Chapter 23 ~ Joe Learns of His Father’s Betrayal
Joe and Sam stopped by Max Stein’s home after they left Donna and the Riverside Grill. Joe pulled up next to the curb, looked out the window at a small square house with worn white siding, and grass badly needing a haircut. He got out of the car, Sam followed him. They walked up a five foot long sidewalk. Joe rang the doorbell. It didn’t work. He knocked on the door. A heavyset woman, with blotchy skin, answered the door, partially opening it. She stared the through the small space proved by the security chain.
Joe introduced himself and explained he wanted to talk to Sam. He asked if she was Sylvia, she nodded and listened politely, but shook her head no. She told Joe Max’s dementia progressively worsened and on top of that, he suffered from emphysema. Sylvia said Max was sleeping and he usually slept most of the time. Joe asked if Max ever spoke about Joe Ritchie. Anger flashed across her face at the sound of Joe Ritchie’s name. She undid the chain latch and invited Joe and Sam inside cautioning them to speak softly. She led them into the living room.
The smell of cooked cabbage, smoke, and mildew filled the air causing Joe to stifle a gag reflex. Sam followed Joe and they sat down on a worn, stained, sofa. The coffee table in front of the sofa held an ash tray overflowing with cigarette butts, and three empty beer bottles. Sylvia plopped down in a worn E Z boy chair across from them.
“I don’t have much time. I got to be to work at Hardees by 8. I work the drive through window until midnight. It’s not much, but it’s something. I don’t suppose either one of you got a smoke?”
“No, ma’am,” said Joe.
“I gave it up ten years ago,” said Sam.
“I can’t live without them. I don’t know what anybody told you, but I’ll tell you one thing, Joe Ritchie is dirty rotten son of a bitch,” said Sylvia sticking a thumb into the roof of her mouth and adjusting an upper plate.
Joe said, “I thought he helped Max when Max had cancer?”
“Hah!” Sylvia slapped her leg. “He helped him out okay. What he was really doing was helping his self out. That’s what he was doing. In his prime, Max was a genius. All he needed was a break. You ask anybody who heard him, he was as good a drummer as ever lived. Anybody tell you Max started playing drums when he was five? He never had a lesson. He picked it up all by his self. He could fill in on any song anyone played. You didn’t have to tell him the music. He was that good. He was even better as a song writer. The tramp Gloria, who slept with any man she thought might help her get ahead, convinced Joe Ritchie to steal Max’s music and make it his own.”
“How do you know this?” asked Joe.
“I don’t have it first hand, but I know this for a fact. I know this because I was always there. He’d come in and see how Max was doing. Not all time, but occasionally he’d give me ten bucks toward Max’s health costs. Ten bucks don’t go far. It paid for a few packs of cigarettes that’s all. Anyway, every time Joe comes in the room when I was there, Joe starts talking about music. This always got Max’s interest. He was always asking Max about the songs he wrote. He said Gloria went on the road with Danny whatever his last name was while he was in county. He said Gloria needed new music and the Flamingos were going to get back together when Max was better. I knew this was a bunch of horse manure but I didn’t want to say anything to upset Max. When Max came home, Joe Ritchie kept coming and the next thing I know he stops coming. I asked Max about it. Max told me he gave Joe Ritchie all his original music. That was the only time Max and I ever fought. Joe Ritchie stole every piece of music Max ever writ. A year later, Max is listening to a station and he hears one of his songs. He starts swearing and beating his fist. He’s screaming, ‘It’s on the charts. That’s my song.'”
“Did Joe Ritchie perform the song?” asked Joe.
“Hell no. He can’t sing worth a damn. It was one of the big country singers. It could have been Garth or George or Tracy. I don’t remember. But it broke Max’s heart and he’s never been same.”
“Do you remember the name of the song?” asked Sam.
Joe glanced at Sam and wondered why he hadn’t thought of that question.
Sylvia said, “I’ll never forget it. It was called “Fallen Angel. But the hit was called “Falling Star.” All the words was the same so was the music according to Max. He should know, he wrote it. We even went to a lawyer. The lawyer asked if we had a copy of the music. How could we, the excuse for a man who’s lower than whale crap and that’s at the bottom of sea, took it. Anyway, I got to leave and that means you two can get out of here. You don’t have twenty you can spot me? I’ll pay you back when you pass through town again.”
Sam gave Joe a look. Joe stood, thanked Sylvia for talking to him. He reached into his back pants pocket and pulled out his wallet. He took out a twenty and handed it to Sylvia. She tucked the twenty in her bra and walked Joe and Sam to the door.
The next morning Joe and Max were on the road, coffee in the cup holders. Joe had a breakfast wrap from Starbucks to go with his coffee. Max had a breakfast sandwich and coffee from MacDonalds. They headed back toward Hannibal and across Route 36 to Cameron, Missouri where they’d pick up I-35 to Wichita.
Sam took a sip of his coffee and said, “Who do you believe, Joe? Their stories are as different as night and day.”
Joe shook his head, “Who is Joe Ritchie, Sam? Is he as good as Donna said or as bad as Sylvia said. I’m more confused now than when we began. Donna wouldn’t know about the music. At least I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem like she hung out with Sylvia. If Joe Ritchie befriended Max while he was sick so he could steal his music, he’s about as low a human being as there is.”
Sam sat quietly for a while. He stared out the window as the crossed the Mississippi and went through Hannibal. Twenty minutes later, Sam spoke, “You ever hear of Ken Peterson?”
Joe’s first thought, here comes another story. Joe said, “Never heard of a Ken Peterson. Who was he?”
“You’re the sports announcer. How kin you call yourself a sports announcer and you never heard of Ken Peterson?”
“What sport did he play?” asked Joe choosing not to argue.
“I went to high school with Ken. That was when I lived in Terre Haute. I didn’t always live in a hick town like Greenville. Ken was two years ahead of me. He played centerfield for the high school team and I swear he was better than Willie Mays. Ken could hit the cover off a baseball. He got signed right out of high school by the Cubs. He played only one year of Triple A ball and the Cubs called him up. Have the woman who’s chasing after you look him up. He went to Spring training and won the starting job in centerfield. He lit it up. Everybody in Terre Haute followed what he was doing. He was going to be the next hitter after Ted Williams to hit four hundred. I know he would have made it. He was hitting four twenty two in the middle of July. He scared all the pitchers. That’s like getting a hit every other time. Then he fell apart. He stopped hitting. He was benched by the end of August. The Cubs let him go after the season.”
“What happened?” asked Joe.
“His best friend on Cubs stole his girlfriend. You may as well has stolen his life. Same thing happened to Max is the way I figure it.”