He is working in a brick factory north of town," said Imelda. "He fixes their machines."
"What does he need my help for?" asked Joe Lon.
"He's in jail, Joe Lon," said Imelda. "They say he killed someone last night."
As Joe Lon sprayed down the last embers of his house with the water hose, they hissed and steamed in the light of a brand new South Texas spring morning. The trucks and the firemen and his sister-in-law were gone. The Indian paintbrush out in the open and the wild dewberry blossoms beneath the trees bowed their heads in the wind. Pale green pendant blossoms were trembling on all the live oaks. The new day's warm spring wind was only a weak promise of the sweltering blast that summer would bring to these sandy hills. It was a good day; his wife was finally gone.
Joe Lon turned off the hose one last time and shut the pump off at the well. He walked over to his pickup, opened the driver's door, and climbed in without shutting the door behind him. Joe Lon reached into the glove compartment and pulled out his one CD. It was the only one he owned, and Orson Welles had made it for him.
Orson Welles Ortiz was his favorite nephew and the only person Joe Lon knew who really understood computers and the Internet. He was named Orson Welles because his mother had seen the real Orson Welles's old film The Magnificent Ambersons and had thought Agnes Moorehead was the most beautiful woman in the world. Joe Lon's nephew hated his name. But Joe Lon told him he was lucky his mother hadn't gone ahead and named him Agnes like she'd wanted to.
Orson Welles had found this music for Joe Lon on the Internet and burned the nineteen tracks of it onto this CD. The music was by a band called Ned Christie and the Last Cherokee Deadbeats. It was an Indian band from up around Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Orson Welles had told Joe Lon that Ned Christie called his music Electric Buffalo Grass.
Joe Lon had once seen buffalo grass on a vacation he and his wife had taken up to Montana. They had gone to see where Custer had learned his lesson, among other things. The hills there were high and round and covered with a grass that was always tall and brown and dry. Once upon a time there had been six million buffalo there, too, to eat that grass. But they were all gone now, killed for their hides that had been sent off to Europe for soldier's tack -- Joe Lon had read about that in a brochure. The brochure had said that other men came back later for the bones but he couldn't remember why.
Joe Lon spat out the open door of the truck and stopped thinking about the buffalo. He took the band's CD, Medicine Crow, and put it in the old CD player Orson Welles had mounted below the dashboard of his truck. As usual he had trouble starting the thing. He could never remember which little button meant "Play." So he tried the buttons one after the other until Out the Screen Door began to sound in his speakers.
Listening to Ned Christie noodle his electric guitar while the rest of the band beat drums and shook rattles and clapped their hands, Joe Lon wondered what Ned and his Deadbeats looked like. Orson Welles had told him Ned was built like a professional linebacker, with long black hair and a broken nose. But Orson Welles was known for making things up.
Joe Lon wondered what his dead wife was doing this morning in the place she had gone to and what she thought of his burning down their house. She probably didn't approve. Joe Lon shrugged to himself in his pickup. He and his wife could discuss it later, after he caught up with her, which might be sometime soon.
When the first song ended, Joe Lon pushed the button that made it play again. He wasn't ready for the second song yet.
Joe Lon got down out of the pickup and stood in the shade of his truck and the liveoak it was parked beneath. The sunrise topped the hills. He wondered where his wife's cat had gotten to. It had disappeared the night she died and Joe Lon suspected the cat had gone with her. He knew it wouldn't have wanted to stay with him. Joe Lon thought of asking his son to check in on the cat, to see if it showed up in a few days. But then he decided not to. He would rather not talk to his son.
Joe Lon walked away from the music, over to what was left of his house. Imelda was probably right about his being crazy. He had enjoyed burning down his own trailer. In the weeks since his wife had died, nothing had made him happier than watching his own house burn down.
He put his hands into the pockets of his khakis and kicked dirt over a steaming patch of wet coals. In his pocket was a Mexican silver dollar from 1873. It was cut and filed into the shape of a circled star, the star of a Texas Ranger. It was the star he had worn, instead of the one the Department of Public Safety had wanted him to wear. He turned the silver dollar over in his pocket and put his back to the hot Texas wind.
The hot winds of morning were lifting the white ashes of last night's fire and spreading them over the flowers that colored the hillside. All that remained of his wife and his home was clinging to the Indian Paintbrush and to those little purple flowers he didn't have a name for.
Joe Lon Trueno watched the flowers bow their heads in the wind and wondered who his nephew Salvador had killed.
"He's eating his breakfast," said the deputy. "Cook got here late this morning."
"What time do you usually feed them?" asked Joe Lon.
"About three," said the deputy. "They got to sleep in this morning."
The sheriff's deputy led Joe Lon Trueno into the Arroyo County Jail. The morning's sunlight was coming in through the barred windows of the hallway and Joe Lon could already smell the concrete, wet with disinfectant.
"We ain't dressed him out yet; so he's still in Holding," said the deputy.
The deputy and Trueno passed through the double-gated entry with its window of black-mirrored glass. The deputy waved at the black glass as if they were friends.
"You come to bail him out or something?" asked the deputy, as if he could care less.
"He's only been here a couple hours," said Joe Lon. "Someone wake up a judge to set my nephew's bail?"
"Oh, yeah," said the deputy. "Never mind."
They came to a stop in front of the holding tank. It was a large cell with a single long bench projecting from one wall. A man in a sleeveless camouflage T-shirt and blue-jeans black with greasy sweat lay on the bench with one tattooed arm over his eyes. There were two toilets in the back of the cell, standing in the open like porcelain sculpture. On one of them a black man, his pants down only far enough to avoid soiling them, was modestly trying to have a bowel movement in public.
Salvador Acuña, Imelda's son, sat on the floor across from the bench and watched Joe Lon and the deputy without speaking. He was doing his best to eat a soggy breakfast of reconstituted eggs and pale toast using only a soft plastic spoon. A blue plastic cup of powdered milk sat on the floor beside him.
Salvador was a tall, strong boy in his late twenties, with the words 'Brown Pride' on his T-shirt. He wore pants big enough for two or three people to live in. His jailers had taken away his belt and the pants would have fallen down if Salvador had stood up without hanging on to them. Dirty socks stuck out below the frayed cuffs of his huge pants.
The rest of the cell was clean, cold, damp concrete.
There was the sound of bowels evacuating loudly into a porcelain bowl.
"Sorry," said the man on the toilet. He flushed the toilet by reaching behind himself, without getting up.
"You ain't carrying a gun, are you?" the deputy asked Joe Lon.
"You let many men come in this far carrying one?" asked Joe Lon.
"Sorry," said the deputy. "It's early. I ain't hardly even awake."
"Open it," said Joe Lon.
The deputy signalled to someone behind the black bulletproof mirror and the two-hundred-pound barred door of the holding cell jumped open with a bang that shook the floor. The sleeping tattooed man turned over to face against the wall.
Joe Lon went into the cell and the door jumped back into place with another earth-shaking bang.
"Holler when you're ready, Ranger," said the deputy as he walked away.
Joe Lon went over to Salvador and hunkered down with his back against the wall.
Salvador picked at his sloppy eggs without speaking to his uncle.
"So who'd you kill, Salvador?" asked Joe Lon.
"The Pope's only child," said Salvador.
He pushed wet eggs onto his fork with pale toasted Wonder Bread and sucked them down.
"That's what I figured," said Joe Lon. "You're not the type."
Salvador looked at Joe Lon as if he'd just been insulted.
The tattooed man on the bench rolled over.
"I am, though," said Tattooed Man. "I'm that type."
He raised himself up onto one elbow.
"Who's the old man?" Tattooed Man asked Salvador.
Salvador looked at Trueno and then at Tattooed Man.
"My uncle," said Salvador.
"Come to bail you out, huh?" said Tattooed Man. "Came to tell you you've been naughty first?"
Tattooed Man sat up.
"Did I hear somebody here say 'Ranger'?" asked Tattooed Man.
Joe Lon heard someone laugh through his nose.
Salvador looked down at the remnants of his eggs.
"My uncle used to be a Texas Ranger," Salvador said.
"Did he now?" asked Tattooed Man and he smiled a smile that couldn't reach his eyes.
Tattooed Man came up off his bench, low and ugly like the lift of a rattler. He was crossing the cell, his right hand cocked back, when Joe Lon Trueno rose and met him halfway.
Joe Lon went around the right side of Tattooed Man, quicker than the younger man could turn. He caught Tattooed Man's right fist with his own right hand and locked it down. Pivoting, Joe Lon pushed his left hand against Tattooed Man's right elbow and Tattooed Man found himself pivoting too. The pivot ended when Tattooed Man's face met the steel edge of the bench he had risen from.
Joe Lon let the unconscious body fall gently to the floor.
Someone laughed through his nose again.
"I reckon that was self-defense," said the someone.
It was the deputy, standing outside the bars.
Joe Lon rolled the body over a little so Tattooed Man could breath easier.
"Been wanting to put a nightstick up that boy for days now," said the deputy. "Thanks, Ranger."
"I'm retired," said Joe Lon.
"Sure you are," said the deputy.
The deputy laughed again and walked off toward the exit. Joe Lon squatted back down beside his nephew.
"You're that type too," said Salvador. "Aren't you, Tío Joe?"
Joe Lon nodded.
"I am," he said.
"You can't bail me out yet," said Salvador. "I just got here."
"I didn't come to bail you out," said Joe Lon.
"Porque no?" asked Salvador.
Joe Lon looked at his nephew. All he really knew about him was that Salvador wasn't paying child support for either of the two children he didn't live with and that he had just had a new little girl with another woman he wouldn't live with soon. Joe Lon wondered how many children went through life with a hole where their father should be.
He looked at the words 'Brown Pride' on his nephew's shirt and wondered what they could possibly mean.
"The last person bailed you out lost her taqueria," said Joe Lon. "And that was only for delinquent child support."
"I did run out on that," said Salvador. "I never have the money for that shit. Where am I supposed to get eight thousand dollars anyway? But I didn't kill nobody. I won't run off on you."
"You run off when you're guilty but you'll stick around when you're not?" asked Joe Lon.
Salvador ate his last bite of soft toast and softer eggs.
"So what?" said Salvador. "I didn't ask you here anyway. You're not on my visitation list."
"You don't have a visitation list," said Joe Lon. "Your mother asked me to help you."
Salvador put his tray onto the floor.
The man on the toilet crossed his ankles.
Joe Lon picked up Salvador's plastic cup of powdered milk. The cup was too worn and too pliable, as if too many men had used it. Joe Lon offered Salvador the milk and, when Salvador declined, drank it off himself.
"I'm going to help your mother because she is my Magdalena's sister," said Joe Lon.
Salvador looked at his uncle.
"You going to help your mother too?" asked Joe Lon.
Tattooed Man groaned but didn't wake up.
"Who are you supposed to have killed?" asked Joe Lon.
"It was in the kiln last night. Where I work," said Salvador. "They found Huevo Jim dead in the furnace."
"Huevo Jim?" asked Joe Lon.
"That's what us Mexicans called him," said Salvador. "Huevo: 'cause he was round and white on the outside and yellow on the inside."
"Why was it you that got arrested for it?" asked Joe Lon.
"Cause I was the only one on maintenance last night late, with Huevo Jim on second shift," said Salvador.
"And," said Joe Lon.
"Because I already split his lip for him, tambíen," said Salvador. "'Bout a month ago."
"And the reason they didn't fire you for that?" asked Joe Lon.
"Because I hit him for being a racist pendejo and I had six or seven Mexican brothers there for witnesses," said Salvador. "They kept me out of trouble."
"I thought the brothers were black," said the man on the toilet.
Salvador held up the two words on his T-shirt. Joe Lon had already read them.
"What kind of racist was he?" asked Joe Lon.
"Huevo was always talking to the other Anglos, telling them the day was coming and they'd better watch out," said Salvador.
"What day was this?" asked Joe Lon.
"The day when all the black and brown people would walk down the streets throwing white people out of their houses and taking whatever we want," answered Salvador.
Joe Lon shook his head.
"That's news to me," said Joe Lon Trueno.
"I ain't heard about this neither," said the man on the toilet.
"There's nobody ever did," said Salvador. "Since when did Mexicans ever get together with blacks and march around doing anything."
"Only one place I ever heard of," said the man on the toilet. "And they wasn't marching together."
Joe Lon waited for the punch line but the man on the toilet was quiet again.
"Where was this?" Joe Lon asked finally.
"In prison," said the man on the toilet. "Mexican gangs, and black ones too, they take what they want from whoever's standing alone."
That sounded right. White men often found the shoe was on the other foot in prison. And they found out what that shoe felt like to wear around.
"And when Huevo Jim wasn't talking this shit," said Salvador, "he was putting his hands on you and telling you how he wasn't really racist. Always saying there was a black man in Secaro who was just like his son."
"Who's this son?" asked the man on the toilet. "He some half-white then?"
"His name's Doggy," answered Salvador. "And Huevo Jim said he was black."
Joe Lon went ahead and sat down on the concrete floor.
"The sheriff said your dead Huevo Jim's name was James Williams," said Joe Lon. "How did this James Williams die?"
"Somebody stuffed him in the kiln, is what they told me," said Salvador. "Como? Yo no sé."
"And someone named Enrique found him there," said Joe Lon.
"I don't know who did nothin'," said Salvador. "But Enrique works the kiln, third shift."
"What does that mean," asked Joe Lon, "'works the kiln?"'
"It means he drives the transport all night long shoving carts of bricks into the fire," said Salvador.
"So he would have opened the kiln to put a car inside and found this James Williams laying there?" asked Joe Lon.
Salvador shook his head.
"Chingao! You don't go inside," said Salvador. "It's two thousand degrees in there. You open the door, a big metal thing shoves the bricks in, and you close the door again."
Salvador shook his head again.
"Nothing's as hot as that kiln," he said.
"James Williams was found on a car inside the kiln," said Joe Lon.
"Then he must have sat down on a cart and shoved himself inside," said Salvador. "Because I stayed the hell away from him after I split his mouth that day."
"Who else was working last night with you and Huevo Jim?" asked Joe Lon.
"Just me and him," said Salvador. "I do maintenance. Easy Money, the other maintenance guy, didn't come in. Huevo Jim worked the kiln. And I left him alone."
"What do you think happened to this round and white Jim?" asked Joe Lon.
"He did himself," said Salvador. "He was the kind that would."
"Maybe," said Joe Lon. "But he probably wasn't the kind to cave the back of his own skull in first."
Joe Lon stood up.
The black man was still sitting modestly on the toilet, a pained and patient look on his face.
"You alright?" Joe Lon asked him.
"I'm waiting for you to go," said the black man.
Novel truncated at 1000 lines