Monday, August 31, 2009

The Locust by Doug Clegg

I get to share the first installment of Doug Clegg's new e-serial novel for his newsletter subscribers. If you want to get the rest of the story, you've got to subscribe and play by the rules (which means no sharing after the first installment). I've come to adore this author and to love his writing style. Check it out. If you like what you read, sign up for more and then go friend him on Facebook, Twitter, or Myspace. (Or all three, if you really want to cover your bases.)


Douglas Clegg

The Strange Event at Wickedy River

One hot as hell summer evening in 1934, a black truck came barreling down Old Mahican Road where it ran alongside Wickedy River-- a blur of machinery and darkness.
Later that night, the truck, the river, Old Mahican Road -- and even the ruins and the memories folks had of Ruth Merrill and her parties out at Beacon Point -- became a dreaded whisper of things to come in the town of Harwich and among those touched by what happened.
But the terrible event down by the bridge might not have happened if, earlier in the day, just after two, when the heat was at its worst, Lloyd Thurlow -- seventeen -- hadn't turned to a friend and said…
"Jesus H., I feel like a fish in a skillet out here. I bet you could fry an egg on the sidewalk. I bet up on Bean Hill, see? Right up there, where it crests. See? No trees. No shade. Nothing but brick. Hot molten brick. I bet you could make a nice fried egg in less than thirty seconds," and then Skipp said, "I don't like to bet."
"Everybody likes to bet."
"It's dumb to bet unless you know the outcome. That's what my old man says."
"But if you bet, it means you think you know the outcome. You'll never absolutely know if you know it until after you find out whether you were right or wrong." Lloyd spoke slowly and carefully, sounding as if he genuinely knew what he was talking about. But he didn't. He had just heard his father's buddies talking when they played cards.
Lloyd's father had always told him that life was a game and you always were at the table when you interacted with others. "In life, in business. It's all poker. It's all craps. Everything I have, I gambled for. All these other men," his father told him when he was younger and the Crash of '29 hit, "you see? They lost their shirts. But not me. I know where to bet on things. Know the odds. Sometimes you lose. But when you win, you win big."
His father had begun betting with his two boys since as far back as Lloyd could remember. Lloyd had lost his first toy car to his father in a bet; he won a hundred dollars from his father at the age of nine; he lost a pair of ice skates to his brother Winston over a bet, and then his father won them and lost them back to Lloyd in another bet. Lloyd Thurlow had won and lost bets with his father for years. It was a way of life for him, nearly. So, when he spoke to Paul Skipp about the egg and the brick sidewalk, it was like talking about the weather or girls or what Lloyd thought everyone was thinking even if they weren't saying it out loud. "But what do you think, Skipp? Is it hot enough to fry an egg?"
"It's hot, that's for sure. Look I don't want to bet."
"Come on. Two bits. I mean, what's it going to hurt?"
"It'll hurt enough if I have to pay it."
The conversation continued as Lloyd bought a single egg as Grosberg's, and then they caught the trolley up the hill because it was too hot to walk it.
Staring down at the brick sidewalk, Lloyd nodded to Skipp. "You're already sure of the outcome, buddy. You'll win. If that happens, I'll pay up. No, you know what? I'll give you double your money."
"I don't want to bet."
"Okay, forget the two bits. How about this: that." Lloyd reached over and tapped the ring on the third finger of Paul's right hand. "I know you like my lighter."
Lloyd brought out the fancy silver lighter he'd won from his father in a recent bet over the series of thunderstorms that had come through a few weeks earlier. "It's nice, isn't it? It's worth a lot. My old man bought it in New York for a lot of money. You can't find these at Grosberg's, can you? And First National doesn't carry them. It's a Ronson. 1928. Watch."
Skipp looked at the lighter as Lloyd flicked the flame up and down, up and down, clicking, flicking, clicking.
Skipp glanced down at the ring on his hand. "My dad brought it back from the war, the year after I was born. Look, it's from Austria."
"It's a beaut," Lloyd said.
Truth was, Lloyd Thurlow didn't want the ring; he just wanted the bet. Skipp didn't know it, but Lloyd would've agreed to betting over shoelaces if it came down to it. In fact, Lloyd already figured that if he won, he'd keep the ring for a few hours and then give it back to Skipp -- or Skippy as he was sometimes called -- before they both took off to their homes for supper.
"But, this egg. Come on, Skippy. If I crack this egg on those bricks. Will it fry?"
Skipp looked first at the small white egg in Lloyd's open palm, and then at the sidewalk. "I don't want to bet."
"But is it hot enough? Is it frying pan hot?"
"Probably not."
"Is that your bet?"
"I don't bet. I told you."
"No, you said that you don't want to bet. Nobody believes they want to bet. That's not the same as not betting. Skipp, every time we step out of the house, we make a bet that we'll get through the day without getting hit by some madwoman behind the wheel of a car. Or that we won't drown in the bathtub at night. And a thousand small and large bets that go on in our heads constantly. In fact, I'd guess you already made a bet in your mind but you don't want to risk saying it out loud."
"All right, if I make a bet on this, will you quit jabbering?"
"So, what's your bet? I mean, think: what are the chances?"
"That even though it's hot as hell, I still say you can't fry an egg on those bricks."
"But are you sure?" Lloyd said, almost seriously, before getting down on his hands and knees with the egg. "Sure enough to risk that ring?"
Skipp nodded.
"You're probably right. You probably just won the lighter."
Lloyd cracked the shell on the brick edge by the road, and poured the egg out.
The egg sizzled and whitened slightly within several seconds of hitting the bricks.
"Wouldja look at that?" Lloyd said. "There's your evidence. Jesus H., we got to do something to avoid frying like that damn egg."
Skipp stared at the egg and the brick sidewalk as if there were a trick to it.
Lloyd winked at him. "It's the bricks. They get like an oven. Everybody up here complains about it."
Lloyd accepted the ring graciously, told Skipp not to worry and that he'd treat him to some ice cream. They hopped on the trolley and went down to the First National store, where the ice truck parked out front and kids came by to get shaved ice out of the back of it. Lloyd and Skipp ran into little Joe, who was getting as many ice shavings as he could hold. Joe wiped the bits of ice along his face and the back of his neck.
At Guppy's barbershop right across the street, Lloyd's younger brother Winston -- who had been flipping through magazines -- told Jack McAllister that the river must be ice-cold right about then, while they stood there like dopes with sweat pouring off their scalps. They caught up with Lloyd and the others -- including the Vieira boy who was little for his age and didn't even look fifteen, but told the best jokes, so he was always welcome.
Lloyd showed off the ring, but when he saw the a look of barely-concealed hurt on Skipp's face coupled with bristling anger, he passed it back to him. They tussled, with Skipp telling him, "Fair's fair," and Lloyd insisting his friend take his ring back.
Winston was the first to say, "It's too hot to argue. Let's get out to the quarry."
This evolved into whispers of "skinny dipping," outside the smoke shop and a conversation between Lloyd and Danny Mulcahy. Then, the Giuliano Ianni saw them crossing the street and took off the apron from his dad's pizza joint and ran over to join them. In Union Square, a shirt came off and so began the rat-tailing, the dares, the oppressive smell of sweat and disgust -- all of it had begun somewhere in town, somewhere by the trolley stand, somewhere boys congregated on hot afternoons when they got away from work and home and authority.
They piled into the Thurlow car -- a gang of eight gangly boys, a mix of Irish, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and well, Thurlow -- since nobody was sure what a Thurlow was or where they'd even come from or why the rich Thurlow boys never mingled with the other rich sons along Stoddard Row but ran with a crowd that their neighbors considered hooligans and lowlifes.
The Thurlow boys were the sons of the Rich Old Man from town, a powerful figure who was old enough to be their grandfather. The Rich Old Man was known for striking stray dogs on the nose with his eagle-beaked silver cane and for telling young ladies to button up and cover.
No one had ever really seen Mrs. Thurlow more than once or twice, and even then she kept to herself, beneath that big yellow hat with the brim pulled down over her eyes. She was a subject of rumors and innuendo that included gold-digging, bath-tub gin-drinking, John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow, dance marathons and perhaps foreign intrigue. She was the Thurlow boys' stepmother, and those who had briefly glimpsed her face beneath that hat swore that she could not be more than four or five years older than Lloyd Thurlow himself.
They were the wealthiest family in town -- "ungodly wealth," some said. "Wealth born of great crime," others whispered. "The kind of wealth that attracts the wrong element."
The local gossip was that the Rich Old Man made his money in bootlegging, then in vaudeville theaters, and finally, he arrived in town the year after the Crash to buy up the mill in Easterly and rename it the Thurlow Woolen Mill.
Thurlow and his wife and sons were not Old New England or Old Money or even members of one of the churches in Harwich or Easterly, so they had never truly been accepted in their four brief years in town. Local parents often warned their children to "keep a good country mile between you and those Thurlow boys."
The Thurlow boys did not seem like sons of a Rich Old Man -- in fact, to the handful of well-to-do families -- the lawyers, the doctors, the mill owners -- Lloyd and Winston Thurlow seemed rather -- and distressingly -- ordinary. They dressed like the other boys, got most of their clothes on sale at Hagood's, didn't shine their shoes as often as they should've, sometimes their collars were ragged, their ties askew, and buttons were frequently missing.
The only conspicuous sign of the boys' wealth was the automobile they called "Fate."
Fate was a 1933 Packard Super Eight Sport Phaeton, black as pitch but with a white roof, and it was the finest car that anyone in Harwich or Easterly had ever seen. It was their mother's, but they borrowed it often -- or took it at will.
The Thurlow boys drove that automobile like the devil. It was full of dings and dent and rarely ever was seen by passersby without a tinge of fear that it might leap up onto the sidewalk, given the boys' driving records.
That miserable summer afternoon, all eight boys crammed into the Phaeton, filling every inch. Jack McAllister stood on the runner and was nearly thrown off the car when it went over the thousand bumps along the unpaved stretch of road beyond town, out past the farms and out to the Mahican Bridge.
The boys chose the most lonesome, shit-digger bug-infested, decrepit-bridged end of the river, abandoning the car to the roadside, leaving its doors open wide.
Cigarettes magically appeared from pockets before shirts came off. A couple of bottles of warm beer were "discovered" as well, as if none of them had any idea how they'd appeared. The older boys kept the younger from the beer (all were underage, but who was there to catch them?) Nearly all of them tried the Lucky Strikes, which the Mulcahy boy said was the brand more doctors smoked and recommended.
The river stank of dead fish beneath the unending heat of the summer sun as it began its steamy fade to dusk. Shit-digger bugs buzzed in the shade of overhanging trees and on the surface of pools of gummy river muck caked beneath the bridge.
Lloyd was the first to strip -- he nearly tore his shirt off, then his undershirt, and the shoes dropped off as he ran, then socks, then the trousers came down. He nearly tripped as he tried to move forward and pull them off at the same time. The others followed, laughing, squawking like geese as they headed for the river. By the time they got to the muddy edge, swatting the shit-digger bugs and mosquitoes off, they were nearly all naked as the day they were born, their clothes on the grass or fallen logs or hanging from the near-dead sycamore tree that leaned its gnarled, bark-stripped branches over the water.
Lloyd bet Skipp his ring back if he would go to the top of the bridge and jump over the pylon into the river. Skipp gave him a dismissive wave. He ran along the fallen pylon and dove off the end of it.
Ianni, in stripping down, made everybody laugh.
"What is it?" he asked.
He stood there in the most ridiculous-looking pair of striped underwear they'd ever seen. "Hey, my mother made these."
"His mama!" Jack shouted. "She made him some big bambino panties!"
Ianni ignored the jeers as he unbuttoned down the front and dropped his underwear to the cord-grass.
They all dove off the edge of the pylon, splashed around, daring each other to prove who was fastest or best or who could take the highest jump off the old rope swing. Lloyd placed imaginary bets for races out to the middle of the river and back, and then bets on who could stay underwater the longest, and then more bets until finally, they piled on him in the water to shut him up on all the betting and competitions.
They intoned -- like sacred hymns -- drinking songs they'd heard from their dads. They flung off-color jokes around until all humor was washed out of them. Uncouth behavior was the rule. Tales of thievery and lies about sex and bad girls made the rounds. The cries of "Up yours!" and "Geronimo!" could be heard as they launched -- one after another -- from the rope swing or the pylon or the groaning sycamore branches into the deep river.
On the opposite shore, the spires and turrets of Havergate, the asylum and poor house; the noise of some distant truck out on some faraway road; the chattering of starlings and coos of doves; dusk slowly drew in.
Lloyd and his brother swam out to the rocks that jutted up just beyond the middle of the river.
"This is the best day ever," Winston gasped as he reached for one of the wide flat rocks that rose up from the heavy current. He hoisted himself onto it and stood straight up in the dimming sunlight, spreading his arms out like an Olympic athlete..
"You look like Buster Crabbe when he won the gold medal," Lloyd laughed. "Only he wasn't buck nekkid."
"I feel like that. I feel like it's all starting."
" We own the damn world, Lloyd. You, me, Ianni, Skipp, McAllister, Mulcahy, all of us. This is the point. Dad said in two years I can go to college out west. You'll go in a year -- what, to Chicago? New York? This is probably one of our last summers here, together. We're on the edge of life. It's about to begin."
Glancing at Havergate across the river. "Aren't you worried the crazies are looking at you?"
"Let 'em look. We are blessed, Lloyd. So many people struggling. You've seen the men coming through, sleeping in the park. You know those kids over in Hadleyville and what they go through. We can do something with our lives. I just feel it. We're going to change the world -- we can help turn things around once we get out of here. Once we're away. We don't have to be like dad. We can become something more."
Lloyd, who never thought enough about his younger brother or what went through his head, felt a surge of happiness that they had each other. Despite their father and his barrage of business and betting and stern talks and combative daily routines with them, and their stepmother and her vanity and isolation, the boys always had each other. After their mother had died, Lloyd practically raised Winston, who was only a year younger, but needed a lot of care. And when they moved to Harwich, it was Lloyd who protected Winston from bullies and who got him involved in sports and school activities and made him forget the sadness about their mother.
There, in the water, clinging to the rocks, looking up at his little brother, Lloyd was happy they had moments like this now and then -- a golden twilight by a dark river, with nothing but the future ahead and the sad days behind them.
It was the best day, all the boys agreed when Lloyd and his brother swam back and they all started roughhousing on the embankment and along the pylon's edge.
The worst and the best day, the hottest and the coolest, the funniest and the saddest in the way that the last days of summer seemed an end to things when young.
Not one of the boys suspected that someone crouched low on the bridge above, peering through the gaping cracks in the wall, spying.
The black truck raced past the ruins along the river road as if the driver wanted nothing more than to meet oblivion head-on.
In the distance, up around the bend, the Old Mahican Bridge.

Stay tuned for Episode 2
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