Read New Title 1 Online

Authors: Ed Gorman

New Title 1 (6 page)

Lunch, a couple hours later, after a morning spent sitting in the tiny red-brick library and looking through newspapers to acquaint myself with the town, was a Big Mac and fries eaten at a bright orange table in a bright orange seat overlooked by a poster of Ronald McDonald, who looked curiously sinister. Ever since John Wayne Gacy—who murdered, that we know of, thirty-six young boys, often while wearing a clown costume—clowns sort of spook me.
The main drag told an interesting story. If I'd sat at this window a few years ago, I'd have seen brand-new cars and brand-new pickup trucks parading down the street past the two- and three-story buildings.
But no longer.
In the 1980s the rural economy, like the urban economy, suffered a setback from which it had never recovered. People talk about the urban underclass, those ragged, bleak denizens of rattling, rusted-out hulks that emit clouds of black smoke and that idle as if they're in death spasms—well, there's a rural equivalent, and I saw a lot of them on the street today, coming into town for more food stamps or a visit to the free clinic on the east edge of town or to apply for a minimum-wage job at one of the fast-food places. Andy of Mayberry had done moved away.
I was just finishing my Pepsi, just starting to want a cigarette the way I still do after each meal, when I looked up and saw a tall red-headed woman with cat-green eyes and a cute dinky nose and enough freckles for three people standing there watching me.
"Are you Mr. Hokanson?"
I was out of practice and so the question caught me off guard, but at least I was smart enough to respond. "Yes."
"Mind if I join you?"
"Not at all."
She had a kid-sister grin touched with a certain disingenuous eroticism. "Even brought my own coffee. I'm a real cheap date."
She sat down on the other side of the small orange table. It wasn't easy. Slim as she was, her big leather rig—holster and gun and nightstick—took up room in quarters this cramped.
"I should introduce myself, I guess. I'm Jane Avery. I'm the chief of police." The grin again. "I know that sounds impressive, but just keep in mind that it's a very small police department."
"I'm impressed anyway."
This time it was just a smile. She sipped her coffee, looked over and waved at somebody who waved and called her name. At noon, the customers ran to downtown workers, people who looked retired, and truckers. The back lot held maybe ten sixteen-wheelers.
"I forgot to tell you, Mr. Hokanson, I'm also a celebrity." She sipped coffee. "Boy, that's hot."
Her name was called again, this time by a guy who had to be a banker. He looked born to it.
She waved.
"They seem to like you," I said.
She shook her head, her short red hair baby-soft and baby-fine. She wasn't exactly beautiful, she wasn't even exactly pretty, but she sure was fetching. "Guilt."
"Guilt? Over what?"
"The way they treated me when I first came here. Three years ago."
"They weren't nice?"
"Not nice is an understatement. The mayor, a man named Glickson—he's dead now, by the way—saw a piece about me in a Des Moines newspaper, how I was a young cop who was getting her master's in criminology at night school. His police chief had just quit, and so he offered me the job. It was good timing. My husband had just asked me for a divorce. He'd never been happy about me being a cop, he found it a very unfeminine job, and he couldn't help himself, and gee whiz—he was sorry, but he'd fallen in love with a woman at the ad agency and gosh, wouldn't I just give him a divorce so we could all be happy? So I took the job here." She laughed softly. "At least it distracted me from my broken heart, though God knows why I was brokenhearted about Ron. Anyway, among many other misdemeanors, some of the old-boy network in town here pinned a Kotex on the antenna of my police car, and called me at all hours of night and day with all kinds of sexual suggestions, and tried three different times to have the mayor fire me. I think he had a heart attack and died because of all the stress. Then the young professionals in town finally got sick of hearing about it and took my side, and that put everything into a kind of stalemate. So here I am." The grin again. "Boring story, huh?"
"Hardly. I'm just amazed you're still here. With that kind of harassment, most people would have left."
She shrugged the shoulders of her stiff police shirt. "I was an orphan. This job had a lot to do with my identity and self-worth, if you'll excuse the jargon. It was very important for me not to run."
"I can understand that." I looked at her carefully. "In fact, there's only one thing I don't understand."
"And what's that?"
"Why you came over here and sat down."
"Oh, that's simple enough. A citizen asked me to investigate you."
"Would this citizen's name be Eve McNally?"
"Could be." She leaned forward into an angle of sunlight. Her eyes were vivid green. "Do you have some ID?"
"Are you serious?"
She nodded. "Afraid I am."
"My name's Jim Hokanson. I'm a free-lance writer. Sometimes I do retainer work for Fenroe Publishing."
I dug out my billfold, extracted a white business card, handed it to her.
She didn't look at it, just left it lying next to her elbow.
"Anybody can get a card printed. I really need to see some ID."
To the casual eye, we might have been lovers having a quick lunch at McDonald's. She looked so sweet and relaxed sitting across from me.
I got out all the Hokanson stuff and handed it over: license, medical-insurance card, Visa card.
She went through it carefully, turning everything over and over in her slender fingers, even bending the Visa card a little.
She handed it back.
"So tell me," she said, "who are you?"
"You saw for yourself."
"None of that's ever been used."
"All brand-new. Your Visa card, for instance. Use that a few times in one of those machines, it gets scratched a little. But it isn't scratched at all. Same with your license. Not a mark on it. So who are you?"
"You must've read an awful lot of Nancy Drew when you were growing up."
She smiled. "I did as a matter of fact. But you're not answering my question."
"Who am I, you mean? That's a pretty heavy philosophical question for this time of day." I looked across the small-town street where people stood in twos and threes beneath the shadows of awnings and discussed small-town news and gossip. There was a pizza place named "Mike's" on the corner. "Does Mike make good pizza?"
"Mike. Across the street."
"Oh. Yes. Pretty good. So who are you, Mr. Hokanson?"
I smiled. "I'm on the same side you are, let's put it that way."
"That's a very elusive answer."
"That's because I'm a very elusive guy."
Her beeper went off. She frowned. "Excuse me." She walked back to a pay phone, deposited some coins and talked for a minute or so. She came back, but this time she didn't sit down. "Bad car accident. I have to leave. I may see you later, whoever you are." I waggled the Visa card at her. "Says right there that I'm Mr. Hokanson."
"Right," she said. "And I'm Katharine Hepburn."
In the driveway sat two matching white Lincoln town cars. Brand-new. There was money in the God business. Far up the drive that curved behind a stand of pine trees, I could see a large white house, new and prosperous-looking against the backdrop of a pasture where cows loitered contentedly.
The church was small and modern in a repellent sense, all sharp angles and juts, like a piece of glass sculpture that had been dropped and smashed and then glued back together ineptly. The message seemed to be that God was a schizophrenic, and a clumsy one at that.
But for all the trendiness of the design, the wailing song that poured forth from its open front doors was at least as old as the famous tent-revival shows that played the Midwest and South back in Depression days, a bit of bayou blues and Jimmy Rodgers white-boy hobo song combined with the stirring religious themes of working-class Baptists.
For all the fanciness of the exterior design, the interior was plain: thirty rows of oak pews and an oaken altar. And on the altar stood a thirtyish man in a singles-bar country-western getup of brilliant red shirt with blue piping, skintight jeans and a pair of Texas boots that were no doubt the real lizard they purported to be. He was good-looking in a chunky Irish kind of way—maybe Edmond O'Brien had been his grandfather—and he was gone gone gone on the song he was twanging out on his electric guitar, Elvis himself having never been more gone gone gone back when he was nineteen and known only in Memphis and signing his name on the top part of ladies' breasts.
He was singing all about how God understood him and why he did the things he did, and how God would cradle him someday and purge him of sin and loneliness and want, and I couldn't help it—I actually enjoyed hearing him sing, his voice echoing off the vaulted ceiling and trailing out the open side windows.
And then he paid it off, a big finale with him working hard on his guitar, eyes still closed, whole body surging with the grief and ecstatic eternal promise of the lyrics.
The church sounded obscenely quiet after he finished, as if its only purpose was to be filled with his song, and now it was spent and empty of reason to exist.
"You're really good," I said.
For the first time, his eyes came open and I was almost startled by the clear green fury of them. Oh, yes, this man knew whereof the demons he sang.
"Didn't know I had an audience," he said in a young voice that made me slide his age down to twenty-five. "Reverend Roberts says I should bring in an audience even when I'm practicing. I still get stage fright, you know, on our TV shows and all."
He set his blue Fender down on the carpeted floor of the altar, then walked down to meet me.
After shaking hands he said, "I'm Kenny Deihl. If you ever saw the reverend's show, I'm one-half of the talent."
"Haven't seen the show, I guess."
Something subtle but serious changed in his startling green gaze. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"No, I'm not."
"You're not a follower of the reverend's, either, are you?"
"No. Afraid not."
"Then just what the heck're you doing—"
"Kenny, I'll handle this. No need to get upset We're all children of the Lord." He stood in the back of the church, but I had no trouble hearing his greased and mellifluous tones at all.
He looked just about the way you might imagine, $250 worth of moussed dark hair, a face that was youthfully handsome in an almost-diabolical way, like a mask that didn't quite work, a conservatively cut blue suit that would give offense to no one, and one of those firm-handshake, quick-grin manners that let you know you were in the company of a Psycho for Jesus. He smelled of hair spray, aftershave and chewing gum.
He came over and said, "Kenny, why don't you run downtown and pick up that case of Pepsi for tonight? You know how dry we get when we cut those radio shows."
"I'll bet he's a reporter," Kenny said. "I'll just bet he is."
Hebrews 13:2
, Kenny. 'Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.' "
Kenny knew just what look to put on his face. He still hadn't forgiven me for coming here but he knew how to take his cue from the reverend. "Sorry, mister. Guess I just got carried away. Just after the state paper went after us—"
He looked at the reverend, then quit talking. He shrugged, then walked to the side door at the front of the church and disappeared.
"When I found him two years ago," said the minister, "he was singing in a motel lounge in Sioux City. He's changed a lot since then, become a truly saved soul, but he has a distrust of strangers ever since the state newspaper did a very unflattering article about myself and two other midwestern TV evangelists. Kenny takes criticism of me especially hard. When you save a man's soul, the way I saved Kenny's, well, he's naturally grateful to you and he gets very protective of you." He shook his perfectly moussed head. He resembled an actor who might have been a leading man a quarter-century ago. "The Devil has so many friends, and the Lord so few."
"Well," I said. "That's actually what I am—Kenny guessed right—I'm a journalist. But I'm not doing an exposé. I'm doing a piece on how small towns are becoming bedroom communities for a lot of people." I told him who I was profiling here.
"Well, Mr. Hokanson, I'm sure you're telling me the truth, that you're not going to do an exposé and all, but I think you'll understand why I may not want to do an interview with you."
"You'll see the copy before it gets printed."
"That's what the other fellow said, too."
"How about you think it over for a while, and I'll call you back tonight?"
"Why don't you tell me where you're staying, and I'll leave a message there? We're on thirty-eight radio stations in a three-state area, and we have to cut half-hour radio shows once a week. I give a sermon, and Kenny does two songs, and then Mindy does two songs. Then, of course, I ask for help, financial help, Mr. Hokanson, I'm not afraid to say those two words together. Financial help. You can't do the work of the Lord without financial help. Nobody can—it costs money to live in Satan's world, Mr. Hokanson. That's what that reporter fellow couldn't understand, that virtually every dime donated to my church goes to helping other people."
I tried hard not to think of the matching white Lincolns in the driveway.
The good reverend suddenly made a bitter face. "He even mocked me, that reporter. I was trusting enough to tell him about my wife, who has cervical cancer, and about our trips up to the Mayo Clinic and about how I'd nearly lost my faith several times when I saw—through the test results—that my Betty wasn't getting any better. Wasn't that a legitimate question? To ask the Lord why He answered so many of my prayers for others who were sick—but wouldn't answer my prayers for my own wife?"
Tears stood in his eyes now, and spittle sprayed from his mouth, and he made kind of animal mourning sounds deep in his chest.
He started poking me in the chest as he made his point.
"I say to people, 'The Lord hasn't answered me because I've been a sinner' and they say, 'Oh, no, Reverend Roberts. Nobody lives a more exemplary life than you. It can't be that.' 'Then why won't he help Betty get better?' I ask. But they never know what to say. So you see, it's got to be my sins. I am a sinful man."
He wanted me to disagree but I wasn't about to. I still doubted that Jesus, back on earth today, would tool around in a new Lincoln.
"I hope your wife gets better."
He looked at me hazily, as if he were coming out of a trance, as perhaps he was. Bible-thumpers often worked themselves into real frenzies.
"I thank you for your charitable thoughts, sir."
"You'll get a hold of me tonight?"
"I most certainly will. I most certainly will."
I nodded and walked out of the church, watching the play of shadow and light on the oak walls, and hearing him mutter prayers to himself up near the altar. This had to be for my benefit. Isn't there a psalm about the most sincere prayers being those whispered in the heart?
Outside, I saw a young blonde woman in white shorts and a blue halter hosing down one of the Lincolns. She had the somewhat overweight and overripe sexuality of a fifties
femme fatale
. She wore too much makeup and too much hair spray and too much theatrical sexuality, but her particular persona worked anyway. She was appealing in a slightly tawdry, vaguely comic way.
I was five feet away from her when she turned and saw me and then very slowly leaned over to take a sponge from the sudsy red plastic bucket by her bare feet. In bending over, she gave me a nice lingering look at her considerable cleavage.
"Hi," I said. "You've got a nice day for it."
A knowing but tentative smile. She still hadn't figured out if I'd be worth any serious flirting.
"I could stand it ten degrees warmer," she said. "I'm from Houston, and I just can't get used to what you all call a 'heat wave.' " She gave me the benefit of enormous eyes made violet by contact lenses. "Actually, I could stand it a whole lot hotter."
Being a gentleman, and being somebody who hates corny lines, I decided to take what she said without any implication whatsoever.
"I was just in seeing the reverend. He seems like a nice guy."
She eyed me skeptically. "Somehow you don't seem the type."
"The type?"
"You know. The churchgoing type. There's just something about you. I don't mean any insult, either."
I told her who I was. "You're the second good guesser I've seen in fifteen minutes."
"Yeah, Kenny Deihl guessed that I was a journalist. And I am."
She had a good nasty grin. "That isn't all that Kenny is good at guessing, either."
And with that, and before I could ask her what her obscure remark had meant, she turned back to the car and sprayed water all over the roof and driver's door.
She shouted above the din of water on metal. "He lets me drive this if I keep it clean. Part of my pay, I guess."
"Are you Mindy?"
"Right." She grinned her nasty grin again. "I'm the girl singer for the reverend."
"He said he found Kenny in a Holiday Inn. Where did he find you?"
"A Motel 6."
"In the bar?"
"Motel 6s don't have bars, if you get my drift."
I went right on past that one. "You three travel a lot?"
"Me and the rev and Kenny?"
" 'bout four months of the year, all told."
"The reverend do much traveling on his own?"
"That's kind of a strange question, seeing's how your article's supposed to be about a bedroom community and all."
"Not really. I'm just curious about how he holds his flock together."
She laughed. "So that's what you call them. A flock. I've been wondering what name to use for them."
She picked up the sudsy sponge and stood on tiptoes to wash the roof. She had a great bawdy body and knew it. Another five years, it would mudslide into fat if she wasn't very careful, but right now it was bedazzling.
She had given the roof a few swipes when I heard a beeping sound and saw for the first time the beeper clipped to the waist of her shorts.
"Oh, shit," she said. "Pardon my French."
She stopped work, shaking her head miserably. "That bitch."
"Who's a bitch?"
"Betty Roberts."
"The reverend's wife?"
She heard the discomfort in my voice. "He sold you on it, too, huh?"
"Sold me on what?"
"Her cancer."
"She doesn't have it?"
"Hell, no, she doesn't have it. He just says that so the 'flock,' as you call them, will feel sorry for him and give more money."
"You sure you should be telling me all this?"
She plopped sponge into suds, wiped her hands on her hips and said, "I'm splitting in a week. Don't matter to me anymore who knows what."
The beeper erupted again.
"She's up there at her bedroom window watching us with binoculars. That's all she does all day. The colored woman who works for her, it's her day off, so Reverend Bob makes me be her gofer."
"This is quite a setup here."
"Yes," she said, grinning her nasty grin. "Isn't it, though?"

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