Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Countdown: The Top 20 Joe R. Lansdale Works of Short Fiction--#9

[For the previous entry on the Countdown, click here.]

#9. "Booty and the Beast"

The plot of this 1995 story (collected in High Cotton) contains enough intrigue to fill a feature-length film, and as a work of horror-tinged Texan noir it recalls the Coen Brothers classic Blood Simple.
For instance, the M. Emmett Walsh character in the film compares here to the villainous Mulroy, a private detective whose caseload involved "nickel and dime divorces out of Tyler, taking pictures of people doing the naked horizontal mambo," and who turns to criminal activity in hopes of a big payday.  Mulroy is in cahoots with the aptly-named Babe, "a silver-tongued, long-legged slut with heaven between her legs."  The femme fatale attempts to use her irresistible beauty to get her mark, Standers, to reveal the location of some stashed booty--gold bars and a "decorated box that was supposed to contain a hair from the Virgin Mary's head" (treasure that Standers's father plundered from the Germans while serving in World War II).  When Babe's supple flesh fails to get Standish to come across, she brings the hard-boiled Mulroy in as muscle.

Allegiances shift like a constantly-churning kaleidoscope in Lansdale's story, and a large part of the fun here is watching all the double-dealing and backstabbing that takes place amongst a group of dishonorable thieves.  There are some cinematic deaths to behold once the inevitable bloodshed begins.  When the deadly redhead Babe shoots an unconscious Mulroy behind the ear, his signature cowboy hat dislodges "as he nodded forward.  A wad of tobacco  rolled over his lip and landed in his lap.  Blood ran down his cheek and onto his nice Western coat."  Turning the tables on Babe, Standers pushes her onto a rotten wooden floor that instantly collapses and snaps one of her legs.  He then shoots her in the face with Mulroy's gun; the impact drives her backwards, "her broken leg still in the gap in the floor.  Her other leg flew up and came down and her heel hit the floor with a slap.  Her dress hiked up and exposed her privates."  The sight of which prompts Standers to deadpan, "Not a bad way to remember you.  It's the only part of you that wasn't a cheat."

An even grimmer fate is in store for Standers, who returns to his mobile home and collapses in exhaustion.  He awakens to find his residence and his body covered with fire ants (attracted to the maple syrup Mulroy had earlier poured on him while threateningly trying to get information out of him).  Fleeing his trailer, Standers trips down the steps and breaks his neck.  Unfortunately for him, he's only paralyzed from the waist down, and has sensation in his face when the fire ants attack it:
The ants began to climb into his hair and swarm over his lips.  He batted at them with his eyelashes and blew at them with his mouth, but it didn't any good.  They swarmed him.  He tried to scream, but with his neck bent the way it was, his throat constricted somewhat, he couldn't make a good noise.  And when he opened his mouth the furious little ants swarmed in and bit his tongue, which swelled instantly.
Just when the reader thinks the carnage is complete, Lansdale adds a coda brimming with dark irony.  A bona fide Bible salesman (Mulroy only pretended to be one when first knocking on Standers's door) named Bill Longstreet finds Standers's corpse, rifles through his wallet and takes the box containing the allegedly-sacred strand of hair.  Figuring he can sell the curious squiggle to a junk store, Longstreet stops off first at a local watering hole.  Getting drunkenly back behind the wheel some time later, he drives out onto the highway and is promptly demolished by a speeding semi.  His brains are spectacularly splattered, and a Bible ends up plastered to his head like "some kind of bizarre growth Longstreet had been born with." 

The box passes on to Longstreet's widow, who thinks the follicular maguffin is only some bug leg and flushes the valuable hair right down the toilet.  She has unwittingly blown the chance at a tremendous windfall, and as Lansdale writes in the final lines, the widow hardly benefits either from the money she collects from Longstreet's life insurance policy: "She bought herself a new car and some see-through panties and used the rest to finance her lover's plans to open a used car lot in downtown Beaumont, but it didn't work out.  He used the money to finance himself and she never saw him again."  "Booty and the Beast" is a tale of grift that just keeps on giving, ranging beyond the handful of shady main characters to highlight the endless duplicity that marks the great confidence game of life.

No comments: