Chapter 16
A Community of Tennessee Writers, Readers & Passersby

Book Excerpt: The Lost Country

In Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1952, and the characters in this forthcoming novel by William Gay are stunned by brightness of the sun

The court had awarded her custody of the motorcycle, they were going this day to get it. Edgewater was sitting on the curb drinking orange juice from a cardboard carton when the white Ford convertible came around the corner. A Crown Victoria with the top down though the day was cool and Edgewater had been sitting in the sun for such heat as there was. The car was towing what he judged to be a horse trailer.

Claire eased the car to the curb and shoved it into park and left it idling. She was wearing a scarf over her dirtyblonde hair and an air vaguely theatrical and when she pushed her sunglasses up with a scarlet fingernail her eyes were the color of irises.

What are you doing in this part of town, Sailor?

Just waiting for someone like you to come along, he said.

You ready to roll?

He got in and slammed the door. Ready as I’ll ever be.

This was Memphis Tennessee, the middle of April in 1952, the convertible already rolling, washed-out sunlight running on the storefront glass like luminous water. She was driving down a series of sidestreets into a steadily degenerating neighborhood. Where winos and such streetfolk as were yet about seemed stunned by this regenerative sun and so unaccustomed to such an abundance of light that they drifted alleyward as if extended exposure might scorch them or sear away their clothing. Bars and liquor stores contested for space on these narrow streets and both seemed well represented. They had a stunned vacuous look to them and their scrollworks of dead neon waited for nightfall.

She glanced across at him.

God I hate the way you dress, she said. I’m going to have to buy you some clothes.

Edgewater was wearing a Navy dungaree shirt and jeans held up by a webbed belt the buckle of which proclaimed US Navy. I’m all right, he said.

Listen. You’re going to have to bear with me on this. Just hang in there no matter what happens, okay?

Wait a minute. What does that mean, no matter what happens? I thought we were just picking up your motorcycle.

Well, you know. They were my in-laws, after all. There might be a few hard feelings.

Here were paintlorn Victorian mansions where nothing remained of opulence save a faint memory. Rattletrap cars convalescing or dying beneath lowering elms. Shadetree mechanics stared into their motors as if they’d resuscitate them by sheer will or raise them from the dead with the electric hands of faithhealers.

Past a rotting blue mansion with a red tiled roof she halted the car and peering backward with a cigarette cocked in the corner of her mouth she cut the wheel and backed the trailer expertly over the sidewalk and down a driveway bowered by lowhanging willows.

Showtime, she said.

All polished chrome and sleek black leather the motorcycle seemed waiting and coiled to spring, setting alien and futuristic in the back yard.

Claire got out and slammed the door. Edgewater followed, climbing slowly out of the car like someone cautiously easing into deep cold waters. There were a couple of two-by-eights in the bed of the trailer and he aligned them into a makeshift ramp and turned to the Harley Davidson leaning on its kickstand.

Put one whore’s hand on that motorcycle and you’ll pull back a bloody stub, she said.

A screen door slapped loosely against its frame. A short heavyset woman had come onto the back porch and she was crossing the porch rapidly in nononsense strides and she was rubbing her hands together in an anticipatory way. Put one whore’s hand on that motorcycle and you’ll pull back a bloody stub, she said.

Hurry, Claire said.

He’d no more than raised the kickstand and angled the front wheel toward the ramp when the woman began to scream. You ruined my son’s life, you bitch, she yelled. She was coming down the steps two at a time and Claire turned and took a tentative step away but the woman closed on her remorseless and implacable as a stormfront and slapped her face hard then laid a hand to each of Claire’s shoulders and flung her onto the grass and fell upon her.

Shit, Edgewater said.

He had the motorcycle halfway up the ramp when the screen door slapped again and a man with a torn gray undershirt came out with a doublebarreled shotgun unbreeched and he was fumbling waxed red cylinders into it. He dropped one and was at feeling wildly about the floor for it.

By the time Edgewater heard the gun barrel slap up he’d rolled the cycle off the ramp and straddled it and kickstarted it and he was already rolling when the concussion came like a slap to the head. He went through shredded greenery that spun like windy green snow, skidding blindly onto the street then across it and through a hedge before he could get the motorcycle under control and out onto the street again, leaning into the wind and houses kaleidoscoping past on either side like the walls of a gaudy tunnel he was catapulted through.

The imaged street rolled in and out of the rearview mirror then the white Ford appeared and followed at a sedate pace. Edgewater slowed and turned the motorcycle into the parking lot of a liquor store and she turned in beside it. The Harley idled like some fierce beast that wasn’t even breathing hard. She was laughing.

Hard feelings my ass, Edgwater said.

Do you believe this? My brother-in-law had to run out and wrestle him for the gun. He shot the shit out of that tree, did you see that?

I rode through it, Edgewater said.

Ahh Baby you got it all in your hair, she said, brushing it away with a hand.

They had to manhandle the cycle onto the trailer because she hadn’t thought it wise to stop for the boards and Edgwater lashed it upright to a support with the rope she’d brought.

That’s twice I’ve wrestled this heavy son of a bitch up here, he said. My first time and my last.

You’re in a good mood she said, grinning, getting into the car.

I’m not real fond of getting shot at, Edgewater said.

She eased the car out into the street and headed north, glancing in the rearview mirror to check was the cycle secure. You’ll feel better tonight, she said. We’ll get you a sport coat somewhere and go out to a really good restaurant. Italian maybe, we’ll get a nice bottle of wine. Okay?

Okay, Edgwater said.

The prospective motorcycle buyer lived in a town called Leighton east of Memphis and they drove toward it past tract houses and apartment complexes and onto a flat countryside of housetrailers and farmland beset by tractors that Edgwater watched move silent down cottonfields that seemed endless.

In the brief time he’d known her she seemed always to be playing some role. Seldom the same one twice. Just the star of whatever movie today was. He’d had the impulse to glance about and see were cinecameras whirring away, a makeup man with his potions at the ready.

He turned to study her against the slipsliding landscape. There was a faint blue bruise at the corner of her right eye and a scratch on her cheek but with the wind blowing her hair and the silk scarf strung out in the breeze she looked rakish and well satisfied with herself. In the brief time he’d known her she seemed always to be playing some role. Seldom the same one twice. Just the star of whatever movie today was. He’d had the impulse to glance about and see were cinecameras whirring away, a makeup man with his potions at the ready.

Then as he watched her profile seemed to alter. The flesh itself to sear and melt and run off the skull and cascade down the linen blouse she wore and the linen itself blackened and rotted and the wind sucked tatters of it away and when she turned to grin at him bone hand clutching the steering wheel the hollow eyesockets of her skull smoked like a charred landscape beyond which a faint yellow light flickered and died. Her grinning teeth had loosened in their sockets and there was a blackened cavity where the right canine joined the jawbone.

They were coming up on a white stucco building with a Falstaff beer sign framed by a rectangle of light bulbs. Carolyn’s Place, the sign said.

Pull in there, Edgewater said.


Let me wait here for you. I have to make a phone call.

She’d already begun to slow but she turned to frown at him. This doesn’t make any sense, she said. We’re almost to Leighton. You can call from there. Besides, who would you call? You don’t know anybody.

He was out almost before the car stopped rolling. Pick me up after you get your business transacted. I’ll be in there drinking a beer.

She glanced toward the sign. Just make damn sure you keep your hands off Carolyn, she said.

Edgewater crossed a glaring white parking lot of crushed mussel shells. Carolyn’s Place was set on earth so absolutely bare of tree and shrub that the stuccoed honky-tonk seemed to have sucked up all the nourishment for miles around. Dancing Saturday night to live music, a placard in the window promised, but Edgewater was already touched by a rising desperation and he promised himself that by Saturday night he’d be dancing somewhere else.

He went into a cool gloom that smelled of hops and cigarette smoke and all seemed touched by a silence so dense it was almost cloistral. A man seated at the bar watched him cross the room. Edgewater’s eyes were still full of the April light from outside and the room seemed a cave he was walking into, the drinkers seated at the tables troglodytes who’d laid aside momentarily their picks and were taking respite from their labors.

Let me have a draft, he told the barkeep. He withdrew a worn and folded fivedollar bill from the watchpocket of his jeans. The barkeep filled a frosted mug from a tap and raked the foam into a slotted trough and slid the beer across the counter. The barkeep had vaselined red hair parted in the middle and a red freckled face and brownspotted fingers like sausages.

Edgewater took a long pull from the beer and lit a cigarette and sat just enjoying the silence. Even the drinkers at the tables were quiet, as if still contemplative of whatever had befallen them the night before. He could feel the silence like a comforter he’d drawn about him and he was glad that Claire and the motorcycle were rolling somewhere away from him.

Carolyn’s Place was set on earth so absolutely bare of tree and shrub that the stuccoed honky-tonk seemed to have sucked up all the nourishment for miles around.

There was something jittery about Claire that precluded calm. She was always in motion and always talking. He’d watched her sleep and even then her life went on, her face jerking in nervous tics at the side of her mouth, her iriscolored eyes moving beneath nightranslucent lids like swift blue waters. Her limbs stirred restlessly and he’d decided even her dreams were brighter and louder and faster than those allotted the rest of the world. Watching her sleep he felt he’d stolen something he did not want but nevertheless could not be returned.

He felt eyes upon him and looked up. The man two stools downbar was watching him. He was a heavyset man in overalls whose tiny piglike eyes were studying Edgewater in drunken fixation. He seemed to be trying to remember where he’d seen Edgewater or perhaps someone like him. He made some gesture near indecipherable to the barkeep and the barkeep brought up from the cooler a dripping brown bottle and opened it and set it before the man then refilled his shotglass with something akin to ceremony.

What are you lookin at? the man asked Edgwater.

Nothing, Edgewater said. He looked away, to the mirror behind the aligned green bottles. His reflection dark and thin and twisted in the wonky glass.

He took up three of the dollar bills and slid them across the bar. Let me have some change for the telephone, he said.

Was you in the war? The man downbar asked him.

Edgewater thought of the concussion of the shotgun, the drifting shreds of willow leaves. Not in one of the official ones, he said.

Change rattled on the bar.

What the hell’s that supposed to mean?

He raked the change and cupping it in a palm went past a silent jukebox to the rear wall where a telephone hung. He stood watching it for a time as if puzzled by its function or manner of operation, the fisted change heavy in his hand and he could feel sweat in his armpits and tracking coldly down his ribcage. He turned and went through a door marked MEN and urinated in a discolored trough and washed his hands and face at the sink and toweled dry on a length of fabric he unreeled from its metal container. Above the sink there was no mirror, just four brackets where a mirror had been. On the spackled plaster some wag with a black marker had written: you look just fine.

He went out and used the phone, heard it ring in what by now seemed some other world entire. Yet the room where the phone rang and rang was real in his mind and he wondered idly was anything missing, anything added, had they painted the living room walls.

Finally a young woman answered he phone. Edgewater’s sister.

I’d about give up on you, Edgwater said.

Billy? Is that you? Where in the world are you at?

How is he?

He’s how I said he was the last time you called. He’s dying. Why ain’t you here?

I’m on the way, he said. I’ll be there. I ran into a little bad luck.

She knew him, she didn’t even want details. You’d better get here, she said. He has to see you. Has to. He wants to make it right. He’s tryin to hang on until you get here.

He said that? He said he’s trying to hang on until I get there?

You know some things without them bein said, she told him. Or ought to. Would you want to go before your maker carryin all that?

I’m not looking forward to it carrying it or emptyhanded either, Edgewater said.

Well. You and your smart mouth.

I’ve got to go, Edgwater said.

There’s something wrong with you, she said. If you weren’t so-

He quietly broke the connection and cradled the phone. Then he took it up again and held it to his ear and it seemed a wonder that there was only the dialtone. No news good or bad, just a monotonous onenote electrical drone, sourceless yet all around him, the eternal hum of whatever powers the world slowly diminishing. He recradled the phone.

The man at the bar had swiveled his stool to watch Edgewater and Edgewater had seen the look on his face on other faces and he thought: Fuck this. He picked up his beer and what remained of his change and moved to the corner of the bar.

You’re out of uniform, the man called after him.

I’m discharged, Edgewater said. I’m not in the service.

The man struggled off the stool and drained the shotglass and turned up his chaser and drank, adam’s apple pumping spasmodically. He set the bottle back and lumbered heavily toward Edgewater like a gracelorn dancing bear. Edgewater wished for a pool cue, magic winged shoes. A motorcycle.

You disrespectin that uniform whether you in or out. Them’s Navy workclothes, don’t think I don’t recognize them. What I wore all durin the war. You got on them clothes and you’re not even covered.

I got discharged, Edgewater said carefully, straining for clarity. In Long Beach, California. I’m out. I served four years and I’m on my way home.

He picked up his mug and cigarettes. He pocketed the Luckies and moved farther up the bar. Let me have another draft, he said.

Don’t fuck with Ed, the barkeep said. He’s bad news.

He damn sure is, Edgewater said. But I’m hoping it’s for somebody else.

Edgewater could smell him, see the cratered pores of his skin, veins like tiny exploded faultlines in his nose, feel his angry pyorrheac breath.

How about you fuckers? The man asked. He’d approached again and was leaning forward into Edgewater’s face. Edgewater could smell him, see the cratered pores of his skin, veins like tiny exploded faultlines in his nose, feel his angry pyorrheac breath.

While I was over there across the waters fightin and dyin you fuckers was over here drinkin all our whiskey and screwin our wives. What about that?

Hellfire, Edgwater said. I wasn’t even old enough for that war. How about leavin me the hell alone?

Fought and died for you fuckers. Got medals to prove it.

How about that beer, Edgwater said.

Maybe you ought to just to drink up and move along, the barkeep said. His head gleamed like a metallic cap. You’re not a regular customer.

I might become one, Edgewater said.

Then again you might not.

You was probably one of them, one of them conscious objectors, Ed said.

Edgewater drained the mug and set it gently atop the bar. He turned to go but before he’d taken the first step a heavy hand fixed on his shirt collar and jerked hard and he felt the buttons pop away and the shirt rip down the back. It all happened very quickly. He whirled and grasped the mug and slammed Ed in the side of the head with it. It didn’t even break and while he was looking at it in a sort of wonder the barkeep disdaining normal means of approach vaulted the bar with a weighted length of sawnoff pool cue and slapped Edgewater hard above the left ear. Edgewater’s knees went to water and he pooled on the floor. The world went light then dark.

Somebody kicked him in the side and a wave of nausea rocked him. His vision darkened gray to black and after a while when he came to he could hear sirens. The old man is finally dead and here comes the ambulance, he thought. He looked about. Ed was at the bar downing a shot and the barkeep was at his station and the troglodytes seemed not to have glanced up. Whoop whoop whoop the siren went. A wave of vomit lapped at his feet. Edgewater spat blood and pillowed his head on his arm and closed his eyes.

They came out of the city hall in Leighton and down the steps into the sunlight. The Crown Victoria waited at a parking meter and he got in and closed the door. It was a while before Claire got in.She stood by the car peering in at him, studying him as if he was something malignant, bad news on a glass slide. Finally she got in. Her jaws were tightened and muscles worked there and she clutched the purse as if it were some weapon she might fall upon him with.

But the sun was warm and Edgewater closed his eyes and turned his bruised face to it and just absorbed that and the heat from the hot plastic behind his head.

He could hear her fumbling out the keys. The engine cranked and they were in motion. They rode for a time in silence.

What do you have to say for yourself? She finally asked.

He opened his eyes. Not much, he said.

You son of a bitch. How do you plan on paying this money back? That was a big chunk of my motorcycle money.

He didn’t say anything.

You beat anything I ever saw.

Edgewater dug out the crumpled pack of Lucky Strikes the jailer had returned to him. He pulled one out and straightened it and lit it from the dash lighter. He turned and watched the sliding landscape. He didn’t know where they were going but the countryside was slipping away, field and stone and fence, cows like tiny painted cows in a proletariat mural. A dreadful flat sameness to this western world. It went rolling away to where the blue horizon and bluer sky were demarcated by windrowed reefs of salmoncolored clouds.

You wouldn’t even have called me. I had to go looking for you in that terrible bar and hear about you picking a fight with some war veteran. What’s the matter with you? I should have just let you rot there.

But her arm was poor and the stones fell wide as did the curses she cast that in the end were just words and he had heard them all so often they had become powerless.

He seemed not to have heard. Beyond the windowglass a man clutching the handles of a turning plow went down a black field so distant he seemed in some illusory manner to be pushing plow and mules before him. Edgwater wondered what his life was like. What his wife said to him when he came in from the fields, what they talked about across the supper table. He would have two children, a boy and a girl. Later he would tell them a story as their eyelids grew heavy and sleep eddied about them like encroaching waters. A flock of blackbirds tilted and cartwheeled and spun like random debris the wind was driving before it.

I know as well as anything you did it deliberately. Set this whole thing up. You couldn’t just walk away like anybody else. You have to get yourself locked up and ruin the nice dinner plans I had made and waste all that money.

Is there much more of this? he asked.

I’ve just about had it with you. And on top of everything else you’re the coldest human being I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen some cold ones.

I’ll get out anywhere along here, Edgwater said.


Let me out of the car.

She locked the brakes and the car slid to the shoulder of the road and set rocking on its shocks. Edgewater got out. A car was approached behind them. He turned and stuck out a thumb. In the sun the car seemed to be warping up out of the blacktop road itself, swift and gleaming and shifting through transient stages as if it had not yet assumed its true form. It shot by without slowing in a wake of dust and roadside paper that rose and subsided furtively to earth. He went on. After a time she put the Ford in gear and followed along beside him until he went down the embankment and climbed through a barbedwire fence and started across the field. She stopped the car then and shouted at him then gathered an armful of stones and began to hurl them at him. But her arm was poor and the stones fell wide as did the curses she cast that in the end were just words and he had heard them all so often they had become powerless.

He went on.

Night. Cold vapors swirled the earth like groundfog. Midnight maybe, perhaps later, it scarcely seemed to matter. The last ride had let him out on this road hours ago and he walked through a country which in these shuttered hours seemed uninhabited. Not even a dog barked. Just a steady cacophony of insects from the woods that fell silent at his approach and rose again with his passage, an owl from some timbered hollow so distant he might have dreamed it. Nothing on this road and he thought he’d taken a wrong turn but then it occurred to him that on a journey such as this there are no wrong turns. If all destinations are one it matters little which road you take. The pale road was awash with moonlight as far as he could see and in these clockless hours when the edges of things blur and the mind tugs gently at its moorings it seemed to him that the road had never been traversed before and once his footfalls honed away faint and fainter to ultimate nothingness it would never be used again.

The moon rose, ascended through curdled clouds of silver and violet. His shadow appeared, long and ungainly, jerked along on invisible wires, a misbegotten familiar he was following down this moonlit road.

It had grown cold with the fall of night and he thought with regret of his coat and blanket at Claire’s apartment but there was nothing for that. He looked both up and down the empty road but source and destination faded into the same still silver mist. He left the road and angled cautiously through branches and blackberry briars into the woods.

The passage of an hour had him before a huge bonfire, the piles of leached stumps and deadfall branches and uprooted cedar fenceposts with stubs of wire still appended roaring like a freight train and sparks and flaming leaves cascading upward in a funnel of pure heat.

He warmed awhile then seated himself on a length of log and unpocketed and unwrapped a candy bar and ate it in tiny bites, forcing himself to chew slowly, making it last. There were two cigarettes remaining in the pack and he lit one and tucked the other carefully aside for the morning. When he’d finished the cigarette he built up the fire and lay down with the log for a pillow.

Out of the dark a whippoorwill called three times and ceased, whippoorwill, whippoorwill, whippoorwill. After a time another called from a distant part of the wood but the first remained silent, as if he’d said all there was to say. Edgewater closed his eyes and for a time images of the day lost drifted through his mind like a disjointed film he was watching. Slowly he settled into sleep.

His dreams were troubled and he tried to wake but could not. In the dream he was in a Mexican hotel room. There was a bed, a basin, a chest of drawers. From rooms up and down the call came shouts and raucous laughter but no one was laughing here. Here something had gone awry.

The girl on the bed was leaking. Spreadeagled on spreading scarlet as if her white body lay on an enormous American Beauty rose that grew as malign and ill-formed as cancer. The old woman, her smocked assistant, were preparing to flee. Rats who’d choose any ship but this one. The woman said something in Spanish he didn’t understand and the man mimicked her hasty exit and left the door ajar and before he fled himself he leaned closely into her face and watched the fluttering of her eyelids and cupped his hand hard between her legs as if he’d contain her and don’t, he said, don’t, as if dying was a matter you had any say in.

He wanted out of the room and out of this dream and he went down the hall opening doors upon startled participants in their various couplings and a girl on hands and knees being mounted by her lover like a dog turned and studied him calmly over her shoulder with breasts pendulumed between her distended arms and her hair falling like a black waterfall and as her lover slid into her she looked away and Edgewater closed the door. In the room next a sailor was emptying a bottle of Rose hair oil into the graythatched vagina of an old woman and in the next a man turned to blow out the match he’d fired the window curtains with and he grinned at Edgwater and winked while behind him the gauzy curtains climbed the walls like flaming morningglorys and the rosedappled wallpaper curled and smoked and stank like burning flesh.

His father and his sister were in the next room, the old man abed and the sister attendant. His caved face, his deathroom smell. The eyes of some old predator who’s crawled into his den to die. She turned from her ministering with a damp cloth in her hand and Edgewater saw that the old man had been berating her and she was crying. She dropped the cloth, she turned away and leaned against the plaster. Undone, she wept against limegreen walls. Finally she turned upon her brother such a look of sadness and loss that he wept despite himself. If you weren’t so, she said, and he closed the door in her face.

Before the last door he stood holding the last doorknob. It was hot to the touch and seemed to vibrate beneath his fingers and something was holding it on the other side of the door. He realized that beyond this door lay whatever the other rooms had been preparing him for. He steeled his nerve and took a deep breath of the smoky air and twisted the doorknob hard and shoved the door open and fell into the room.

He woke shaking and appalled and for a moment he didn’t know where he was, where he’d been. He wiped a hand across his mouth. He held his face in his palms. God, he said. God. He raised his face and hugged himself against the cold. The fire had burned to a feathery white ash that rose and drifted in what breeze there was and there was a steely quality to the bluegray light that stood between the trees.

Objects were softly emergent, tree and stump and mossgrown stone, and to Edgewater these objects seemed to be attaining not mere visibility but existence, things that were being born into the world for the first time before his eyes and he studied these things in a kind of bemused wonder.

He had a thought toward rebuilding the fire but more than warmth he wanted quit of this glade of dreams and he paused only long enough to rake the ash away until he found a glowing coal to light his cigarette.

When he came out of the woods onto the roadbed there was already a faint roseate glow in the east and he went on toward it through the first tentative birdsongs. The world was awakening. All sounds were clear and equidistant, somewhere a cock heralded the dawn, on some unseen road a laboring truck shifted gears. A red rim of sun crept above the trees and consumed the horizon with gold and silver light.

Hunger lay in his stomach like a fistsize chunk of teeth and claws and broken bones but his heart was lifting and his feet felt fleet and light. The day was new and unused and this day was one that had never existed before and he saw it as as a footpath that led into a world that was sensual and manyfaceted and complex beyond his understanding, but for the moment he was comfortable in it and roofs and shelter and ill weathers were things of no moment. He thought the only dwelling he needed was the unconfined and unwalled world itself.