I drove to Kingswell’s General Store to grab a few necessities. While I would have to go all the way to Marshall if I needed groceries or anything beyond the paltry supplies available inside the tiny once-was-a-home shack that served as Kingswell’s only supply depot, I was looking for nothing more than a few sweets to subdue my craving while I finished my latest novel.
I had my habits when writing. Don’t all writers? Sweets happened to be my weakness. For the last few pages of whatever text I was spewing, Twinkies, Hostess CupCakes, Mrs. Baird’s Apple Pies (Or are they called Fruity Apple Pies?), and a short list of other goodies had to be on hand. That was my way.
As both my agent and my publisher knew, it had to be my way if I was expected to finish a book, although I very much doubted they knew or were concerned with the specifics. With seven published novels under my belt and a generous advance as enticement for the latest, I didn’t need additional proof to show the sweets worked. Brody, my agent, and his counterpart at Penguin probably didn’t give a damn what it took; all they knew was that the process worked.
But it wasn’t just sweets. I needed alcohol. A drunken exploration of everything that followed the last word of a book was essential to feeling accomplished. It was more than necessary. There was no way I could send the manuscript to Brody in the morning without first waking up with a hangover.
Of course, prior to her death, I couldn’t send it without drinking to excess followed by uncontrolled love making with my wife Beth. But she was dead. She died two years earlier in a multi-car accident in Dallas that ultimately led to my relocation from there to Nowhere, Texas, otherwise called Kingswell. The alcohol was essential. I needed it for her. I needed it to remember how this all used to work.
I would type “The End” only after I’d inhaled the last bite of some sugary confection, and then she would bring me excessive amounts of mind-altering alcohol that we would consume together while she read the manuscript. Only after we were both practically incoherent would we fall into bed and make passionate love until some ungodly hour of the morning when we both would finally fall asleep.
When I awoke the next day, I’d return to the computer and Hail Mary the digital document to Brody with some cheap explanation for why he didn’t receive it the night before as promised. The excuse was always different. I took pride in that creativity. I’m quite certain he didn’t care for my excuses and equally didn’t care that it was a day late. It was always a day late. And it always made money. Yet, I missed Beth and the predictable habit we shared.
Standing in front of the beer cooler in Kingswell’s General Store felt much like standing before a drought-ridden Midwest field. Very little appealed to me. The sucking noise I heard while trying to find the adult beverage most appropriate for the occasion was nothing more than the cash register draining from my pockets whatever currency I willingly exchanged for second-best alcohol. Corona was fine in a pinch, but why couldn’t I ever find Negra Modelo when I needed it?
Repeatedly I told Joe, the proprietor of the establishment, that the same people who make Corona make the dark ale of which I’m so fond, and it certainly can’t be that difficult to get one if he’s already getting the other. Gazing at the sparsely populated refrigerator made clear he still had no interest in procuring anything other than what he knew he could sell. It was full of all manner of American beer, the kind of drink I often thought of as camel piss even if I didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the comparison.
I opened the glass door by its dirty and timeworn handle, grabbed two six packs of Corona, and promptly decided there was no reason to torture myself simply because Joe didn’t have anything else to help me finish my book. Like Introduction to Hell before it, Compassion in a Sweet Caress would be finished in the bottom of one of many bottles of pedestrian beer from Mexico… or China or Japan or whatever other remote corner of the planet cared to offer the necessary fix carried by Kingswell’s tiny shop-until-you-drop. If the only available options were the kind of swill one could find at any bar on any street in any city, then so be it. I couldn’t imagine needing more than that to augment the mundane confectioneries available.
It was only when I reached the counter behind which Joe stood that I realized two six packs would not be sufficient. Several beers generally followed most days for me. It was a nightly habit that I’m ashamed to admit almost always started before noon despite my calling it a nightly habit. When one lives in “the sticks,” one takes advantage of whatever chemical supplements one can find. Or so Beth always said.
Before my wife’s death, we visited my parents often and on the drive back to Dallas inevitably consumed more than our share of beer. “Never drink and drive” was a staple of our beliefs except when it interfered with our own lives. It was at those times we easily forsook that maxim and enjoyed a three-hour drive awash in fermented diversion. There were many times when it was also punctuated with marijuana, but that was more for me than for her even if she’d indulge from time to time.
Knowing the two six packs would not be enough, I went back and grabbed two more. If I was going to finish this book, I’d need a lot more than twelve beers.
As I carried them back to the counter, I wondered how things might be different had Beth been alive. Placing the additional twelve bottles on the counter reminded me of how she and I always enjoyed Crown Royal when I finished a novel. It was our way of celebrating the guarantee of more income in addition to the relief we felt in knowing I could step away from my career obsession. Since her death, I had given up the expensive drink that once marked the final chapter of my works and replaced it with the poor man’s answer to chemical dependency. I couldn’t bear the thought of opening a bottle now that she wasn’t around. It would be wrong in some way. Besides, expensive whisky was anything but available in this little Podunk town.
Joe rummaged through the handful of confections as he pushed the beer to the side. His fingers tapped various keys on the old cash register that seemed a better fit in the Smithsonian than a working business.
“Finishin’ another book, huh?” he asked. A thin line of paper scrolled out of the ancient device as its tinny bell rang repeatedly.
I found his voice jolting. My reverie seemed to have been assaulted by the intrusion, but I smiled anyway. “Yes, I am. You’re going to carry it, right?”
He smiled and nodded as he pulled a plastic bag from under the counter and began placing the edibles inside it. “You betcha. Them books sell here, y’know. People likes havin’ a famous writin’ fella in town, and your folks are good neigbors ’round these parts. Knowin’ them makes you family.” He pulled another bag from the hidden repository and put two six packs in it. “That’s thirty-eight-forty-two.” He pulled another bag out and expertly deposited the last two six packs in it before taking the two twenty-dollar bills from my hand.
“I appreciate that you carry my books here, Joe. I really do,” I said.
“You needn’t worry ’bout it, Dave,” he responded with a smile that revealed his nearly toothless grin. I could practically smell the tobacco and alcohol that had robbed him of his smile and left him with a dozen or so yellow-stained teeth. His family had owned this place for generations. I think each of them had died of the same carnal dependencies that would kill him long before he reached his eightieth birthday. “Them books sell like hot cakes, y’know? Folks ’round here like readin’ whatcha got to say. Some of ’em are concerned ’bout the violence and evil and all, even goin’ s’far as to say there’s somethin’ devilish in ’em, but you’re famous and you’re local and your folks are good people, so it don’t matter none.”
I smiled as he handed me my change. “Thanks,” I replied and immediately thought gratitude might not be the best response without a bit of sarcasm. I let it go the moment our attention was diverted to the sound of a car pulling up to the gas pumps outside. We both looked out the window in response. It was Old George, and I never thought I’d be so thankful to see him. He was saving me from burning a bridge.
The ’87 Cadillac glided to a stop between the store and the petrol with a dusty skid on the gravel surface. George was out of the rusted black car before it came to a full halt. I couldn’t imagine how anyone in Texas owned a black car. It must absorb a great deal of heat, I thought.
“That man’s gonna kill someone someday.” I looked at Joe momentarily. I wasn’t accustomed to him being so contrary. He smiled before turning away to light a cigarette as I pulled my three plastic bags from the counter. My gaze remained on him as his lips pursed around the filter and dragged on the cancer stick as though it were full of oxygen.
The door opened with the predictable cowbell clang and squeaking hinges. George lumbered in on his massive frame and glided effortlessly as though he built of lightweight material akin to air.
“How’re you likin’ it out here, Davey? You findin’ lotsa time fer yer writin’?” George was a large man. Standing at least six-foot-five and weighing a good two-hundred-fifty pounds, he was not fat as much as he was bulky. I remember this was joked as being a sign of “big boned” men. Sure, that must be it.
“I like it just fine, George, and I do find quite a bit of time to write,” I replied as I looked up at him. And don’t call me Davey!, I thought of adding before letting it go.
Old George was the best friend my parents had. He’d seen them through some rough times and was the kind of neighbor people dreamed of having out here in “the sticks.” He helped them and they helped him, and all of them made a point of keeping tabs on each other to make sure they were taken care of and not in need.
Kingswell is not exactly a metropolis. A town of only 140 souls give or take, it’s hidden walking distance from the Texas-Louisiana border and nestled between Caddo Lake to the south and east, Clinton Lake to the west (and Back and Carters Lakes west of that), and Kingswell Lake to the north.
While many assume residents of towns this small are all friends and know each other, the truth is that most in Kingswell live rather lonely lives because they’re spread so far apart. Even my parents live on a farm where the nearest neighbor, George himself, is three dirt roads and one bayou away, and that might as well be hundreds of miles. Sure, they all seemed to know each other by name, but I was quite certain none of them knew anything but the most cursory of facts about the majority of their fellow denizens.
“I’m glad t’here it,” George said. “So whatcha writin’ ’bout now? It ain’t another of them stories like that feller up in Maine, is it? You know who I’m talkin’ ’bout, dontcha? That King feller or somethin’ who lives in Castle Rock.”
I had to refrain from laughing. “Actually, George, Castle Rock, Maine, doesn’t exist. His name is Stephen King and he invented Castle Rock as a fictional town where his stories could take shape. I considered doing the same thing at one time. Then again, maybe I will in the future if I run out of ideas that fit in with the real world.”
His broadening smile betrayed a hint of irritation at being corrected, but that was normal for George. He was always right in his world. Anyone correcting him was guilty of sedition. My own father learned that the hard way when it came to how one should nurture cattle during a drought.
“Yup, that’s the feller,” he said. “No matter where he’s livin’, I hope you ain’t writin’ ‘nother story likin’ he writes. Can’t say I cared for the last’n, Davey. Darn near scared the pants right off’n me. I try t’read whatcha write since’n you’re the son of my good friends, but I ain’t makin’ no promises, you understand?” His Texas twang dripped from his lips much like Joe’s poured over the counter while he rang up my purchases.
I looked George directly in his eyes and wondered if he even read my last book or if he just relied on the proprietor of this little hole in the wall to fill in the details. Joe carried enough to make you realize you needed to go somewhere else, but he was faithful in reading my books since the locals relied on him to let them know if they should buy a copy. Having a “famous author” in town did oblige one to be at least partially familiar with his works. Having that famous author’s parents in town as residents for several decades practically cemented the requirement into the town charter.
“I think you’ll like it, George. I really do,” I replied.
“If y’says so, Davey, I believe you. I’s just concerned, y’know. Folks ’round these parts look t’me for guidance and I ain’t ’bout to let ’em down.”
“Sure, George, I understand. You can let them know it’s science fiction and has absolutely no devils or demons in it. I think they’ll like it.” I stared at him for a moment as he digested that.
Of course I didn’t believe Compassion in a Sweet Caress would be any more popular here than my last novel. Introduction to Hell was certainly not the most read book in Kingswell. Then again, perhaps it was. Despite the Bible Belt mentality I knew I was dealing with, they would read my books regardless of topic. These small-town residents would never dream of insulting two of their own—my parents—by not reading their son’s various works. It made for bad conversation.
The three bags of alcohol and empty sugar calories began to weigh heavily in my hands, so I excused myself. “Well, I have to go now. I’m trying to finish a book after all. You take care of yourself, George.” I turned my attention to Joe who was coddling his lit cigarette as it burned nearer the filter. “Thanks, Joe. I’ll see you later.”
With the store owner nodding at me as though that communicated some great truth and George offering a simple “Yep” in response to my farewell as he held the door open for me, I stepped out into the abrupt Texas heat and beat a hasty retreat toward my car. I settled my groceries into the back seat and tossed myself into the front seat behind the steering wheel of my Lexus. It was the only one in town. I was proud of that for some selfish reason. It made me feel as though I meant something, as though I was the only civilized person in this tiny smudge of humanity.
With the car started and the air conditioner blowing madly in my face, I laughed at myself. I hadn’t called my parents to find out if they needed anything from Joe. My exit seemed too quick then. Might I be forced to go back inside for something? I hoped not.
I pulled my cell phone from the side pocket where it had been hidden and dialed the number for my parents’ home. The gruff voice that answered proffered a simple “‘Ello?” followed by silence.