First look: Things Get Ugly by Joe R Lansdale

Books

Joe R Lansdale is a legend in the crime fiction genre. Horror, comic books and Westerns too. His Hap and Leonard series is second to none for gritty, brutal, gonzo Southern noir, but done with a ladle of nuance, plenty of feeling and a touch of black humour. Nobody writes quite like JRL and it’s no surprise the TV series was so well received by crime fiction lovers like us.

So… we’re ecstatic to be able to bring you two – yes TWO – exclusives from the Joe R Lansdale crime fiction universe. Firstly, this post is the official cover reveal for Things Get Ugly: The Best Crime Stories of Joe R Lansdale so take a good old gander at the image above. It’s like a wanted poster – ‘want’ being the operative word.

Secondly, we’ve got a complete short story from Things Get Ugly right here on the site. We can hardly believe it ourselves and half of us expect to get arrested later for unspecified misdemeanours. You know the feeling…

Here’s the skinny. Things Get Ugly contains 19 short stories full of wit, grit, heists, revenge, homicide and mayhem. It has a foreword by new pulp sensation SA Cosby, and the bulk of the tales take place in the dangerous woods of East Texas, Joe R Lansdale’s original stomping ground.

Just scanning the blurb, our gonzo meter is already flicking into the red zone. There’s a 1950s projectionist who gets involved with a violent gang; a character called Mr Bear who’s more interested in debauchery and murder than preventing forest fires; a brother and sister who travel to Oklahoma to get the body of their uncle; and a lonely man doing dubious things while he pines for his Billie Sue.

And that is your cue to scroll down and read the complete short story from the book below. But before you do, one final note: Things Get Ugly is out 15 August 2023 and you can pre-order a copy here. Yes, it’s a long way off but this story ought to make you laugh and maybe it will tide you over…


BILLIE SUE

by Joe R Lansdale

About a week before the house next door sold to the young couple, Billie Sue and I broke up. It was painful and my choice. Some stupid argument we’d had, but I tried to tell myself I had made the right decision. 

And in the light of day it seemed I had. But come night when the darkness set in and the king-size bed was like a great raft on which I floated, I missed Billie Sue. I missed her being next to me, holding her. The comfort she had afforded me had been greater than I imagined, and now that she was gone, I felt empty, as if I had been drained from head to toe and that my body was a husk and nothing more.

But the kids next door changed that. For a time. 

I was off for the summer. I teach math during the high school term, and since Billie Sue and I had broken up, I had begun to wish that I had signed on to teach summer school. It would have been some kind of diversion. Something to fill my days with besides thinking of Billie Sue. 

About the second day the kids moved in, the boy was out mowing their yard, and I watched him from the window for a while, then made up some lemonade and took it out on the patio and went over and stood by where he was mowing. 

He stopped and killed the engine and smiled at me. He was a nice-looking kid, if a little bony. He had very blond hair and was shirtless and was just starting to get hair on his chest. It looked like down, and the thought of that made me feel ill at ease, because, bizarrely enough, the downlike hair made me think of Billie Sue, how soft she was, and that in turn made me think of the empty house and the empty bed and the nights that went on and on. 

“Hey,” the boy said. “You’re our neighbor?” 

“That’s right. Kevin Pierce.” 

“Jim Howel. Glad to meet you.” We shook hands. I judged him to be about twenty. Half my age. 

“Come on and meet my wife,” he said. “You married?” 

“No,” I said, but I felt strange saying it. It wasn’t that Billie Sue and I were married, but it had seemed like it. The way I felt about her, a marriage license wasn’t necessary. But now she was gone, and the fact that we had never officially been hitched meant nothing. 

I walked with him to the front door, and about the time we got there, a young woman, his wife, of course, opened the screen and looked out. She wore a tight green halter top that exposed a beautiful brown belly and a belly button that looked as if it had been made for licking. She had on white shorts and thongs. Her black hair was tied back, and some of it had slipped out of the tie and was falling over her forehead and around her ears, and it looked soft and sensual. In fact, she was quite the looker. 

It wasn’t that her face was all that perfect, but it was soft and filled with big brown eyes, and she had those kind of lips that look as if they’ve been bruised and swollen. But not too much. Just enough to make you want to put your lips on them, to maybe soothe the pain. 

“Oh, hi,” she said. 

“Hi,” I said. 

Jim introduced us. Her name was Sharon. 

“I’ve got some lemonade next door, if you two would like to come over and share it,” I said. “Just made it.” 

“Well, yeah,” said Jim. “I’d like that. I’m hot as a pistol.” 

“I guess so,” said the girl, and I saw Jim throw her a look. A sort of, hey, don’t be rude kind of look. If she saw the look, she gave no sign of it. 

As we walked over to my house, I said, “You folks been married long?” 

“Not long,” Jim said. “How long, honey?” 

“Eighteen months.” 

“Well, congratulations,” I said. “Newlyweds.” 

We sat out on the patio and drank the lemonade, and Jim did most of the talking. He wanted to be a lawyer, and Sharon was working at some cafe in town putting him through. He tried to talk like he was really complimenting her, and I think he was, but I could tell Sharon wasn’t feeling complimented. There was something about her silence that said a lot. It said, Look what I’ve got myself into. Married this chatterbox who wants to be a lawyer and can’t make a dollar ’cause he’s got to study, so I’ve got to work, and law school isn’t any hop, skip, and a jump. We’re talking years of tips and pinches on the ass, and is this guy worth it anyhow? 

She said all that and more without so much as opening her mouth. 

When we finished off the lemonade, Jim got up and said he had to finish the lawn. 

“I’ll sit here a while,” Sharon said. “You go on and mow.” 

Jim looked at her, then he looked at me and made a smile. “Sure,” he said to her. “We’ll eat some lunch after a while.” 

“I ate already,” she said. “Get you a sandwich, something out of the box.” 

“Sure,” he said, and went back to mow. 

As he went, I noticed his back was red from the sun. I said, “You ought to tell him to get some lotion on. Look at his back.” 

She swiveled in her chair and looked, turned back to me, said, “He’ll find out soon enough he ought to wear lotion. You got anything stronger than lemonade?” 

I went in the house, got a couple of beers and a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and some glasses. We drank the beers out on the veranda, then, as it turned hotter, we came inside and sat on the couch and drank the whiskey. While Jim’s mower droned on, we talked about this and that, but not really about anything. You know what I mean. Just small talk that’s so small it’s hardly talk. 

After about an hour, I finally decided what we were really talking about, and I put my hand out and touched her hand on the couch and she didn’t move it. 

“Maybe you ought to go on back.” 

“You want me to?” 

“That’s the problem, I don’t want you to.” 

“I just met you.” 

“I know. That’s another reason you ought to go back to your husband.” 

“He’s a boring son of a bitch. You know that. I thought he was all right when we met. Good-looking and all, but he’s as dull as a cheap china plate, and twice as shallow. I’m nineteen years old. I don’t want to work in any goddamn cafe for years while he gets a job where he can wear a suit and get people divorces. I want to get my divorce now.” 

She slid over and we kissed. She was soft and pliant, and there were things about her that were better than Billie Sue, and for a moment I didn’t think of Billie Sue at all. I kissed her for a long time and touched her, and finally the mower stopped. 

“Goddamn it,” she said. “That figures.” 

She touched me again, and in the right place. She got up and retied her halter top, which I had just managed to loosen. 

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I let this get out of hand.” 

“Hell, I’m the one sorry it didn’t get completely out of hand. But it will. We’re neighbors.” 

I tried to avoid Sharon after that, and managed to do so for a couple days. I even thought about trying to patch things up with Billie Sue, but just couldn’t. My goddamn pride. 

On the fourth night after they’d moved in, I woke up to the sound of dishes breaking. I got out of bed and went into the living room and looked out the window at my neighbor’s house, the source of the noise. It was Sharon yelling and tossing things that had awakened me. The yelling went on for a time. I got a beer out of the box and sat down with a chair pulled up at the window and watched. There was a light on in their living room window, and now and then their shadows would go across the light, then move away. 

Finally I heard the front door slam, and Jim went out, got in their car and drove away. He hadn’t so much as departed when Sharon came out of the house and started across the yard toward my place. 

I moved the chair back to its position and sat down on the couch and waited. She knocked on the door. Hard. I let her knock for a while, then I got up and answered the door. I was in my underwear when I answered, but of course, I didn’t care. She was in a short black nightie, no shoes, and she didn’t care either. 

I let her in. She said, “We had a fight. I hope the son of a bitch doesn’t come back.” 

She took hold of me then, and we kissed, and then we made our way to the bedroom, and it was sweet, the way she loved me, and finally, near morning, we fell asleep. 

When I awoke it was to Jim’s voice. In our haste, we had left the front door open, and I guess he’d seen the writing on the wall all along, and now he was in the house, standing over the bed yelling. 

Sharon sat up in bed, and the sheet fell off her naked breast and she yelled back. I sat up amazed, more than embarrassed. I had to learn to lock my doors, no matter what.

This yelling went on for a time, lots of cussing, then Jim grabbed her by the wrist and jerked her out of the bed and onto the floor. 

I jumped up then and hit him, hit him hard enough to knock him down. He sat up and opened his mouth and a tooth fell out. 

“Oh my God, Jim,” Sharon said. She slid across the floor and took his head in her hands and kissed his cheek. “Oh, baby, are you all right?” 

“Yeah, I’m all right,” he said. 

I couldn’t believe it. “What the hell?” I said. 

“You didn’t have to hit him,” Sharon said. “You’re older, stronger. You hurt him.” 

I started to argue, but by that time Jim was up and Sharon had her arm around him. She said, “I’m sorry, baby, I’m so sorry. Let’s go home.” 

Sharon pulled on her nightie, and away they went. I picked up the panties she’d left and put them over my head, trying to look as foolish as I felt. They smelled good though. 

Dumb asshole, I said to myself. How many times have they done this? There are strange people in this world. Some get their kicks from wearing leather, being tied down and pissed on, you name it, but this pair has a simpler method of courtship. They fight with each other, break up, then Sharon flirts and sleeps around until Jim discovers her, then they yell at each other and he forgives her, and he’s all excited to think she’s been in bed with another man, and she’s all excited to have been there, and they’re both turned on and happy. 

Whatever. I didn’t want any part of it. 

That night I decided to make up with Billie Sue. I got my shovel out of the garage and went out and dug her up from under the rose bushes. I got her out of there and brushed the dirt off and carried her inside. I washed her yellow body off in the sink. I fondled her bill and told her I was sorry. I was so sorry I began to cry. I just couldn’t help myself. I told her I’d never bury her in the dirt again. 

I filled the bathtub with water and put Billie Sue in there and watched her float. I turned her in the water so that she could watch me undress. I stripped off my clothes slowly and got in the tub with her. She floated and bobbed toward me, and I picked her up and squeezed her and dirt puffed from the noisemaker in her beak and the sound she made was not quite a squeak or a quack. 

I laughed. I squeezed her hard, the way she likes it, the way she’s always liked it since the first time my mother gave her to me when I was a child. I squeezed her many times. I floated her in the tub with me, moved her around my erection, which stuck up out of the water like a stick in a pond, and I knew then what I should have always known. 

Billie Sue was the love of my life. 

Perhaps we were not too unlike that silly couple next door. We fought too. We fought often. We had broken up before. I had buried her under the rose bushes before, though never for this long. But now, holding her, squeezing her hard, listening to her quack, I knew never again. I began to laugh and laugh and laugh at what she was saying. She could be like that when she wanted. So funny. So forgiving. 

Oh, Billie Sue. Billie Sue. My little rubber duckie poo. 

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