One of America’s most celebrated novelists, Cormac McCarthy announced his towering presence on the literary stage with his first novel, The Orchard Keeper. Within the pages of this classic work, John Wesley Rattner, his uncle Ather, and bootlegger Marion Sylder find their lives dangerously entwined in pre–World War II Tennessee. There, the men’s tragedies and struggles are mirrored by the looming specter of industrialization.
Release date: August 11, 2010
Print pages: 256
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The Orchard Keeper
For some time now the road had been deserted, white and scorching yet, though the sun was already reddening the western sky. He walked along slowly in the dust, stopping from time to time and hobbling on one foot like some squat ungainly bird while he examined the wad of tape coming through his shoe-sole. He turned again. Far down the blazing strip of concrete a small shapeless mass had emerged and was struggling toward him. It loomed steadily, weaving and grotesque like something seen through bad glass, gained briefly the form and solidity of a pickup truck, whipped past and receded into the same liquid shape by which it came.
He swung his cocked thumb after it in a vague gesture. Little fans of dust scurried up the road shoulder and settled in his cuffs.
Go on, damn ye, he said to the fleeting mirage. He took out his cigarettes and counted them, put them back. He turned his head to the sun. Won’t be no use after dark, he said. Windless silence, not even a rustle from the dusty newsprint and candypapers pressed furtively into the brown wall of weeds at the road edge.
Further on he could see the lights of a filling station, some buildings. Maybe a fork where the traffic slowed. He jerked his thumb at a trailer truck as it whined past, sucking up dust and papers in its wake, watched it wrench the trees farther up the road.
You wouldn’t pick up Jesus Christ, would you, he asked, rearranging his hair with his fingers.
When he got to the filling station he had a long drink of water and smoked one of the cigarettes. There was a grocery store adjoining and he wandered in, cruising with a slithery sound up and down the aisles of boxes and cans and filling his pockets with small items—candy bars, a pencil, a roll of adhesive tape … Emerging from behind some cartons of toilet paper he caught the storekeep eying him.
Say now, he said, you don’t have any, uh—his eyes took a quick last inventory—any tire pumps, do ye?
They ain’t in the cake rack, the man said.
He looked down at a jumbled mound of bread and cakes, quietly lethal in their flyspecked cellophane.
Over here—the storekeep was pointing. In a crate at the back end of the counter were jacks, pumps, tire tools, an odd posthole digger.
Oh yeah, he said. I got em now. He shuffled over and fumbled among them for a few minutes.
Them ain’t the kind I was lookin for, he told the storekeep, making for the door now.
What kind was that? the man asked. I didn’t know they was but one kind.
No, no, he said, musing, standing just short of the door, rubbing his lower lip. He was inventing a new tire pump. Well, he said, they got a new kind now you don’t have to pump up and down thisaway (pumping) but what’s got a kind of lever handle you go at like this (pumping, one hand).
That a fact, said the storekeep.
Bet it is, he said. Makes it a whole lot easier on a feller too.
What kind of car you drivin? the storekeep wanted to know.
Me? Why I got me a new Ford. Brand-new thirty-four, V-eight motor. Scare you jest to set in it …
Lots of tire trouble though, hmm?
Well … no, jest this one time is the only first time I ever had me any tire trouble … Well, I better … say now, how fer is it to Atlana?
Well, I reckon I better get on. We’ll see yins.
Come back, the storekeep said. Shore hope you get your tire blowed up. It would be a sight easier with a pump.
But the screendoor flapped and he was outside. Standing on the store porch he studied the hour. The sun was already down. A cricket sounded and a squadron of bull-bats came up out of the smoldering west, high on pointed wings, harrying the dusk.
There was a car pulled in at the filling station. He cussed the storekeep for a while, then walked back down and had another drink of water. From his pocket he produced a candy bar and began munching it.
In a few minutes a man came from the restroom and passed him, going to the car.
Say now, he said. You goin t’wards town?
The man stopped and looked around, spied him propped against an oil drum. Yeah, he said. You want a ride on in?
Why now I shore would preciate it, he said, shuffling toward the man now. My daughter she’s in the hospital there and I got to get in to see her tonight …
Hospital? Where’s that? the man asked.
Why, the one in Atlana. The big one there …
Oh, said the man. Well, I’m jest goin as fer as Austell.
How fer’s that?
Well, you don’t care for me to ride that fer with ye, do ye?
Be proud to hep ye out that fer, said the man.
Coming into Atlanta he saw at the top of a fence of signs one that said KNOXVILLE 197. The name of the town for which he was headed. Had he been asked his name he might have given any but Kenneth Rattner, which was his name.
East of Knoxville Tennessee the mountains start, small ridges and spines of the folded Appalachians that contort the outgoing roads to their liking. The first of these is Red Mountain; from the crest on a clear day you can see the cool blue line of the watershed like a distant promise.
In late summer the mountain bakes under a sky of pitiless blue. The red dust of the orchard road is like powder from a brick kiln. You can’t hold a scoop of it in your hand. Hot winds come up the slope from the valley like a rancid breath, redolent of milkweed, hoglots, rotting vegetation. The red clay banks along the road are crested with withered honeysuckle, peavines dried and sheathed in dust. By late July the corn patches stand parched and sere, stalks askew in defeat. All greens pale and dry. Clay cracks and splits in endless microcataclysm and the limestone lies about the eroded land like schools of sunning dolphin, gray channeled backs humped at the infernal sky.
In the relative cool of the timber stands, possum grapes and muscadine flourish with a cynical fecundity, and the floor of the forest—littered with old mossbacked logs, peopled with toadstools strange and solemn among the ferns and creepers and leaning to show their delicate livercolored gills—has about it a primordial quality, some steamy carboniferous swamp where ancient saurians lurk in feigned sleep.
On the mountain the limestone shelves and climbs in ragged escarpments among the clutching roots of hickories, oaks and tulip poplars which even here brace themselves against the precarious declination allotted them by the chance drop of a seed.
Under the west wall of the mountain is a community called Red Branch. It was a very much different place in 1913 when Marion Sylder was born there, or in 1929 when he left school to work briefly as a carpenter’s apprentice for Increase Tipton, patriarch of a clan whose affluence extended to a dozen jerry built shacks strewn about the valley in unlikely places, squatting over their gullied purlieus like great brooding animals rigid with constipation, and yet endowed with an air transient and happenstantial as if set there by the recession of floodwaters. Even the speed with which they were constructed could not outdistance the decay for which they held such affinity. Gangrenous molds took to the foundations before the roofs were fairly nailed down. Mud crept up their sides and paint fell away in long white slashes. Some terrible plague seemed to overtake them one by one.
They were rented to families of gaunt hollow-eyed and darkskinned people, not Mellungeons and not exactly anything else, who reproduced with such frightening prolificness that their entire lives appeared devoted to the production of the ragged line of scions which shoeless and tattered sat for hours at a time on the porch edges, themselves not unlike the victims of some terrible disaster, and stared out across the blighted land with expressions of neither hope nor wonder nor despair. They came and went, unencumbered as migratory birds, each succeeding family a replica of the one before and only the names on the mailboxes altered, the new ones lettered crudely in above a rack of paint smears that obliterated the former occupants back into the anonymity from which they sprang.
Marion Sylder labored with hammer and saw until late September of that year and then he quit, knowledgeable in purlins and pole plates, and with his savings bought some clothes and a pair of thirty-dollar boots mail-ordered out of Minnesota, and disappeared. He was gone for five years. Whatever trade he followed in his exile he wore no overalls, wielded no hammer.
At that time there was a place in the gap of the mountain called the Green Fly Inn. It was box-shaped with a high front and a tin roof sloping rearward and was built on a scaffolding of poles over a sheer drop, the front door giving directly onto the road. One corner was nailed to a pine tree that rose towering out of the hollow—a hollow which on windy nights acted as a flue, funneling the updrafts from the valley through the mountain gap. On such nights the inn-goers trod floors that waltzed drunkenly beneath them, surged and buckled with huge groans. At times the whole building would career madly to one side as though headlong into collapse. The drinkers would pause, liquid tilting in their glasses, the structure would shudder violently, a broom would fall, a bottle, and the inn would slowly right itself and assume once more its normal reeling equipoise. The drinkers would raise their glasses, talk would begin again. Remarks alluding to the eccentricities of the inn were made only outside the building. To them the inn was animate as any old ship to her crew and it bred an atmosphere such as few could boast, a solidarity due largely to its very precariousness. The swaying, the incessant small cries of tortured wood, created an illusion entirely nautical, so that after a violent wrench you might half expect to see a bearded mate swing through a hatch in the ceiling to report all rigging secure.
Inside there was a genuine bar, purportedly of mahogany, that had been salvaged from a Knoxville saloon in 1919, done service in a laundry, an ice cream parlor, and briefly in a catacombic establishment several miles from Red Branch on the Knoxville road that failed early in its career due to an attempted compromise between graft and cunning. With the exception of two Doric columns of white marble set in either end the bar was of plain construction. There were no stools, and along the front ran a high wooden foot-rail chucked between wagon-wheel hubs. Four or five tables were scattered about the room attended by an assortment of wrecked chairs, milkcases, one treacherous folding campstool. When the inn closed at night the proprietor opened the back door and swept all litter out into the yawning gulf, listening to the crash of glass on glass far below. The refuse collected there cascaded down the mountain to a depth undetermined, creeping, growing, of indescribable variety and richness.
One evening late in March the drinkers blinked in a sweep of lights on the curve, watched a glistening black Ford coupe pull up across the road. It was brand new. A few minutes later Marion Sylder came through the door of the inn resplendent in gray gabardines, the trousers pressed to a knife edge, the shirt creased thrice across the back in military fashion, his waist encircled by a strip of leather the width of a whip-end. Clamped in his jaw was a slender cheroot. On the back of his neck a scarlike gap between sunburn and hairline showed as he crossed to the bar.
There he propped one pebbled goat-hide shoe upon the rail, took from his pocket a handful of silver dollars and stacked them neatly before him. Cabe was sitting on a high stool by the cash register. Sylder eyed the coins briefly, then looked up.
Come on, Cabe, he said. We drinkin or not?
Yessir, Cabe said, clambering down from his stool. Then he thought: Cabe. He studied the man again. Wraithlike the face of the lost boy grew in the features of the man standing at the bar. Say, he said, Sylder? You the Sylder … you Marion Sylder, ain’t you?
Who’d you think I was? Sylder asked.
Well now, said Cabe, don’t that jest beat … Where you been? Hey, Bud! Looky here. You remember this young feller. Well now. How about this.
Bud shuffled over and peered up at him, grinned and nodded.
Here, Sylder said, give these highbinders a drink.
Sure thing, Cabe said. Who’s that?
Sylder gestured at the dim smoky room. They all drinkin, ain’t they?
Well now. Sure thing. He looked about him, uncertain as to how to proceed, then suddenly called out into the tiny room: All right now! All you highbounders got one comin on Marion Sylder. Better get up here and get it.
When Rattner reached the road he stopped and lit a match by which to examine his shin. In that small bloom of light the gash in his leg looked like tar welling. Blood trickled in three rivulets past the black smear his trouser had made, deltaed, rejoined; a thin line shot precipitously into his sock. He let go the match and jammed his scorched thumb into his mouth.
Aside from the torn leg his elbow was skinned and stinging badly. A low strand of barbed wire had been his undoing. Now he pulled a handful of dried weeds, crumpled and struck a match to them. They crackled in quick flame and he hiked his trouser leg again. Wiping the blood away with his palm he studied the rate of flow. Satisfied, he patted the sticky cloth back against the wound and took from his front pocket a billfold. Holding it to the light he pulled out a thin sheaf of folded notes and counted them. Then he ripped the billfold open, scattering cards and pictures. These he examined carefully along with the insides of the ruined purse, then kicked them away and tucked the money into his pocket. The weeds had burned to a ball of wispy cinders, still glowing like thin hot wires. He kicked them away in a burst of dying sparks. Far up the road a pale glow hung in the night like the first touch of dawn. ...
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