INTRODUCTION BY KIESE LAYMON
The greatest novels in my world are nearly all placed in Mississippi. The Gone Dead is one of the greatest novels ever placed Mississippi. Billie James, the protagonist, holds more mystery, lyricism, tragedy, nuance than most characters I’ve read in recent years. And it seems almost unfair to contemporary writers that Chanelle Benz has created a plot that is equally fresh as Billie James herself. Somehow, the narrator and narrative tug at Mississippi’s past and future, its memories and its mysteries with equal force.
As we see in this excerpt from the novel, in which Billie James meets her Uncle Dee to learn more about her father, the mediation of past and present, memory and mystery, rely almost ruthlessly on populating books with secondary characters bursting to have to their own full stories told. That’s what Benz manages to do so well here, and throughout the book. I try to teach my writing students to create secondary characters dying to steal scenes, steal chapters, steal books, while also exercising the narrative restraint to give the reader enough space so the stories of these characters percolate beneath the text. That is one way to create subtext. It’s one of the absolute magical moves made by Benz in The Gone Dead. Writers, even writers from the Deep South, are not supposed to be able to do what Benz does with language, mystery and the collective desire to evade memory. Somehow, she does it. Somehow we hear it. We damn sure smell it. And Benz makes it all seem so easy. This is the best of Mississippi writing. This is what the nation goes to all lengths to not remember. Too bad. Too late. The Gone Dead is here.
Author of Heavy
Everything I Don’t Remember About the Day My Father Died
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An Excerpt from The Gone Dead
by Chanelle Benz
Miles south of the wide blocks that are Greendale’s historic downtown of Greek Revival law firms, of vacant buildings with old Coca-Cola ads tattooed to their sides, of ancient, craggy men on bicycles wearing shrunken baseball caps, is her uncle’s apartment in what used to be a motel.
It’s hot. A hint of the vacuum-sealed wet of a Mississippi summer in the air. She turns off the AC and rolls the windows down, letting in a warm wash of heat, then shakes the last of the potato chips into her mouth. What the hell. Where is her uncle? She’s been in this parking lot for an hour and he hasn’t returned any of her calls. They were supposed to meet here an hour ago.
Now it’s nine o’clock and the roads are overrun by boys in big-wheeled Cadillacs. C’mon, motherfucker, they whoop over a serrated beat. Friday night and the young gleam in the gas stations and drive-thrus of this tiny city where the level of poverty (she’s read) is almost 40 percent.
Billie gets out and tours the parking lot. Each tenant has distinguished their room by the way that they cover the long window beside their front door. Some are sealed tight with tinfoil, others with a printed sheet, but her uncle’s window on the second floor is bare. A few people are sitting outside of their doors on plastic chairs. Nothing moves except for a can or cigarette. The light from passing cars gives their faces the sheen of old master paintings. Hendrick ter Brugghen’s Melancholia. The contemplation and the shadows. Nothing is happening but a wanting something to happen.
A white woman wearing a long T-shirt covering her shorts is standing on the corner like she’s waiting for a bus, but there’s no bus stop sign. It doesn’t look like she’s been able to shower for the last week, and her expression says her ride is never going to come. She paces, the flip-flops askew on her bitterly dry feet.
Someone calls, but Billie doesn’t answer. She needs to be vigilant. She gets back in the car. She needs to let Rufus out soon and it’s almost a two-hour drive back. Maybe wait fifteen more minutes. She slides deeper into the driver’s seat, exhausted from mowing the yard, which she’s never done before, having never had a yard. A mosquito bounces off the windshield and sinks into the dark interior of the car. Then through the bug-smeared glass, an older black man followed by a white woman goes up the steps and toward her uncle’s apartment.
She hops out, slamming the car door and hurrying after them. “Uncle Dee?” she calls from the bottom of the stairs.
Her father’s little brother turns, a straw cowboy hat curling on his head. Above the white V-neck under his Hawaiian shirt, a scar over his collarbone moves, knotted and dark.
“It’s Billie!” she shouts, taking the steps two at a time.
The blond woman stays by the door, impatient to get inside, but her uncle meets her halfway down the balcony, hugging her and leaving a film of beer and Old Spice. He holds her out from him. “Lord, you look just the same as when you was a kid. Sorry I’m so late. I tend to get my days and nights mixed up on the road.”
“It’s okay.” She forgives him instantly.
“Man”—her uncle shakes his head—“I can’t believe how long it’s been.” He walks her to the apartment and the blond woman moves back as he unlocks the door. “Last time I seen you, I was a teenager babysitting you.”
Her uncle is close on fifty and missing two teeth, one on the bottom and one on the top. The blond woman looks at least fifteen years younger. But it is hard to read the old acne scars, thin platinum hair, spike-thick mascara, fake designer purse, and the crooked music note tattoo below her miniskirt and above her knee.
As they go in, Billie turns to her. “I’m Dee’s niece, Billie.”
“He told me. Lacey.” The woman walks in front of her.
“It ain’t much,” says her uncle, turning on a lamp, which illuminates an office chair, a cracked brown couch, and a tilting carpeted floor the color of grease. The room is crammed with furniture from a life he must have lived a few lives ago. On the phone, he called his place a step above prison. She thought he was being funny.
“I haven’t been home long enough to clean it up.”
“It’s nice,” she says, the lie too soft to be heard.
Billie sits on the couch by the front window while her uncle goes over to the kitchenette, waving away a few fruit flies and filling a glass of water from the tap. “Thirsty?” he asks. Billie shakes her head, but Lacey sits in an ancient wicker chair in the corner and puts out her hand. He sets Lacey a glass by a dead plant on top of the AC unit, then takes a tall boy from the minifridge.
“I can’t stand this humidity already. It’s different in Nebraska.” Her uncle takes off his Hawaiian shirt and throws it at the bed, not picking it up when it flutters to the floor. “This whole damn part of town is all concrete.”
“I guess the cold snap’s over,” Billie says. From where she is sitting, the air from the AC unit is wet and rubbery.
“Nebraska? When were you in Nebraska?” asks Lacey.
“Last year.” Uncle Dee wheels himself on the office chair to the middle of the room and opens his beer. “Back when I was full-time. Now I work on an as-needed basis. Any more trouble out there at the house?”
“No. I think I just got spooked,” Billie says, tracing the blister forming on her hand where she held the lawn mower too tight. “I did hear some wind chimes. Guess that would be coming from the McGees.”
“Naw, they too far off.”
“Well, I doubt a thief is stalking me holding wind chimes.”
“We got all kind of characters out in the Delta,” he says.
“What do you think about me renting out the house? I’d fix it up a little more of course.”
“Don’t care what you do with it.” He cocks his head back to drink, almost closing his eyes.
He’s been like this about the house since she first called him after Gran died. She wanted to see if he wanted to live there. He didn’t.
“I met Jerry Hopsen on Saturday.”
He opens his eyes. “How did that happen?”
“You said his wife, Sheila, was close to Daddy so I looked him up.”
He stares at her. “And what did that old so-and-so have to say about my brother?”
Her eyes flicker to Lacey, who is examining her cuticles in the wicker chair. “He said they all grew up together—him and Sheila and Daddy.”
“That and he didn’t know me.”
“What in the hell he mean by that?”
“That he never met me before. Is that true?”
“Might could be. Last time you were here was a long time ago, baby. I was still in high school.” Her uncle leans back in his chair. “Cliff didn’t like people who weren’t family coming over when you was in town. If he wanted to see folks he would go to Avalon.”
“Wait, Avalon? That’s a real place?”
“Old juke joint we used to go to off 61.”
“Just like in his poem.”
“Oh yeah, I remember that one.”
“Is it still open? Can we go there?”
He laughs. “Baby, it’s been closed down for years. Folks ain’t into jukes no more. They go to the club. You want to go to Avalon?”
“I’ll take you this weekend. Be here at noon on Sunday. Sheila . . .” Her uncle shakes his head then grins. “Man, you never forget brown sugar sweet as that.”
Lacey swipes at him halfheartedly and collapses over her own thighs, suddenly seeming drunk, though Billie hasn’t noticed her drinking anything except water.
“What you do for work again?” he says.
“I’m a grant writer. It’s for a good nonprofit, but pretty boring, though I do get to work mostly from home.”
Her uncle is looking down into his beer as if he is trying to see something written on the bottom of the can. “I’d like to sit home doing my work.”
The chemical wail of a car alarm comes from the parking lot. Lacey doesn’t sit up, her forehead poured onto mottled knees.
Her uncle sets his sweating tall boy between his feet. “Be careful in them woods with all the snakes.”
“Wouldn’t my dog scare them off?”
“More like to get bit. The Delta can be rough on a dog.”
She glances over at the fallen Lacey. “Seems she’s no longer with us.” She looks at her uncle. “You know, when I saw Mr. Hopsen he told me something I’ve never heard before. It’s really crazy. He said that the night Daddy died, I went missing, and that my picture was on the news. Is that true?”
Her uncle shakes his head. “Why he tell you that? He’s representing it all wrong. Of course that fool would. He don’t know nothing about it.”
“Was I on the news?”
His dark eyes meet hers. “Your momma didn’t tell you nothing about it?”
“Not a thing.”
“It’s all right, honey, it ain’t that big a deal. The police were so dumb they couldn’t find you sleeping in some blankets in the closet. So they made you a missing person because you were so little and we all lost our minds.”
“The closet? Why was I there?”
“I don’t know. That’s where he kept your toys. Maybe you got scared. But they got Momma so riled up she had everybody looking for you and somebody sent your picture to the local news. Then a couple hours later, there you were.”
“I can’t believe my mom didn’t tell me about it.”
“Some times are so bad people can’t ever talk about it.”
Billie is still for a moment. “I better get going. It’ll take me a while to get back and I need to let out the dog.” She feels for the keys in her purse and is stabbed by an uncapped pen.
Her uncle walks her to the door and follows her out onto the balcony. They both lean on the railing, looking into the parking lot.
“It’s really good to see you,” she says.
“Good to see you too. Good to reconnect.” He coughs, then turns to light a cigarette, cupping the flame. “Don’t bother asking Jerry nothing.”
The cars below wash in, rushing up to the stoplight only to brake, red above red.
“I’m not planning on it.”
He nods. “Good, good. I ain’t trying to tell you what to do.”
Her uncle is singing something that she can’t make out over the rattle of window units. He coughs again. He’s still handsome but too thin. He was Grandmomma Ruby’s miracle baby, born after she was forty. Because she’d never gotten pregnant after Daddy, Mom said she thought the doctors had given her one of those “Mississippi appendectomies,” or forced sterilizations.
“Do you want me to get you some water?” she asks.
He holds up his hand, steadying himself with the other on the railing. “Naw, I’m just coming down with a cold. Always do this time of year. My summer cold.”
When Billie sees her uncle the next day, the wind is an ocean, vast and crashing down with rushing pink blossoms. On the opposite end of his balcony, a man in a wheelchair with James Brown hair gives her a salute, which she returns. For a time, he watches her expectantly, then together they watch the red and white gas station across the two-lane road.
Her uncle is inside making chicory coffee and not saying much. She’s avoided delicate subjects like how long could she have possibly hid out in a closet and why hasn’t she come here years sooner. He could have been like a second father. They’d joke and have favorite meals, he’d visit her in Philly. She’d have gotten a place with a guest room or at least a couch with a pullout bed. Maybe she would have had fewer mediocre boyfriends with pleasurably normal families.
Across the street, a girl at the gas station drops a bag of ice. It smashes open, glittering over the asphalt. The girl kicks the bag, then stoops to shovel the loose ice back into the torn plastic, finally tossing the broken bag into a trunk with a dragging bumper.
Down in the scaled parking lot, a silver pickup truck pulls up and the middle-aged woman who gets out slaps and curses a pigtailed little girl standing at her feet. A doubtful older man in a wrinkled Yankees cap gets slowly out of the driver’s seat. He leaves the truck door open and stands gazing into the gearbox as the little girl wails.
Billie slides along the rail toward the stairs. James Brown raises an eyebrow as she nears the top step. But as if she can feel Billie deliberating, the woman in the parking lot looks up: wearied, outraged, sheepish. Then the woman pushes the little girl inside one of the apartments. The older man in the Yankees cap still stares into the truck, as if doubting the reality of the seat.
“You making friends?” Her uncle is behind her shaking a cigarette from a flattened pack. He hands her a cup of coffee.
“I’ve never been popular.” Billie sits down with the cup on his neighbor’s small blue and white cooler, the backs of her thighs gluing themselves to the plastic lid. “Do you know that lady?”
“I seen her.”
“And the little girl?”
“Do you think that happens often?”
“If a child is disrespectful then they gonna get whupped. Can’t spare the rod. My momma didn’t like to do it, but sometimes it had to be done.”
“What about your father?”
“He only licked me once in a while when I’d been real bad. If he was around and could find me. Your daddy always said I got off easy being the baby of the family.”
“But there is a difference between spanking and beating.”
He lights his cigarette. “How often you get spanked?”
“What I’m saying is that it instills fear not respect.”
“How often?” He inhales.
“My mother didn’t believe in spanking.”
He laughs. “Ain’t she learn nothing from her time here in Mississippi?”
“Doesn’t mean I never got hit.” Her mother had a boyfriend who hit her a couple times when her mother wasn’t home. Not a slap across the thighs, but a bend over, pants down, and wait for the belt. It was the dread that made her hate him. Billie peels her legs from the cooler. “Why do people who hate kids have them?”
“That’s one of them age-old questions,” her uncle says, taking a drag on his cigarette. He waves to a man in a camo jacket with a long, thin blond braid walking up the steps.
She sips the coffee and sets it down. “Where did you meet Lacey?”
“Truck stop casino she work at.”
“Are you sure you don’t want the house?”
He smiles. “Don’t worry about me. This”—he gestures to the building—“is a temporary situation. I tell you what, nobody in here better off than me. I got a job and the place all to myself. There’s five, six people living in some of these rooms. Not only that but I finished high school and did a year of college at Jackson State.”
“Why did you stop?”
“I got offered a job at John Deere and went for the money. To be honest with you, I wasn’t all that interested in school. I just knew Cliff was interested in me being interested.”
Her uncle points down to a dark cherry Buick in the parking lot whose back window is covered with a trash bag. “That’s my baby.” He hands her a set of keys.
“You want me to drive?”
“I got one of my headaches.”
“Have you taken anything?”
He waves this aside. “I got a prescription. But it don’t seem to matter what I do. They come when they want.”
“What does your doctor say?”
“That it could be any number of things.”
“I think you need a second opinion.” Maybe if they get to know each other, she can help him find a better doctor.
The air in the car is thick with canned heat. She dials up the AC, backing out of the spot so that they’re facing the two-lane road. He turns off the AC and rolls down his window, looking older than he did the other night. “It don’t work. Take a right out of the parking lot.”
With the windows down, the hot wind rolls into them, burning and cooling. The sky above them is aching with rain. They drive behind a truck with an Ole Miss license plate and a large crucifix hanging off the rearview mirror. As the town is pulled behind them, the landscape becomes lush and stark. Brilliantly green with a few battered shacks half swallowed by a thicket.
When the car crackles down a dirt road, they roll up the windows. They slide in and out of wet patches as dust coats the windshield. For the first time in her life, Billie wishes she had a truck.
Avalon sits alone in the middle of a soybean field. She parks and opens the door, but her uncle doesn’t move.
“I ain’t even drove by here in a good while.” His face is turned from her.
“You don’t have to come in.”
“I’ll join you in a minute.”
She gets out and walks up to a broken bottle tree guarding the scarred patchwork of wood and tin. Bottle trees are meant to trap bad spirits, but it looks like these ones got out. She tests the narrow set of stairs with a foot, then shakes the railing, glancing back. She can’t see her uncle through the glare on the windshield.
Inside the air is dazed with heat. She can’t walk too far because the roof is caving in at the back. There are still scraps of posters on the walls and the low wooden beams are twined with rows of burned-out Christmas lights. On the rotting floorboards is the naked stain of where a jukebox once sat near the plywood stage, and above the bar, the squiggle of a broken neon sign.
She sits on an uprooted church pew, her feet at the shattered cavern of a TV. She takes out her father’s first book of poetry, Race Records, and flips to “Song 33.”
We made our own island:
On soil too long blood fed
Where the wind don’t come
Our wooden conjure stood
all night long.
There you hear the voice of
three hundred years of sweat,
there ride on sweet mercy
all night long.
No it ain’t Paradise
It’s only Avalon.
Feels like living longer,
But my love, we dying
all night long.
What does that last stanza mean? Why dying? The floor creaks. Uncle Dee. He bends to pick a thread of tinsel from the floor.
“My Grandmomma Ida used to call it devil’s music. Sure could call the devil up.”
“I bet. Did my mom ever come here?”
“Only one time I can remember. She was carrying you. But she was still a real good dancer.” He twists the tinsel between thumb and forefinger. “In them days this was the place.” He pokes at a ripped vinyl chair, then sits. “Used to have a disco ball hanging right up there.” He points to a beam, then leans back in the chair, cocking the front legs. “You play chess?”
“A little bit.”
“Next time you come by the apartment we can play.”
“The night my father died.” She hesitates, afraid of her words in this air. “Did he come in here?”
“He stopped by.”
“Where was I?”
“With your Grandmomma Ruby.”
“How did he seem to you that night?” Suicide by fall doesn’t really work unless it’s off a bridge, but what if it was a kind of letting go, a spiraling down that ended in an accident?
He tosses the tinsel over his shoulder. “I don’t know. He was him. Your daddy was the type of dude that ain’t ever want to sit still. Didn’t even like going to sleep. Said it was a waste of his time. When he was a kid he used to sometimes climb out of the window at night. Momma called it helling around.”
“Where did he go?”
“Meet up with other boys, his little friends, maybe drink a little bit of that corn liquor, you know. Or he went out to be by hisself. Rampaging he called it. Just wandering around the woods and shit, talking to the trees.”
“Wasn’t he scared of snakes or running into the Klan?”
“He said he knew the barn where they met.” Her uncle begins to pick bits of vinyl off of the seat between his legs. “Mama was real proud of him. She ain’t learn how to read till she was an old woman. She wanted to read the Bible and my brother’s poetry. Those were her motivations. But she didn’t like no cussing or anything disrespectful, so there was a lot she would not read. I tried reading his play to her, but that was too much. I remember Cliff wanted me to come to New York and see it performed, but at the time I was too busy being foolish over a girl.” He lets out a chuckle. “I spent the money he sent me for a bus ticket on her. Made her happy, but boy, he was mad. He call me up and say he ain’t ever gonna give me even a quarter again.
“Now Momma liked that one poem—what was it called? ‘My Sinful Days.’ She like the hoping and preaching. No profanity, just redemption talk. She figure he wrote it for her. Maybe he did. I don’t know.
“When he died, she was the one to go over and identify the body. I told her I would, but I hadn’t turned eighteen. Still had another month. She went with my uncles, Floyd and John. Those were her big brothers. After that, she read over that poem a whole lot. Like it had answers.” He looks down at the mess of vinyl on the floor. “She kept praying on it till she died. None of us understood why he had to go like that.” He looks up at her. “So young, I mean. But I moved on from it all a long time ago. Had to.”
“Way I see it, they ain’t no point in dragging up something happen thirty years ago when I’m trying to make it through today.”
Billie looks at her uncle sitting in the remains of Avalon. This place reminds her of a low tide when the sea has been sucked out and the skeletons of the deep are on display. He is like something left behind that was once alive, moving in shameless beauty, cold-blooded and innocent, concerned primarily with courtship.
“Lola came to see me.”
He looks at her.
“Did you tell Lola’s nana that I didn’t want to see anybody?”
He frowns. “I said not to overwhelm you since this was your first time back. I know you want to talk more about Cliff’s accident.” His eyes are on the floor. “But I can’t hardly talk about it to this day.”
“I don’t want to hurt you. But I do wish I knew more of what happened. What he was doing out there, what I was doing.”
He looks at her. “You don’t remember nothing?”
She shrugs. “I was asleep, I guess.”
He bends forward, rubbing his temples. “Well, baby, you in the right place cause nobody round here remembers anything either.”
This house was once a house. Seen a girl made a mother, a boy become a father who come and go, come and go. Seen a son work the land, the land flood and ruin him and the bodies floating in it. Seen a woman rush home to check on her loose children, a white boy close by her side, another kind of son, devoted for now to his mighty black mother. Seen a child burned by a pot of boiling water on the stove. Seen these walls newspapered to keep out the cold.
Heard children singing, laughing, running into the sun to chase a bullfrog. Heard a baby offer up a word for the first time. Heard the silence after underwater drinking, and the fishhook whine of hunger from a small belly. Heard the knock of white men looking for a boy hiding at his uncle’s house, heard shots in the night, far off but always too close, and heard weeping, too much weeping too damn much of the time.
Once there was only the rumble of thunder, split of rain, pulse of locust, the sounds day makes turning over into night. I heard tell of an army of wretched people, hardly clothed, who cleared the brake and swamp and panther, who built and served and escaped only when they died. Their children came here to sweat out the demons that are carried in the body.
This girl she comes wanting to know about a night in 1972 when the Isley Brothers were panting paradise for their queens and the Detroit Emeralds were asking all those babies to let them take them into their arms. But what can these walls say? Listen, girl, everything you want to know is near, telling itself over again, the song is on repeat.