The Ballad Of Earl King: After Goethe
My daddy, my daddy, he got a 1972 Olds Cutlass Supreme, a convertible that car is, metallic flake green with saddle interior and a three-fifty cubic inch V8 that'll churn out three hundred fifty horses and set em loose on the road. One thousand forty-one-a these beauties ever rolled outta Detroit is what my daddy tells me, and that's all. My daddy's sure ain't cherry, she's more flake than paint and the chrome on the wheel rims is all picked and pocked to shit, and when you step on the gas you can feel her thinking about it—maybe, maybe not—and then when she does finally kick in she's a lazy bitch, and a loud one too—Just like your ma is what my daddy says, and he laughs and so I laugh too, my daddy, and just like my ma she finally hunkers down and then it's like a lion purring, automatic on the floor and me between my daddy's legs, his left arm curled around me and his left hand holding onto the steering wheel, his right arm curled around me and his right hand steadying the beer between my legs.
My daddy. When he speaks I can feel the words form in his stomach: Wanna go for a ride? So we go down. Downtown is where we go, right down Main Street, top down and the sun doing its best to beat down the branches of the elm trees that shade Main. Goddamn my daddy says. Goddamn. Hotter'n hell out here he says, and he pulls his cold bottle of beer from between my legs. Drinking feels like talking, my daddy's stomach I mean, the rumble it makes, like I can feel the beer filling up that hot cavity inside him. Aahh he says, and puts the cold bottle back between my legs. That hits the spot he says. Don't you go letting that spill he says, and I shake my head but don't speak.
My daddy runs a cold-and-wet-from-the-bottle hand through my hair. That's my boy he says, and wraps a hot-and-wet-from sweat arm around my tummy and pulls me up against him. The bristle of my daddy's stomach on my back, his arm on my tummy, his bottle sweating between my legs and staining my shorts like I peed them, the beer in his belly and his words: That's my boy, and we keep on going down, down where the buildings thin out and half the ones that are left are empty, windows boarded or bricked up, trash blowing in the wind, ancient billboards advertising Jerri-Curl and Colt 40 Ounces and Kool Menthols with niggers smoking em and Here we are in Coontown is what my daddy says.
Spookville. Haint Heaven he says, and it's true that most of what is walking on the sidewalk is niggers, and some of em even stare at us, driving slow, driving down past where most other people turn around, but my daddy says Just look right through em. Pretend they ain't even there is all he says, words coming out of the place where the beer goes, and that's all he says until he says Well will you look at that! Braking, turning. The tightness of the muscles in my daddy's thighs squeezing my own legs tight against his beer bottle, tightness in my chest too, hard to breathe, almost, my daddy, his arm tight around my body and Son, he says, and that's all he says, and what he is talking about is two teenage nigger girls all falling out of itty bitty skirts and halter tops and I can feel my daddy stiffen up behind me.
Aw man he says. With tits like that— Wrapped around the tree trunks is posters advertising garage sales and yard sales and jumble sales and in every other window is a 4-Sale sign and what my daddy finally manages to say is What you got to realize son is that everything's for sale down here. Everything, and he pulls his beer from between our legs, s'for, and he drinks from it, sale, and he shoves it back where it came from, and speeds us away, and— Hey boy! my daddy says. Hey, what's wrong, why you covering your eyes like that he says, but I can't say nothing and so my daddy takes both hands off the steering wheel and pulls my hands from my eyes, we're stopped at a red light I see, and then I see him again, standing there wearing the shadows of a doorway like they was his own clothes, almost invisible but I see him, I see him and he is waving to me, he is saying Hey boy!
He says My name is Earl King, as nice as you please. He says Why don't you come live with me? Hey boy! my daddy is still saying as I start to shake and shake and shake. Hey boy what's wrong he says, and I would point but he is still holding onto my hands with his, we are still stuck at that red light down there where dust coats the dead trees and plastic bags and old newspapers take the place of the leaves that used to grow from their limbs and Earl King is still smiling at me, waving, promising to keep me safe in the darkness behind him. Boy like you should have all the things your daddy can't give you, he says to me, and just then the nigger girls catch up to us laughing and dancing and practically shaking their asses out from their skirts and they walk right past Earl King into the darkness.
Earl King says, I want to rock your world little man, and I think I would go to him or at least call out to him but my daddy pulls his arm tight round my chest when the girls show up and we are both shaking the beer foaming up between my legs, running down my legs, filling up my shoes and I want to go but I can't even breathe. And then the red light changes and my daddy goes to go but that Cutlass just stalls right out on him.
Motherfucking cocksucking little cunt, my daddy says and slaps the steering wheel so hard the horn goes off, and God damn it my daddy says, and What the hell is wrong with you. Oh daddy just go, I want to say, but I can't, I am shaking so bad and Earl King is saying Such a pretty little boy, his arms so wide and welcoming and offering me everything in the darkness behind him and I am shaking shaking shaking but my daddy can't get the Cutlass to start and he smacks the steering wheel again and then he smacks me, Goddammit the both of you he shouts and Earl King's arms are closing slowly, I want to go, I do want to go, but nothing goes anywhere except for Earl King's hands which seem to close right around my neck and Hey boy, my daddy yells, hey boy, what the hell you doing, hey boy, don't, hey, what the, boy, where are, hey, don't you leave me boy, and all the sudden the car roars into life and it jumps forward, the top closing, the power windows rolling up and even the windshield wipers flapping and we leave Earl King behind and a lotta rubber and the muffler even shakes loose somewhere and me, we leave me behind too, my daddy leaves me in the darkness with Earl King and his daughters, leaves me in the place where he would rather be himself.
Dale Peck is the author of The Law of Enclosures, Now It's Time to Say Goodbye, What We Lost: Based on a True Story, Martin and John, Hatchet Jobs: Writings on Contemporary Fiction. In August 2006: FSG will reissue Martin and John as part of the FSG Classics series. January 2007: Drift House: The First Voyage comes out in paperback; Drift House: The Amulet of Babel comes out in hardcover (Bloomsbury). May 2007: Carroll and Graf will publish a new novel, The Garden of Lost and Found. Drift House : The First Voyage by Dale Peck.