Thu
Mar 1 2012 4:00pm

The Man From Primrose Lane (Excerpt)

James Renner

Now that you’ve taken a look at the review, enjoy this excerpt from James Renner’s The Man From Primrose Lane, out now from Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

In West Akron, Ohio, there lived a reclusive elderly man who always wore mittens, even in July. He had no friends and no family; all over town, he was known as the Man from Primrose Lane. And on a summer day, someone murdered him.

Fast-forward four years. David Neff, the bestselling author of a true-crime book about an Ohio serial killer, is a broken man after his wife’s inexplicable suicide. When an unexpected visit from an old friend introduces him to the strange mystery of “the man with a thousand mittens,” David decides to investigate. What he finds draws him back into a world he thought he had left behind forever. And the closer David gets to uncovering the true identity of the Man from Primrose Lane, the more he begins to understand the dangerous power of his own obsessions and how they may be connected to the deaths of both the old hermit and his beloved wife.

Deviously plotted and full of dark wit, James Renner’s The Man from Primrose Lane is an audacious debut that boasts as many twists as a roller coaster. But beneath its turns, it’s a spellbinding story about our obsessions: the dangerous sway they have over us and the fates of those we love.

THE BALLAD OF THE LOVELAND FROG

1986    Halfway through Johnny Carson, the rotary phone on the side table by his father’s recliner rang out. Everett Bleakney, age nine, looked forward to these interludes in the middle of otherwise normal eve nings. That particular phone had its own extension. It only rang if there was trouble. And when it rang during the weekends, Everett’s father had to take him along for the ride. That was the deal they had hashed out long ago.

“Bleakney,” his father said into the phone. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Huh! Hurm. Uh. Uhuh. Yes, thank you.”

Everett, lying on the living room floor, looked up.

“Get your coat,” his father said.

“Yes!”

His mother, a gaunt woman who was reading Flowers in the Attic at a seat beneath a lamp in the corner, gave a curt sound of disapproval. “It’s late, hon.”

“It’s just a drive-by,” his father said, standing up and drinking the rest of his Yuengling in one quick gulp. “Lana Deering saw some animal out on Twightwee.”

“What kind of animal?” she asked without looking up.

“Frog.”

“A frog?”

“A big frog.”

“Okay, then. But don’t stay out. And don’t take him into Paxton’s.”

“They don’t mind.”

“I don’t want my son hanging out in bars.”

“All right. No Paxton’s,” he said. But he winked at Everett in a conspiratorial way.

 

Everett sat in the passenger seat of his father’s cruiser, warming his hands against the dashboard vents. It was cool out to night, too cool for early September. There might even be a frost on the corn come morning, the newspaper warned.

“How big was the frog Mrs. Deering saw?” asked Everett.

“ ‘Monstrous’ was the word she used, I think,” said his father. “At least that’s what Dory told me.” Dory was the Friday night dispatcher. “I guess it’s just sitting out there on Twightwee, out by Camp Ritchie. She thought it was dead, hit by a truck. Got to clear it off. Apparently, it cannot wait till morning.”

Everett, who had imagined putting the frog in a bucket and bringing it back with them to live at the house, was visibly disappointed.

“Might not be dead,” said his father. “Who knows? We’ll see.”

Downtown Loveland was dark. The streetlights cut off at eleven p.m. every night, throwing the false-fronted retail stores into shadow. Everett was always a little unnerved to see his town like this. It was always so busy during the day: adults window-shopping, teen lovers strolling over the bridge that crossed the Little Miami, his classmates or ga niz ing games of pick-up in the park. But at night, it was like everyone had evacuated the place, like they knew something Everett and his father didn’t. Out by the river, though, two streetlights were always kept on: the one in front of Paxton’s Grill and the one in front of Stacey’s Drive-Thru. Everett’s father pulled into Stacey’s and drove around back to the entrance.

The light inside was garish, an overly bright depot in the darkness, full of beer and tackle and chips. Stacey—a spindly thing with stinky cigarette smoke hair—was working, of course. She always was. And according to her version of this story, Everett’s father looked just fine when he pulled up to her register.

“What’ll it be, Ev?” His name was Everett, too. Everett, his son, was actually Everett the Third.

“Mountain Dews and Slim Jims, please. And a bag of pork rinds.”

She gathered the goods and passed them along to the police chief. He handed her a five.

“Where ya two headed?”

“Twightwee, I guess.”

“How come?”

“Lana seen a frog out there, size of a Doberman.”

“No kidding.”

“That’s the word, Thunderbird.”

“You know, my uncle once noodled a catfi sh as big as a mastiff. Ain’t never heard of a frog that big.”

“Think your uncle was probably drinking some of that white lightning he makes in his shed, Stacey.”

Everett giggled.

“No doubt. No doubt,” she said. “Hey, Ev.”

“Yes’m?”

“You suppose it could have anything to do with that boomin’ we heard the other night?”

“Boomin’?”

“Yeah, like a thunderclap. Real loud. ’Round midnight. Some people over at Paxton’s said they heard it a couple nights in a row, but it was loudest the last time, two days ago.”

“Nobody called it in to the station.”

“No?”

“No. Least not that I heard. And I didn’t hear it anyway.”

“It was real loud, Ev. Some of us were thinking maybe it was a jet or something, ’cause Roldo was in the navy in Nam, you know? Anyway, Roldo says it was a sonic boom. I don’t know, ’cause I never heard one, but do you know of any jets coming down from Dayton or anything? Out of Wright-Pat, maybe?”

“No, I ain’t heard nothing about that.”

“Well, anyways. Sounded like it was coming from the direction of Twightwee Road. Just thought they might be, I don’t know, connected.”

“You never know.”

“No, you don’t.”

As they drove out of Stacey’s and into the dark toward Twightwee Road, Everett sat up in his seat, smiling.

“What?” his father asked.

“You talk different around some people,” he said.

“Part of the job,” he said, ruffling his son’s hair. “She’d think I was puttin’ on airs if I didn’t slip an ‘ain’t’ in every so often. People need to trust their police chief. It’s even okay if a couple of them actually think they’re smarter than me.” He laughed. “Now hand me a Slim Jim.”

 

Twightwee was a gravel road that bisected the Little Miami over an antebellum bridge. Everett’s father slowed the cruiser as they approached.

“Spotlight,” Everett said.

His father whirled the large spotlight around so that it pointed straight ahead and then pinged the “on” switch. The night retreated several yards around the bridge. The harsh light saturated the roadway, stealing color from the stones and scrub grass lining the edges. The road was empty.

“Maybe it hopped back in the river,” said Everett.

“Little farther.”

The car edged forward. Everett rolled his window down. The sound of the tires pinching the gravel was loud but it was also an empty sound, a lonely sound. The air bit his cheeks and earlobes. As they passed over the river, the boy smelled the muddy water churning below—earth and grit and . . .

“Dad?”

“What’s up?”

“You smell that?”

There was something new, something alien in the air. Everett thought it smelled a little like a movie theater. His father’s first thought was of a wedding reception, carry ing an Amaretto Sour back to Everett’s mother.

“Almonds,” his father said. “And something else. Wheat? Beans?”

“Alfalfa!” Everett said.

“Yep. Alfalfa. Odd.”

The car rolled on. There were no houses out here and the woods were slowly devouring the road; tufts of bluegrass reached for the car and scraped gently along Everett’s door like soft fingernails.

“Wait!” said Everett. “Wait. What’s that over there?”

His father pivoted the spotlight to the left. There was something there, leaning against the berm.

“Just a bag of garbage.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, I’m—”

It moved. The back of the black round thing heaved up in what could only be a deep, labored breath, and then settled back down. Everett reached out and grabbed his father’s arm.

“Dad?”

“What?”

“What is it?”

“It’s not a frog.”

“What is it?”

“I . . . I don’t know. Could be a dog that was hit by a car. Or maybe a small bear.”

“A bear?”

“Maybe.”

Everett’s father reached into the glove compartment and came out with his stubby Smith & Wesson nine-millimeter, which he quickly unlocked and loaded.

“What are you doing?” asked Everett.

“I have to see what it is,” his father said. “Looks like it’s suffering. I should put it down.”

“No, Dad. Call Horace in. He’ll still be up. Have him bring out his shotgun.”

His father smiled. “It’s okay, Scout,” he said—a nickname he hadn’t used in over a year. “What ever it is, it’s too sick to hurt anyone. This’ll just take a minute. Stay inside.” He left the driver’s-side door open and rambled slowly toward the creature at the side of the road, the gun low in his right hand.

Still strapped in his seat, Everett watched his father approach the animal and circle halfway around it before stopping to pinch his nose with his free hand.

“What?” shouted Everett.

“It stinks!”

“What is it?”

In the beam of the spotlight, his father slowly moved to the form and pushed it with one shoe. It rocked a little, but didn’t turn over. He pushed again and this time it nearly rolled before collapsing back. On the third push it suddenly came alive. Everett watched the black shape leap to a crouching position, its red eyes fi xed on his father. It really did look like a frog for a moment—its face wide and wet and squished, its skin a greenish black muck-colored organ with holes for a nose and a gash for a mouth. That gash opened and what came out was a cry full of human anguish. It lifted a hand, webbed, covered in black foam, dripping pollution onto the blacktop of the road.

His father lifted his gun at the animal but as he did, the frog-thing wrapped its hand around the weapon and snatched it from his grip, tossing it into the woods. It reached to its waist and Everett noticed for the first time that there was a metal rod attached to some sort of belt there. The monster’s hand closed around the rod and pulled it out. It began to emit brilliant sparks of blue-white light, hissing like a road flare. The smell of alfalfa grew sickeningly sweet. All he could see of his father now was his backlit form against the overpowering light of the monster’s wand.

“Dad!” cried Everett.

The light abruptly quit and Everett peered into the darkness for the shape of his father. But the light had been so strong, he saw nothing for a few seconds. He felt the car lunge to the side and he knew that the frogman was inside with him, opening its gash of a mouth for his throat.

“Everett.”

His father. It was his father. Yes. He could see him now, lifting his legs into the driver’s seat and closing the door behind him.

“Everett,” he said again.

“Dad?” he said through tears.

And then his father’s body pitched against the steering wheel. The horn blasted away the quiet with a droning wail.

Everett unbuckled himself and pushed his father’s body back against the seat. His father’s skin was gray and cool, his eyes rolled back into his head. One hand clutched at his chest. His doctor had warned him three years ago that it was time to quit the drinking and the red meat, that one day his ticker would get a shock and dislodge a buildup of plaque and then that would be all she wrote. He’d told the doctor the most excitement Loveland’s police chief was likely to see was the Memorial Day parade. If he had known of such things as frogmen with laser sticks, he might have heeded the doctor’s advice.

Everett would forever harbor a dirty guilt over his father’s death. A Bear in the local Cub Scout troop, Everett had purposefully skipped the meeting in June when a paramedic had taught the boys basic CPR. He’d skipped it because it hadn’t sounded fun.

Eventually, Everett would think to call in to the station on his father’s radio. But for a long while all the boy could think to do was cradle his father’s head against his chest and stroke his cheek the way his father had done for him as a toddler.

By the time Horace arrived, the monster was gone. And when Everett told the story of what had happened to his father, no one believed him. It was easier to believe the boy’s mind had overloaded at the sight of his father’s untimely death. Easier for the boy to blame a frogman than a clogged artery.

In fact, he should have blamed a writer named David Neff.

The Man From Primrose Lane © James Renner 2012

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