Shallow Graves Excerpt
“I heard this scary story about you one time,” Marty said, “and I didn’t know whether it was true or not.”
Pellam didn’t look over. He was driving the Winnebego Chieftain 43 back into town. They’d just found an old farmhouse a mile up the road and had offered the astonished owner thirteen hundred dollars to shoot two scenes on his front porch, provided he didn’t mind if a combine replaced his rusting orange Nissan in the driveway for a couple of days. For that kind of money, the farmer said, he’d eat the car if that was what they wanted.
Pellam had told him that wouldn’t be necessary.
“You used to do stunt work?” Marty asked. His voice was high and Midwest-inflected.
“Some stunts, yeah. Just for a year or so.”
“About this film you did?”
“Uh.” Pellam pulled off his black 1950s Hugh Hefner sunglasses. The autumn day had dawned bright as blue ice. A half hour ago it had turned dark and now the early afternoon seemed like a winter dusk.
“It was a Spielberg film,” Marty said.
“Never worked for Spielberg.”
Marty considered. “No? Well, I heard it was a Spielberg film. Anyway, there was this scene where the guy, the star, you know, was supposed to drive a motorcycle over this bridge and these bombs or something were blowing up behind him and he was driving like a son of a bitch, just ahead of these shells. Only then one hits under him and he goes flying through the air just as the bridge collapses…Okay? And they were supposed to rig a dummy because the stunt supervisor wouldn’t let any of his guys do it but you just got on the bike and told the second unit director to roll the cameras. And you just, like, did it.”
Marty looked at Pellam. He waited. He laughed. “What do you mean, ‘uh-huh’? Did you do it?”
“Yeah, I remember that one.”
Marty rolled his eyes and looked out the window at a distant speck of bird. “He remembers it…”
He looked back at Pellam. “And I heard that the thing was you didn’t get blown clear but you had to hang on to this cable while the bridge collapsed.”
Marty kept waiting. It was no fun telling war stories to people who should be telling them to you. “Well?”
“That’s pretty much what happened.”
“Weren’t you scared?”
“Why’d you do it?”
Pellam reached down and picked up a Molson bottle wedged between his scuffed brown Nokona boots. He glanced around the red and yellow autumn countryside for New York state troopers then lifted the bottle and drained it. “I don’t know. I did crazy things then. Stupid of me. The unit director fired me.”
“But they used the footage?”
“Had to. They’d run out of bridges.”
Pellam floored the worn accelerator pedal to take a grade. The engine didn’t respond well. They heard the tapping of whatever taps in an old engine when it struggles to push a heavy camper uphill.
Marty was twenty-nine, skinny, and had a small gold hoop in his left ear. His face was round and smooth and he had eyelids connected directly to his heart; they opened wide whenever his pulse picked up. Pellam was older. He was thin too, though more sinewy than skinny, and dark complected. He had a scrawny, salt-and-pepper beard that he’d started last week and he was already tired of. The lids over his gray-green eyes never lifted very far. Both men wore denim — blue jeans and jackets. Marty wore a black T-shirt. Pellam, a blue work shirt. In clothes like these, with his pointy-toed boots, Pellam looked a lot like a cowboy and if anyone — a woman anyway — would comment on it, he’d tell her that he was related to Wild Bill Hickok. This was true though it was true in some complicated way he’d distorted so often that he couldn’t now remember exactly where the gunfighter had figured into his ancestry.
Marty said, “I’d like to do stunt work.”
“I don’t think so,” Pellam told him.
“No, it’d be fun.”
“No, it’d be painful.”
After a few minutes Pellam said, “So we got a cemetery, we got a town square, two barns and a farmhouse. We got a ton of roads. What else do we need?”
Marty flipped through a large notebook. “One big, big, big field, I’m talking sonuvabitch big, a funeral home, a Victorian house overlooking a yard big enough for a wedding, a hardware store, a mess of interiors…Goddamn, I ain’t gonna get to Manhattan for two weeks. I’m tired of cows, Pellam. I’m so damned tired of cows.”
Pellam asked, “You ever tip cows?”
“I’m from the Midwest. Everybody there tips cows.”
“I’ve never done it. I’d like to, though.”
“Pellam, you never tipped a cow?”
Marty shook his head with what seemed like genuine dismay. “Man…”
It had been three days since they’d pulled off the Interstate here in Cleary, New York. The Winnebego had clocked two hundred miles, roaming through knobby pine hills and tired farms and small, simple pastel cubes of houses decorated with pickups in the driveway, cars on blocks, and stiff laundry pinned and drying on long lines.
Three days, driving through mist and fog and yellow storms of September leaves and plenty of outright rain.
Marty looked out the window. He didn’t speak for five minutes. Pellam, thinking: Silence is platinum.
Marty said, “Know what this reminds me of?”
The boy had a mind that ranged like a hungry crow; Pellam couldn’t even guess.
“I was an assistant on Echoes of War,” he continued.
This was a sixty-three-million-dollar Vietnam War movie that Pellam had no desire to scout for, now had no desire to see in the theaters, and knew he wouldn’t rent when it came to Tower Video in L.A.
Marty said, “For some reason they didn’t shoot in Asia?”
“That’s a question?”
“No. I’m telling you.”
Pellam said, “It sounded like you were asking me.”
“No. They decided not to shoot in Asia.”
“It’s not important. They just didn’t.”
“Got it,” Pellam said.
“They shot it in England, in Cornwall.” Marty’s head swung sideways, the grin spreading into his big, oval face. Pellam liked enthusiasm. But enthusiasm went with people that talked a lot. You can’t have everything. “Man, did you know they have palm trees in England? I couldn’t believe it. Palm trees… Anyway, the set designer made this totally incredible Army base, mortar holes and everything. And we’d get up at five a.m. to shoot and I’d get this weird feeling. I mean, I knew I was in England, and I knew it was just a movie. But all the actors were in costume — uniforms — sleeping in foxholes and eating rations. That’s what the director wanted. I tell you, man, standing around, I felt totally… queasy.” He considered if this was the right word. He decided it was and repeated it. “Queasy. That’s what I feel like now.”
He fell silent.
Pellam had worked on several war movies but at this moment, none of those came to mind. What he was thinking of now was rosettes of broken glass on the side window of the camper, a day after they’d arrived in the area here. Winnebego makes strong windows and it had taken a real good throw to get the bottle through the glass. The note inside had read: “Goodbye.” The camper’d been subjected to all kinds of creative destruction over the years but nothing so ambiguously disturbing. Pellam noticed the vandals had had the foresight not to pitch the message through the windshield; they wanted to make sure the Winnebego would have an unobstructed view when it drove out of town.
He also noticed the missile had been a bottle, not a rock, and could as easily have held gasoline as a carefully lettered note.
That’s what John Pellam was thinking of now. Not stunts, not war movies, not ominous dawns in tropical England.
“Getting cold,” Marty said.
Pellam reached for the heater on the dash and turned it up two notches. They smelled the wet, rubbery scent of the warm air filling the cab.
On the floor Pellam’s boot crunched several pieces of shattered window glass. He kicked them aside.