I tend to begin short stories the way Harold Pinter said he began plays: Throw a couple guys in a room (in my case, a seedy bar or U-haul truck) and eavesdrop on them. My story for Exiles, “Wetwork,” is a departure for me, as it was inspired by a location.
I’ve been driving and operating heavy equipment half my life. Still do. It’s how I provide for my family while hawking daydreams.
In my twenties, I drove for a ready-mix concrete outfit based in southern California. Our biggest project—aside from the neverending pours we did at the Scientology compound, as creepy as it sounds—was erecting walls for a man-made lake/reservoir in San Jacinto. The valley to be flooded had mountains that formed natural walls, joined by those we constructed.
Interesting things happened there.
One night, I did a very risky and unauthorized job for a subcontractor. He thanked me, gave me a company T-shirt, then asked if I’d like to ride into the heart of a mountain. I jumped at the chance. I wouldn’t have been allowed to do so otherwise. The foreman picked me up in a golf cart. He told me he was afraid of the dark. At the mouth of the tunnel, he threatened to kill his employees if they turned the lights off once we were inside. We followed a concrete path, barely wide enough to accomodate us, all the way to the end. It was breathtaking. Water dripped from stalactites. I could feel the pressure of the mountain overhead. He began to speak about the tunnel and the lights went off. As dark as pitch can be. The poor guy leapt out of the cart and freaked—I mean, he fucking freaked, running into the walls and shouting—until they turned the lights back on. He didn’t kill his employess, but he did leave bruises.
Another time, I was sitting on a hill overlooking the valley floor. It was raining. The storm had come over the mountaintops and seemed to be trapped in there with us. As I watched, a man in a backhoe, who was scraping the ground level, unearthed the best-preserved Wooly Mammoth skeleton every found in the continental US. Work stopped as everyone raced down to look. It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had and that’s saying something.
The detail of the job that gave rise to my short story, “Wetwork,” didn’t involve either of these events. I won’t divulge it, since it’s pivotal to the outcome, but will say that it’s haunted me for twenty years, moreso than the tunnel or the skeleton. I get shivers now thinking of it.
Somewhere deep in my unconscious, this fact combined with an unproven suspicion about the Zodiac Killer*.
I had the setting and the twist, but who would be the star? Henry Sloan, that’s who. I’ve written more unpublished fiction about Henry Sloan than I have about any other character. I love the guy and I love his car, a 1965 Ford Galaxie 500, two-door hardtop, white with whitewall tires and a red vinyl interior. As it happens, this is a car I used to see in the desert; the owner lived next to a different concrete plant I worked out of in Thousand Palms. Until now, though, Henry had only appeared publicly in cameos (“Chicken” in All Due Respect #1 being the most recent), was referred to by other characters, or had his apartment provide a locale, while he didn’t even get a walk-on (“Protect Her” in the forthcoming Fox Spirit anthology, Drag Noir). So it’s Henry’s big break. He flees the east coast to avoid prosecution and winds up at my reservoir.
I named Henry for a legendary Delta Blues player, the man who taught Charley Patton, who, in turn, taught Son House, who taught Robert Johnson….Patton often sang about floods. Unfortunately, the real Henry Sloan was never recorded and all we have are anecdotes.
*Back to the Zodiac. I lived in Riverside County, CA at one time, near the college where the Zodiac Killer is believed to have murdered his first victim. It was my home when I was pouring at the aforementioned job. He scratched something into a desk and the handwriting matches letters and greeting cards sent to reporters.
Forty-eight years after he allegedly did that, I scratched a narrative onto paper—inspired by him in a roundabout way—and you can read it EXILES.
Bio: Walter Conley‘s poetry and fiction appear in the small press, anthologies and sites like Mad Swirl and Danse Macabre. His latest publication, the short story “Chicken,” can be found in All Due Respect Magazine #1 and is currently being developed as a novel. Forthcoming are stories in the books Drag Noir and Lost in the Witching Hour. Walter blogs at http://katharinehepcat.com, is online at http://facebook.com/wconley2 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Exiles: An Outsider Anthology is OUT NOW from Blackwitch Press.