In a work at once honest, chilling and compulsively addictive, author Sterling Watson has created a time and place where rock 'n' roll hums from AM radios, steam rises from a secluded riverbed and violent summer storms threaten the peace of silent nights. Watson's characters are brought vividly to life through Travis's touching, powerful and intensely personal voice. A dark and evocative coming of age tale, Sweet Dream Baby begins steeped in innocence and ends in a dramatically different place.
"I can't remember a book that sneaked up and grabbed me the way Sweet Dream Baby did. It's a real shocker by a very good writer."
"Sterling Watson's Sweet Dream Baby is one of the finest novels I've read in years, an incandescent blend of gothic noir, Faulknerian dreamscape and bittersweet coming-of-age story. Months after reading it, it haunts me still."
"Sterling Watson's Sweet Dream Baby brings us the words and music, the tastes and smells of that special time-as well as its heartache and secret shame. I was utterly absorbed in these fierce pages."
-Fred Chappell, author of Look Back All the Green Valley
"Sweet Dream Baby is a beautiful book. Sterling Watson is surehanded and telling in a story that is as elegiac as it is gripping."
-Michael Connelly, author of Chasing the Dime
"Some delicious page-turning."-Kirkus Reviews
A Book Sense 76 Top 10 Selection
Named to Top Ten Crime Books of 2002, Toronto Globe and Mail
"Watson proves himself a first-rate storyteller."-Publishers Weekly
"A comprehensive work of art that is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing."-Orlando Sentinel
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sweet dream baby
By Sterling Watson
Sourcebooks, Inc.Copyright © 2002 Sterling Watson
All rights reserved.
I look out through the back door screen to see if the Pultneys are there. One of them is, Jimmy. I'm scared of the Pultneys, but I don't say so. Dad says never say you're scared and you won't be. Jimmy Pultney has a chicken in one hand and a hatchet in the other. He holds the chicken by the neck, and the neck stretches long. The chicken doesn't try to get away. It hangs quiet, knowing it can't. The chopping block is an old hickory stump. My dad says the Pultneys probably dragged it with them from some holler in the Ozarks. He calls them Okie trash.
I can hear him in the bathroom getting ready. He's humming, and that means he's shaving. I like to watch him shave, but not this morning. I like the scratchy sound and the blue color of his jaw coming out of the white soap. I like the smell of Barbasol. I'm watching Jimmy Pultney, and I'm scared, and I wish I had a way to kill him.
Yesterday, Jimmy tried to kill me. He had the bow and arrow he got for Christmas. It's a nice one with real feathers and steel-tipped arrows. I went over to the fence and said, "Hey, Jimmy, let me see that bow you got."
He was standing over by the back porch. He had an arrow across the string. He turned and said, "See it?" He shot the arrow at my head. I don't think he can shoot a bow. I think he was just lucky. I could see the steel tip coming at my face and the feathers turning slowly, getting larger. The voice in my head said, "Down."
The steel tip went through my hair. It left a hot scratch across the top of my head. Dad won't see it because it's under the thick black hair, and I won't tell him. When I reached up and touched, there was blood and a piece of feather in my hair. I wasn't scared until the arrow was behind me, sticking in the ground. I went to get it, and my knees started to sink. I had to make my feet push them back up. I pulled the arrow out and turned to tell Jimmy I was going to break it.
He was standing at the fence. "Kid, you better gimme that arrow back."
I said, "No, I'm keeping it." I raised it up to break it over my knee. Jimmy's eyes got that way they get. The way all of the Pultneys' eyes can get. Small and cold and don't care. I held the arrow over my knee.
Jimmy said, "Kid, don't make me climb over this fence."
There's a fence between our yards to keep out the Pultneys and their animals. My dad hired a man to build it. Mr. Pultney came out of his back door and stood watching the man work. Mr. Pultney was wearing raggedy blue bib overalls. Jimmy calls them overhauls, and he isn't kidding. Mr. Pultney took out a hawk-billed linoleum knife and cut a piece of chewing tobacco from the plug in his hand. He said to the man, "You cain't put no fence thar."
The man started talking about set-back lines and easements or something, and pretty soon Mr. Pultney backed off to his own porch like he was getting away from the words he didn't understand. I came out on our back porch to watch the man dig holes with his post-hole digger, and Mr. Pultney called into his house to someone, maybe Jimmy, "There's that damn sissy kid. His daddy cain't even build his own fence." Somebody inside the house laughed, maybe Jimmy.
Jimmy said to me, "You better bring me that arrow, kid. You don't, I'm climbing over there and stomp your ass."
I don't talk like Jimmy. I don't say ass or shit or damn. Sometimes I wish I could, but I don't. If I did, and my dad heard it, he'd spank me with his belt and wash out my mouth with soap. That's what he said he'd do.
I told Jimmy I was going to break his arrow, but I already knew I wasn't. His eyes knew I wasn't going to either. And pretty soon, his smile knew. I went as close to the fence as I could and threw the arrow over. Jimmy waited 'til I was inside my house and then walked over and picked it up. For an hour, I listened to him shooting it into the door of his father's shed. Thunk, thunk, thunk it goes into that door. And I know his father is going to beat him when he comes home, and I know Jimmy's not going to cry when his father stripes him with that big greasy razor strop he uses, and I know Jimmy's eyes aren't going to change.
I can't go outside because I'm wearing my church clothes. My pants are gray wool, and they itch. Through the backdoor screen, I can see Jimmy squatting in front of the chopping block. He's got the chicken's neck between his thumb and forefinger, and he's moving his hand up and down, making the neck longer. There are ten, maybe fifteen chicken heads lying around that block with their eyes crossed out, and they stink. And that's not all that stinks about the Pultneys. They keep a goat. Mr. Pultney calls her his lawn mower. I've seen him milk her, pressing his stubbledy cheek against her side and whispering to her. He spreads goat doo on the sorry patch where he grows collard greens.
My dad says the Pultneys are worse than Okie trash. He says they didn't even have the gumption to get two states away from some pig-filthy holler before they squatted again. Them and their goat and that tired old woman Jimmy calls Mommer and Jimmy's nine brothers and sisters. Dad says at least the rest of the Okies made it to California before they wallowed in again. I don't want to watch Jimmy Pultney cut the chicken's head off, but I know I will. I've watched before.
I'm trying to understand how he can do it. Swing the hatchet down on that neck he makes as long as his own, then squat there holding the chicken by its hind legs. Its wings fly, and its long neck swings and sprays blood all over Jimmy and the chopping block and what little grass the goat left behind.
I hear my dad leave the bathroom. He stops humming and goes into the bedroom to put on his white shirt and his tie. I lift my eyes to the end of our yard, where our grass stops and the wheat field starts. I look on across the wheat field to the silo. It's a mile. I've walked it. We live in a subdivision. At night we can see the lights of Omaha. They remind me of a storm coming. I don't know why. My dad works in the city, in a lawyer's office. This all used to be a farm, but the farmer died and his wife, Mrs. Boatwright, sold the land to the man who built our house, our whole street. The builder went broke, my dad says, after he built our street, and so here we are, my dad says, stuck in the middle of all this wheat like a string of wagons that never made it West. Our wheels fell off, and we're stuck here with the Pultneys.
The hatchet comes down hard and straight, and the chicken's head bounces once on the block, and the white wings beat, and then Jimmy's holding the big white bird out in front of him like he just caught it taking off. The wings beat and the blood pumps. The neck with no head whips like the mouth of a garden hose when you drop it in the grass. The blood pours, then it's a red mist. I can't see Jimmy's eyes, but I know they didn't change. Small and cold and don't care. I don't know how to kill Jimmy. There's no way to do it and not get my dad's belt. There's no way Jimmy wouldn't kill me if I messed it up.
Jimmy walks to the house swinging the chicken like a bell, and I turn back into my kitchen. Dad fixed me breakfast this morning, and it was bad. He fries the bacon 'til it's black, then he puts my eggs in about two inches of grease, and they come out with hard, brown edges. Sometimes he breaks them. I don't complain about it. Once when I complained, he looked at me for a long time and said, "Son, when I was on Guadalcanal and we got separated from our unit, we ate land crabs. A Jap patrol passed only ten yards from where we were hiding. We could smell the rice and saki on their breath. We had to stick the crabs with our trench knives and pry off their shells and eat them raw. You don't know how lucky you are to have those eggs. Even the way I cook them." And he looked at the far away like he does a lot now, and he said, "And you don't know what those crabs were eating before we ate them."
I stop at the table and pick up half a piece of cold toast and eat it. I drink the rest of my orange juice. My dad's not looking, so I drink the rest of his coffee. It's cold, but it's good to me. It tastes like walnuts and brown sugar, and it makes me feel grown-up. The morning paper is open on my dad's side of the table. The headline says, Nixon Attacked in Caracas. My dad reads the paper every morning. He holds it up so I can't see his face, and I wait, and after a while he puts it down and tells me something about the news. He says it's educational for us to talk about world affairs. My dad doesn't like Nixon, but he likes Eisenhower. "Son," he tells me, "the president was a great general, and a better one was Doug MacArthur. There never was a general that sold a man's life for more than MacArthur. He made them pay ten times for every dead G.I. You know what I mean?"
I say yes, but I don't. I like to hear my dad talk about the war. He talks about it to me, but he won't to other people. I've heard them ask him. I've heard him say, "Oh, hell, we've all heard the same stories a hundred times. Let's talk about that new kid the Yankees got to replace the Clipper. What's his name? Mantle?"
I go into my dad's bedroom to watch him finish dressing. He smiles and winks at me and says, "Hey, Slugger." He's wearing his gray suit pants and a tie with blue stripes. He sits on the bed and puts on his black Oxfords. He keeps them shiny, like a good Marine. He gets up and touches my head where it still burns from Jimmy Pultney's arrow and walks around to the little table beside the bed where the radio is. He picks up his watch and his wedding ring and puts them on. It's the same watch he had in the war, with a radium dial.
Sometimes when I was little and it rained and hail hit the roof and the radio said tornado warnings, I'd get scared and I'd go into my parents' bedroom and I'd find my dad by his watch glowing in the dark. I'd know his arm was around my mother, and her head was on his chest. I'd come in and stand by the bed, and my dad would be awake, and I'd know he was waiting for me, and he'd say, "What's the matter, Marine? The lightning got you spooked?" I'd try not to cry standing there. And he'd say, "All right, Buddy. Why don't you hop up here? There's always room for one more in this bivouac."
Dad looks at his wedding ring. He turns it on his finger and then looks at the picture of Mom in her kimono on the dresser. Then he looks at the shrine Mom keeps in the corner. It's her household god, she told me. Dad doesn't like it. He says we're Presbyterians, but he lets her keep it. She burns incense on it, and it fills the house with a spicy smell I like. Sometimes she leaves a slice of apple or peach in a little blue dish on the altar. She tells me it makes the god happy. It makes the house a happy place. It gives her and dad a good bedroom. I don't know what she means.
I hear Dad's dreams at night. Sometimes he screams at the Japanese in his dreams. Sometimes he calls out orders and says things aren't going well for the Marines. He sleeps with a bayonet under the pillow, and sometimes he gets up at night and walks around the house holding it in his hand, talking to people who aren't there. I've heard him and Mom arguing some nights after his dreams. Once I came into the bedroom when Dad was at work and Mom was making the bed, and I saw her pick up the bayonet with two fingers like you'd hold a dead snake. She turned to me and said, "This is bad, Travis, kitanai. It's got the blood of my people on it. Don't you ever touch it."
My mother is beautiful. She's the most beautiful mother on the block. She looks like the ladies in the magazines, the ladies at church and PTA. Except her face is light brown, and her hair is coal black, and her eyes are turned up at the edges. Once I came into the kitchen after school, and she was drinking something from a white bottle that looked like it might have perfume in it. She told me it was saki. She said, "I love you Travis, and I love you don't look like me."
It made me cry, and then it made my mother cry. I don't know why I cried. I wish I knew. I look mostly like my dad, and he never told me he was glad. My skin is darker than his, but not like Mom's, and I have black hair, and my eyes are brown. They aren't turned up at the edges.
When my mom cried, I said, "I love you, Mom. You're the most beautiful mom in the world." That's the truth, too.
My dad puts on his hat. It makes him look like Superman. He's tall and strong, and his jaw is blue after he shaves, and he walks like I want to walk when I'm a man. Like he knows where he's going and nothing can stop him from getting there. "Come on, Trav, Buddy," he says to me. "Time and tide wait for no man."CHAPTER 2
I hate the hospital. I usually wait in the car. Our car is a black, '54 Chevy. Dad says we're going to get a new Buick Roadmaster when he finishes clerking and gets to be a real lawyer. I don't like our car because it's old and doesn't have a radio. It's hot in the car, and there's nothing to do.
Dad visits Mom once a week, on Saturday afternoon. After he sees her, he always tells me she's getting better and she'll be home soon. Sometimes he smiles when he comes through the big double doors. He walks fast like I know he walked in his uniform when he was a Marine, and he stops in the sun and looks at the parking lot, trying to remember where I'm parked. He puts his hat on and smiles.
Other times, he comes out and stops under the oak tree by the sidewalk, and I see him look at the far away. He takes a deep breath and lights a cigarette and rubs his eyes. He stands there smoking, raising his face to the light that falls through the tree branches. That's when I know I have to be quiet. I can't ask about Mom. I can't ask when she's coming home.
Sometimes my dad talks to me about what he calls her case. He says things about hydrotherapy and insulin shock treatment. I don't understand, and I don't think he's really talking to me. He's talking to himself, and I'm listening in.
One day, I came home from school and found Mom curled up under the kitchen sink. She was holding her knees under her chin and singing to herself, a song in Japanese. I don't think I would have found her until Dad came home from work, except I went for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk, and I heard the singing. I opened the cabinet door. I don't know, it's crazy, but I thought somebody put the radio under there.
Mom didn't open her eyes when I opened the door. She was lying there with the bottles of Lysol and the Ivory soap flakes all pushed back under the pipes. And she had her little shrine with her. It's blue, and it's made of the same stuff our dinner plates are made of, and it's pretty. She had taken it from the bedroom and put it under the sink.
The worst thing was how she didn't look at me, and how she wouldn't speak English. I didn't know what to do. I thought of calling Mrs. Dietz from down the block. She's the Avon lady. She comes up the street once every two weeks or so and tries to sell my mom some perfume or powder or lipstick. My mom usually makes coffee, and they talk. Mrs. Deitz's husband was in the Pacific, too. He was a Seabee. He built the airfield on Saipan. He has dreams, too, she told my mom. And a collection of Japanese swords and pistols. I asked my mom to let me go see them, but she said no. She said, "That perfume is cheap stuff, Trav. But I'm nice to her. I'm stuck out here with no car and that Mrs. Pultney next door, and Bea Dietz is all I got for grown-up company. But don't you ask her to see those swords. Those are kegashigoto, Travis. I don't want you touching them."
I didn't call Mrs. Dietz. I sat on the floor beside the sink and talked to my mom for two hours until my dad came home. She didn't talk to me. She just kept singing in Japanese. I wanted to touch her face. I wanted to touch her eyes and say, "See me. I'm Travis." I wanted to crawl in with her and lie there against her like I used to when I was a little kid.
Excerpted from sweet dream baby by Sterling Watson. Copyright © 2002 Sterling Watson. Excerpted by permission of Sourcebooks, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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