Friday, November 25, 2016

Death's Honesty (16)

He was glad now he hadn’t stopped at home to get his sister’s revolver. At least he’d gotten to the church before the car left. He also wished he had the revolver instead of the clip-on knife even though it had the ingenious Emerson hook on its blade that pulled it open with a snap from the pocket. He parked beside the car, took a deep breath, patted the knife clip on his pocket, and went to the door.
The footsteps were leaden and determined, and when the door opened he found himself confronted by a heavyset woman with graying steel-wool hair and a granite face. Her eyes were anthracite chips and they stared through Blow with a fearless, primitive knowledge, which, had she been male, he knew, would have frozen him where he stood—knife or revolver or battle-ax or bazooka notwithstanding. The irrational notion of gender making such a difference flicked through his mind as he felt an easing of the tension in his gut. Yet he remained wary.
Time stopped as they stared at each other. Blow’s eyes migrated down from hers past flared nostrils to the bristly shadow atop her upper lip. He saw the lips quiver and begin to part. He caught a glimpse of unkempt teeth and heard a delicate, high-pitched girlish sound emit from behind them. Time commenced.
He introduced himself and asked if Joan Bismark was there. The woman ignored his question.
“You’re Judge Stone’s son,” she said, the girlish voice rising on “Stone” and dropping on “son”. Her lips formed the start of a shy smile as Blow nodded yes. There was something off-key about her manner under the circumstances. Too detached. Too trusting. She didn’t recognize him, and Blow had the notion anyone could have approached her as he was and claimed to be him. The Rottweiler’s body would have deterred few hearing its timid kitten voice. But she hadn’t introduced herself. And where was Joan Bismark, and why ignore his query? Wariness persisted. He asked again.
“Oh, Joan? Ah, she’s--” The woman interrupted herself with a quick glance in the direction of the secretary’s office. “Joan is, ah, kinda tied up right now. Ah, is she, ah, expecting you?” Her voice climbed in pitch throughout this struggle apparently to keep from giving something away. This was her only tell, as her chunky face remained expressionless and its coloring didn’t change. But for the vocal giveaway she might have been a killer poker player. He heard a slapping sound approaching and the woman turned in that direction and then stepped back. At the same time he heard his name.
“Mr. Stone?”
Then she was in the doorway. She looked terrible. Puffed and red around the eyes, tear-streaked cheeks. The banjo tension was back in her voice but with a weary strain that wasn’t there before. “We decided to have a service tomorrow anyway,” she said, leading him back to her office. She was wearing flip-flops and a housecoat embellished with a lavish floral design, and the perfume he’d noticed earlier taunted him anew in her wake. Joan Bismark had introduced the woman who met him at the door as Loretta something (he didn’t catch the multisyllabic last name) and she followed behind him, her steadily clopping shoes suggesting a Clydesdale pulling a fringed surrey in a parade.
They paraded through the nave and vestibule into the meeting room where Loretta peeled off and clopped into the kitchen, calling out in her girlish voice as she did, “I’ll put the food away, Joan.”
When they reached her office, the secretary repeated that the church would hold its Sunday service “anyway.”
“That’s good,” said Blow mechanically. He held his tongue from betraying the ambivalence he felt, thinking he might learn a little more before deciding on sharing his misgivings. His alarm at the door had not abated, nor had the prospect of danger for Joan Bismark. “Who will preside?”
She stopped just inside the office and turned around. “I suppose they’ll want me to say a few words. If I can pull myself together.” She gave up a nervous snicker. “Then we’ll just say some prayers and talk about him, you know. I guess like a wake, although he’s not Irish. We’ll have the food. Loretta’s going to bake a new batch of corn bread so it’ll be fresh. You can take some of the first batch home with you if you like.”
“I’d love to, Joan, thanks. But please, no more ‘Mr. Stone’, okay? Please call me Joe.”
She nodded and tried to smile and turned again and went to her desk and stood by her chair as if trying to decide whether to sit. Blow stood by the couch. He felt an overpowering awkwardness. She pretended to be scanning her desktop for something. He knew she felt awkward, too. She glanced up at him as if to speak but said nothing.
“Has a Major Callahan contacted you yet, Joan?”
“A policeman?”
“Callahan. He’s the chief investigator. I’m assuming you notified the Sheriff’s Office about--”
“No, I guess I was too upset and then I got busy and everything. I forgot to call. Except you and then the members, and they have a contact tree. Each one calls three other members, like that.”
“How many?”
“Oh. Ah, I’d have to check to be sure, but I think we have, ah, seventy-eight now. Yes, I’m pretty sure we’re at seventy-eight.”
“I see. So what time will the service start tomorrow?”
“Oh, I’ll have the door open at nine. We’ll start at ten. We always start at ten. I’ll be praying all night, you know, that maybe Chris, I mean Rev. Curtis will come walking in at the regular time, you know, and everything can be back the way it should be. It could happen, couldn’t it?”
Blow knew then his suspicion had been false, thinking she somehow had gotten word Curtis’s body was found. Her manner and actions had struck him as in keeping with such knowledge. That she had cried herself out. That her strength had taken over. That she was bearing up, performing as her pastor and lover would want. To carry on. It became clear to him now she’d spoken no fantasy. He had gathered she was too practical for that. The hope was real. It could explain Loretta’s odd manner. He’d thought maybe it was shock. But she didn’t know. Neither of them knew.
“Joan,” he said softly. I need to discuss something with you, and I think Loretta should be here, too.”

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


Were I Police Detective Edelman and I had the faded TV star Stephen Wade in my custody I'd lock him up, close the case and take a long, well-deserved vacation. This is one murder rap not even my buddy Jack Dwyer--former cop, now private eye and sometime actor—is going to upend, believe me.

I mean, look. Let's be realistic here. Wade's fingerprints are all over the knife that's buried in Michael Reeves's back. Okay? Need more? Opportunity: A reliable witness sees Wade enter Reeves's apartment around the time of the murder. Motive? Hours earlier Reeves had shoved, slapped and humiliated Wade in front of the rest of the cast of O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night following Wade's drunken bumbling, stumbling, mumbling performance. Reeves directed the production and is the local theater's resident director.

One might think even Jack Dwyer would let this one go, especially considering the victim was not a likable guy. Somewhat of a loathsome guy, actually. The kind of guy who probably had it coming anyway. But, then, Jack Dwyer's not the kind of guy who gives up easily. Not the kind, either, to rush to judgment, no matter how loathsome it might be to keep an open mind.

One suspects Ed Gorman was a Dwyer kind of guy. He created Jack Dwyer and used this quote by the late British author Gerald Kersh to introduce Murder in the Wings, our currently discussed Dwyer mystery: ". . . there are men whom one hates until a certain moment when one sees, through a chink in their armor, the writhing of something nailed down and in torment."

In Murder in the Wings, Jack Dwyer neither hates the man charged with murder nor has to look for any chinks in his armor. There is no armor. Stephen Wade is himself writhing in torment, destroying his career and his life with drink. He is also Dwyer's friend. Dwyer was one of the cast members in this disastrous performance of O'Neill's classic play. He restrained the actor after a fight broke out between the two enraged men. It was Dwyer whom Wade called, in a drunken stupor, from Reeves's apartment where he said he found his tormentor lying face down in bed with a knife protruding between his shoulder blades.

Nope. No way Jack Dwyer is going to let this one go. Not even after Wade admits he isn't positive he didn't stab the loathsome director to death. Not even after he waves a .45 at Dwyer and flees sobbing into the night. Dwyer couldn't let this one go if he wanted to, if only because his lovably flaky girlfriend, Donna Harris, has decided that “sweet” Stephen Wade did not—could not—murder anyone, not even someone as loathsome as Michael Reeves.

Besides, taking a closer look one sees there are plenty of folks, in the theater group alone, with motive, opportunity and means to have done the dirty deed.

Ed Gorman was at the top of his game with this novel. The writing is crisp and insightful, with moments of pure poetic joy. His characters are so real you feel you know them, or would like to. His plotting is intricate and daring. He keeps you guessing right up to the eminently satisfying denouement.

And the humor. Oh, mercy. It sneaks up and gooses you when you least expect it. There seems always to be a scene or two in every Gorman novel that sets me to laughing so hard I worry I will not be able to stop. Or that the neighbors will call 911. This time, about halfway through Murder in the Wings, I grabbed my cell phone thinking I might need to make the call myself.

Turns out I didn't. But I was ready.

[find more Friday's Forgotten Books links at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog]


Thursday, November 17, 2016

MAGGIE: A Girl of the Streets – Stephen Crane

With no knowledge the expression gadzooks did or did not exist in the latter part of the 19th century I presume here to employ the aforementioned expletive to burst forth with appalled astonishment from the throat of Rupert, our imaginary reader at the imaginary distinguished Manhattan publishing house Lyttel, Pettibone & Throckhauptman, as he begins reading the manuscript of a short novel by one historically accurate Johnston Smith.

Rupert’s outburst coincides with his hurling of the manuscript across the room he shares with three other readers of what one day would come to be known as slushpile submissions, most of which were returned to their authors with notes of polite rejection. Our historically accurate manuscript is thusly returned after Rupert composes himself and sheepishly gathers up the sheets from the floor to stuff into the self-addressed-stamped envelope its author had enclosed with his submission. Doing so, Rupert notices the name on the return envelope is not Johnston Smith. Rupert shrugs, assuming the name is that of Smith’s agent, pastes the flap shut and drops the envelope into the outgoing basket on his desk. He pauses for a moment before releasing the envelope and wonders why he does not recognize the "agent"’s name: Stephen Crane. Rupert and the other New York publishers who rejected Maggie: A Girl of the Streets wouldn’t have this problem two years later when Crane dropped the pseudonym for his second novel, The Red Badge of Courage. Then any vocal sounds they might have produced likely would have been expressions of dismay for having rejected Maggie.
Frustrated by his failure to find a publisher for Maggie, Crane went the self-pub route, spending nearly $900 to have 1,100 copies printed. Reflecting back on this venture he was quoted as saying, "how I looked forward to publication and pictured the sensation I thought it would make. It fell flat. Nobody seemed to notice it or care for it... Poor Maggie! She was one of my first loves."

Of course once Red Badge was a hit, critics took another look at Maggie, and, voila!!!, declared it a work of cutting edge naturalistic/realistic brilliance. Uh huh. A real publisher even came out with a new edition, dropping the pseudonym and emblazoning Crane’s name on the cover! To be truthful here, rather than simply snarky, the publishers who rejected Maggie the first time, felt the theme of a girl raised in poverty in a Bowery tenement who turns to prostitution was a tad risque for the popular market. Some also objected to Crane’s meticulous transcription of the Bowery dialect, something other critics praised it for. I found it difficult and unnecessary beyond a little taste initially to get the Bowery voice into the reader’s head before switching to more comprehensible English. Here’s an example:

Pete made a furious gesture. “Git outa here now, an’ don’ make no trouble. See? Youse fellers er lookin’ fer a scrap an’ it’s damn likely yeh’ll fin’ one if yeh keeps on shootin’ off yer mout’s. I know yehs! See? I kin lick better men dan yehs ever saw in yer lifes. Dat’s right! See? Don’ pick me up fer no stuff er yeh might be jolted out in deh street before yeh knows where yeh is. When I comes from behind dis bar, I t’rows yehs bote inteh deh street. See?”

There are patches of overwriting that would have had me shouting gadzooks and hurling the manuscript across the room. I won’t include a sampling here as a gesture of respect for my readers. But then there are gems like this:

The air in the collar and cuff establishment strangled her. She knew she was gradually and surely shriveling in the hot, stuffy room. The begrimed windows rattled incessantly from the passing of elevated trains. The place was filled with a whirl of noises and odors.
She wondered as she regarded some of the grizzled women in the room, mere mechanical contrivances sewing seams and grinding out, with heads bended over their work, tales of imagined or real girlhood happiness, past drunks, the baby at home, and unpaid wages. She speculated how long her youth would endure. She began to see the bloom upon her cheeks as valuable.
She imagined herself, in an exasperating future, as a scrawny woman with an eternal grievance.

I did a double-take and then emitted a sardonic chuckle when I finally recognized that Chapter XVII was breaking the proverbial fourth wall this way:Upon a wet evening, several months after the last chapter, two interminable rows of cars, pulled by slipping horses, jangled along a prominent side-street.”
As one might expect, the naturalistic realism of Maggie is not remotely upbeat and ends on a note so gloomy the movie version, were there ever to be one, likely would use Beethoven’s Funeral March as a background accompaniment.
Can I in good faith recommend Maggie: A Girl of the Streets as “a good read?” No, I can’t and I shan’t. But anyone interested in the seminal work of a genius should find it informing as well as a solid study of Bowery lingo that might some day come in handy should one find oneself stranded in “Rum Alley” or “Devil’s Row” and need directions.
My copy of Maggie is included in the Karpathos complete works of Crane, on Kindle for 99 cents. I shall revisit The Red Badge of Courage soon to see if it holds up to my first reading of it as a youngster. 

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Monday, November 14, 2016

Death's Honesty (15)

The shank of white hair spoke to Blow as intimately as a whisper. It reached his gaze as he neared the end of his walk from where he’d parked his truck behind an unmarked police car. He was approaching the yellow crime-scene tape guarding the small pier. His eye caught the glimpse of familiar hair, strands fluttering intermittently in the evening breeze from under the mound of pale blue tarp on the weedy bank opposite the pier across the narrow creek. Strobing blue and red emergency lights flickered off the tarp’s surfaces. He saw bare feet poking out from under the covering as well, but without the familiar sandals they failed to affect him with the same sorrow of personal recognition.
We really need to stop meeting like this.” The voice was aimed his way. Callahan’s. It sounded weary. Blow looked back toward where the vehicles were parked and saw the cop approaching, only a few steps away.
At least not the same day,” Blow said, wondering instantly if he should have said “on the same day” and then realizing it didn’t matter and wondering why he’d thought it might and understanding at that precise moment the day’s stress was on the verge of undoing him. Callahan stopped next to Blow at the tape and stared across the creek at the blue mound winking in the emergency lights. “At least your boy didn’t do this one, or did she change her mind on the bail?”
Far as I know he’s still in your jail, unless he escaped.”
They stood in silence. The cop spoke first. “Know who it is?”
Blow didn’t like the question. He knew Callahan probably hadn’t been involved in Curtis’s abduction but maybe he had with Moriarty’s. Chaotic notions struggled in his mind. At the forefront were the implications of the two abductions and his own reaction to Curtis’s murder. It bothered him to feel relieved the corpse under the tarp wasn’t Moriarty’s. It bothered him that Moriarty had gotten so much under his skin that a large measure of his sorrow recognizing the pastor’s hair just now was guilt for feeling relieved it was Curtis’s and not Moriarty’s.
I just got here, Carl, but I think it’s Reverend Curtis from the Patmos church over on Arrowhead Lane. His secretary said she thinks he ran into some foul play. I talked with him this afternoon. Tyrone Genét was a member there.”
The black guy?”
Plot thickens, like they say in the novels. So what the hell’s going on here, Joe?”
I should be asking you that question.”
Who’s the secretary?”
She’s a client.”
You didn’t answer my question.”
How about I ask you one: Is Teach on duty?”
Teach? What’s that got to do with anything?” Callahan peered intently at Blow but kept his voice level.
Blow upped the volume of his a notch. “Is he?”
Hey, easy, Counselor, easy. Who stuck a hair up your ass? Don’t answer that. Teach has been off all day. Comes back Monday. Now will you answer my question? Both of them?”
My client said she saw Curtis get into a car a couple hours ago with a man who looked like Teach. She said it looked like the man forced Curtis into the car against his will.” Blow watched the cop’s face carefully. Callahan never blinked, keeping his eyes riveted on Blow’s. The furrowing of his brow seemed a natural response to the information he’d just received, as if genuinely surprised and concerned. Blow decided against mentioning the earlier incident when one of the two men who forced Moriarty into a car resembled Teach, and the other Callahan. The possibility Joan Bismark might be in danger now came to him with the impact of a face slap. It was reasonable to assume she also knew whatever Curtis knew that got him killed. It occurred to Blow the secretary might not even know what it was that could make her a target. If as Homer had implied Curtis was tortured he might have given his captors enough information to put Joan at risk. He had to get back to the church. He hoped he had time to stop by the house to get the pistol his sister kept in her nightstand.
Fuck,” Callahan muttered. He lifted the crime tape and stepped onto the pier, waving an arm to get the attention of one of the deputies--two uniformed and one plainclothes--Blow saw on the island. He recognized Doc Botticelli, acting medical examiner, standing next to the blue mound. Botticelli leaned over and lifted a corner of the tarp and stared at what was under it. One of the uniformed deputies waved back at Callahan and untied the rowboat secured to a stump at the island edge. The deputy climbed in, lifted the oars and began the creaking and splashing motions of rowing across the creek. As the boat neared the pier, Callahan turned back to Blow, his voice sounding even wearier than before:I need to talk to your client, the secretary. I’ll get up with you tomorrow.” Blow nodded.
Blow started back to his truck. He was surprised to see few people on the mainland side of the creek. He saw three houses among the trees lining both sides of the narrow asphalt lane leading from the main road. A man, woman and school-age child stood together on the lighted porch of one house. Another was dark. The third house, nearest the pier, he guessed was the one Homer had said looked like a cabin. It was plain and only one story. Blow saw yellow light through one of the windows. Then he saw someone standing in the dark near the front door. As he drew closer he saw it was a man and the man was looking at him.
Hello,” Blow said. The man said nothing, but turned and unhurriedly went into the house. Blow wanted to follow him, introduce himself and leave a card. No time even for that tonight, though, he decided. He had to get back to the church as soon as possible. He got into his truck and turned around at an unkempt grassy circle in front of the house. As he did this he saw the man standing, silhouetted, at the lighted window, looking out. Blow waved a hand and drove back to the main road.


Thursday, November 10, 2016

STEPHEN HAWKING: A Life in Science – Michael White and John Gribbin

Some years back I bought a copy of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. I knew Hawking was important, that he was cutting edge. I was curious. I don’t think I got past the first page or two. The language of physics was over my head, yet I caught enough to be vaguely intimidated, suspecting if I struggled with it enough to understand where the author was going I’d soon be revisiting my old nightmares about suddenly getting sucked into a black hole.

Well, that danger is abated. I have learned in Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science that black holes are more abundant than visits by Chicken Man: they’re everywhere, they’re everywhere. Presumably sucking sucking sucking… Some—an infinite number, actually--are infinitely smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. Sucking sucking… But the best news I learned from this fairly-easy-to-follow biography of this incredibly hard-to-understand man is that our entire universe is a black hole—one among an infinite number of universes, all of them black holes. I’d have put an exclamation mark after that last sentence had I not become so astoundingly sophisticated in matters of cosmic theory reading this amazing book, which I picked up for half a buck a couple of weeks ago at the library’s used book sale. It was sitting next to a credibly slim volume titled The Wit and Wisdom of Donald Trump, which, according to my understanding of theories discovered by Stephen Hawking (and my own intuition), possibly itself contains an infinite number of black holes. Needless to say, I had one helluva time trying to decide which of these two possible collections of theoretically possible black holes to spend my fifty cents on.

Now then, here’s my own theory, one which I feel empowered to expound from a foundation of virtual math illiteracy and inherent mistrust of most anyone who seems to know more about something than I do. I would guess such mistrust is explained somewhat, explicitly or by inference, in the fictional Trump book. (Not to worry, there’s no math in this theory): We know that at first few if any human beings knew precisely what the hell Einstein was talking about when he came up with the “special theory of relativity.” It didn’t help that many quickly understood Einstein’s equation E = mc 2 because they still didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. To this day I am fairly clueless.

Moving along briskly here, Hawking’s theories of black holes and other celestial phenomena are even more obscure than Einstein’s theories to my cosmically deprived little brain. I enjoyed reading about them, though—the theories—if only because once I realized that I myself might well be a black hole or at least host to a bunch of them my dread of dreaming the damned sucking dream succumbed to an awesome sense of being Mr. Universal Danger, armed with the knowledge I could at whim strike terror in the hearts of anyone who didn’t know the secret that they too might well be black holes or hosts to a multitude thereof. I’d be wearing tights and a cape were I not uncomfortable with the prospect of starting a dangerous fashion trend among the black hole cognoscenti. Or be misunderstood by the folks in the white suits with the tranquilizer darts.

Getting back to my theory, if only a metaphoric handful of physicists, astronomers and mathematicians are hip to the guts of these theories, who's to say they don’t push their equations into a little niche so esoteric only they can credibly pretend the equations make sense? It’s all just theory anyway. No one has ever identified a black hole, nor will anyone ever likely do so, as Hawking assures us. It’s this small coterie of elite scientists we’re supposed to trust. And Hawking seems perhaps more trustworthy than the average brainiac because he suffers from a disease that’s left him almost completely paralyzed.

But we know the guy has a wicked sense of humor, White and Gribbin say so in Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science. Wicked sense of humor. Folks who know him, including White and Gribbin, say you can see the mischief in his face. And he loves to whip around the cloistered Cambridge campus at breakneck speed in his motorized wheelchair. He also loves to whip around dance floors in it, flirting with women. I learned also Hawking has three kids by his wife, whom he left after 25 years to move in with his nurse-come-mistress. Them apples, whattaya think? The guy’s a player! A practical joker/player who just might be putting one over on all of us.

So intrigued was I about halfway through the book I bought the DVD of The Theory of Everything, based on Hawking’s wife Jane’s book about their marriage. The flick left me spellbound. I started sitting around with my head lolling to one side, practicing mischievous grins and smartass quips. What the hell is wrong with me? I couldn’t even help my kids with their geometry homework. Now I’m wondering if geometry is some brainiac joke too.

Maybe I’m presidential timber.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books check the links on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Monday, November 7, 2016

Death's Honesty (14)

The bean soup reminded him so palpably of his mother’s—it’s aroma, thickness, bits of carrot, onion, and smokey ham, and the steaming nuanced pepperiness of each spoonful as the uncanny elixir, cooled ritually by several sustained, gentle bursts of air from his pursed lips, made contact with the back of his tongue—capturing with preternatural verisimilitude the poignancy of sitting at the kitchen table of his childhood, he wondered if he’d said it wrong, said mmmgood, mom instead of “This is wonderful, Joan” as he reached for the tumbler of chilled coconut/almond milk, eyes pausing an instant over the enormous buttered square of hot cornbread on the saucer next to his bowl.
They were in the secretary’s office, Blow on the couch as before. Joan Bismark had moved the wooden end table around and then brought the food in from the kitchen. He’d offered to help, but she gave him a tight smile, shook her head slightly and waved him to the couch. “I need to keep moving. I’m a nervous wreck,” she said in the voice that had sounded flat and impersonal on the phone but now revealed a tension that reminded him of a taut banjo string. She fussed around at her desk, mostly on a computer, all the while constantly craning her neck to look out the window at the parking lot. She took one brief call and spoke quietly to someone she seemed to know, then unplugged the phone. Blow was just finishing his meal when she turned to him and seemed to be trying to sound natural, but the tightness slackened only enough to put a fibrillating quiver in her voice.
“Looks like you were hungry.”
“This soup is delicious, Joan. Reminds me of the way my mother made it. And the cornbread is out of this world. Did you make it?”
She laughed, and Blow was surprised when it didn’t come out brittle. Her laugh was real, from the throat. No quaver. Almost a bark. But what astonished him most was the transformation in her face. The first thing he noticed was the softness, a relaxing of muscles he saw now had made her face a clenched fist. Instead of sagging, though, there was a freeing of the eyes, allowing them to glow for a moment. They were a hazel brown, he saw, and intelligent. He saw this, the change in her eyes, before he noticed the smile. It surprised him that he had not noticed the smile first, because it was glorious, full lips stretched wide, cheeks dimpled on either side, a dazzling glimpse of teeth. The smile took ten years from her face. For its three or four seconds of existence it revealed a woman free of fear, a healthy, vibrant young woman. She was beautiful. Just for that moment. Then it all collapsed, the face, reddening dangerously under its halo of fine brown curls, crumpled and turned away from him and he sat on the couch and watched, helplessly confused, as her upper body in its pretty, desert-tan jacket, bent slowly over the desk and began convulsing.
A shrill cry rose out of her then. It began as a barely audible squeal that quickly grew so piercing and strong as it crescendoed into the wail of the damned that it overwhelmed any interference the convulsions might have given it. And it went on and on, breaking only for a desperate gasp for breath before continuing, building until it became a hoarse railing, a murderous anger at a betrayal somewhere just shy of the heavens. It continued while Blow moved the table aside and got up from the couch and moved across the office to her side.
She had gotten over the worst of it when he reached her. The convulsions were not as violent, coming more sporadically, like an engine dieseling down. The sobs were dwindling, and she had begun choking them off with loud rattling sniffs. Her face was angled down and wet with tears and her eyes were puffed and closed. Blow saw a little puddle that her tears had formed and he took some tissues from a box on the desk and dabbed her face. Her hands had been braced on either side of her on the desk, as if she were trying to push herself upright. One of them now reached up and took the tissues from Blow and she raised her face toward him and murmured something that sounded like “thank you.” She blew her nose in the tissues and tossed them into a wastebasket beside the desk and then she sighed heavily and sat up against the back of her chair and opened her eyes and forced a smile.
“Oh, Mr. Stone, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry--” Her voice was tiny.
“It’s okay, Joan, it’s okay...” Blow became aware of her scent, an interesting vaguely familiar perfume of a kind he wouldn’t have expected of a church lady, which was how he’d been regarding her. The scent had a sassy nip to it, a spiciness that rode on a subtle surf of some kind of uncommon floral essence. It worked its intended magic on him with an erotic rush he reflexively stifled while understanding it would remain, lurking in the shadows of his libido. He stepped back from her chair and made as if to have a better view through the window overlooking the parking lot. It was empty. He’d parked his truck on the side next to the door he’d used to enter the church.
No one’s out there,” he said, trying to sound reassuring, which won another timid smile and an obliging nod.
A floodgate opened then. She began talking, jabbering. Her monologue started out with tentative fragments attempting to explain something that seemed bigger than what their situation entailed. It gradually gained coherence and momentum and grew confident in volume. Soon Blow could see she was in love with Chris Curtis and she wanted to talk about him more than anything else. Blow drifted back to the couch and sat back down. He was getting the sense that even though the church secretary glanced his way now and then she was addressing her remarks to a wider audience somewhere in the distance beyond the far wall of the room and was no longer fully conscious of his presence. She seemed to be delivering an obituary.
She started with how Rev. Curtis came to Patmos Evangelical after the church’s previous pastor was caught in a child pornography sting, which Blow remembered because he’d declined to represent the preacher, claiming an unspecified conflict of interest that was in fact a visceral repugnance for the accused and the crime. Curtis, who was still using his full name, had learned of the vacancy and applied. He’d already resigned his chaplain position. Joan Bismark recited the same vague reason Curtis had given, that he’d been in some unspecified trouble at Mecklenburg and felt he could no longer do his job with the necessary freedom to represent his theological beliefs.
These beliefs, she said, brought sweeping changes to the Patmos parish, driving many of the older members away but attracting a younger generation. The membership had been growing ever since, with the average age dropping proportionately. Curtis’s predecessor had been goading the congregation with fervid, shouted sermons from the Book of Revelation that the End Times were nigh. He’d urged the forming of committees to organize social confrontation, arming parishioners with placards that warned of sin’s wages and of doom on the horizon. Curtis’s debut sermon was in such contrast to this that half the congregation walked out before he finished. He’d worn the clerical vestments that morning as a gesture of respect, to help ease the transition—for the first and final time, she said. He’d opened his sermon with the biblical passage misquoted by the professional killer “Jules” in the movie Pulp Fiction, delivered with strident righteousness by actor Samuel L. Jackson:
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.
Curtis followed this with a brief verse of his own, consisting of only three questions. Joan Bismark handed Blow a small flier containing Curtis’s verse:
Would the divine were meek, a power sublime disinclined to meddle to quell our crises, preferring supplication, to be needed so completely one offers up self for the touch of grace? Would reason be in play, a mutuality of sorts, open invitation: you seek us out, we take you in, succor's yours, your soul joins ours, all in kind? Would this be culling, recruiting kindred spirits from the random multitude with still the same old signs that point the way from primal to live with love or die?
While he was still studying the words, Blow felt his cellphone vibrate. He saw the caller was Homer Price. He waited until the call went to his mailbox, then excused himself and put the device to his ear. Homer’s message was brief: This isn’t me. We’ve got a fresh body. On the island. Looks like some old hippy. Pretty bad.”
Blow kept his face blank and looked up at Joan Bismark. She was looking at her computer screen. Her hands were in her lap.
I’m sorry, Joan, something’s come up. I have to leave for a bit but I’ll check back as soon as I can. How long will you be here?”
Oh, I’ll be here all night, Mr. Stone. I have to make sure all the members know we won’t have the service tomorrow.” Her voice sounded better than it had a few moments before.
Thanks for the soup. And the cornbread. It was delicious.” He looked at the flier in his hand. “Mind if I keep this?”
She smiled and moved her head side to side. “We have plenty.”
He folded it gently and put it in his shirt pocked and left.