Circle of Hurt
1975—Ninety Days till Deadline
Clayton Dupree slowed beating up on himself for getting shot, but couldn’t seem to come to a complete stop. Whiskey was to blame, but nobody forced it past his lips. On the rare occasions when he went out in public, it was not uncommon for him to be the butt of jokes, the subject of ridicule. It had been that way most of his life. Women told him it was the ringlets of hair that hung too far over his collar, maybe the dingy white t-shirt, wrinkled too-large jeans and rough-out, worn-out, low-topped boots that made his uniform. He wasn’t trying to make a fashion statement with the hair or the clothes. But curly hair looked better worn long and going a long time between haircuts saved money. He didn’t care too much about paying laundry or dry cleaning bills either, liked to travel light, and liked the soft feel of cotton.
He usually let the insults pass—unless he had a little whiskey under his belt. And he needed the whiskey to get on a small stage and belt out a song or two he had written. But the loudmouth kid in the Proud-Cut Saloon in Fort Worth who jeered during the performance was just too obnoxious for even him to tolerate. Still, it might have been avoided if the little snot-nose had not followed him outside. And Clayton did have that small .22 in his pocket. He seldom went anywhere unarmed.
The only reason the young fool had lived as long as he had was because he was still young and it was against the law to kill him. The punk looked and acted like a spoiled rich kid, a bully who needed killing, a menace to mankind so-to-speak, and Clayton did his damndest to do mankind a service. But because of whiskey, he got shot by his own gun in a drunken tussle with the kid. And the shooter kid added insult to injury. He smashed Clayton’s guitar and took the gun with him when he ran off down a West Side street.
The bullet barely grazed Clayton’s side, made a clean ditch through a love handle, but he bled like a stuck hog. He almost passed out driving back to the fleabag where he was staying. He paid the hotel clerk highway robbery prices to bring him some bandages and tape, staunched the bleeding, poured on Old Crow he hated to waste. He wrapped the wound and more or less passed out.
The bar fight and shot fired would probably not amount to much as far as the law was concerned, but bringing a loaded gun into a honky-tonk might be frowned on. Might take months of time and hundreds in lawyer fees to work out, so he roused himself early from the sleep he craved and drove the borrowed Pontiac to the bus station. He boarded a Continental Trailways for Dallas and left the worn-out car for her to find. Cops could trace it back to the woman who owned it. He couldn’t remember her name and had given her a false one. She had been mad as hell when he walked out and borrowed it, anyway.
He got off the bus in Dallas with his suitcase full of paper, but few clothes. In a phone booth Yellow Pages, he found a car lot within walking distance. The lot had one pickup that appeared to have led an easy life, a ’67 yellow Ford with low mileage. A few words with a salesman on the lot told him the dealer financed junkers at Cadillac rates. Clayton turned down the usurious rate, paid cash, and headed the little truck to a music store downtown. He bought a used guitar, one of two life necessities. His ex-wife confiscated his good one and his cheap replacement had been left in pieces in the bar parking lot.
He limped from the music store to a used furniture store, bought a bed frame, box springs and mattress, a table and two chairs, paid two hungry-looking kids hanging around outside to load them in the back of the pickup, and headed to the place he used for mending when life got too complicated for him to handle. As he headed east on I-30 toward Riverby, a tiny town in the northeast corner of Texas by the Red River, he tried to get his mind off the pain by recalling how long since he had been to the picker shack.
He had been only a boy when he spent his first night there. With Daddy killed in the war and Mama dead of consumption before thirty, Clayton traveled with his daddy’s brother and his cousins, a family of itinerant farm laborers. They traveled the Texas harvest trail, picked lettuce and fruit down south and cotton, pecans, and corn farther north. They even spent a season mucking stalls in Kentucky. Whatever needed har-vesting, picking, planting, pulling, plucking, or shoveling, the Dupree family was ready.
Clayton was kind of partial to the shack as a boy, thought it an improvement over the tents and worker camps where he could find no privacy, even to take care of personal business. And make no mistake, Clayton needed his privacy. Wasn’t that he didn’t like people, they just made him uncomfortable, drained his energy. And their mannerisms and talk irritated him, made him nervous and self-conscious.
Maybe it was because he couldn’t help but watch their every move, record it in his mind, write it down at night when he could find paper and pencil. Writing it was the only way to control the irritation, the anxiety. He was fascinated by the different dialects in southeast and northeast Texas, western Louisiana and southern Oklahoma. They talked differently, didn’t dress alike, and Clayton had written about them all since he was a boy, including his aunt, uncle and cousins. Writing and keeping it a secret occupied almost all of the limited time he had as a boy outside of the cotton patches, cornfields, stalls, and orchards.
During the second harvest season in the shack, Clayton disappeared when it came time for his uncle’s family to move on. He had developed an attachment to Willard Dunn, the farmer who hired the family and who owned the shack and lived in the house on Hurt Hill a little west and higher up from the shack. The attachment was mutual.
A widower without children, Dunn loved to tell stories, and he found Clayton’s rapt attention a balm for his troubled and lonely soul. And he could see the boy was unhappy traveling with his family. Clayton’s uncle, aunt and cousins looked for him a few hours, gave up and moved on to the next harvest. Willard assured them he would be found and cared for. And he was.
Six years later, on the day Clayton turned eighteen, Willard Dunn died. He left the house, picker shack, and farm to Clayton in his will. Willard named a Riverby lawyer as executor to look out for Clayton’s interests until he turned twenty-one. Clayton had no interest in farming, talked the lawyer into selling the farm a few months later and moved on with cash in his pocket, thinking he would never return. The lawyer held some of the money in escrow in case he did.
But the world kept conquering Clayton, and the old shack seemed to be a good spot to lick his wounds. Besides that, he stored the possessions of most value to him in a bank vault in Riverby. He felt the need to visit those possessions occasionally. Four years of drought and two years of flood had driven the new owner off Hurt Hill and the place was again for sale. Clayton only wanted to hide for a few days, maybe a week. He thought about owning it again, living in the nicer house up the hill, but the picker shack seemed to be what he deserved. He was still squatting in the shack when Joe Henry Leathers, the son of Willard Dunn’s executor, bought it. Joe Henry did not run him off. That visit lasted less than a year, but he had been gone more than six this time.