Chapter 46 ~ The Search Ends – Joe Meets His Dad

Chapter 46 ~ The Search Ends – Joe Meets His Dad

“Is this everything?” asked Joe.

“Why the rush, Joe? Jody said you quit your job to search for your father. I’m not being critical, please don’t take offense. I assume you want to meet Joe. If that is the case, there is a lot of context about Joe you need to know. I’m not trying to influence how you feel about Joe. How you feel and act toward Joe is something you have to decide. No one can make these decisions for you,” replied Father Oscar.

Jody put her hand on Joe’s back and gently rubbed it. She said, “It’s been a tough journey for Joe, Father. Do you know all of Joe Ritchie’s history?”

Father Oscar smiled, “I’m not sure anyone knows all of their personal history. There’s the history we create and we interpret the history we create through a personal prism. Others who are touched by our history perceive our actions through their prism, which is quite different than the one we use. More importantly, why we do what we do is often a mystery. Psychologists and others try to explain it in a way to rip away the mystery. They sound convincing, it is my opinion anything they say is speculation at best.”

“What about the women and men he mistreated and hurt? I can give you a partial list. I sure he filled pages,” said Joe with a biting edge to his words.

Father Oscar viewed an emotional movie cross Joe’s face and ripple down his arms into balled fists. After a moment, Father Oscar said, “Do you want to hear more of the story, Joe?”

Joe took a deep breath, “Okay. Yes. It’s just …” 

Father Oscar held up a hand, “No need to explain, Joe. I get angry when I see how society has forgotten about the homeless. I get angry when I see young girls and boys pulled into sex trafficking. I get angry when I hold a young man dying from a heroin overdose. I can understand your anger when you met people Joe hurt. I’m not aware of anything prior to the time I met him in the ER. After Joe came out of the coma he went into a great depression. He didn’t want to live. If his arms weren’t in casts, he may have committed suicide. He was on suicide watch for two weeks. He had to go through months of counseling and therapy. Slowly, very slowly, he chose to live and he chose to walk again. He started in a wheel chair, moved to crutches, and eventually began taking steps without assistance. He lived in our house during this time.

“Is he still living in your house?” asked Joe.

“Not any longer. He lived with us for more than three years. After Joe learned to walk and become independent, he asked us if he could stay with us and help us in our work. He washed floors. He did dishes. He did whatever he was asked to do and he never complained. He was filled with an inner happiness. When Brother George and I went out at night, he was right by our side.”

“Did he have some kind of conversion?” asked Jody.

“To be honest with you, I’m not aware of any religious conversion. I don’t know anything about Joe’s past. I don’t want to know about his past. I didn’t dig into it. I knew his name was Joe Ritchie from what was in his wallet and the papers that were in the glove compartment of his car. As far as I’m concerned, my history with Joe began the day I was called to give him the last rites.”

“Didn’t he ever talk about singing and his group, Joe and the Flamingos?” asked Joe.

“This is new to me. I know he liked to play the guitar. I thought he was pretty good. He played guitar at our masses. He has a very good voice, but then again I’m not a talent scout.”

“He had a good reason to hide his past from you,” said Joe.

“Yes, he did,” said Father Oscar. His beating was so severe, he had a traumatic brain injury. Doctors call it TBI. He gets glimpses now and then of his past, but much of his past is fuzzy. Counseling helped him grapple with it. The Joe Ritchie I know is a good man. He doesn’t ask for anything. He works tirelessly to help others. He laughs easily. If you didn’t know anything about his history, you’d wouldn’t think twice about wanting to be friends with him.”

A silence fell over the table. Jody held Joe’s hand. Sam pushed away from the table and returned with a cup of coffee. Sam was the first to speak, “I guess there’s hope for all of us.”

“It’s how I look at life, Sam. Even you and me,” said Father Oscar with a smile. 

Sam chuckled. Then he looked at Joe, “Suck it up, Joe, and do the right thing. You know what you have to do. You want me to tell you the story of Kyle Watson who faced the same kind of decision you are trying to make? I hope you do better than Kyle Watson did. That’s all I’ll say.”

“Sam’s right, Joe,” said Jody. “Do the right thing.”

Joe took a deep breath, stretched out his fingers, and turned his hands over palms up. Joe stared at his palms trying to pull an answer out of them. He looked up at Father Oscar, “Where is he? I’d like to see him. He probably doesn’t even know he has a son. I’ll only say hello. That’s all.”

“Before we go. There’s one more thing you need to know,” said Father Oscar.

“What’s that?” asked Joe.

“Joe worked here at Sister’s Jeans Hospice. Sometimes he spent the whole night with someone who was dying who didn’t have any family to be with them.”

“Is he working today?” asked Joe.

“Not exactly. Joe has cancer. He’s dying. It’s a miracle you’re here. He can die any moment. He’s just down the hall. Before he became sick, he was a healthy specimen. He was about your height, weighed about one-ninety. Now he’s close to one-twenty. There’s not much left to him, physically that is.”

Joe stood. “Let’s go.”

Jody gave Joe another squeeze on his hand. Father Oscar led Joe past the receptionist desk and down the corridor to the right. Half way down the corridor, Father Oscar stopped in front of a partially opened door. He said in a soft voice, “Joe’s in here. I don’t know if he’s awake. He doesn’t like morphine, but he’s had to take it recently. The pain has become too much for him.”

Joe nodded. Father Oscar pushed the door gently open and walked in the room. Joe followed him. Father Oscar walked to the side of the bed. Joe stood at the foot of the bed and looked at his father covered with a thin white blanket over a white sheet. An IV in his arm hooked to morphine. Tubes from his nose connected to a feeding bottle hanging from a metal stand to his right. His eyes were closed. His face gaunt. What was left of his hair was thin and barely covered his scalp. 

Father Oscar took hold of a frail, boney hand and said, “Joe? It’s Oscar. I’m here with a friend who wanted to say hello.”

Joe stared at the silent figure. He saw the boney hand make an effort to squeeze Father Oscar’s hand. 

Father Oscar said, “Joe come over here and introduce yourself.” Then Father Oscar said, “Joe meet Joe.”

Joe took his Father’s hand. He felt a slight squeeze. Tears filled his eyes and flowed over the edges and began to streak down his cheeks. He said, “Hi Joe. I’m from Ohio and I happened to be passing through. Father Oscar told me there was someone I should meet. I’m pleased to meet you. I’ve heard many good things about you.”

Joe felt his father squeeze his hand and thought he saw a tiny smile on his face. His father released his grip. Joe looked at the monitor. It still showed a beating heart. 

Father Oscar said, “Joe’s tired. We’ll let him rest.” Father Oscar put his forehand on Joe’s forehead traced a cross with his thumb, and said, “We love you, Joe. God loves you.”

Father Oscar and Joe left the room. Joe took one last look at his father before leaving the room. When they were in the hallway, he said, “Thank you Father Oscar. Thank you.”

AFTERWARD

Two days after Joe left Las Vegas. Father Oscar called him and told him Joe Ritchie died. Joe and Sam turned around returned to Las Vegas for the second time. Jody flew back from Columbus to join him at his father’s funeral and burial. After the funeral, Joe returned to Columbus, Ohio, and rejoined the TV station as their top sports announcer. Six months later Joe and Jody announced the engagement on television and were married in the spring by Father Oscar. On the way back to Columbus, Sam asked to be let off in Wichita. He took the maintenance job at Blessed Sacrament. Four months later he and Rosa married.

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Chapter 45 ~ Miracles Happen

Chapter 45 ~ Miracles Happen  

Father Oscar asked Joe, Jody, and Sam to come with him to room off of the lounge area. They walked into a conference room. There were three black leather soft, living room type chairs, a similarly covered sofa, and a long coffee table in the center of the room. A Bible and a book on coping with loss sat askew on the table. Father Oscar pointed to the sofa and an adjoining chair. Sam quickly stepped toward the chair. Joe gave him a look and shook his head. Joe and Jody sat on the sofa.

Father Oscar said, “We use this room to talk with family members. It’s hard watching someone you love die. My mom and dad are still alive. My younger sister drowned ten years ago. We were close. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it. I can’t count the number of men and women I’ve seen die here. I see suffering on the face of the dying. I see suffering on the face of family who feel powerless to change events. Every day I’m asked why and I don’t have an answer. The men and women who work here and volunteer to be here bring a deep sense of compassion to the dying and living. The work is so intense we schedule communal prayer sessions three times a week to support each other and pray for strength. It’s the only way we regain our strength to push on.”

Jody slid a bit closer to Joe and held his hand. Her eyes filled with tears as Father Oscar’s words triggered a memory. Father Oscar said, “You okay, Jody?”

“I’m okay, Father. I remember going to see my grandma in a hospice. She really raised me. It was hard. You’re right, you don’t get over it.”

Joe squeezed Jody’s hand. He said, “What about Ritchie? What’s his story?”

Father Oscar held Joe’s eyes for a moment, then spoke, “I met Joe a little over four years ago. It was right before I got my assignment to Sister Jean’s. It was early in the morning. I don’t remember the exact time, three or four. Brother George and I were working with the homeless in a park two blocks away from St. Rose’s Hospital. My iPhone vibrated. I answered it. Sister Joyce asked me to come to St. Rose’s Hospital to give the last rites to a man who was expected to die within the hour.  I left Brother George and ran the two blocks to the hospital. When I entered the ER room, they hurried me into a room where I saw a broken, battered body. The man’s eyes were closed and swollen, his nose literally pointing down his cheek. His lower jaw hung agape off to one side. Three doctors were working on his legs and arms. They all were broken. A doctor looked at me and said, “His name is Joe Ritchie. It was in his wallet. I made a guess he’s Catholic. We’re trying to save him. It will be a long shot if he survives. I’d put it at one hundred to one against him.”

“What did you do?” asked Joe.

“What I’m supposed to do. I walked behind the doctors and began praying over Joe. I didn’t have the oils we usually use, but I knew the prayers the church uses in administering the last rights by heart. Are you all Catholic?”

Joe nodded. Jody nodded. Sam shook his head.

“The last rites are a sacrament given to people in danger of dying where we pray for their soul. When I saw Joe, I was sure he wouldn’t be alive when the sun rose. After I administered the last rights, I left and returned to the park where Brother George was playing a guitar and had four homeless men singing with him. I wish you could meet him. He fits in wherever he is. I’ve never met anyone quite like him. He is the holiest person I’ve ever known. You’d never know it. He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. There’s something about him that makes you know you’re in the presence of a special person. Brother George and I drove back to the Franciscan house. I told him the story. He looked at me and said, “He’s going to live.” That’s all he said. I didn’t question him. There are five of us Franciscans and two lay men who live at the house. We’ve learned not to question Brother George. Every once in a while he’ll tell us something that doesn’t make sense until it makes sense. You know what I mean?”

Sam shook his head, “I do, Father. Harry Daniels had the same gift.”

Joe gave Sam a look. Father Oscar said, “I believe you, Sam. The Spirit touches people in ways it’s hard for most of us to understand. Why someone gets the gift and others don’t is a mystery.”

Sam smiled and nodded.

Father Oscar continued, “The next afternoon, I went to St. Rose’s Hospital. I expected to hear that Joe died regardless of Brother George’s comment. I asked about Joe at the receptionist desk and was told he was in intensive care and critical not expected to survive. I went to intensive care and spoke with the nurses and the hospitalist, they all shook their heads. A week later he remained in a coma, but began to show slight signs of improvement. They moved him to the neurology unit. I started visiting him each day around three. I read to him. I told him stories. I have no idea if he heard me. I stayed a half hour then when back to my work.”

“How long was Joe in a coma?” asked Jody.

“Joe looked like a sci fi movie. Tubes were in his nose, mouth, and arms. His legs and arms were in traction. Doctor’s still needed to operate on his jaw and nose. They couldn’t because of his condition. They reset his nose the best they could. The swelling in his eyes was gone and the deep black and blue was turning yellow. He’d scare most anyone.”

“When did Joe wake up?” asked Sam.

“I know the exact day. It six weeks later on October 4th.”

“What made that day so special that you remember it?” asked Joe.

“There were two things, Joe. One, October 4th is the feast day of Saint Francis of Assisi, the founder of my order. The other thing was Brother George. We have a small chapel in our house. That’s where you will usually find Brother George if he is not out working with the homeless or drug dependent people or lost kids. I came into the chapel to pray. I sat down in the rear row. Brother George was in the front row. There were only three rows. He was kneeling in deep prayer. I sat on a chair and began to pray. Maybe it was five minutes later, maybe longer. I don’t recall. I remember Brother George saying without turning around, “Oscar, go to St. Rose’s now. Joe is going to wake up.” That’s all he said. I got up and went directly St.Rose’s hospital. I went to Joe’s room. He looked comatose to me. I held his hand and said, “Hi Joe, it’s Father Oscar. For the first time, he squeezed my hand. I started to cry. Not out loud, but I couldn’t stop the tears from running down my face. After a moment, I prayed the 23rd psalm with him. He squeezed my hand again when I finished. He wouldn’t let go of me. I stood there. Then he opened his eyes and tried to speak. He couldn’t with all the tubes in him. I smiled and told him, everything was going to be okay. He was going to live.”

“And then?” asked Joe.

“Miracles happen, Joe. Miracles happen,” said Father Oscar.

 

Tomorrow – The conclusion of Searching for Dad

Chapter 44 ~ The Search for Dad Nears an End

Chapter 44 ~ The Search for Dad Nears an End

The trio left the Pancake House with Jody in the front passenger seat. Sam in the back. Joe stared straight ahead pretending he was concentrating on driving. Jody deleted email after email on her iPhone. Sam looked out the right side rear window. Ten minutes later, the BMW’s navigation system announced, Your destination is ahead on right. Your destination is ahead on the right.

Joe signaled his intention to make a right turn. He turned right onto a long driveway circling to a two story rectangular building. Joe turned a bit toward Jody, “You sure this is the place? You think Ritchie is here?”

“It’s the address Father Oscar gave me. I assumed it was a church. Father Oscar didn’t say where Ritchie was located. He said he wanted to talk to you.”

“Does it make a difference? You didn’t think he was gonna meet you at one of the casinos, did yah?” Sam said from the backseat. 

Joe shook his head, “Sam has an answer for any occasion.”

“Don’t be so hard on Sam,” said Jody turning a bit toward back and smiling at Sam. 

“Two against one is not fair,” said Joe.

“The last person I know’d who thought life had to be fair was Morty Fergus. You know Morty Fergus, Joe?”

“Joe pulled into the parking lot, found a parking space and turned the engine off, “No, I never heard of Morty Fergus and I don’t have time to hear Morty Fergus’s life story.” Joe looked at Jody, “Sam likes to teach me lessons with his stories, which he claims are all true. All of his stories are about someone he knew. I can’t count the number of stories he recanted on the way to Vegas.”

“My stories all got a lesson and your head is so thick you missed three-quarters of the lessons,” said Sam. “Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about Morty when we gets back in the car. It’s getting hot, let’s get inside. I bet the temperature will top out over one-hundred five today.”

Jody tapped her iPhone. “Close, Sam. The predicted temperature is one oh seven. I didn’t think of bringing my bikini to lie by the pool.”

Joe turned a shade a pink. Sam and Jody started laughing. The trio walked through an automatic door and entered a small lobby. Father Oscar’s office was in room 201. They turned to the left and pressed the elevator button. A moment later the elevator door opened, and old woman and her younger daughter walked out. Sam tipped his ball cap and said hello. The old woman and her daughter both smiled at Sam. 

They entered the elevator. The only option was the number 2. Sam pressed the number. Nothing happened. Joe pressed it. He pressed it again. 

“What’s your hurry, Joe. The door will close when it wants to close,” said Sam.

Joe purposely put his tongue between his teeth. Sam winked at Jody. Jody touched Joe’s shoulder, “Take it easy, Joe. It’s been a long road. I honestly believe you’ll get closure today. I don’t know if you’ll get the closure you want. I believe, one way or the other, your search will end.”

The elevator doors closed and the elevator began a torturously slow ride to the second floor. Joe gave Jody a half smile, “I hope so. I really hope so.”

The elevator slowed, stopped, then settled down another two inches before the door opened. One by one they stepped out into a small wide corridor. At the right end of the corridor was door marked, Staff Only. Next to the elevator was another door marked, Stairs. Opposite them and off to the left were double glass doors with the number 201 over the door. 

“I guess this is it,” said Joe pointing toward the double glass doors. “Let’s go.”

Sam stepped ahead and pulled a door open and motioned for Joe and Jody to step through the door. Sam followed them. They stepped into a large lounge area with a number of round tables surrounded by chairs. A coffee machine was off to the right. The coffee machine sat on a long bar. On the bar sat a bowl of apples and oranges. Next to the apples and oranges sat a plate of bananas. A man and a woman were pouring coffee into disposable cups. A reception desk was straight ahead. Joe led the three to the reception desk. He noticed a large clock on the wall. It read 10:45.

“Excuse me,” said Joe. “We’re here to see Father Oscar. We have an eleven o’clock appointment. My name is Joe Astore.”

A short, mostly gray haired, heavyset woman looked up from her computer at Joe, Jody, and Sam. She smiled and spoke softly, “Why don’t you have a seat at one of the tables. There’s coffee and fruit on the bar. If you’re hungry, there’s a refrigerator around the corner and you’ll find a box of pizza from last night. The fridge is next to the microwave. You can heat it up. Paper plates and napkins are nearby. You’ll be able to find cold soda in the fridge as well.” 

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Sam. He touch touched Joe on the elbow and pointed to a round table with six chairs. Joe pulled out a chair and sat. Jody sat to his right and Sam to his left. The three sat and waited. Every few minutes someone came through the double doors, they waved as they walked by the receptionist and turned either to the right or left behind the reception area and walked down a hall.

At five past ten, a medium height, solidly built, nearly bald man dressed in black pants, short sleeved black shirt, with a Roman collar turned the corner from the hallway to the receptionist’s right. The receptionist nodded toward Joe, Jody, and Sam. He looked at them, smiled and waved. He held up his forefinger indicating he’d be a minute longer. He bent over and spoke with the receptionist. She kept nodding. He straightened and walked briskly over toward Joe, Jody, and Sam. The trio stood up as one.

“Hi, I’m Father Oscar. And, you must be Joe,” he said extending his right hand. 

Joe grasped Father Oscar’s right hand and felt as if his hand was caught in a vice. Joe tried to match the grip. He returned Father’s Oscar’s smile and said, “I’m Joe Astore. Thanks for meeting with us, Father.”

“Sit down, please. We can talk here. Welcome to Sister Jean’s Hospice. I’m here every morning from seven to noon and I’m on call the rest of the time,” said Father Oscar who then introduced himself to Jody and Sam.

“Is Joe Ritchie here?” blurted Joe.

Father Oscar placed his arms on the table and clasped his hands in front of him, “I don’t have a formal office. I live with a group of Franciscans about five miles from here. After lunch, Brother George and I will hit the bridges and work with the homeless. We carry a backpack of food and on days like today we’ll muscle two more backpacks with bottles of water. You’d be surprised at the number of homeless people in this city. Lots of people assume the homeless are mentally disturbed, lazy, or dangerous. That’s not the case. For the most part, they’re good people who had a run of back luck. Each of us is only a step away from being homeless. It’s not a big step either. I’m not here to talk about the homeless situation in Las Vegas. I’m here because I told Jody I’d speak to you about Joe Ritchie.”

“Whatever you have to say to me, Father, you can say in front of Jody and Sam. They’ve been with me since I started my search.”

Father Oscar nodded. “I’m going to tell you a story. After I tell you the story, if you want to meet Joe Ritchie. I’ll take you to him.”

Joe felt his heart race.

Chapter 43 ~ Payback

Chapter 43 ~ Payback

Jody ran her hands through her hair and said, “I must look a mess.”

“You look fine. You really look fine,” said Joe. 

Sam smiled.

“I spoke with Father Oscar. He’s a Franciscan. He was the priest who answered my uncle Vinnie’s message. You’ll meet him this morning. I already set a meeting for us at eleven. He wants to meet you, Joe.”

“He didn’t give you any idea what he wants to talk about?” asked Joe. 

Jody shook her head, “No, he said he wanted to meet Joe’s son. That’s all he said.”

“Biological son, that’s all I am. I’m not his son,” said Joe.

Jody paused a moment, “Let it go just a tad, Joe. You’ll feel better.”

Joe shot a glance at Sam. If Sam noticed it, he didn’t return the glance.

“Well, what do you know?” pushed Joe letting Jody’s comments go.

“This is what I learned from Father Oscar. He told me there was more to the story. Before he said anything else he wanted to meet you. When Joe Ritchie left Monica and another child, he fancied himself as a super pimp. He used his good looks and charm to hustle girls, he specialized in runaway girls. He’d wait down by the bus station or find some girls trying to work solo in Old Town. He built up a stable of five girls. They moved into his four bedroom in Henderson. He worked the casinos along the 515 outside of Vegas. You know, the casinos truckers and locals might hit. Almost every girl he had was already drug dependent. All he had to do was to keep the juice flowing and the girls did whatever he asked.”

“Didn’t he have problems with competition?” asked Sam.

“Not at first, Sam. Ritchie was rolling in the dough. He started driving a Lexus. He hired some muscle for protection and to help him keep an eye on the girls. Eight months after he went all in, he decided to expand into Vegas. Prostitution is against the law in Vegas, but it happens and it happens all the time. Ritchie knew this and he planted his girls inside the casinos. His girls could pick out a John the way a bee picks out a flower. Ritchie dropped the girls off in front of the casino with some playing money to help their cover. He taught them to stay away from the bars, they’re a red flag. His girls spotted a guy alone, usually over forty, playing the slots alone. They’d play next to the guy and start chatting. His business grew. Then came the good and bad news for Ritchie. He was raking in the dough. Casino security seldom caught his girls. That was the good news.”

“What was the bad news?” asked Joe.

“Prostitution in Vegas is a competitive business. If you want to make money, it’s all about location, location, location,” said Jody. “In the prostitution business, it doesn’t matter where it is, Vegas, Columbus, Cleveland, New York City, pimps don’t like competitors chiseling away at their turf. Ritchie had no street smarts. He thought hiring some muscle to protect him was all he needed. He found out he needed a lot more. His muscle was hired away by his competitor.”

“A bidding war for muscle?” asked Sam.

“Not exactly, Sam. Ritchie’s muscle was given a choice, work for me or end up as coyote bait in the desert. Ritchie either thought he was smarter than everybody else, which is my guess. Or, he thought they’d never dare go for the rough stuff. One night, Ritchie was getting into his Lexus in Henderson when three guys grabbed him. They turned him around and pushed his back against his Lexus. One of the men in a dark silk tailor made suit, and slicked back black hair speaking with a decidedly Latin American accent told him he was an emissary to advise him to cease and desist. They did not mean to do him any harm, but if Ritchie took his business back to Henderson it would be viewed as good faith. The three men left. Ritchie hired more muscle and changed strip casinos. Both moves backfired. The muscle left without so much as a goodbye a week later. The same guy ran prostitution from Tropicana up to Flamingo, Even if Ritchie went beyond that territory he’d have encountered the same problem. The zones were already divided. Ritchie hoped to make it big and take his girls to LA.”

Joe felt like he was listening to Jody read him a novel about the mob in Vegas. He said, “Is this all real, Jody? I can see Ritchie pimping. But getting caught up with heavy players? He’s a low life.”

“I double-checked Father Oscar’s story with a couple of sources I have in the police department. I didn’t doubt Father Oscar, it was the journalism part of me that always does a double check. Everything is as Father Oscar told me. In fact, I think Father Oscar knows a lot more than the police.”

“Go on,” said Sam eager to find out what happened.

Jody shot Sam a quick smile, “A week after he kicked up his business, Ritchie was set up with a traffic accident at three in the morning. They followed Ritchie and new his habits. One of his habits was to take a side road between Tropicana and Flamingo. The night it happened, one car pulled in front of Ritchie and another behind. The car behind starting tailgating him. Ritchie sped up. The car in front jammed his brakes. Ritchie smashed into the car. The car behind him came to a stop close enough to pin Ritchie in. He jumped out screaming at the driver in the front car to find three guys with guns trained on him. They put a cloth bag over his head and tossed him the rear vehicle. The car that was hit was stolen. The police have no idea who was driving. They drove Ritchie to a mostly vacant strip mall. They yanked him out of the car, took and beat the living hell out of him. They came close to killing him. They broke each of his limbs. They fractured his jaw and broke his nose. He had a very serious concussion. Some time after it happened, a security car was driving through the lot, no one knows how much later, but it was still dark. Ritchie was rushed to Saint Rose’s Hospital. That’s where he eventually met Father Oscar. He was in a coma for seven weeks.”

“What shape is he in? Did he recover?”

“He recovered. It took eighteen months of intense therapy, but he recovered,” said Jody.

“Payback,” said Sam.

“Did it ever,” said Jody.

“What happened next,” asked Joe.

“Father Oscar will take it from here,” said Jody.

Chapter 38 ~ A Discovery & A Decision

Chapter 38 ~ A Discovery & A Decision

Joe pulled the BMW into a Mobil station near the I-40 interchange in Kingman. Joe filled the gas tank and watched Sam amble toward the store. He hadn’t noticed Sam’s bowlegs. Joe thought Sam should have been born a cowboy. He smiled and looked down at his legs, straight as telephone poles. Joe played football, ice hockey, and baseball. He always thought the guys who were a bit bowlegged were better football and ice hockey athletes. He topped off the gas tank and walked into the station. Sam was thumbing through People Magazine. Five minutes later they were on I-40 headed east for Flagstaff a bit over two hours away, most of the ride traversed through Native American reservations and Federal government land. 

Sam was staring out the passenger side window at the landscape putting one pretzel after another into his mouth conveyer belt style.  He stopped for a moment and turned toward Joe, “You know much about Native Americans?”

Joe said, “Not much. The little I remember comes from a history class in high school or college and I’ve forgotten most of that.”

Sam said, “Most people only associate Native Americans with nicknames of sports teams like the Cleveland Indians or the Washington Redskins, or the Florida State Seminoles. Or, with casinos.”

Joe said without looking at Sam, “You’re an expert?”

My great grandaddy was a full blooded Cherokee Indian. I got some of his blood in me. When we get to Flagstaff there’s a Navajo Indian reservation, they call it the res in Tuba City, that’s north of Flagstaff. Let’s visit it. So you can git a better understanding of what it’s like to be a Native American these days. It’s not a pretty sight.”

Joe said, “Some other time, Sam. I’m headed home. I left Columbus to find Joe Ritchie. Glad I didn’t. After what I know about him I might have done something or said something I’d regret for the rest of my life.”

Sam said as casually as a dog flicks a flea off an ear. “Why are you headed home? You got no job. You got no girl. Your grandmother is living in your apartment. What I see you doing is climbing back into the womb. That’s what I see you doing. You want momma to protect you. She can’t do that anymore. You and me, we’re orphans whether we like it or not. Be careful there’s a work zone ahead. It’s gonna narrow to one lane, the left one. The speed limit is 45 miles per hour. There will be a radar trap somewhere in it, you can bet your last dollar.”

Joe shook his head and rolled his eyes. Sam had a way of talking that kind of made sense and at the same time got under Joe’s skin quicker than a doctor’s needle. Joe took his foot off the accelerator, signaled to move to the left lane and pulled behind a sixteen wheel opened bed truck carrying watermelons. Joe’s mind bounced Sam’s words back and forth as if it were a pro tennis match. His mental tennis game was still going on when Sam punched him on the bicep.

“Ouch.”

“You see that? Didn’t I tell you?” said Sam pointing at an Arizona State trooper who had three cars pulled over and was writing tickets. 

Before Joe spoke. His cell phone chirped, a text message. Sam’s left hand moved with the speed of a rattlesnake striking a mouse that wandered too close. He passed the phone from his left hand to his right hand and said, “You’re driving in a work zone. You read the signs, you hit a driver, you could do hard time. If you’re holding a cell phone, you’re gonna do hard time. This is Arizona, not Ohio where they is easy on criminals.”

“Who sent the text?” asked Joe.

Sam looked at the screen and started laughing, “Your fan club president.”

“Jody?”

“You’re starting to catch on,” Sam chuckled. He punched in Joe’s four digit passcode and opened the text. Then he read the text. When he finished, he said, “Jody says she sent the info in an email because what she had to say was too long. Which one of these things is an email?”

“The one that looks like an envelop,” said Joe.

“I got it. Isn’t that the damndest thing. I shoulda figured it was an envelop.”

Sam touched the email app and it opened up. “You got lots of emails. After I read Jody’s email, I’ll go through the rest for you and read the important ones out loud. This one must be it. It says, Jody and a funny little symbol then KCMB dot c o m.”

“That’s her, Sam. That’s her email address at the station. Touch the highlighted part and the email will open up,” said Joe. 

Sam touched the screen and began to read. His lips moved as he read to himself.

Joe glanced at him and knew it was no use hurrying Sam. After a long moment, Joe blurted, “You finished? How long is this email?”

“I’m finished. I’m finished. What’s your hurry? We’re fifty miles out of Kingman and about a hundred from Flagstaff. The next exit is thirty miles ahead.”

“Thanks for the travel update. What did Jody say?” insisted Joe.

Sam laughed, “I kin pull your chain as easy as I kin flip a switch to turn on a light. Is it this easy for everybody?”

Joe thought about Sam’s comment. There was a bit of truth to it. Marie put up with it and so did his best friend Tony DelPetri. At work, he kept his edginess under control. Once he was out of work, it flowed as easily as water out of a faucet, especially if he was in a lousy mood. 

Sam chuckled, “I’m tormenting you, Joe. Before I read the email, prepare yourself, you’re gonna have to make some decisions.”

“Decisions? What kind of decisions?” Asked Joe.

“Jody found Joe Ritchie.”

“She did? Where is he? Is he alive? What’s he doing?”

“That’s where the first decision comes to play. Once you make that decision, the second decision will answer itself.”

“What’s the decision?” demanded Joe.

“Hold on big fellow,” said Sam as if he were talking to a horse. “Let me read the email to yah.”

Chapter 37 ~ Hitting Bottom Hurts

Chapter 37 ~ Hitting Bottom Hurts

Joe drove toward the 515. Joe’s hands held onto the steering wheel as if he were afraid someone was going to take it from him. When the reached the intersection of Boulder Highway and the 515. He pulled into the left turning lane and signaled his intention to enter the 515 and head toward Phoenix.

Sam turned away from the passenger side window and said, “What’s in Phoenix?”

Joe shrugged, “I’m not going to Phoenix. We’ll catch I-40 in Kingman and head back. I’m going home. I’ve learned enough about Joe Ritchie to make me puke anytime I hear his name. He’s not worth chasing.”

Sam didn’t answer. Joe pulled onto the 515 and accelerated to 70 miles an hour, a bit over the speed limit, but enough to flow with the traffic. Outside of Henderson, the divided highway ended. A sign indicated Hoover Dam and the exit to visit the dam. Joe continued straight ahead until the road turned back into a divided highway. They crossed a large expansion bridge over a deep canyon where the Colorado flowed somewhere below them. Hoover Dam was off to their left. Cement barriers were high enough to prevent gawkers from staring at the dam and causing accidents. A sign warned drivers of dangerous cross winds.

Sam spoke, “There’s men who helped build Hoover Dam who that fell and are buried in the concrete that make up the dam. Did you know that? I learned it on cable TV.”

“That’s a myth,” said Joe.

“Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” said Sam. “I’ll tell you what’s not a myth. It’s this trip. It’s been hard as ice in the middle of a January deep freeze. At the same time, I think it’s been good for you. You got some answers. Maybe not the answers you want, but you got some.”

Joe ignored Sam. He said, “Where do you want to go? I’m heading to Columbus. You’re welcome to stay with me for a few days until you figure out what to do.”

Sam didn’t answer. He stared at the passing desert landscape, the mountains off in the distance, and an occasional Joshua tree. Sixty miles later, less than sixty words passed between the two, they passed a sign that read, Kingman, Arizona, 30 miles. 

Sam fished in a white plastic bad and pulled out a banana. He peeled it halfway down and held it in front of Joe, “Want a piece?”

Joe took the banana and broke off a third and handed it back to Sam, “Thanks.”

When Sam finished eating the banana he said, “You know Tony Peters?”

“Should I? Is this one of your stories where I have to learn a lesson?” said Joe.

Sam said, “How about Lyle Washington? You know him?”

“I don’t know Tony Peters or Lyle Washington. I never heard of them of them. Tell me the story. I know that’s what you’re going to do,” Joe said with a bit of chuckle.

“Tony Peters is about the smartest fellow I know. He didn’t go to college. He got kicked out in the tenth grade.”

“You mean he got expelled from school? He must have been pretty bad?” said Joe.

Sam said, “Tony got expelled because he had a short fuse. I’d say about a half inch long, which is only a bit shorter than your fuse. You look at Tony cross-eyed and he’d as soon bust you on in the nose quicker than you can sneeze. Man, he could punch.”

“He ever take you out?”

“One time, but I deserved it. I made a wisecrack about a girl he was dating. When I got up, I apologized. It was a good lesson for me.”

“Is this the lesson?”

“Listen and don’t interrupt, you might learn something.” Sam said, “About the fourth time Tony got kicked out of the school they made it was permanent. Everybody said Tony would be dead before we all graduated. He was headed that way. If there was odds on Tony ending up on a slab in morgue, it’d be two to one in his favor. Then one day, Lyle Washington is coming out of Tinkers. At the time, Lyle’s pushing fifty, maybe fifty-five, but he was in shape. Tinkers is one of those gas station that sells gas, and all kinds of stuff inside you can eat or drink. I don’t know who bumped who, but Tony and Lyle bumped. Lyle said excuse me. Tony took a step back and let a right fist fly. Lyle, he kinda twisted his body a little bit and Tony’s right fist went whooshing by. Lyle popped him two quick punches and Tony’s lying on his back on the asphalt. What happened next blew me away.”

“What was that? How did you know?” asked Joe turning slightly toward Sam.

“Keep your eyes on the road, Joe. I know because I was working the pumps. I worked the full service gas island. I pumped the gas, washed the windows, checked the fluids, and checked the tires. I saw it all happen.”

“What happened?”

“Lyle takes a step toward Tony and extends his arm to lift him up. Tony stares at him. I could see him thinking how he’s going come back at Lyle. He fooled me. He reaches out and grabs Lyle’s arm and says, ‘Will you teach me that combo?'” Lyle is the boxing coach at the boy’s club. He took Tony under his wing. Six months later Tony is fighting Golden Gloves. His whole personality changed. He lost the hair trigger. He started to have decent friends. I believe he woulda been the US Golden Gloves middleweight champ maybe gone a long way in the pros if Vietnam didn’t interfere. 

“He got drafted?”

“Hell yes. He got drafted. They sent him over there and six months later he’s home minus one leg.”

“That’s rough,” said Joe.

“That’s not all he lost when he came back. He lost his will to live. He didn’t go back to the gym. He started drinking. He was on the same road Monica is on. It got worse and worse. He was drunk all the time. His parents kicked him out. He was homeless. One day he was drunk as hell, sitting on the sidewalk outside Murray’s hardware store. He had a dirty can in front of him for change people might give him. I couldn’t stand to look at him. It was too painful.”

“What happened to him?”

“Lyle Washington happened to him,” said Sam. Lyle was jogging by with some of his boxers. He stopped. He told the guys to finish their run. He reached down with his two big black hands and grabbed hold of Tony under his armpits and lifted him up. Tony’s crutch lie on the ground next to his can. He tried to swing at Lyle. Lyle let go and let him fall. Tony began screaming at him to leave him alone. Lyle bent over and picked him up again. Tony took another weak swing at him. Lyle let him fall. This happened three more times. On the fourth time, Lyle put Tony’s right arm over his shoulder and they hobbled along until Lyle got him to the gym. Lyle had a cot in the gym. Sometimes he slept there. He laid Tony in the cot and stayed with him day and night for a month. Want to know what happened?”

“You have my attention. Yes.”

“Tony beat it with hard work, courage, and Lyle’s tough love. Lyle hired him as a custodian at the gym. Lyle’s dead now. He died of cancer four years ago. Tony runs the club. He graduated from high school, went to Indiana State and got a degree. You should see him. One time he was lower than nothing, now look at him.”

“There’s hope for everybody, right, Sam?”

“There’s hope for everybody.”

Joe half turned toward Sam, “You think we should go back and try again with Monica?”

“Tony was ready. He might have taken a couple of swings at Lyle, but he was ready. Monica’s not ready. You can see it in her eyes. She’s got the hunger. It’s eating her alive. You might as well ask this desert to turn into a crystal clear lake. It’s not going to happen. I been around a hell of lot longer than you and I know’d men and women like Monica. Not the same circumstances, but they got the addiction bug. You can’t reason with them. It hurts like hell cause you feel so powerless. She’s got to choose to get better. When she makes the choice, if death don’t claim her first, it’ll be like winning the lottery because she’ll have her Lyle Washington by her side.”

 

CHAPTER 38 ~ JOE HAS A DECISION TO MAKE –  WILL BE POSTED MONDAY.

Chapter 30 ~ The Psychic Bares Her Soul

Chapter 30 ~ The Psychic Bares Her Soul

Madam Li Pul looked past Sam and said, “I am not Gloria. What do you want? Please leave me alone.” Her body sagged as if the air had been let out of her. Her eyes sharpened, It was as if she were looking for a way to flee or fight and not able to decide.

Joe tugged on Sam’s shirt sleeve, “Let’s go, Sam. It’s not Gloria. Leave her alone.”

Sam stood his ground. “I kin spot a game a mile away. Your feel sorry for me look is not gonna change my mind. You’re Gloria Fallon. You kin call the cops and have me arrested for trespass, I don’t care. I got a mission to help this poor fool out and your lying isn’t helping me.”

Joe said, “Sam, I’m leaving. You’re on your own.”

“Leave then. I’m staying until Gloria tells me the truth,” Sam said in a low growling tone that sounded like an angry dog.

“I’m going to call the police. You’re forcing my hand,” said Madam Li Pul.

“Go ahead and call them and I’ll tell them you been defrauding people by saying your Madam Li Pul. I bet they’ll close you up tighter than a clam shell.”

Joe’s hand was on the door nob when he heard Madam Li Pul say, “I’m not Gloria. I don’t want trouble. Come in back and we’ll talk. Turn the open sign around.” Joe saw a metal sign hanging from a wire. The sign said closed. He flipped it around so the word OPEN faced him. The closed sign swayed back and forth coming to a rest against the door window. 

Madam Li Pul swept the beaded curtain aside and walked through. Sam followed her and Joe followed Sam. The room was lit by one candle sitting in a six-inch tall purple glass cylinder in the center of round table. It gave off a fragrance of lavender. The candle’s flame flicked brightly causing shadows to dance on the walls. Four wooden chairs, each with a small purple cushion surrounded the table. A small cot pressed against the wall. On top of the cot was a well fed tabby. The tabby opened it eyes, glanced at Joe and Sam and then Madam Li Pul, then closed its eyes and went to sleep. A small refrigerator was next to the cot.

Madam Li Pul motioned Joe and Sam to sit in one of the chairs. She sat opposite them. Madam Li Pul said, “Gloria Fallon died ten years ago.”

Joe glared at Madam Li Pul. The only sound in the room was the rumbling noise from the traffic on nearby Route 36 and Baseline Road. He heard an obstinance in Madam Li Pul’s voice. Joe thought Sam figured it out. If it weren’t for Sam, they’d be on the road to Texas. He decided to sit there and let Madam Li Pul or whatever her name is make the first move.

Sam cocked his head to the side, “You used to be beautiful. Now you look like one of them zombies. You don’t have no color in your face. Your eyes look like there’s nobody home. What happened to you? I’m gonna give it to you straight, I’d say you look like hell, but you look worse than that. This whole thing you got going is a waste of your talent. I kin only think of one or two other female singers as good as you. You tossed singing away for this?” Sam swept his arm in front of him. He said, “You’re pulling on people’s feelings and making a buck to get by. It’s about the lowest form of a human being, only drug dealers are below you. Joe let’s get out of here. The stink is too much for me.” Sam pushed his chair back and stood up.

“Stop. I’m Gloria Fallon.” She looked at Joe and said, “I thought you were Joe Ritchie coming back into my life. What are you twenty-eight or nine? Look in the mirror if you want to know how Joe Ritchie looked at your age. I only hope someone taught you how to be a decent human being because Joe Ritchie never learned.”

Sam sat back in his chair. Joe and Sam fixed their eyes on Gloria. Her breasts rose and fell with the deep breaths she consumed. For a moment, she closed her eyes looking for a starting place. Her forearms rested on the table. Her clenched fists look ready to strike Joe or Sam if they came too close.

She opened her eyes and said, “I hate Joe Ritchie. I’ve never purposely hurt anyone or anything. If I find a cockroach in my apartment or this place, I trap it and carry it outside. I don’t believe in violence, but I’d make an exception for him. The death penalty is too good. He needs to suffer. Wherever he goes, he leaves a trail of pain. I was stupid I thought he was worth saving. If you want to get into the saving business, make sure there is something worth saving before you jump in with two feet. He fooled me like he fooled your mother and Max. To think, I took the songs he stole from Max. I listened to him when he told me he gave Max the ideas for the songs. It was a lie like all his other lies. If lies were bricks, he could build a brick wall a mile high and a mile wide.”

Gloria paused collecting her thoughts the way a small child collects dandelions in the spring. Joe and Sam watched. Gloria said, “I don’t know what good it will do you. I’m going to tell you my story. The only other person who knows is Harry Lamont. He’s Chief Living Waters.”