Book extract: In Sara Paretsky's 'Bleeding Kansas', a newcomer to a rural area exposes vicious rifts in America's heartland
Sunday 16 March 2008
"A hundred years from now, your granddaughter will want to know how we were living, how we faced up to the challenges, just like we want to know about what Abigail did," Susan explained to Lara.
Lara couldn't imagine that anyone would find her life as interesting as a pioneer's. How could playing basketball or working on the X-Farm compare to Abigail hacking off the head of a snake that slithered through the great gaps in the floorboards or lying on top of her baby to keep him from crying while Border Ruffians ransacked the house? But when she was 10, Lara dutifully started a diary. Sitting next to her mother at the dining-room table, she would write about her day at Kaw Valley Eagle or how she rescued the meadowlark fledglings she'd found in the cornfield.
When she turned 13, the previous year, she also turned secretive. The privacy of the deserted Fremantle house became like a cloak of invisibility she could wrap around herself. Lara left her diary behind the mantel, where her mother wouldn't be able to find it, and she would sit in the east-facing master bedroom, where there wasn't a danger that Dad would see her flickering candle from the wheat field, when she wrote in it. For the same reason, Chip and Curly hung out in the back parlor, the one used for receiving special visitors back in pioneer times.
Tonight, she and Chip wanted to retrieve the private things they'd left here. Chip was especially worried about his stash of dope, but Lara didn't want to lose her diary.
When they got to the coal chute, Chip undid the cover and slid down first. He waited at the bottom for Lara, who dallied: she was terrified, and didn't want him to know. For all the money they'd put into building a fancy house, the original Fremantles had left the basement unfinished. It had a dirt floor, where snakes and wolf spiders roamed. Lara didn't mind them so much in the daylight, but she didn't want to land on one in the dark.
"Come on, Lulu," Chip yelled up at her. "We want to make it snappy."
She shut her eyes, took a breath, and slid down the chute. He caught her at the bottom.
"Point the light on the ground, I don't want to step on a spider. And don't fool around with me, I don't like it," she added as he crawled his fingers up her scalp.
They ran up the steep stairs to the kitchen. The house smelled like bleach, from yesterday's cleanup, but the acrid stench of cat spray underlay the bleach, making Lara sick to her stomach. Chip pushed through the swinging door into the dining room while Lara headed for the staircase to the second floor.
Her foot was on the first step when the kitchen door opened. She couldn't hold back a scream.
"Dad! What are you doing –"
"What am I doing here? More to the point, what are you two doing here?"
"It was a dare," Lara said quickly. "Chip dared me that I was too chicken –"
"Lara, don't lie to me. If you don't want to tell me the truth, just keep quiet."
Lara flushed and dug her nails into her palms so she wouldn't cry. Chip said he was sorry, they had left a few things here.
"So you have been breaking in here!" Jim said. "I tried talking to you about this Friday and you were too cowardly to tell me the truth. How do you think that makes me feel? I was asked to keep an eye on this place, and not only did you take advantage of my responsibility here, you lied to me."
When neither of his children spoke, Jim said, "And what 'things' did you leave here? Dope? Don't tell me you've been letting Lulu smoke."
"No, of course not. Me and Curly, we come over here sometimes."
"After what you said Friday night? When I –"
"I told you Curly wasn't buying drugs for me. That's the truth."
Jim breathed hard through his nose, then he turned to look at Lara. "And what were you coming here to get?"
Chip said, "She just tagged along for the adventure. She was going to watch from the upstairs window to see if you were coming, but you beat us to it."
Jim's hard eyes stayed on his daughter for a second. Lara didn't know why Chip lied for her, but she was too upset to say anything. Jim made Chip get his stash, which he'd stored inside a beat-up piano in the house's front parlor. When Chip and Curly got high, they'd play the piano. They thought it was excruciatingly funny to play songs where you could only get half the notes to come out.
"This is real," Jim announced, smelling it. "I thought maybe you were harvesting the local weed. Where did you buy this?"
"From a guy in town, okay, Dad? Now you have it, does it matter?"
"Of course it matters, because even if I throw this out you'll just get more. Is that the life you think I want for you, breaking into other people's houses, getting stoned there?"
"What are you going to do? Tell Arnie Schapen to search me every time I drive past his place?" Chip spoke with a kind of fake jocularity that always got his father's goat.
Jim and Chip both knew Arnie would think he was in hog heaven if he caught one of the Grelliers breaking any law, but Jim was too angry to think clearly, so he said, "If that's what it takes to keep you from doing dope or breaking into empty houses, maybe it's not such a bad idea."
At that, Chip lost his own temper. He flung open the back door and took off down the Fremantle drive toward the road.
Jim knew he'd overreacted, but he was still angry with both children. He glared at his daughter. "Were you in on this? Were you joining those drug parties?"
She shook her head. "I smoked some once, but I didn't like it. Anyway, Chip didn't want me to, he only let me because I begged him. I wanted to see what it was like. And we never hurt this house, so don't act like we're robbers or something."
"Not robbers, housebreakers, and too ignorant to cover your tracks. Come on. It's past midnight, and you have school in the morning, so let's get home."
Once they were outside, Jim closed the coal chute. He found a screwdriver in the pickup and rebolted the two-by-four to the cellar cover. When they were heading back home, Jim emptied the bag of marijuana out the window. Tijuana gold mixing with wild Kansas hemp – maybe they'd breed a wonderful hybrid that would bring a new generation of hippies to the area.
The truck passed Chip, trudging down the road. Jim was seldom angry, and never for long. The sight of his son walking through the snow in his sneakers made him feel ashamed. He swung down from the cab and apologised to Chip for losing his temper, but he couldn't apologise for throwing out the dope or caring about his kids breaking into the house. Chip climbed into the truck, but he stayed angry with Jim for a number of days.
Later, Jim wondered if his anger that night had been a catalyst for disaster. If I had kept my temper, if I had seen it from Chip's point of view, he would think over and uselessly over.
© Sara Paretsky 2008
'Bleeding Kansas' by Sara Paretsky (Hodder & Stoughton £16.99)
About the author
Sara Paretsky is the author of 14 previous novels, 11 of which feature the private eye VI Warshawski. She was born in 1947 and raised in the same Kaw Valley area of Kansas where her 15th novel is set, but has lived in Chicago since 1968
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