Summer Reading: Fiction

Excerpt: 'The Right Madness'

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James Crumley is "Montana's answer to Mickey Spillane," says book critic Alan Cheuse, who recommends Crumley's detective novel The Right Madness in his summer reading list for All Things Considered.

Excerpt from Chapter One

It was a lovely, calm Montana summer evening, a Saturday night after a long weekend of softball. The full moon rose blazing over Mount Sentinel, outlining the maw of the Hellgate Canyon with silver fire. A streak of summer haze like a line of blood lay across the moon's idiot face. The motel's pool lights were reduced to dim glows. The hot tub shimmered around us like a pot of silver. The early August afternoon had been as hot as a fiddler's bitch, and a molten slice of sunset still glowed with a hot golden flame along the jagged edge of the western horizon, but the early evening air had cooled quickly enough to draw vaporous swirls of steam from the heated water. The rising moon seemed to muffle the night for a moment. The only sounds were faint — the hiss of traffic over the Clark Fork bridge, the soft paddles from a gaggle of children in the pool, the romantic whispers of two young blond girls in oversized softball shirts leaning into each other, and the brazen chuckles squirting out of a coven of young men brewing drunken plots of disorder and early sorrow at a poolside table.

Then Mac ratcheted up the hot tub's timer and broke the spell. The Jacuzzi jets thrashed the water, scouring away the moon's blush. A whisper of fabric brushed my thigh and a flash of something black and shining caught my eye. I grabbed it automatically. When I realized what it was, I quickly stuffed the scrap of sparkling cloth into the pocket of my trunks.

"Random madness in the ER tonight, Sughrue," Mac murmured from the other side of the hot tub. I assumed he would know. After a quick Vietnam tour and a stint in ERs up and down the West Coast, he had gone back to school, taken his boards, and become a psychiatrist, a position from where he could at least help, sometimes, and where he didn't have to deal with blood and guts anymore.

Once, when I asked him why he had changed medical careers in midstream, he answered thoughtfully that he had enjoyed the battle against bloody injury and sudden death too much. Winning made him hysterical with victory, and losing nearly killed him. The ER was no place for a budding manic-depressive, he maintained. "A dangerous night, Sughrue," he added, grinning. "What's your pleasure? Shall we confront the danger?"

"The most dangerous thing I'm going to do tonight," I said as I cracked my last beer, "is put my pants on and go downtown."

"It's downtown Missoula on a Saturday night," Mac said, then dropped his cigar into the remains of his watery vodka. "You could be eaten by vegetarian hippies falling off the wagon, raped by closet Republicans," he said, then added, nodding toward the table full of bulky and besotted young men laughing, "or beaten to death by deranged and defeated softball players." State softball tournament weekend.

"I'll take my chances," I said. "You want to come along?"

"Is Whitney coming?"

"I don't think so," I said. "I can almost hear her pounding her laptop keys from here. Being married to a lady lawyer ain't all it's cracked up to be, Doc. Hell, she probably won't even notice when I stop by the room to put on my pants."

"How's the separation going?" Mac said as he climbed out of the Jacuzzi.

"It's not a separation," I insisted. "She just took a new job."

"A thousand miles away?" he said. "But it's my personal and professional opinion that you're handling it the right way."

"How's that?"

"You're not taking it personally." Then he added, smiling, "I'll get dressed, tell Lorna we're going, and meet you at the Depot. I need to talk to you about something anyway. It's important."

"Sounds like a deal," I said. As do all people who keep secrets professionally, Mac knew too many, and had a way of making anything he said sound like a deal.

Although he was several years past fifty and had played two softball games in one day, Mac still carried his stubby body with an athlete's strut, a sense of easy strength in his oddly shaped frame. Like Babe Ruth, he didn't look like he could hit the ball, but he could; and he had a winner's confidence in his carriage as he walked the twenty feet from the hot tub to his room. He'd earned that strut. In spite of a torn ACL in high school, he had been a small-college all-American linebacker in his youth, a ranked amateur squash player in his middle years, and now was probably the best softball player over fifty in Montana. Even with a twisted knee, his play at shortstop — two doubles and a seventh-inning home run — earlier that evening had won us the state title in the O.F.S. League. Over Fifty League, they called it. Old Farts Softball, we said.

Our wives had endured the semifinal game earlier that hot afternoon, thinking as everyone did that the Old Goats had come as far as they could, farther than they had ever dreamed. We were bound to lose to a team of very athletic peace officers from Billings, fundamental Christians to a man, their eyes untroubled by doubt, drugs, or even rumors of strong drink. Our defeat seemed so certain that we had made dinner reservations at the Redbird for that night.

But Satan kept the score book that day. Their starting pitcher walked four men in a row before giving up as many dink singles. Then the shortstop, short fielder, and center fielder, mad with frustration, crashed together chasing a high, lazy pop-up. The result was a separated shoulder, a serious concussion, two lost teeth, and four more runs for our team. For them, everything went to hell after that. The next inning, their catcher and the umpire collided face to face, then rushed off to St. Patrick's ER to have their noses removed from their cheeks and recentered in their faces. In the fourth inning, they were forced to recruit two drunks from the stands to save themselves from a forfeit. When the ten-run mercy rule was applied after the fifth inning, they were truly thankful to leave the arena. Christians, 0; Old Goats, 21. So much for dinner reservations. Our wives elected to skip the night game final in favor of a soak in the hot tub and room service dinners in their rooms. We were so stunned by our win that we didn't argue with them.

Mac paused at the sliding glass door of the bridal suite. "Actually, give me an hour," he said, his broad grin shining in the shadows. Mac and Lorna weren't newlyweds, but new enough to still have fun with the notion.

I answered with a wave and a smile of my own. My friend's grin was as happy and excited as a puppy's when he turned to go in to his young wife. Unfortunately, my smile felt as if it had been gouged into my face with a rusty nail. The scrap of fabric I had snatched from the water was the top of Lorna's swimsuit.

As the sliding glass door rumbled shut, the laughter from the young men's table took on a sharp snicker that I didn't much like. I finished my beer, tossed the empty can into the cooler, then climbed out of the hot tub. As I walked past the chuckling table, I clipped one kid's knee with the cooler, hard, then stumbled into the table, spilling drinks all over the other two. Apologizing profusely and promising to call room service to send them a round of drinks, I trotted over to the motel's side entrance, trying not to limp.

A small revenge, I realized, but I knew the indignities facing an older man married to a younger woman. I was fifteen years older than Whitney, but I still had most of my hair, and it was blond and didn't show the gray like the blue-black curls that draped Mac's head and his rakish goatee. He was twenty years older than Lorna, but she looked so young, the age difference seemed greater. She had wide-set wild green eyes, a cap of deep red hair, and the clear skin of an Irish child.

My wife, on the other hand, carried herself like a woman wise beyond her years. A finely etched set of crow's-feet, shadows left from our time hiding in the hard sunlight of the slickrock desert and later in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, flanked the fierce and determined intelligence shining from her deep blue eyes. And I suspected, like many beautiful women, Whitney had never looked like a child. Just as I suspected that Lorna wouldn't stop looking like a child until she was suddenly very old.

A trash can sat just inside the side entrance. I started to stuff the top of Lorna's swimsuit deep into the refuse, then changed my mind, and walked down to our room. The hallway was filled with the wails of the losers and the cheers of the winners. A room service tray with a half-eaten club sandwich and an empty coffee pot sat outside our door. Whit must have heard my key in the door because she was standing just inside, waiting for me, the deep laugh lines flickering around her wide mouth.

"Are you guys ever going to stop acting like kids?" she said, smiling and shaking her head. Then she gave me a long kiss and a hug hard enough to make me flinch. In our league, base runners weren't supposed to try to run over the catcher. But sometimes they forgot. "Aren't you guys ever going to grow up?"

"We'll start working on it tomorrow," I said, when we disengaged.

"I'll believe it when I see it, CW," she said. "Tomorrow?"

"Tonight we're going downtown."

"And here we are with a room all to ourselves," she said, grinning. Our son, Les, had gone to basketball camp back in Minnesota. At twelve he thought softball nearly as boring as baseball and football. He was a basketball fanatic. Pro basketball. "You mind if I keep working?" Whit asked, and she really meant it. She sat back down at the desk. That was one of the many things I loved about her: she always meant what she said. "If I get through this brief tonight, we'll have all day tomorrow to ourselves."

"A brief hurrah, huh? " I said. Her flight wasn't until eight the next evening. "All too brief."

"I wish you wouldn't take it that way," she said, looking into the gray screen. "I‘m getting a late start at this lawyer thing, and this job is a chance to skip a few grinding years." Then she added, "Anyway, we've survived worse times than this." Her new job in Minneapolis was a good one, right, and her mother needed help with her aged father, true enough, and sure as hell we had survived worse times. "It'll be fine," she said.

"I'll get a dog," I said, "and wear out an airline seat."

"Thank you," she said, wrapping a slim, manicured hand around my wet knee, but her eyes were already back at the screen.

"I'll be back before closing time," I said.

"I've heard that before," she said. "Is Lorna going?"

"I don't think so," I said. "Too many vodka tonics and too much sun this afternoon."

"Did you see the size of that blister on her thigh where she missed with the sun block? Jesus."

"I try not to look at Lorna's legs," I said. Even though they were long and lovely, often she seemed a bit too proud of them, too ready to show them off.

"Liar," Whit said as she gently slapped the back of my knee. "I used to envy her that beautiful white skin. Until I found out that she doesn't tan. Hell, she doesn't even bother to burn; she's so pure, she blisters." Then she patted me on the ribs again, laughing. "Are you sore? That asshole ran into you pretty hard. I thought that was against the rules."

"I held on to the ball, honey," I said, "and that's all that counts."

"You'll never grow up."

"I'll be as sore as a boil tomorrow, but we've got at least an hour before the pain starts."

"You've got an hour, cowboy," she said. "I've got to get back to work."

"All work and no play, makes Jack — " I started to say.

"My name ain't Jack, dude," she interrupted, laughing again, "and if you think I'm dull, I can fix that in a heartbeat."

"No, thanks," I said.

She went back to her laptop, and I stepped over to the telephone to order a round of drinks for the boys at the pool.

"What the hell was that about?" Whit said without looking up.

"I stumbled into a table coming back from the hot tub."

"Time to take up golf?"

"I was thinking of chess," I said, but she was already deep into the brief. I showered and changed, trying not to think about why the top of Lorna's swimsuit was floating around the hot tub, and trying not to worry about what Mac wanted to talk to me about.

"Eat something," she said by way of good-bye as I left. Since the day I'd been gutshot down on the border, eating had lost a lot of its charm.

From The Right Madness by James Crumley, copyright (c) 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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