South of Hannah

By David Norman

A Texas musician uncovers the secrets of a mysterious composer. A literary novel about heartache, jealousy, and jazz

They’re blowing through the outskirts in his father’s car. The alignment is shot to hell and the steering wheel buzzes so bad, Cole Howland has to jam his kneecap under the shaft to keep the Buick from veering into a ditch. Lily sits cross-legged in the back seat and squirms on her booster, jostling for a better look at the cows. She’s a twig of a gal, nine come November, with short, pale legs and big owl-hollow eyes.

Beyond the windshield, the sky is a trout’s belly spackled with cirrus clouds. Billboards flash ads for cheap housing developments, car dealerships and gun shops, ads for retirement communities whose names boast of the very utopias their golf courses have helped eviscerate. Fairview. Tierra Linda. Alta Vista.

“Are we lost?” Lily says as they pass a browning field of piebald heifers.

“Of course not. This here’s the scenic route.” Cole scoffs at the honeycomb subdivisions, gated entrances with dancing, multicolored balloons. He’s driving her to the ravine where his favorite musician, hopefully her favorite musician, visited for a time. “Few months from now, there won’t be much country left.” The backroad takes them farther south. The new houses momentarily give way to more farmland. “Gotta enjoy it while we can.”

“What about the cows? Where will they go?”

“Somebody will take them, I’m sure.”

Corn stalks poke up in measured rows. From beneath the dead pecan leaves, broomweed and green-eyed daisies have burst into color. They’re tearing through land shackled by ballast and railroad ties, land divided by barbed-wire fences and taller, game-proof fences where oil company execs used to fly around in private choppers with Ruger semiautomatics, mowing down orynx, rag stag, and mouflon. Nothing belongs here anymore, Cole thinks. Not even the cows.

“Will they go to the people who took Ludwig?” Lily says.

Cole tenses. Ludwig was her English bulldog. Her mother found him in the neighbor’s pool. Drowned. How he got there, nobody knows, but his stubby legs couldn’t paddle, his head too big to keep his small body afloat. Suzette wanted to tell her the truth, but Lily had a recital coming up. How would the humoresques he’d selected for her to play sound in the hands of a kid who’d just learned her poor little Ludwig had suffered a slow, terrible death?

“You know, I believe they will join Ludwig at the farm.”

“The big farm in the east?”

He lets out a breath. “Sure, you bet.”

Half an hour later, they leave the Buick in the parking lot, grab a couple brochures at the Discovery Center, and hike the main trail to Devil’s Creek. Cole shows Lily where to find the smooth pieces of limestone that don’t break apart in your hands when you lift them. The rocks lie along the shore in pillowed sand banks inches beneath the clear water.

“What’d I tell you?” He scoops one up and sidearms it across the bend. The rock hops three times. Three ringlets startle the surface. In a shaded cove on the far side, a mosquito cloud lifts and thins out. “Isn’t this place cool?”

“It’s okay.” She mimics the stance of his throw, but she’s holding her rock too long, thinking too hard. Her knees are bent, her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth. When she lets the rock fly, it hits a cypress branch overhead and sinks with a plunk into the shallows at her feet. A wild, puny toss.

“It’s all right,” he says. “Hal Torrence never learned to skip rocks.”

“He’s the guy you’ve been talking about.”

“The composer, yeah.”

Lily shrugs. She has no idea what she’s getting into, playing Hal’s music, but that’s all right. No need to set any expectations right now. They can figure out how they’re gonna tackle the tunes later. “What’d he do here,” she says, “if he didn’t throw rocks?”

“Listen to birds. Hunt for wildflowers. Walk around mostly.”

“That’s it?” She lets out a sigh. “Boring.”

“He’d have his sketchbook out while he walked. Write down ideas the way Beethoven did. You got yourself a sketchbook, don’t you?”

She shakes her head.

“Ask your ma to buy you one. Melodies will come to you when you’re walking. You’ll need to pin them”—he taps his left temple—“while they’re still buzzing up here.”

Lily twirls and stomps. Mud slides up around her sandals and splatters her ankles. In navy shorts, argyle vest over a white T-shirt, and huaraches with shreds of grass trapped in the side buckles, she’s not exactly dressed for a hike, but she threw on what her ma left out for her on the bed, and Cole didn’t want to make a fuss.

They leave Devil’s Creek, scramble up a steep bank, and follow the path to a footbridge. Someone has placed a lost key on one of the cedar posts. Behind them, cyclists have cut trails in the dirt with their mountain bikes.

Lily grabs the key off the post. “What were you and Mom arguing about last night?”

“You heard?”

She nods. “I hear everything.”

Last night, after Lily dazzled guests on the upright, Suzette started in again about his recent absence. He’d been on tour with Fletcher’s band, gigging in New York. He’d spent an extra week in the Berkshires playing for this Russian real estate tycoon who wanted to entertain business clients in his hilltop villa. The money was too good to turn down.

Last night, before Suzette railed on him, he marched Lily into her room and told her to put on her headphones, loud. She likes Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk. He’s introduced her to all the giants.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” he says to her now. “Grownup stuff.”

What happened was he’d asked Suzette to wind down the party. He called a cab for her friends. Suzette said, “Why should I listen to you? You’re never around. Even when you’re here, you’re gone.” Which, if he had to admit it, was true. The fight went on from there.

“What sort of stuff?” Lily says.

“Well, you know.” He takes the key from her and sets it back on the post. “When your ma and I haven’t seen each other for a while, it takes us some time to find our groove. We’re fine now. We’ve found it. It was only a misunderstanding.”

A few trees along the main trail are painted with red dots for a scavenger hunt. Arrows chalked onto the footpath point the way to buried treasure.

“Are pirates even real?” Lily drops a stick off the bridge, and it sails down through the air and floats off on the current.

“Not the kind with parrots and wooden legs, but they’re out there. You bet.”

They veer off the trail and pass by clumps of prickly pear and uprooted oaks. Floods sweep through every now and then and leave tangles of branches with city garbage hanging from them like ornaments. Grocery bags, beer cans, Styrofoam cups. You can see the flood line on the trunks of elms that grow out of the creek bed. Cedar elms, scrawny things, not like the big stately elms that grow up north. Their leaves shimmer like confetti, and debris cling to their trunks four or five feet high in places.

At the bottom of a narrow slope they reach a sinkhole in the limestone. Cole picks Lily up from under her shoulders and sets her down on the other side, and then he jumps over it himself, kicking in the gravel with his heel, an old habit. He hears a rustling as the gravel vanishes into the hole. When he looks up, Lily’s staring at him. The sunlight on her argyle-sweater vest brings out the amber flecks in her eyes. Sometimes, depending on the light or what she’s wearing, her eyes appear yellowish or hazel. Today they’re the color of new pennies.

She says, “I think my dad must be a pirate.”

“Yeah, I bet.” He lifts her over a patch of mesquite bristling with poisonous thorns. “Don’t want to step on those.”

When they return to the water’s edge Lily goes looking for another stone to throw. She loves the outdoors, getting her knees dirty, letting her legs get speckled with mud. Sometimes in the park near their apartment she’ll dig out an ant or pill bug and feed it to a spider by dropping the sucker into the web. The spider will crawl out from its hiding place to inject its poison and spin its web around the stunned prey, sheathing it in a silk cocoon.

Cole’s poison is a flask of Wild Turkey he carries in his hip pocket, taking a sip every now and then, enjoying the sour taste on his chapped lips, the warmth blooming in his chest.

“What’s in there?” Lily says after he’s taken a long pull.

“Something to drink.”
“Can I try it?”

“Nah, you wouldn’t like it.”

“Why not?”

“Tastes bad.”

“Then why’re you drinking it?”

He puts the flask in his pocket. “Let’s keep walking.”

Other than picking her nose on occasion, Lily has no bad habits. She protects her hands, always keeps her nails clean and trimmed. When they venture farther into the ravine, she doesn’t dig for ants or pill bugs. She drags the toe of her sandal through the mud, nudging pebbles into the water, then turns to make sure he’s still following her. She seems to be mulling over something in her mind. Finally she stops at a narrow turn where someone has fashioned a crossing with three flat stones. “You and Mom gonna call it quits?”

“Don’t know.” He feels a catch in his throat. “Hope not.”

“If you do, can I come live with you?”

“We’ll see.”

Her eyes catch him again, focused in the ravine’s filtered light.

“Hey, kid. Don’t go thinking it’s got anything to do with you.”

“I know.”

They tease her at school for not having a father. Girls really rub it in, the little brats. He tells her to pay them no mind. Their fathers aren’t worth the boots they walk around in.

They return to the creek and follow the water’s edge toward the old mill. Used to be a ranch house by the mill. Cow trails still lead from a barbed-wired fence down to the water, but the cattle and house are long gone. What remains is a stone foundation half swallowed by undergrowth. A longhorn skull lies in the center, sun-bleached, with small rocks piled around it.

Live oaks and ashe junipers, what they call “cedar” in this part of the state, cast a mottled shade over the banks. Lily’s tipping over a large stone that looks more like a chunk of concrete—it has pebbles and glass caked to its underside—when a cottonmouth shoots out of the creek, slides through the mud, and comes to rest between her feet, under the rock she’s lifted.

“Don’t you move, Lily.”

He struggles to keep his voice calm though his heart is already clocking in his chest. Lily usually does as she’s told. Smart girl, she’s been out in the woods so many times, camping and hiking in the hill country. Doesn’t startle easily.

She freezes there with her leg in the air, knee bent, the toe of her huarache still holding the rock, its shadow covering the cottonmouth. The snake’s oily black, maybe three feet, much thicker and nastier than your average bullsnake. Cole hasn’t seen one in the ravine in years. Neighbors say all sorts of critters are floating in on the runoff after they paved the parking lot at the new Walmart, though. Shame they had to build so close to the ravine. Figure it was only a matter of time before the venomous snakes got flushed out of hiding.

“What kind is it?”

He tells her. The snake lies beneath the rock, not yet taking up its defensive coil. Long as she doesn’t startle it, he can grab her. “I’m coming to you.”

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