Joe and Sam followed Donna through a set of swinging doors. They walked through the kitchen avoiding three cooks taking large slabs of charred ribs out of large ovens and carrying them to carving tables. They went into a small room off to the side in the back of the kitchen. There were two tables in the room with four chairs around each table. One wall had a large white board with cook and wait staff schedules. Another wall had two motivation posters, the first said, You Can Tell a Lot About a Man’s Character by the Way He Eats Ribs – Get it all over you. The other said, One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not enjoyed ribs. The other walls were painted in a barbecue sauce red color.
Joe and Sam sat on opposite sides of the table. Donna excused herself and five minutes later returned with a large serving tray covered with ribs, corn on the cob, corn bread, two tins of barbecue sauce, and French fries. She set the food on the center of the table. Donna returned to the kitchen and brought back plates, napkins, silverware. Sam stood up and pulled out a chair for Donna.
“You were always the gentleman, Sam. Why I ever let you escape, I’ll never know.”
Joe saw Sam blush. Sam said, “I think you made a good choice, I am too much of a drifter, know what I mean? I can’t stay in a place too long before my butt gits itchy.”
The small talk continued while the three ate. Fifteen minutes into eating, Donna opened a toweletter and wiped her hands. She touched Joe’s forearm. “I don’t know what you’ve heard about Joe Ritchie. There’s a lot of talk that goes on about him and his group. You ever hear their music?”
Joe shook his head. He said, “I didn’t know he was my father until two weeks ago. Now, I’m dead set on finding him or finding out what happened to him. It’s something I have to do to close the chapter and move on.”
“I tole him to forget it.” Sam said, “It’s a waste of time chasing after a no good, bottom of the river scum. Joe’s just gonna be more disappointed, the more he finds out.”
“You’ve always been quick to judge, Sam. I see you haven’t changed a bit. You still hold a grudge against Joe for cheating you out of fifty dollars?”
Sam’s face turned as red as his barbecue sauce.
“Let’s see, Sam. You’ve been carrying that debt for a bit more than twenty-five years. That’s two dollars a year to carry anger for three hundred sixty-five days a year.”
Joe watched the interplay between Donna and Sam. Donna was letting Joe have it with both fists and wasn’t holding back. Sam, for his part, was taking it and not saying a word.
Donna said, “I don’t mean to be so rough on you, Sam. You’re a good man. You’ve always been a good man. Let the fifty dollars go. If your hard up for dough, I’ll give it to you.”
“No thanks, Donna. I had it coming. Anybody but you telling me this, I’d have kicked their butt up and down both sides of the street. You’re telling it straight and as far I’m concerned from this moment on, Joe Ritchie and I are square. I still don’t like him.”
“I’m going to tell you boys a story.” Donna said, “Not too many people know this story. It happened after Joe got out of county jail for assaulting Captain Terry. I can tell you, Captain Terry deserved what he got from Joe and more. He’s a big time con man. He gets people to play music for him promising exposure on his riverboat. He promises to pay them, then he takes out money for the food and drinks they have during breaks of their performance. He also takes twenty-five percent of tips. Maybe Joe should have just walked away instead of losing his temper. God knows, Joe had a hair trigger temper.”
Sam glanced at Joe. Joe caught Sam’s look and turned back to Donna. He said, “What is the story?”
Donna said, “After Joe got out he went looking for Gloria. Gloria Fallon, the Flamingo’s singer, she had a voice and a body to match. Before Joe got sent up, she and Joe were really into each other. During the time he was in county, Joe never really trusted Gloria. When I visited him in the county lockup, he’d always ask me if Gloria was fooling around behind his back. I’d tell him the same thing, ‘Why don’t you ask her.’ That ended it until I told him Gloria and Danny Dubliski started up and took off without saying where they were going. They were going to make it as a singer and guitar player. Danny had a decent voice, but not as good as Gloria’s voice. Joe took the news news real hard. That was about the same time Max was diagnosed with lung cancer.”
“I heard Max is alive and living with his sister,” said Joe.
Gloria nodded. “Yes, Max is alive and living with Sylvia on Harrison. I guess you already know that. He’s got dementia, so I don’t know how much good he’s going tell you. When Joe heard Max had lung cancer, he visited him every day at the hospital while they took out Max’s right lung, started him on chemo and radiation. When Joe wasn’t in Max’s room, he was working the night shift at the soybean factory to pay for Max’s health care. Joe lost thirty pounds caring for Max. He gave up playing music. He only thought of taking care of Max. That’s what he did for six months until he was sure Max was in remission. By that time, Max’s sister, Sylvia moved from Hannibal to Quincy to be closer to her brother. She’s had a hard life. Her husband died in a mishap at the truck factory. Her oldest son got arrested for cooking meth and he’s doing hard time in Joliet. Now, Sylvia has her hands full taking care of Max. She has to leave him to work and she’s never sure if he’ll be home when she returns. Four times she had the police put out a silver alert for him. Joe took off after that. He was set on finding Danny and beating the living hell out of him. He heard they were in Wichita.”
“How do you know Joe went to Wichita? Anything else?”
Donna reached into her purse and pulled out a postcard, “I got this from Joe. They got a big airplane industry going in Wichita. Joe shoulda hooked up with it. Anyway, he sent me this postcard of the Boeing factory. He said he was working as a custodian at Blessed Sacrament School and church. You might want to check there. I lost track of him after that. What have you heard?”
Joe and Sam looked at each other. Joe said, “I learned he went on to Boulder. That’s where I planned to go next. Wichita is kinda on the way. I think I’ll stop by and maybe there’s a housekeeper or someone at the church who remembers him. Thanks for meeting with us.”
“Why don’t you wait in your car. I want to talk to Sam alone for a few minutes,” said Donna.
Joe wondered what that was all about. He nodded, shook Donna’s hand and headed out of the room and into the kitchen.