Katie Letcher Lyle

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The Golden Shores of Heaven

© Lippincott, 1976; Bantam, 1978

The Golden Shores of Heaven

Jordan’s river is deep and cold, hallelujah,
Chills the body but not the soul, hallelujah.
Jordan’s river is deep and wide, hallelujah,
There’s a golden shore on the other side, hallelujah.
--from “Michael, Row the boat ashore,” folk song


“And you, sir?” the cabbie asked the older man.

“National Life Building,” he said, settling back.

The taxi driver slammed the door with more force than seemed necessary, having already hurled their suitcases and her guitar into the gaping toothlessness of the cab’s trunk. Something rattled down between the metal panels of the door and hit clattering at the bottom. Mary Curlew glanced at the two men next to her. They had all been crammed into the back seat, and the younger man’s fat leg pressed unavoidably against hers. She moved as far away as she could, pulling her coat after her, and smiled to convey a sort of haughty regret that they must touch. She shifted her weight and stared out of the window.

From the air she had recognized the cold green Cumberland River as it wound through the flat-looking tan land of a southern February. A lot of bare trees, fading shades of gray and straw and brown; a muddy landscape and no sign of snow. Not as big a city as Baltimore.

The men, it turned out, knew each other. They were both big, dark, beefy, and obviously businessmen.

The driver started the motor with more of his insane energy, flinging them against the seat back of slick leather. She heard the loose rattle in the door again. Was her guitar all right? The lovely Gibson. She shot a glance at the man next to her to see how he had taken the jolt. He rolled his eyes comically at her, so she smiled a tiny smile. They were all vlctlms.

She settled herself. Look at my face, she thought, and when the time comes, you remember. Those two would meet somewhere someday for lunch and order double martinis, and one of them would say, “You remember that girl we rode with in the cab that day? She didn’t look much like a singer, did she? Saw her on television the other night. You just never can tell.” She closed her eyes and smiled to herself. Mary Curlew McJunkie was not a very good name for a country singer.

“This does call for a celebration!” the older man said, slapping the other on the back. She noted his coarse joviality with detached amusement. Far behind them a plane engine began its long whine. The driver switched on the radio, and Tex Ritter sang, “I dreamed I was there in Hillbilly Heaven.” She smiled to herself, being there in Hillbilly Heaven, but the men weren’t listening to the song.

“By God, I reckon,” said the other. “How’ve you been, Homer?” Homer. Oh, wow. It was hillbilly country all right. Hillbilly singers all had names like Homer. Homer and Ferlin and Lester and Leroy, here I come. She was really in the South now.

“Fine, fine. Where’re you staying?” Big Homer beamed at his friend.

“Colony House Motel.”

Businessmen, she thought. Backbone-of-America heavy-tweed-perennial-air-passengers, smelling impersonally of planes: the men her mother called “nice” and went out with, who for years had brought Marguerite McJunkie home smelling of smoke and whiskey from Baltimore bars. Mary Curlew and her grandmother would put her mother to bed and never speak of it the next day. She despised men like that.

“Well, listen, Harry, you’ve got to come out to the house. Pris would never forgive you—”

“If I can. That’s mighty nice,” the younger one replied. “I’ll be busy. I have some appointments—”

The other held up a hand. “I understand, old buddy,” he said.

Appointments, she thought. With people like her mother? Mary Curlew wondered if he’d winked at his friend as he’d said it.

“How’s Janet?”

“She’s fine. Everyone’s fine. Billy’s in high school now. Doing just fine. How’s Pris?”

“Okay.” A brief silence; the taxi careened too fast down the wide straight highway; the countryside, similar to home, vaguely surprised her. Had she expected palm trees? “What’s the word at N and P?”

Thestor Posey was singing “Picture in My Heart,” now, his voice nearer than it had ever been.

“We raised the dividend and split three for one last month.”

“Great. Just great!”

“And last week we opened merger negotiations with MED.”

“Oh? With what?”

“Memphis Eddington-Dynamics.”

They might as well have been speaking a foreign language. Mary Curlew wondered how long they could keep up this no-talk. The men were exactly alike, carrying their extra years and extra pounds wearily, sunburned or just dark-skinned, the only difference that one of them had a wide streak of gray in his hair. Tires, dynamics, what did it matter? Both wore tweed coats that looked expensive.

“Harry, that’s real fine,” the older one named Homer said, shaking his head in what seemed to be amazement.

“Everything all right on the airwaves?” And Harry laughed too loud.

“Sure. Couldn’t be better. You ever listen, up there in Grissom?”

The younger one shook his head. “Nah. I’m afraid not, Homer. I heard you’re in music now.”

The other nodded. “You heard about Ossie, I guess.”

“Yeah.” The younger one too nodded, and she thought she saw his head turn toward her just for a moment.

“It’s too bad. Too damn bad.” He shifted his position. “Got enough room, little lady?”

She stared at the younger one her opinion of the epithet. “Fine, thanks,” she said, her voice faint. She moved closer to the window and thought she caught a flash of amusement on the older man’s heavy face.

The back of the driver’s head looked exactly like a coconut. Idly, she wished he would turn around and reveal no face at all, just more hair, a real coconut; she wondered how the men would react to that.

“Yep,” the older one said, sighing, settling his bulk differently. “Ossie’s a good guy. I’ll be sorry to lose him. Especially like this. A bit ambitious, but—” He broke off, shrugging his shoulders. “You in town for long?”

The other one shook his head. “Just a couple of days.”

“You know, Harry, I could really use some help with Ossie right now. His time’s about up.” Mary Curlew shivered inside her coat. Time’s about up.

“That’s tough doings, Homer. Is he here?” Homer nodded.

The driver craned his head around, and she felt mildly disappointed that he had a face after all. “Seventeenth Avenue, lady?”

She nodded. “And Linden.”

“How far up is that?” She thought the men glanced at each other.

“Around thirty-four hundred,” she said. “Right side.” She knew only because she had seen even numbers on their left. She hoped her bluff would work. She did not want them to know she was a stranger in town.

“If you could, that is,” Homer said quietly.

“Well, it’s a tough thing to do,” Harry replied.

The taxi slowed down enough to turn right. She saw the sign ahead, Colony House Motel. The cab, going more slowly now, cruised to a stop. The windshield looked dusty, a faint rainbow appearing for an instant low on the right side.

The older one spoke, sighing. “Here you are, Harry. I’ll be seeing you, now. Call if you have a minute. Pris is—gone a lot, so just keep trying. And, uh—if you feel like you could help—”

But Harry shook his head sadly. “I guess I’ll be seeing you at the funeral anyway,” he said, sticking out his hand.

She watched them shake hands and smile at each other, hard smiles that seemed to convey, We’ve got to get through this together, friend. Ambitious, they had said. His time’s about up. And now a planned funeral! Were they Mafia members? They were obviously going to kill the man named Ossie. She stared once more at the back of the driver’s head, but he hadn’t been listening, was writing someting on a clipboard in the front seat.

While the taxi driver noisily removed baggage and made change, she thought about what she should do. She felt the eyes of the older one upon her as cold as stone. They had been casual, almost blatant, about it.

The taxi driver leapt in and slammed his door closed again, and the machine shuddered. With a scream, the car took off from the curb, jolting her against the heavy man. She rearranged herself on the far side of the seat. It was now or never. She had no idea how much more time she would be spending with this gangster in the backseat of the taxi, but she felt certain he would not hurt her here in broad daylight.

Mary Curlew McJunkie cleared her throat. “You guys really work efficiently, don’t you?”

“What’s that?” His face showed puzzlement. Could he believe she hadn’t understood?

“I said, ’You really work efficiently.’ Don’t you?”

The man ran his hand through his thick dark hair, disturbing the wide streak of gray. He frowned, apparently surprised.

“I’m afraid I don’t understand,” he said, looking at her sideways, wary.

She saw the color of his eyes was a light brown. Hazel, that was the color.

“You’re going to kill a man, aren’t you?” she said quickly, though it was impetuous to say it at all, and had she not begun already, she wouldn’t have gone on.

For a second he looked more confused than ever and didn’t answer, biting his lip. Then he gave her a look of calculation, of menace, and as he turned his face so his heavy profile was to her, she knew she had been rash and understood that now her own life might be in danger because she had overheard and understood them. Sweat burst through every pore in her body.

Finally he said slowly, turning his head back toward her, “Are you talking about Ossie?”

“This block, lady?” the driver wanted to know.

Glancing briefly out the window at the bleak sidewalk, she took a deep breath. “Yes,” she said, to both of them at once. “The Lady Love Apartments.”

The cab swerved, then stopped with the same jerk, throwing her forward into the padded back of the front seat. She listened for some sound that might reveal the guitar’s safety. The man cleared his throat and looked straight ahead. “Ossie’s a business associate of mine. Or used to be. He and Harry and I used to work together. He’s dying of cancer.”

Mary Curlew didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t now for dear life reconstruct what it was they had said. She couldn’t do anything but nod at him. “It sounded, uh—well, it didn’t sound like that.”

He nodded. “I see,” he said. “Well, I’m glad you didn’t sic the police on me. You’ve got a right vivid imagination, you know.”

She stared at him, resenting the accuracy of the observation. “You seemed to know exactly when the funeral would be,” she defended herself.

The driver tossed his head and laughed. And Homer laughed, showing strong teeth, his eyes crinkling up and disappearing in the dark creases of his face. “Oh, yes, I guess it did sound strange.”

“Oh, yeah,” echoed the driver.

Homer straightened his face at once and glanced at her for a moment. “I reckon we do know, sort of. Soon. It’s very sad.” He took a quick cleansing breath. “Well,” he said, sticking out his hand, “it’s been nice talking with you. Don’t let the big city scare you.”

She ignored the hand until he let it drop back onto the tweed of his coat. She would show him plenty. It couldn’t be so obvious that she was new in Nashville. Yet his face was now clearly amused, though he looked mock-serious. She couldn’t bear the thought of his telling his wife and friends about his incredible experience. His mouth twitched, and his eyes were sly. She was strongly tempted to tell him why she had come to Nashville, if only to make his eyes respectful. But she bit her lower lip and said nothing. By now the driver had placed her suitcase on the sidewalk with the guitar case propped against it.

“I’ll be just fine,” she said, clipping each word off neatly. She paid the driver and checked to make sure she had her pocketbook, her gloves, her tote. All there. The man in the backseat acknowledged her words with an uplifted hand, but he wouldn’t wipe that arrogant smirk off his face.

She picked up the guitar and tote and pocketbook all in one hand and dragged the huge suitcase up the steps of the Lady Love Apartments, bump, bump, bump, bump. She wished she could have appeared more dignified, but she did not look backward once.

The hall of the Lady Love Apartments was hot as an oven, ill-lit, and dismally empty. The walls were bare, the plaster crazed, and no carpet broke the worn expanse of splintery floorboards. Outside two of the doors stood sagging sacks of garbage. A beat-up and rusted wheelbarrow also stood next to one of the doors. Except for the mailboxes, five big tin juice cans nailed through the bottoms into the wall, there was nothing else. The same smell permeated most apartment halls she had ever been in: a combination, if you analyzed it, of cabbage, vacuum cleaners, the mildly vanilla-ish odor of baking potatoes, fried liver, onions, grease smoke, yesterday’s cigarette ashes. Horrible, all right. Not that she had expected a red carpet or a welcoming committee. But the Lady Love Apartments (and any other name in the world, she reflected, would have been better) rented for only forty dollars a month. She had called the landlord yesterday and been assured that it was waiting for her. Number Four.

She looked at each door, but they said One, Two, and Three. The mailboxes indicated five apartments. So she walked upstairs, leaving her suitcase and the guitar in the hall. Five, said the door at the top of the bare steps. Four was back a few yards toward the front of the building. The key was in the lock, dangling a dirty yellow card.

Ugly green walls greeted her, but a bank of windows high up made a long dormer across the front of the house, and the room was light, with bare branches cutting the sky outside into jigsaw fragments. Off to the right, a minuscule bathroom. Off to the left, a tiny kitchen. The center of the room was piled up with a brass bed blackened with tarnish, a beige couch jammed next to it, a white bookshelf on top of the couch, a round table topped by two chairs. She shook her head in amazement. It was precisely the furniture she had asked for. The landlord Mr. Salter had said on the phone, “What do you want in the apartment?” Looking down, she saw that there was even a rug on the floor, if you could call it that. It was pinkish beige, a carpet remnant that nearly covered the dark floor. Both ends were frayed, and a narrow blue stripe ran down one side of it, a narrow red stripe down the other side. Not beautiful, but surely usable.

Surveying the room once more, she returned for her suitcase and her guitar with the oddly comforting feeling that the apartment would be an encumbrance so minor that it would not weigh her down at all. And it was only temporary; that was the thing to remember.

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