Journalist Heather Lende has been writing obituaries in the small town of Haines, Alaska, for 20 years.
Smith Henderson‘s novel “Fourth of July Creek” (excerpt below) has been getting raves ever since its publication in late May. The book is set in Montana, where Henderson was born and raised, and where his family has deep roots: his father is a logger, his grandfather was a butcher and a cowboy and his great grandfather helped build railroads.
“Fourth of July Creek” centers around Pete, a social worker who advocates for neglected and abused children. He becomes entangled with the father of one of his clients, a survivalist who believes that the end times are coming. As Pete becomes more deeply involved in their lives, he ignores the unraveling of his own family, including his daughter who needs him as much or more than any of his charges.
Henderson discusses his debut novel with Here & Now’s Robin Young.
On how his life experience informed the premise of the book
“I worked for several years in a group home in Montana so I had exposure to a lot of those kids and their stories, which, I have to say, I did not use for this book. Those things were sacred. Those things that they went through were their stories. But, being with them and with social workers, I saw something going on that I hadn’t seen in a book that was set in the west and I hadn’t seen really much in literature at all, which was this investigator of families.”
On the arduous process of crafting this novel
“There were times when I was working on this book that the things that I was researching were so awful that I despaired for a while that I wouldn’t even be able to one– emotionally complete the book myself, or two– the stuff that I was discovering couldn’t be written about. It’s dialed back is what I’m saying. It’s actually not an exaggeration whatsoever.”
On how a specific instance growing up influenced Jeremiah Pearl’s character
“There was this exquisite, exhilarating feeling of persecution at that moment.”
“I have this very vivid memory of going to a bible camp. And we were sitting around after lunch and these men came riding into the camp area. My recollection is that they were firing guns in the air, even. They were wearing bandanas and they were on horseback. And this truck came barreling through the meadow and they were rounding up the kids to put them in the back of this trailer. And I got to the trailer and instead of climbing in, I dove under it. I crawled underneath the trailer and underneath pickup and broke for the trees. At some point it dawned on me, when I was out there, that this wasn’t a real thing. And that there was some lesson to be learned there. But I didn’t actually learn the lesson because I was hiding in the woods but I guess it had something to do with ‘the government could come at any time and round people up.’ … But there was this exquisite, exhilarating feeling of persecution at that moment. I still viscerally understand that if you think the world is ginned up to take you out you’re going to resist.”
By Smith Henderson
The cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt-and-gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla. Through the dirty window, he spotted some blond hair falling, and he hiked in his gut, hoping that the woman in there would be something to have a look at. Which is to say he did not expect what got out: a guy in his late twenties, maybe thirty, pulling on a denim coat against the cold morning air blowing down the mountain, ducking back into the car for a moment, reemerging with paperwork. His brown corduroy pants faded out over his skinny ass, the knees too. He pulled that long hair behind his ears with his free hand and sauntered over.
“Name’s Pete,” the social worker said, tucking the clipboard and manila folder under his arm, shaking the cop’s hand. “We’re usually women,” he added, smiling with an openness that put the cop at ill ease.
The cop just replied with his own name—“Eugene”—took back his hand, and coughed into his fist. The social worker pointed at the cop’s badge with his chin, a seven-pointed nickel star with MONTANA chased inside it, mountains on the left, plains on the right, a sun, a river.
“Lookit mine,” Pete said, pulling out a flimsy laminate from his wallet.
“I keep telling them I need a badge that don’t look like it came out of a damn cereal box.”
The cop didn’t have a ready opinion about that. He burnished a smudge off his own shield with a plump red thumb and turned toward the house. It abutted a steep hill and was poorly maintained, if at all. Peeling paint, a porch swing dangling from one rusting chain, a missing windowpane taped over with torn cardboard. Couch cushions, half a blow-dryer, some lengths of phone cable, a plastic colander, and broken crockery littered the yard. Pieces of clothing slung up in the cedar shrubs like crude scarecrows, and the grass erupted in tall disordered bunches, stalks shooting through the warped porch boards, at places window-high.
The screen door hung open behind where the mother and her son sat.
“Shit,” Pete said. “You had to cuff them.”
“That or they’s gonna kill each other.”
The mother called out to him—“Pete! Pete!”—but he shook his head no, and she looked off, pissed and muttering. The son didn’t even glance up, but must’ve suggested something to her because she turned away from him and spat out some words. From where they were, Pete and the cop couldn’t hear what hateful thing she said, and they watched a minute to see if the bickering would flare up. It did not.
Pete affixed the open folder to the clipboard, clicked his pen, and started his incident report. The cop let out his pony-keg belly a little. They always relaxed when the social worker got involved, soothed by the scritching of his pen, relieved that Pete would be taking it from here.
“So what happened?” Pete asked, pen aloft.
The cop snorted contemptuously, lit up another cigarette, and told him. They were at it again, and the neighbor’d finally had it with the two of them broadcasting to the whole row of houses precisely how they’d kill each other, what appendages would be hacked off, and into what orifices they would stick those dismembered parts. There were children about, the neighbor said, so he went over. He pounds on the door. No response. Cups his eyes to see in the window. Sounds like the argument has spilled out the back door of the house. The neighbor jogs around to the side gate, where the boy is standing with his air rifle. The two of them halt at the sight of one another. Then the kid starts crossing and uncrossing his eyes at the neighbor. To unnerve him or because he’d at last gone bonkers, who could say.
“Did he actually threaten the neighbor with the gun?”
The cop blew smoke out his nose.
“This guy, he knows a pellet gun when he sees it.”
“But it ain’t like he pointed the gun at the guy or said anything threatening at him exactly. The neighbor says he was more worried about the kid going after the mother.”
Pete nodded and wrote some more.
“So then what?”
“So he says ‘fuckit’ and calls it in.”
“And the situation when you got here?”
The situation was a perfect fucking mess. The situation was the kid climbing up onto the slanted, dented aluminum carport and stomping on the rusted thing like an ape. Just making the whole unsound shelter boom and groan under his weight. The mother saying so help her if that thing falls on her Charger she’ll gut him, and the kid just swagging the carport back and forth so that it was popping and starting to bow under his weight. Now the cop was about ready to shoot the ornery shit off the goddamn thing.
Then the situation got interesting.
“The mother has the air rifle and—”
“No way,” Pete said.
“Yeah, fuckin way,” the cop said.
“She shoot him?”
“Before I get to her, yeah, she shoots. You can see the big old welt on his forearm.”
Pete started to write.
“And then what?”
Then the kid leaps off the carport just as the cop has taken the air rifle and ordered the woman inside, but the kid and his mother are already tearing at each other like two wet cats in a sack. Right in front of a goddamn cop, mind you. Like he ain’t even there. All the neighbors are out on their nice, normal lawns in their bathrobes clutched closed at the neck watching the cop trying to disentangle the two of them, taking it in like the fucking rodeo. And the bitch—“pardon my French” the cop at last says about all his cussing—won’t desist, and the kid won’t desist, so the cop wrangles the first one he can get a hand on—the woman it turns out—and wrestles her onto her belly and into the cuffs, but not before the kid makes a run to kick her in the face, which the cop just barely stops with his own body. And realizing he’s just kicked one seriously pissed-off police officer in the chest, the dumbshit turns tail and flees.
“And you ran him down,” Pete said.
Smoke leaked out the cop’s pale yellow smile.
“See that pickup?” he asked.
“So he’s looking back to see if I’m coming and he runs smack into the open tailgate.”
“I imagine that was satisfying.”
“Your words, brother.” The cop took a drag, and blew it at the ground. “Anyhow, by the time I get him up on the porch, she’s blubbering about how she has a social worker who knows the whole history of everything and would straighten them out. ‘Please, please, would I call the social worker,’ she says.”
Pete nodded and wrote. His arm was tired, so he bent to finish with the clipboard on his thigh. The cop said something.
“I’m sorry?” Pete said.
“So what’s going on with these two?” the cop asked again.
Pete scoffed, not at the question, but at the enormity of the answer. How to sketch it. Shorthand it. A great many things were going on with them. Went on and would keep going on.
The mother collected unemployment but her full-time occupation was self-pity.
She slippered around the house in sweatpants and smoked a lot of weed and took speed and tugged her hair over her face in a shape pleasing and temporary and dumped forth her old bosom and smiled prettily for herself and discovered nothing in the mirror to recommend her to anybody for anything. Or so you could imagine, the way she mooned her eyes at you until you told her to knock it off, you wanted to talk about the children. She ventured out only to get her SSI check and visit her dealer somewhere up on the edge of the Yaak Wilderness. Sometimes to get cereal. She could be seen around town powdered white and made up in slashes of red around her mouth and blue around her eyes like an abstract of the American flag, some kind of commentary on her country, which of a sort she was. Mostly she cloaked her grand paranoia in aviator glasses and lavender feather boas and, when she was ripping high, imagined herself some kind of fairy, and when she was low, imagined herself some kind of persecuted witch.
Pete closed the manila folder.
“The mother’s a disaster. Most of her disability goes to speed.”
“I recognize the kid,” the cop said. “Got a good run of priors going.”
The kid dangled his head between his knees. A recreational gas huffer, who smelled like gasoline, but with an undertone of minerals like a rotting pumpkin in hot dirt. Other times of Cheetos and semen. With that acne-potted skin, you initially felt sorry for him. He came and went but not to school or for long or for good. He owed restitution for an arson (equipment shed, track field), had a pending court date for burgling pickups.
“He’s about one infraction away from a stint at Pine Hills,” Pete said.
“Like assaulting a cop.”
The thing was, Pete suspected the onset of something diagnosable, a condition or combination of disorders that a good therapist would home in on. But Pete could never get the fifteen-year-old to an appointment, either because of the boy or his insane mother. He told them there was a new drug called Ritalin in the literature. Regretted saying the word the moment it slipped out of his mouth and they looked at him like he’d broken out in French. Literature. What drugs and literature in the houses in and around Tenmile, Montana. Louis L’Amour and James Michener, and comic books, furled and foxed Penthouses, some marijuana. Popular Mechanics and some truckers’ speed. The Bible, if you were lucky. Good God, what this dotty bitch and the punkinhead son would make of Revelations. It’d look like something painted on the side of a van. The cranks and drunks up here took to Jesus (in jail, if it pleases the court) and worried creases into the spine of the good book, consulting it like the I Ching or a Ouija board. For a good five or six months, they’d follow the Ten Commandments and hand out Jack Chick tracts like they were lucky pennies or rabbits’ feet. But soon they were chipping, they were sneaking a drink or a joint or some uppers on the sly, thumbing the thin pages for answers to the little questions as if following the better part of God’s law was achieved by divining from Leviticus what to have for supper or what color socks to wear.
“He could maybe do all right in a stable environment,” Pete said. “Maybe not.”
On the porch, the mother and son sensed things approaching a head. Their social worker had his clipboard under his armpit and he and the cop were talking. The mother watched, read the men’s body language, a language with which she had some fluency from previous arrests, other times she was made to wait. In court. At the SSI office, signing up for disability security. She chinned herself toward them trying to hear, but the kid was untroubled, mute and deviceless as a glass of lukewarm water.
“So do you feel like throwing a mom and her son in jail today?” Pete asked.
“I surely do not. But these two are full idiots.” The cop dropped the butt and mashed it neatly with the point of his boot. “I thought the mama was plumb full of shit.”
“You. Dispatch didn’t even know if we had a Department of Family Services in town.”
“My office is in the basement of the courthouse,” Pete said amiably. “Next to Records.”
“So whaddya usually do with them?”
“There’s no usual. What can I say? The kid’s got priors. I’d like to keep him out of Pine Hills. There gonna be any charges?”
“I dunno. Resisting, I guess. Assault if you wanna go there.”
“What I don’t want is to come back.” The cop pressed closed a nostril with his finger and leaned over and blew furiously out of it.
“Let ’em off with a warning?”
The cop nodded, wiping his nose with the back of his index finger.
“Okay. But let me talk to the girl first,” Pete said, bending to look in the squad car.
There was no girl in the squad car. Pete had assumed there would be, but there wasn’t.
“What girl?” the cop asked.
Pete ignored him and charged through the yard and up the steps. The mother leaned over whining at him, but he stepped around her and she fell over—“Hey!” she said—but he was past her and into the house. The light laddering through the blinds was morning light, cleaner and brighter. Not that what it shone on was much worth seeing. Styrofoam cups and paper bags and dirty clothes in the windrows of their comings and goings. Ashtrays on the gnawn armrests of the couch were filled to overflowing with butts. A dark jar of liquid sat on the coffee table atop a stack of unopened mail.
“Katie?” he called. The catch in his throat surprised him. Sweet Christ, he really gave a shit. The way he charged up in here. That he was here at all.
“Kate, it’s me, Pete.”
He set down his clipboard and stepped into a small cloud of fruit flies off the kitchen and waved them away from his face, his eyes. Into the narrow hall. Bed sheets with rust-colored stains and rectangles of particleboard rode along the wall. A pacifier. A Happy Meal box filled
with twine. Sacks of sand and cans of open paint. A hammer and a stack of eight-track tapes.
There were families you helped because this was your job, and you helped them get into work programs or you set up an action plan and checked in on them or you gave them a ride to the goddamn doctor’s office to have that infection looked at. You just did. Because no one else
was going to. And then there were the people who were reasons for you to do your job. Katie. Why.
Fuck why. She just was.
He stepped past the boy’s room and called for her again. She wasn’t in her room. Just a mattress on the floor and a thin sleeping bag and a cup of water. Pink nude dolls. He stepped over a crushed cardboard box and pulled on the cord to a bare bulb. Her small clothes lay on the
floor. The cop’s shadow passed by the window. Shit, she might have run away and into the woods out back.
The sliding closet door rattled on its track. There.
“Katie, it’s Pete.”
The door slid open. His heart was actually pounding. She stepped out into the room, slight and shy and stinted. Hair nearly white, and scared white too.
“Hey,” he said.
She turned her head away.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
She put her head down and charged at him and threw her arms around his neck. He gasped, and her hair sucked into his mouth with his breath, and her heart thrummed in her little birdcage chest, the little pumping bird that raced in there. His own racing too. He could feel the
relief behind his eyeballs, his face, shuddering in his body like exhaustion.
“So she was in here,” the cop said from the doorway.
Katie pressed her head tight against his, and he tried to unclutch her, but she closed her eyes against him, grabbed one of his ears, gripped his neck, and squeezed as hard as she could. Pete stood, the girl affixed to him. The cop scratched himself.
“It’s okay,” Pete said to the girl and then again, louder to the cop who departed, nodding sheepishly.
“Katie,” he said. “The policeman is gone.”
She looked to see if it was true, not at the door but at him. A skinny blond thing so small in his arms. She put her hands inside his coat.
“This was scary, wasn’t it?”
She didn’t move.
“The policeman came, didn’t he? Because your mom and Cecil were fighting, right?”
She murmured yes.
“It was scary, wasn’t it? I’d be scared. Not knowing what your mom is going to do to your brother or what your brother is going to do to your mom? Did you see the policeman?”
“And is that when you hid in your room?”
She nodded against his chest.
“It’s okay now. That was a good thing to have happened, because the policeman called me. And I’m here now and we’re gonna get this all straightened out, okay?”
She wasn’t ready to straighten out anything. She needed him to hold her. He rubbed her back, the laced bones of her spine. She shuddered out a terrific sigh. He wondered what she was thinking. He wondered did she wish he would take her away. Did she wonder what his house was like. What kinds of food he had. What he would play with her. What kind of father could he be.
He knew what kind of father he was.
But he knew too that it’s nice right here to hold a small frightened girl and be strong and necessary. Times he took children from a bad home when it was almost worse on him than the child. Times they crushed up against him like this and he thought the work all came down to sheer rescue.
He carried her through the house and to the porch. The sun was full up, and the birds were out making their singsong rounds. The cop was talking to the mother and Cecil and he acknowledged Pete with a nod, looked under his fingernails, and kept talking to them.
“Now, I could put both of ya’s in jail. I oughta should.” He winked at Pete. “But, uh—”
“—Pete here says you’re good folks having a spot of trouble is all, and I should be lenient.”
He uncuffed them, the mother first. The boy rubbed his wrists. The shamed woman’s chin quivered, but she didn’t say anything.
“I don’t wanna come back, you hear? If I do, somebody’s going to jail. And I mean if I come back tomorrow, or next week or next month. I don’t ever want to come back, you understand?”
The woman nodded. Cecil seemed transfixed by the indentures on his wrists.
“You all right here?” the cop asked Pete.
“Yeah. Thanks, Eugene.”
The cop tipped his hat, and walked to his car, lighting another cigarette. When he left, a thick cloud of dust bore up from the road and washed over the porch and enveloped them. Pete covered the girl’s face and went inside.
From FOURTH OF JULY CREEK by Smith Henderson. Copyright 2014 Smith Henderson. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Peter O’Dowd follows the route of Abraham Lincoln's funeral train 150 years ago, to look at modern-day race relations and Lincoln's legacy.