Okay, enough tap-dancing.
Yesterday, in front of the closest thing I’m likely to get anytime soon to a home crowd, I let just a little Bunk out into the world for the first time. My voice shook a little when I started reading. It wasn’t the reading that frightened me, but the material. I was scared that, having been away from it a few months, I would finally see this book for what it is. Finally see that after fourteen years, I’d missed it still. Messed it up for good.
Five sentences in, my voice stopped shaking. If I’m going down, I’m going down singing. Right here. Riding the deck of the good ship Book of Bunk.
So here you go, you loyal and opinionated and patient (or skeptical, or curious) people. Thanks for waiting. Thanks for letting me work my way up to this. Here’s just a taste. A hint of what this book feels like.
This isn’t the section I read. It doesn’t really get at the big themes (whatever they are) or reveal much about the plot. But this, I’m pretty sure, is the flavor of the thing.
All I ask in return is this:
If you like it, tell somebody. Other than me, I mean. You can tell me, I’ll be thrilled to hear it. But tell someone else.
Steer them here. Write about it somewhere.
Part of the point of this blog is to blow off some nervous tension, walk myself through this process. Part of it is to have some direct contact with actual readers. Part of it just might be to write The Book of the Book of Bunk, the story of the sale of an unusual story in a terrifying year.
But also, it’s to try and make just a little noise. So please. If you like this. Help me make some.
This section comes from the middle of the book. Your narrator is Paul Dent, age 23, a talented but naive and inexperienced drifter from Oklahoma who through a chance meeting has found himself attached to the North Carolina office of the Federal Writers’ Project. His job is to capture whatever might be unique or notable about the mill town of Trampleton for the guide book the Writers’ Project has been assigned to create.
In Trampleton, Paul–like pretty much everyone else in town– has met and become infatuated with Melissa Flynn. Melissa works in Mr. Gene’s Barber Shop. She’s plump, joyful, elusive, carries a black bag she never opens. When she passes, people generally say, “Hey, now, Melissa Flynn.” And she answers, “Well, hey.” You’ll also hear mention of Paul’s brother Lewis. He’s a piece of work. A major player. Maybe you’ll get more of him next time…
My good friend M.Z. Ribalow calls this section “The Night of the Knives.” I suppose that will do for the time being…
(from The Book of Bunk)
One blossom-scented, bee-swarmed evening in late May, Melissa finally agreed to meet me under the lacy shadows of the Sherman Street elms. She arrived in her work clothes: a plain cream skirt and yellow top, a pale blue ribbon tied in her ash-blond hair. She stood maybe a foot away with her arms crossed, pulling the loose-fitting top close against the curves of her body, and I imagined that I could feel her heat-slick skin on my arms, like a banked fire from across a room. Her eyes were brown and quick.
“Hey, now, Melissa Flynn,” a mill-man said, biking past and raising one soot-gloved arm.
“Well, hey,” Melissa said.
“Where’s your bag?” I asked.
She raised an eyebrow. “Want me to get it?”
“I want to know what’s in it.”
“You’re a curious sort, aren’t you?”
“That’s my job.” I grinned. “But that’s not why I’m curious.”
Melissa glanced down the street toward the gas station. I followed her eyes and spotted Danny on the sidewalk in front of the petrol pumps. He was staring back. I started to lift my hand but decided not to.
Melissa blew out her breath. “I think, tonight, let’s just walk. Okay, Paul?”
She took me up the Back, a path that began at the southern edge of town where the sidewalk and gravel road gave way to overgrown grassy fields and foothills. Over the first mile or so, we met half a dozen people, some with dogs, most alone. One couple, colored, aged seventy or more, kept their eyes lowered and edged into the grass as we passed. They were the only ones who didn’t say “Hey, now” to Melissa.
Then we were alone, tramping through cicada-buzz so intense that I kept checking the ground, half-expecting to see downed power lines snaking through the dirt. Soon the grass dropped away, and we came into a dense stand of pines that pricked and brushed at us. It was cooler in there, less buggy. Melissa began whistling. I didn’t recognize the tune and asked her the words. She said she didn’t know them.
“They used to sing it back home.”
“Who? Your parents?”
She smiled distantly, and we went on walking. When we cleared the trees, we were higher than I’d expected, way up on the tallest rise rimming Trampleton, in low brush already baked brown and brittle. The last daylight had bled away, and the moon had risen. I saw half a dozen owls perched like gargoyles in the trees.
Melissa sat down, breathing heavily, and I sat beside her, not too near. The skin under my shirt felt viscous, and my lungs kept clutching up, blocking air from getting in or out.
“Thank you for coming,” I said, and looked over. Her cheeks had gone blotchy, and midges clung to her ears.
“I should have come sooner. I’m sorry. I have…people who need me to tend to them.”
“Seems like you do a lot of that.”
That distant smile ghosted over her face again, though this time she looked at me. “That’s my job,” she said.
She slapped at her forearms, and I whacked at something crawling under my knee and squashed it. In the trees, fireflies flickered like train windows passing.
“So, Paul,” she said, after a short, pleasant silence. “About your brother…”
I winced. “What about him?”
“Well, I’ve got to admit, I’m curious.”
“You and everyone else he’s ever met.”
“He just seems so…I don’t know. He’s sure a hot topic at Mr. Gene’s.”
“He’ll get hotter if he stays. You never know what he’s going to do next. I’ll tell you a true story about him this time. My mother left us to go back East when I was barely two. Lewis says he remembers her oatmeal cookies, and that she sometimes hit our father with wooden spoons. But I don’t remember her at all. We were born four years and eighteen hours apart, so we usually celebrated our birthdays on the same day. By celebrated, I mean our father would give us each a dollar and tell us to come home without it, and not before dark. Then he’d push us out the door.
“One year, when I was maybe ten or eleven, he announced he was throwing us a party. But his idea of a party was to put us on a caboose and get one of the drivers he worked with to push us two miles out of town on a hundred-eleven degree, windless day. Lewis and I were supposed to jump out of the car and race back. First one home got cake. All of it. Loser got nothing. Well, my brother, he could have beaten me running backward. I can’t breathe very well, so I’m not much of an athlete.”
“What a bastard.”
“Yeah…well, you’ll see. When the caboose stopped moving, Lewis said he’d give me a head start. He waited until I was at the door of the caboose, then shoved me out onto the grass, jumped on my back, hopped off, and waited for me to roll over so he could make sure I saw him wave. He likes doing that when he’s done something he’s especially proud of. Particularly at me, for some reason. Then he took off.
“I didn’t even bother running. The point is, I wouldn’t have run anyway, and Lewis knew it. My father knew it, too. So I took my sweet time. I was maybe three hours getting back. It was quiet out there except for the biting things. Kind of like here. But here’s the complicated bit about my brother. The first thing I saw when I got home was a plate full of cake squashed on the road and Lewis standing on our stoop, laughing.
“’Saved you some,’ he said. ‘Happy birthday.’
“I started past him into the house. But he put a palm on my chest, reached behind him, and handed me a huge heaping plateful. A corner piece, smothered in icing. Chocolate, and really good, too. My dad actually made great icing. Lewis sat outside and watched me eat it. Then he clapped me on the back and went inside.”
“Weird,” Melissa said.
“Normal for him.”
She was silent a while. The blotchy spots on her cheeks had faded. She still had that odd half-smile on her wide face. The last time I’d spent so long sitting with a girl, just talking like this, had been with Ginny Gunderson on Dust Cow Ridge. Half a decade ago. Eventually, Melissa said, “If he were my brother, I think I’d hate him. You must hate him.”
“I used to think a lot of people must feel that way about Lewis,” I said. “But you can’t hate him.”
“Anyone can hate anyone,” Melissa said softly, and I realized I didn’t understand her smile at all, and wondered if anyone in Trampleton did. “Easiest thing in the world.”
Somewhere in the long silences and occasional chatter that made up the rest of our first evening together, my elbow brushed up against hers and stayed there. Her skin felt cool. She didn’t move away.
“So who are all these people you tend to?” I asked.
“Just one person, mostly. Danny.”
I didn’t want to ask the next question, but I did anyway. “He’s your boyfriend?”
The smile Melissa flashed then was closer to the one she used on Sherman Street. Quick and light. “Danny?” The smile vanished. “Danny is my leatherwing bat. My black-hearted magician. My closest friend. But he will never, ever, be my boyfriend. No matter how much he thinks he wants to be.”
She went quiet again. The breeze drifting out of the pines had a furtiveness to it. By the time we began retracing our steps to the fields at the bottom of the mountain, the moon had filled the sky behind us. I’d been planning to take Melissa’s hand, but didn’t actually try to do it until the Sherman Street elms loomed overhead. Her fingers accepted mine but didn’t squeeze around them. Above us, warblers chirred and trilled.
“Okay, Paul. Time for your personality test. I’ve had a lovely night. So I’ve decided to grant you one of two wishes. You can kiss me, or you can find out what’s in my black bag.”
We were standing in front of Mr. Gene’s. For once, my eyes made no move toward the leafy canopy above.
“Is this a trick question?” I said. “I mean, is there a right answer?”
“Only your answer.”
My mind raced. My strained lungs tickled, which made me want to cough, but I managed not to. “Does what I answer determine whether I get another night?”
Melissa rose onto her tiptoes, then settled back down. “No. But it might determine what kind of night the next one is.”
“Get the bag,” I said.
Melissa burst into a grin. At the shop door, she fished keys from the pocket of her dress, then disappeared inside. She came back holding the bag, which she dropped with a clank at her feet. Kneeling and tugging at the tie-straps, she reached in and withdrew a black leather sheath. From the sheath she pulled out a knife.
The blade alone must have been eight inches long. Melissa tipped the point at me, and I could see the icy, silver curve of the thing, like a scratch in the summer air. Then she turned it, trapping the moonlight in the blade’s flat surface.
“You…spend a lot of time with that, don’t you?” It wasn’t just the shimmer of the blade, but the way the wooden handle nestled in her palm.
Wordlessly, she withdrew a second sheath, then a third before laying all the sheaths in the street and the blades along her thigh like a half-open fan. I glanced in both directions. The road was empty. We’d been up the Back a long time, I realized. It had to be midnight, maybe later.
“You might want to step back,” Melissa said, untying the ribbon in her hair and then tying it tighter.
Gathering the knives into one palm, Melissa stood, rolled her head around her shoulders a few times, flexed her arms, and motioned me another foot or so away. “Hum something.”
“Something fast. I miss the music.”
Miss it? The only fast thing that came to mind was the half-tune my father used to bray in the morning to get Lewis and me out of bed. I didn’t mean to sing it so loud. I just couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“Laying tie, laying tie. In the black October sky. No reason for to cry. There’s stations by and by. We’ll lie here ‘til we die.”
The second time I hit reason for, Melissa flicked her right wrist and launched all three knives into the air. I caught my breath but didn’t dare stop singing for fear of disrupting her rhythm. Her hands flew up to snatch one handle, then another, release, snatch, darting forward and back, left and right while her body stayed ramrod straight like the trunk of a tree whipping its branches in a twister. The knives sailed into the elm canopy, tipped over, somersaulted down between columns formed by the others as though performing a square dance up there, then plunged into some impossible springy place on Melissa’s palms or sometimes her forearms or even her chest, and rebounded upward again. She started to move her feet, twirling and tilting, shredding the air around her into ribbons, and it was only at the end, as my singing edged toward panic and grew even louder and the knives flew higher and dove down harder, that I caught a glimpse of her face. Her smile looked wide enough to swallow the whole damn street.
Somehow, on the final toss, the knives went up together, reached an apex, leaned back in formation, and dove toward the earth in a sort of inverted V that looked like a falcon’s spread talons before alighting lightly along Melissa’s forearm as she dropped into a bow.
“Shit,” she muttered. When she straightened and opened her palm, I could see that she’d closed her fist around the lower blade of the last knife to land. A thin thread of blood, much less than there should have been, was seeping from a tiny nick. But that ravenous smile still dominated her face.
I had my hands in her hair and my mouth against hers before the song had died on my lips. The knives dropped to the ground. I heard her grunt, felt our teeth clink together, and half-expected a knee to the groin or a rake of fingernails down my cheek. Instead, Melissa kissed me back for a short, sweet while.
“Don’t step on the knives,” she said into my breath.
We eased apart, and I looked down at the blades arrayed all around us.
“I said you had a choice.” Her hands tightened in my hair.
“But I wanted both.”
Kneeling again, she swept the blades back into their sheaths and the sheaths into the bag in a practiced sequence of motions, then zipped the bag tight and slung it over her shoulder. She didn’t kiss me again when she stood, but having moved away, she turned. Her nod was different than her Well, hey nod. Then she glided down Sherman Street toward Danny’s gas station.