Welcome to Abigail Thrasher’s world, where the neighbors are strange, the rules have changed, and falling in love can get you killed. Abigail’s nephew Luke should know. He’s back in Texas—after 30 years as an artist in Manhattan—to cope with his daffy old aunt, who stands on her porch and hurls invectives at a gang across the street called the Latin Blades. Amidst the mayhem, Luke seeks love in the classifieds, finding some lethal females there, and takes Abigail on a dicey road trip to Mexico. He’s fated to be smitten by Raquel Acevedo, the sultry mother of a troubled teen whose gang name is Cobra. And then there’s Winston Walsh, the imperious attorney who holds the key to Luke’s inheritance . . .
Excerpts from Chapters 1 and 2
“Destiny’s droppings,” Lucas muttered, twisting left in his seat again to butt his head on the hard plastic window of the passenger jet. His skull seemed to rattle as he peered at the clouds in their vastness below. He hoped for a glimpse of his home state of Texas, city of Fort Wade, where he was flying to collect the fortune his uncle had left him. He hadn’t been to Texas in twenty-two years. He’d been in Manhattan perfecting his skills at botching careers and love affairs, like the one with Georgia, who’d told him good-bye at the White Horse Tavern three nights ago, before he’d learned of his millionaire status. He was still sick, his gut still shredded from Georgia’s departure. He’d loved her once—
“Excuse me, sir,” the hostess sang, the gorgeous Amanda with the honeyed voice. “I have your drink.”
“Good timing,” said Luke. He traded Amanda five dollars for the drink. “Are you busy tonight?”
“You boys,” she laughed.
“What if I told you I’m a millionaire?”
She glanced at Luke’s suit, his beard, his half-bald head. “I’d suggest you buy some clothes.”
That brought a snicker from the man to Luke’s right—impeccably attired in a pale gray blazer and navy slacks.
“Where?” asked Luke. “Where do millionaires shop for clothes?”
Amanda rolled her eyes in a friendly way and sauntered off toward the front of the plane. Luke sighed as he watched her go. Then he turned and stared unsmiling at the man who’d snickered—a blonde-haired yuppie—driving him deeper into his magazine. Forbes, of course, a picture on the cover of a robber baron. Luke was tempted to hammer the twit. Instead he sat back and sipped from his drink, a Black Jack and water, his third in two hours. He wished he could smoke a cigaret. He felt a need to pee coming on and glanced at his watch: eleven-forty-one. The plane should be landing in ten minutes. He crossed his legs to stall the peeing and pinched a hair from the sleeve of his coat, the old gray tweed he’d donned for his uncle’s funeral today, the only suit left of a dozen he’d owned in the apex years with Georgia in New York. The apex years—
“Not,” grumbled Luke, refusing to remember.
He sipped his bourbon, which was having the desired narcotic effect. He yawned. He blinked out his window at the white-tufted carpet of clouds once more, the sky above a soothing blue. His eyelids drooped. He rested his glass on the tray before him and leaned his head on the cushion behind. He expected to nap, but his mind started playing the tape again.
“That’s what I said,” the voice had said two days ago, the stiff male voice on the phone from Texas: “One point one million dollars.”
“And I’m the sole heir?” Luke had puffed on his cigaret, pacing back and forth in his piss-ant apartment.
“More or less,” the attorney had said. “You are the preferred beneficiary. But there are conditions attached to the will.”
“I repeat, Mr. Thrasher, I can’t discuss the terms on the phone. I’ll meet you at the airport Thursday at noon with a copy of the contract. Your uncle’s funeral starts at two. Just be advised you might have to stay in Fort Wade for a while.”
“That will be up to you, Mr. Thrasher. Do you have a pet?”
“Good—a driver’s license?”
“How do I pay for the airline ticket?”
The attorney was silent.
“I do have a credit card,” Luke had ventured, “but it’s charged to the limit—zero dollars on my credit line.”
“That’s pathetic, isn’t it, Mr. Thrasher?”
“Problems, Winston,” Luke had said, emphasizing his stuffy first name. The barrister may have bristled at that. He’d sounded piqued.
“All right, then. I’ll have a ticket waiting for you at La Guardia. I’ll cost it out to your uncle’s estate.”
“That’s what I’d do. Should I call Abigail?”
“To what end?”
“Well—to say I’m sorry her husband has died.”
“No, Mr. Thrasher. She’s far too distraught to talk to anyone.”
Naturally, once the lawyer was off the wire, Luke had attempted to call Aunt Thrash, getting her number from an operator, since he couldn’t find it in his mangled black book—hadn’t spoken with his aunt or uncle in perhaps ten years. Her phone had rung and rung unanswered. Luke had cursed and smoked and paced. Then he’d called his best friend Max—editor and publisher of Modern Anarchy and Socialism, which sometimes printed Luke’s cartoons—and told him of the bombshell he had received. Max had listened, whistled and whooped.
“So you’re a fuckin millionaire now? A fuckin capitalist running dog, Luke?”
* * * * *
“Goddamn heat!” he’d bellowed.
Even for August in New York it was hot. Over a hundred after dark some nights. People had suffocated. Luke believed it was global warming, a glut of carbon in the atmosphere—another gift from the techno-masters driving the planet toward the end of time.
“Fine,” he’d growled in his dead poet’s corner. “The sooner the motherfucking better.”
He’d sipped from his bourbon. He’d swayed in his chair and closed his eyes. He’d heard once more the raspy inexorable hissing of his questions, the nest of serpents coiled in his brain: How could he possibly have fallen so far from the heights of his achievement a decade ago? What had undone the Lucas B. Thrasher he had known—the sunny Texas expatriate, the raconteur surrounded by friends, the artist of promise, the artful lover and the revolutionary? What had undone his stubborn confidence first in himself and then in the world of mortals about him? How could the mortals Luke had loved, now including the sumptuous Georgia, have slipped away from him one by one? And how could the other billions of mortals on the planet with Luke have fallen so far toward meanness, brutality and genocide? How could the nations and tribes of the earth be shooting and bombing and gassing each other toward extinction again so soon after Hitler and Hiroshima, after Korea and Vietnam? How could mass murder have become an item of everyday news in the United States? How could children be murdering children for bicycles, jackets and tennis shoes? And given the onset of neo-barbarism, why couldn’t Georgia understand Luke’s pain? Why wasn’t she herself perturbed by the ugly forces gathering strength? Why wasn’t she as angry as Luke at the bleeding of the poor by the world’s rich? At the rise of a corporate master class in America, Europe and Japan? At the seizure of the White House and Congress and even New York by cliques of right-wingers coldly intent on turning back the clock to a darker time—on punishing the unlucky, on criminalizing abortion, on gutting the environment and snuffing out the remnants of organized labor? How was Georgia so easily able to ignore these daggers of the corporate elite as she served their interests in the Ivy League of advertising? Wasn’t she a Jew, a woman of culture from a culture of compassion? How could she stand the contradictions in her life? On the other hand, why was Luke so vulnerable to pain as a function of things he couldn’t control? Why had he allowed his shaggy values to subvert his capacity to earn a living in a pin-striped milieu he happened to detest? Why was he self-destructing as an artist? How was he going to support himself, especially if he made it to retirement age, since he hadn’t a nickel in Social Security or mutual funds or any other nest-egg account?
“That’s not the half of it,” Luke had muttered, sucking on his weed so deeply he’d gagged, had almost puked, had snatched his glass of bourbon to his lips. “Goddammit!” he’d sworn in anger and fear.
With Georgia gone, he was bereft of a woman now, and Luke understood from previous skids that he couldn’t survive under that condition. He must have the softness and warmth of a woman—the voice, the touch, the passion of a woman—yet who among those he was likely to meet would be attracted to a bitter and destitute, faded-glory peasant like himself? He had peered at his reflection on the amber surface of the fluid in his glass—a shimmering cameo fractured by ice cubes. He’d glimpsed his silver-threaded, unkempt beard, his baggy dark eyes over sunken cheeks, his broad gleaming skull largely barren of hair. He’d thought again of his former friends not present that night, the people he’d loved, and realized it was just as well, he looked so gaunt and defeated and drunk. He was bound to get drunker, too—perhaps to perish as Dylan had perished—and Luke preferred that none of his friends be exposed to that or try in vain to interfere.
“You,” he’d murmured, quoting Dylan, “all whom I coldly took, and hid my head and horns among, shall go caterwauling down with me, like a frenzy of chained doves.”
But Luke hadn’t perished that night at the White Horse. He had awakened late the next morning in his steamy apartment on East Eighth Street, unpleasantly surprised to have made it somehow through another bourbon-soaked twenty-four hours. He had awakened to the clanging of his phone, which at first he mistook for an ambulance coming to strap him on a gurney and speed him to Bellevue. Au contraire. This was the call that Luke reckoned later would save his ass. This was the call from Fort Wade, Texas, site of Luke’s birth and boyhood, a quaint western city which he had forgotten except for his annual Christmas card to Uncle Ben and Aunt Abby Thrasher. This was the call advising Luke that his uncle had died the night before—“Quite unexpectedly,” Winston had said—and left a bequest of a million-plus dollars to his nephew in New York, the only surviving member of his family besides Aunt Thrash.
“Holy dinero,” Luke had marveled on his bed that morning, a Tuesday, perhaps two hours after Winston’s call. He was still groggy from his death-defying binge, from the crash he’d suffered after speaking with Sarah, but his brain was defogging enough to produce a semblance of thought and calculation.
“In forty-eight hours I’m a millionaire, right? No more problems with Social Security.”
And yet there were niggling, shit-eating questions. Luke had languished on the sheets of his bed, his scalp leaking sweat on his pillow, and groped for answers in a stream of recollections of his youth in Fort Wade. How, for starters, had Uncle Ben acquired an estate worth more than a million dollars? Twenty-two years ago, when Luke had last seen his aunt and uncle, Ben was a simple, thick-necked plumber with two or three helpers and a pair of old trucks. He and Abigail were modestly ensconced in the yellow brick cottage on Fairmount Street where Luke had addressed their card last Christmas—not the digs of a millionaire. How had Ben vaulted to serious wealth? And given that wealth, why wouldn’t Ben have left it at death to his faithful wife of five decades? Had Uncle Ben’s wealth totaled twice the amount that Luke was getting, perhaps divided into separate trusts? Was Abby inheriting a fortune, too? And why, in any case, had Uncle Ben conferred such a bundle on a nephew in New York who hadn’t come to visit in twenty-two years or called to say hello in more than ten? Luke and his uncle had never been close, though circumstances had drawn them together in the placid neighborhood in South Fort Wade where Luke had made a pretense of growing up. Luke’s father Dave, who was Uncle Ben’s brother, had died in France in World War II before Luke was born, leaving his mother Claire a widow. She and Luke had subsequently moved to a wood frame house in the Fairmount area that Ben had owned and leased to Claire at a merciful rate. There Luke had lived in relative contentment for eighteen years—till June of the year he’d finished high school, when Claire had died a mysterious death and Luke had abandoned the house in Fort Wade to study art in fabled New York.
“Don’t forget Timothy,” Luke had murmured on his pillow that morning. “He should’ve gotten the million bucks.”
Uncle Ben’s son and Luke’s only cousin, a fellow named Tim, had joined the army at about the time that Luke had hit the road for New York. Tim had been posted to Vietnam, where he was gunned down by Viet Cong guerrillas on his first patrol. Though somewhat estranged in high school, Luke and Tim had frolicked together as little boys, often at Tim’s house under the care of Tim-othy’s mother, whom Luke and Claire had called Aunt Thrash—a woman of startling contradictions: cheerful as a robin yet subject to moods of black depression, a tireless gardener and lover of flowers who smoked a pack of butts a day, a devoted mother who sometimes erupted in scorching and pointless verbal assaults on her husband and son. Luke, too, had felt the heat of her occasional scorn, but mostly his aunt was kind to him, affectionate even, strongly encouraging his friendship with Tim—and friends they were in the early years. They had marched arm-in-arm to school and joined Cub Scouts and built model planes and a cavalry fort in Tim’s backyard. They had explored and eventually mastered their neighborhood, riding their bikes to favorite places, like Dawson’s Grocery at Eighth and Oakwood, where Mr. Dawson would wiggle his ears to make them laugh and give them all-day caramel suckers, even when Claire owed lots of money for food she’d bought at the store on credit. Luke and Tim would race their bikes from Daw-son’s Grocery down a long hill and up another, past their school, to the big stone gates that stood at the entrance to the place they loved more than any other—Oakwood Park. This was a sprawling semi-wilderness square in the middle of South Fort Wade. Its two-hundred acres were fresh and unravaged, except for a swimming pool, a funky little zoo and a picnic area. Most of the park was a verdant expanse of ancient oak and walnut trees, of grassy meadows, creeks and ravines, of animal trails the boys could follow to hidden caves under shelves of stone. The boys would spend whole days in the park. They’d shinny up trees and chase wild rabbits and angle for crawfish with slices of bacon. They’d stuff their pockets with petrified shells and chunks of flint and coins they’d scavenged at the swimming pool. Luke and Tim had thought they were rich. They’d thought they were princes in a fairy tale world, a magic kingdom of a thousand leagues—
“Yes!” Luke had yipped on his pillow that morning, though still hung over and still in shock. The more he’d recalled of his youth in Fort Wade, the more appealing he’d found the prospect of flying home for a few days or weeks—especially to collect a million-one. Why not take a breather from Manhattan? For all its virtues, the city had become a bog of rejection and angst for Luke. The doors to its galleries were closed to him, its citizens grown more snobbish and remote, its parks and avenues ever more chic and forbidding somehow. He felt like a stranger in the city now, and Luke needed an escape from that—from the hurt left behind by Georgia as well. He had imagined as he lay on his pillow a peaceful night’s sleep in his old neighborhood. He had imagined a visit to Dawson’s for a caramel sucker and friendly conversation, followed, of course, by a stroll at dusk through the shady arbors of Oakwood Park. Maybe he’d meet a woman there, a warm and enchanting Texas female—
* * * * *
Luke and Winston climbed from the car and hurried through the rain toward the funeral tent. Luke felt the splashing of big warm drops on his face and hands, on the knees of his pants. His hair got wet. He and Winston rounded a corner to the front of the tent and ducked inside, where perhaps thirty people were seated in metal folding chairs, their backs to Luke. He pulled out a kerchief to mop his pate. He spied the coffin decked with flowers at the rear of the tent, its cover open, exposing the visage and clothed upper body of Uncle Ben. His pie-round face, though powdered and sewn, looked oddly well, as though he were simply taking a nap. At the head of the coffin stood a gray-haired man in a shiny black suit, his hands clasped anxiously before him. He was watching a sinewy old woman in a polka dot dress who paced back and forth alongside the bier. She walked bent forward with the help of a gnarled hickory cane, a handbag slung from the crook of her arm. She puffed on a cigaret, leaving strata of smoke in the air as she trudged emphatically to and fro. Her white wispy hair was gathered and pinned at the nape of her neck. She wore a large brooch below the lace-trimmed collar of her dress. And suddenly she stopped, facing Uncle Ben, and whacked his coffin with the top of her cane: whack-whack-whack.
“Get up, Ben, dog rabbit!” she yelled. “It’s time to go to work! The telephone’s ringing! We’re out of milk! We’re out of bread!” She leaned over close to his pallid face. “Do you want us to starve, Ben Thrasher, dog rabbit? Do you want us to die?”
She started whacking on his coffin again, making dents in its bronze veneer. Her cigaret burned profusely in her fingers. The man in the suit took a step her way, his face alarmed, but he stopped abruptly when a second old woman jumped up from a chair and grabbed her arm.
“Abby,” she said, “your husband’s friends and employees are here.”
“Where?” said Abby.
“Here behind you.”
Abby turned and eyed the people sitting in chairs. Her head was trembling. She puffed on her cigaret, looking confused, and then she smiled.
“Hi, nigger lady,” she said to a woman sitting up front—a stout black woman next to a man who was also black, apparently her husband. Abby held out her hand to the woman. “You’re Lucy, I bet. I’ve seen your picture in National Geographic.”
The woman hesitated, obviously irked, and squeezed the tips of Abigail’s fingers.
“That’s right, darlin. I be the centerfold in National Geographic.”
Abby’s eyes were twinkling now. She thumped her cane on the plywood floor. The man in the suit moved quickly behind her to close and lock the coffin lid.
“Let’s go,” growled Winston, bumping Luke’s arm. “This is our chance.”
Luke trailed Winston to the rear of the tent where the coffin lay. The man in the suit stepped over to meet them, extending his hand.
“Hello, Mr. Walsh. Is this the nephew?”
“Yes, Reverend Stallcup. This is Luke Thrasher. He’s come to live with his aunt for a while.”
“For good,” said Luke. He said it bravely, though he was appalled, his belly in knots at his aunt’s performance.
* * * * *
Seven days after his uncle’s funeral, at two in the morning, Luke lay weary and disconcerted in the stuffy room at the front of the house he shared with Aunt Thrash. He wiped a film of sweat from his face, wanting devoutly to go back to sleep. “Please, God,” he moaned. Abby had awakened him twice tonight—first by switching the TV on in the living room, just the other side of Luke’s door, and then with a clatter of pots in the kitchen, where she had endeavored to cook macaroni. Luke had dealt with these problems in turn. He’d risen from his bed and persuaded Aunt Thrash to content herself with the smaller TV in her room at the back—volume low, door closed—and then he’d pushed from his mattress again, softly swearing, to cook her a plate of macaroni and cheese. He’d hoped to Christ her midnight feast would make her drowsy enough to sleep. He’d tucked her into her bed, in fact, and tramped to his room and quaffed a shot of Jack Daniels Black to induce the blessing of sleep on himself. An hour had passed, and sleep hadn’t come. “Goddammit,” he muttered.
He turned on his mattress in the darkened room—eerily familiar, as it had been cousin Timothy’s room—and cursed the rattle in the cheap box fan on his window sill, which bathed his face in hot humid air. Hell-like, he thought. A perfect setting for the harpies of gloom that swooped in his mind. The last seven days had been hellish indeed, and Luke was verging on a panic attack. He had experienced shock after shock, starting with the madness Abby had displayed at Uncle Ben’s funeral Thursday afternoon. He had learned she did belong, as Winston had said, in a geriatric ward—one with padded walls and motion detectors. He’d further discovered that his quaint hometown had changed profoundly and not for the better in the past twenty years. The warm-hearted people he’d known in his youth—like Mr. Dawson at the grocery store—had died, moved away or assumed the coldness evidently required for life and work in the so-called Metroplex. Shit, Luke thought. He had renamed it the Metropox—a sprawling tundra of decayed inner cities and faceless suburbs housing upwards of four million people, many of them killers, judging from the corpses he’d seen on TV, most of them rude or at best indifferent to their fellow human beings, judging from those he’d encountered so far. His old neighborhood had not been spared—
* * * * *
“Why, Aunt Thrash?”
She jerked in her rocker and stared at Luke with eyes blown wide.
“Ben?” she yelled.
Luke gripped her shoulder, aiming to calm her, and reached to her fingers to nab the control and mute the sound on the television set. He knelt covertly and placed the instrument under her chair.
“No, Aunt Thrash,” he said more gently. “Ben isn’t here. It’s me—or us, rather. It’s Luke and Tim. We cooked you some pasta earlier tonight.”
“Thank you,” said Abby, pulling on her cigaret. “Pasta?” she added. “Pizza, you mean? A big pizza pie like the moon in your eye?”
Luke laughed and squeezed her shoulder, a bony construction. Abby shrugged. Her face was blank, but she seemed more relaxed, pressing her cheek against his fingers. It occurred to Luke that Abby didn’t know what “pasta” meant. He ought to have called it “macaroni.” Then he noticed her cheek on his hand, the softness of her skin amazing to Luke and a little scary. It felt so fragile, so vulnerable to damage—
“Where’s Ben?” she inquired, her voice gone plaintive.
“I told you, Aunt Thrash. Ben’s in heaven. He sailed up to heaven a week ago. Remember all the flowers at the cemetery? Remember all the people who told him good-bye?”
Abby’s eyes narrowed in a frown of concentration.
“Was Martha there?”
“She was,” said Luke.
“And Reverend, uh—Reverend, uh—”
“Stallcup? He was there, too.”
“And Timothy Thrasher?”
“Yes, ma’am. He and Luke Thrasher were there together. So was a woman named Lucy, I believe.”
“Saying good-bye to Benjamin Thrasher?”
Abby went silent. She puffed on her cigaret, a Kool 100, and stubbed it out in a mound of butts in the copper tray that sat on her table. She wheezed. She coughed. She sighed without wheezing. Her shoulders quivered, and Luke saw tears aglisten in her eyes. He saw the tears break and spill down her cheeks.
“Ben wouldn’t want you to cry,” said Luke.
He snatched a tissue from a box on the table and handed it to her. She sobbed more intensely, her face wadded up, and began to wail and shake her head no.
“Besides,” Luke ventured, “Ben’s still with us in spirit, Aunt Thrash.” He spotted Pumpkin dozing on the floor, his little orange chin atop his paws, which were fluffy and white. “I think Ben’s speaking through Pumpkin now.”
“Pumpkin?” cried Abby.
Luke reached down and scooped up the cat and placed him carefully on Abby’s lap, praying the beast would cooperate. He did. He blinked his sleepy eyes once or twice, adjusting himself to his new position, and settled his head on Abby’s leg—there to purr a blissful serenade.
“Pumpkin and Ben,” said Abby still weeping. “Pumpkin and Ben.” She dabbed her eyes and rocked in her chair, causing her cane to slide to the floor. She fondled the cat and rocked back and forth as a beatific smile spread over her face. “I knew it,” she exulted. “I knew Ben Thrasher wouldn’t leave me alone. I knew it, dog rabbit!”
“You were right,” said Luke. He squeezed her bony shoulder again. He knelt to the floor, retrieving her cane, and propped it up on the edge of her table. “I bet Uncle Ben will purr all night. I bet he’s planning to sleep with you. Want to go back to your room and see?”
“Not till after the news,” said Abby. “The news comes on at six o’clock.”
“That was yesterday,” Luke replied. “It’s two in the morning, Aunt Thrash.”
“It is?” She glanced at her table, glanced to her left and all around. “Where’s that gadget for the television? I want to check—”
Luke heard a sudden popping outside, in front of the house, and gasped in shock as bullet holes splintered the living room wall above Abby’s head—four or five holes in an instant row, the shells going zing off another wall. Abby screamed, and Pumpkin bounded out of her lap, dashing from the room in a blur of orange.
“Jesus!” cried Luke. “Get down, Abby!”
He grabbed her wrist and hauled her to the floor, pushing her flat on her chest.
“What’s going on, dog rabbit?” she stormed.
“Somebody’s shooting at the house,” said Luke. He dropped to his stomach on the rug beside her. “You wait here while I get to the phone.”
“It’s the spics!” yelled Abby. “Tell them it’s the spics! We shouldn’t have let them cross the river!”
* * * * *