Excerpt from The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Mercy Seat

by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop X
The Mercy Seat by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
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  • Published:
    May 2018, 240 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite

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Lane

When Lane comes out of the gas station store, the dog is waiting for him. It sits in the dusty crossroads, alert and eager, ears pricked and black tongue stiff between its panting jaws. It looks like some kind of ridgeback–pit bull mix, all sinewy muscle and worried brow, like the one he'd had as a kid until his father one day shot her in the cane fields out back, damned if he'd shelter a dog who, during domestic contests, favored the woman of the house. The dog hadn't died right away; Lane had fixed her up as best he could and made her a bed out in the woodshed, where he'd brought her food and water and tended to her wound until she'd disappeared a few days later, likely wandered off to die.

The dog rises nimbly from the dust and turns a circle, follows behind as Lane makes his way to the truck, which is parked in the only shade, beneath a tree. Lane stops and turns. He looks at the dog, then back at the store, a squat, white cinder block structure baking in the crossroads' heat. The battered window shades inside are drawn against the late afternoon sun, and the chipped letters of the TEXACO logo painted on the glass repeat themselves in shadow on the ripped canvas beneath. Lane wonders if the dog is a stray or if it belongs to the people here, to the black-haired woman behind the counter who'd wordlessly taken his money, to the rolled up around grease-stained arms. The woman's husband, Lane would guess; he'd seen living quarters through the door behind the counter, smelled stewing meat.

Lane clears his throat. "He y'all's?" he calls.

The man spits as he crosses to the pump, where a car is waiting for service, shakes his head no.

Lane tosses the dog a piece of the jerky he bought with the coins Captain Seward allowed him and continues to the truck, a bright red 1941 International Harvester cornbinder. Everything about it seems to Lane round in some way: fat round wheel fenders, round hood, round taillights and headlights, as if the whole thing were surprised. And maybe it would be, if it knew what was inside the sheet-metal trailer mounted to its bed. Lane had seen them load it up back at Angola, the straight-backed wooden chair that would have looked innocuous enough but for the leather straps along the arms and the wooden rail between its two front legs. He'd been confounded by the sight; he'd expected some kind of metal contraption with wires and knobs attached. The fact that the chair looks frankly like a chair is troubling to Lane; he finds something deeply sinister in its simplicity.

He opens the truck door and climbs in behind the wheel.

Seward is in the passenger seat, an unlit cigar between his puffy lips. He's a big, chinless man, with a neck so thick his head seems less to sit upon than grow out of it, like a parakeet's.

Seward glances at Lane across the gear shift. "Thought you might have made a run for it," he says. The cigar waggles between his lips as he speaks.

Lane looks at the empty fields around them, the intersecting gravel roads that stretch flatly away: east, west, north, south, anywhere. "Nowhere to go."

Seward gestures at the bag of jerky. "Satisfied?"

Lane offers Seward a piece of the dried meat in reply.

The fat man pinches the cigar from his mouth and exhales as if he's taken a drag. "Too damn hot to eat," he says, but he takes the jerky from Lane anyway, rips a bite off with his side teeth.

It is too hot to eat, a merciless Indian summer, but when they'd stopped so Seward could stretch his bad leg Lane claimed hunger all the same, just as he claimed a need for the facilities when they passed the station before this one. Six years he's been inside, dreamed of things like jerky, M&M's, porcelain underneath his thighs. Now, a prison trusty, he is out, chauffeur to Seward and his chair, and he wants his jerky while he can have it. Wants to want it; its terms make this taste of freedom bittersweet. "Never too hot for jerky when all you've ate for years is gruel," Lane says, though the piece he takes for himself he only plays with, twisting the hardened meat between his fingers. Finally he tosses it in the direction of the dog, who sits by the truck's open door. "Reminds me of the one I had when I was a kid," he says.

The Mercy Seat © 2018 by Elizabeth H. Winthrop. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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