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.

Advertisements

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 42 ~ Heartbreak Knows No Boundaries

Chapter 42 ~ Heartbreak Knows No Boundaries

Joe, Sam, and Jody sat in a booth by a window at the Pancake House. The booth was parallel to Sunset Drive. Joe and Sam sat on one side of the booth, Joe closest to the window. Jody sat facing them. Joe and Jody studied the four page menu enclosed in plastic covers. Sam waved to the waitress.

Two minutes later, the same tall slender waitress who waited on them previously walked toward the table. She was wearing a white shirt with the letters P H embroidered on the corner of her left lapel The top three buttons of her shirt were unbuttoned. Her hair color changed from an ash blonde ponytailed look to a short hairstyle strawberry blonde.  She carried three coffee mugs looped through fingers on her left hand and in her right hand she held a full pot of dark coffee. She set a mug in front of Joe, Jody and Sam and then filled their mugs with coffee.

Sam spoke, “I met your sister the other night. She’s pretty, but she’s not as pretty as you.”

Joe wanted to stick his finger in his throat. Jody put her menu down and watched.

“I was hoping you’d come back, handsome.”

“It’s Sam.” He read her name tag, “Pleasure to meet you, Missy.”

“I remember you like the blueberry pancakes and lots of hot blueberry syrup and sausages in a separate plate. Do I have that right?”

“You are as smart as you are beautiful,” said Sam.

Missy glanced over at Jody, “I’ll bet he’s the same way with all the girls.”

“I’ve only know him fifteen minutes. We met at the airport. Sam is the real deal. A perfect gentleman and handsome.”

“Don’t let it go to your head, Sam,” Missy laughed then took Jody and Joe’s order.

Thirty minutes later, the trio pushed their plates to the side. Missy cleared the table and refilled their coffee mugs. Joe said, “Ready to tell me the story?”

“Not so fast, Joe.”

“Don’t,” Joe said to Sam who was about to punch him in his bicep. “What’s the problem, Jody?”

“I’ll tell you all I learned about Joe Ritchie or Rich, whatever you prefer. I’m not holding out on you. I want to give you some context on why your story grabbed ahold of me and won’t let go. I didn’t grow up in Ohio. I grew up in a small town in northwestern Kansas. It’s right on I-70, maybe you heard of it, Victoria. My mom and dad owned a hardware store. I’m pretty handy at fixing things, because I hung around the store when I wasn’t in school. Dad loved to talk with the farmers. He even had part of the store set aside where the farmers could come in and sit and grab a free cup of coffee and talk politics, weather, crop prices. Stuff like that. 

Most of all, he loved mom. He’d always sneak up on her and give her kiss. He’d make an excuse he was heading to Denver or Wichita, we were about halfway between those cities. He’d drive all that way only buy mom a special gift. He loved to surprise her. Mom would kiss him and tell him it was the best gift ever. I never heard them argue. Not even one cross word. Everybody in town is Catholic. They even sent us from the public school during the day for our religious instruction. Church was such a big part of everyone’s life.

“Sounds like you had the perfect childhood,” said Joe.

“I did, Joe. It was perfect. Too perfect,” a sharp look of pain cut a path across Jody’s face.

Sam sat silently, his hands folded together in front of him. His eyes looking into Jody’s eyes as if he were trying to read her mind.

Jody paused. She glanced out the window and stared into the park on other side of Sunset Drive. She slowly turned back to Joe and Sam. “It was Tuesday, May 7th. I was in 5th grade. School was about a quarter-mile from where we lived. I walked home with my friend Tonya. I always reached my house first. Mom usually waited on the porch for me. She wasn’t on the porch that day. I thought she might be in the kitchen. I said goodbye to Tonya and went around the back. Lazy, our dog, barked at me from his run at the back of our property. He really wasn’t lazy. The name stuck when we got him from the pound because he liked to sleep. 

We always kept the doors open. Nothing ever happened in town. I opened the door and walked in. I called out, “Mom? Mom?” There was no answer. I thought maybe she went to the hardware store. Every once in a while that happened. I wasn’t alarmed. I grabbed a glass of milk and an apple. I drank my milk and took my apple and walked to the hardware store. 

When I got to the hardware store, I saw dad. I said, “Where’s mom? She’s not at home.” Dad looked at his watch. He went to the phone and called home. Of course, there was no answer. He asked Bud to take care of the shop, he had to stop by home for a few minutes. Bud was one of the workers. The phone was ringing when we went through the front door. Dad answered the phone. I saw his face change in an instant from a ruddy complexion to white. He was a big man. He was six feet three inches tall and solid, like two-hundred thirty pounds. I don’t think he said two words. He kept nodding his head and saying uh huh, uh huh. He was talking into a landline. It was the kind of phone that set on the wall. He let go of the receiver and let it hang. 

When he turned around and faced me, tears streaked down his face. They wouldn’t stop. I screamed, “Is mom dead, Dad! Is she dead?” He shook his head no, he said so softly I could hardly hear him. “That was Lori Jenkins.” I said, “Yes?” There was more fear in my voice than a question. I knew mom was dead or something really bad happened to her. I said, “What happened, Dad.” He couldn’t hold back the tears, he started sobbing. I threw my arms around him. We held each other, I don’t know for how long. I was crying too. I had no idea why I was crying except dad was crying.”

Joe and Sam were as silent as statues. If there was any background music or noise in the restaurant, they didn’t hear it. 

Jody said, “Dad got himself under control. He stepped back a little bit and looked at me. He said, ‘Lori told me her husband Bill and mom ran off together. Bill left a note. She read it to me. They fell in love after the church Valentines dance. They’d been seeing each other on the sly since then. I didn’t know. Lori didn’t know. How could I have been so stupid?”

Jody was crying. Sam handed her a napkin from the napkin dispenser. The three of them sat silently. Joe and Jody stared out toward Sunset Drive. Sam’s eyes never left Jody. He signaled Missy and made a motion with his hand for a glass of water. Missy brought it over along with a small box of Kleenex.

After a while, Jody turned back, “Sorry guys. I still get emotional over it. It killed dad. He had a heart attack six months later and died. I ended up living with my grandparents until I went to college. Mom never showed up to the funeral. She never showed up. She’s living in New Mexico. She’s on Facebook. I tried to contact her and she told me to stay out of her life, she’s happy. She blocked me.  can’t find her.” 

“That’s rough,” said Joe.

Jody looked at Joe, “It’s the reason your story means so much to me, Joe. I thought if I helped you, in some small way, I might get closure.”

Joe nodded and reached across the table and held Jody’s hand. Sam watched.

Jody smiled, “Thanks, Joe. I knew you’d understand. You’re the only person outside of Victoria who knows the story. You and Sam that is. Now, I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

On Monday, Joe Learns About His Dad

Chapter 41 ~ Joe & Jody Meet

Chapter 41 ~ Joe & Jody Meet

Joe and Sam waited in the baggage claim area near the bottom of the escalators at McCarran Airport. Limo drivers, searching the faces of arriving passengers, were holding iPads up with last names on them. Arriving passengers riding the descending escalators wore a similar look. Their faces glowed with the hope of a five year old child staring at the presents under the Christmas tree. Their eyes sparkled  with anticipation. 

Sam punched Joe on bicep, “There’s a good looking gal at the top of the escalator waving her arm like crazy. The one with the ball cap. Is that Jody?”

Joe forced a smile and waved, “Yes, and what did I tell you about hitting my arm?”

“Opps. She’s cuter than the first rose of springtime. All I kin see is her head, if the rest of her is as nice as her face, you got a winner.”

“Her blonde hair isn’t natural. I’m not sure about anything else, either.”

“My, my you can’t enjoy a woman who got all prettied up for you. You really need help, Joe. When we’re done with Joe Ritchie, maybe the Lord will direct me to lead you back to the world where a man kin look at a girl like that and fall head over heels in love.”

“Did you fall in love with her?” asked Joe watching Jody beaming at him as the escalator neared bottom.

“The first second I seen her. You’re already pre warned, pretty woman are naturally attracted to me.”

Joe took a quick glance at bowlegged, ruddy skinned, shaggy-haired, man. He admitted to himself Sam had a rugged look about him. He had the look of a man who could handle himself if need be and liked the outdoors. He tried to gauge his age. Joe hadn’t asked him how old he was. When they first met, Joe thought Sam was in his late sixties. Now, he wasn’t so sure. He was one of those guys that stopped aging. He shook the thought from his mind and stood off to the side of the descending escalator. 

“Jody, welcome to beautiful Las Vegas. How was the trip?” asked Joe forcing a smile.

Jody stepped off the escalator, stepped to the side with her traveling suitcase behind her, She carried her backpack on her shoulders. She let go of the suitcase and threw her arms around Joe. 

Sam stood back and smiled thinking, Joe, you got no chance, you might as well surrender. Look how she fit in those jeans. Perfect. Not to tight, just right, really just right. Oh my, oh my. 

Jody stepped back and placed a hand on each of Joe’s shoulders, “You’ve only been gone two weeks and it seems like two years. It is good to see you, Joe. I really mean it. It is good to see you.” 

Jody turned slightly to the right and caught Sam’s grin. Sam stuck out his hand, “I’m Sam. Joe’d be lost without me.” Sam laughed.

Jody started laughing an stuck out her hand, “Good to meet you, Sam. He needs somebody to take care of him. I’m happy he found you.”

Sam said, “Joe tried to describe you so’s I’d recognize you, but he didn’t do you justice. You’re prettier than the Rockies when the Aspen are all turning color. Let me carry your backpack and tug your suitcase for you.”

Jody squeezed Sam’s arm, “You are so sweet, Sam.”

Joe looked off in the distance and seemed to be asking, “Why me? Why me?”

Sam stepped to the side and let Jody pair up with Joe. He followed them as they walked to the short term parking garage. Jody started talking about the station’s rating being pulled down because Joe left. They caught up on station gossip and sports news coming out of Ohio State University. 

When they packed Jody’s gear in the trunk, Sam held the passenger side door open for Jody. She thanked him and kissed him on the cheek. Sam slid in the rear seat. Joe said, “It’s too early for you to check in. You can freshen up in our room if you like then we can go for breakfast. Will that work?”

From the back seat, “Jody don’t need to freshen up. Open your eyes, Joe. She’s prettier than a sunrise on a perfect July morning.”

Jody half turned toward the backseat, “Are there anymore like you, Sam?”

“Fraid not, I’m an original, one of a kind. The good Lord threw away the mold when he made me.” 

Jody turned and faced Joe. She put her hand on his shoulder, “Joe. We need to talk. The sooner the better. Is there a breakfast place nearby? I’m starving. I had a cup of coffee at the airport. I slept most of the way here.”

Sam chirped from the backseat, “Joe, let’s go to the pancake place near the Residence Inn. This time of day it’ll be a full menu.”

“Sounds perfect. I love pancakes,” Jody said. “Seriously, Joe. We need to talk. I don’t want to tell you the story now, but I’ll give you a teaser like we do on the six o’clock news and sports to get people to watch at eleven.”

Joe tilted his head at bit toward Jody as he turned onto Sunset Drive, “A teaser? What kind of teaser?”

“The reason I couldn’t find anything about Joe Ritchie for the past five years is because he changed his name. I was searching under marriage records. I was searching under criminal records. I searched under deaths and driver’s licenses. I didn’t think of checking beyond that.”

“What’s his name?” asked Joe.

“He changed it from Joe Ritchie to Joe Rich,” said Jody. “I’ve got a story for you, but I’m going to make peace with my appetite first.”

 

Chapter 40 ~ You Can Learn a Lot by Playing Poker

Chapter 40 ~ You Can Learn a Lot by Playing Poker

Joe exited at Anvil Road, took a left, crossed the overpass and turned onto the entrance ramp to I-40 west. Sam said, “This is the text I’m sending Jody, Great news. Text info on flight. I’ll pick you up at McCarran. You’re the best, Joe 

“I didn’t say she was the best. Don’t send it. You know what she’ll think. You didn’t mention you. I don’t want to pick her up. I’m playing into her hand,” said Joe.

Sam smiled and touched send. 

“What did you do that for? I wanted to say something different,” argued Joe.

“Opps,” said Sam with the kind of grin a child gives when they’re caught sneaking a piece of candy.

“I should take you to McCarran, buy you a ticket to anywhere and leave,” said Joe.

Sam started chuckling. When he stopped, he said, “You play poker with your buddies?”

“Sometimes. Why?”

“I bet you lose most of the time,” said Sam.

Joe thought back to the last time he played poker with Tony and a couple of his other buddies. It was always Thursday night, girls night out. Marie was off with her friends until eleven. The last time he played, he lost a hundred dollars. The time before, he lost seventy-five dollars. The time before he won ten dollars.

“Not all the time,” Joe said defensively.

“I’d like to have you in the poker game they hold at Catfish Coolege’s house. Having you in the game be like picking blackberries in August. I’d have enough to fill my belly and fill my bucket,” said Sam.

Joe didn’t want to hear any story about Catfish Coolege. He said, “What’s your point?

“Watch your speed. They catch speeders by aircraft. I heard a trucker say some states are using drones to catch speeders.”

“What’s the point about poker,” Joe frowned.

“Funny thing how Catfish got his nickname. You’d think it was because he liked catfish. Fact is, he hates catfish. He don’t fish and he won’t eat fish. It’s his wife that loved catfish. She made it every Friday. She told him he can learn to eat it or go hungry. Catfish said, he wasn’t gonna eat catfish and he’d go out and have a burger and beer with his buddies on Fridays. His wife claimed this was abandonment and sued for divorce. He was okay with the divorce because he learned she was having an affair with Jimbo Guthrie who runs the all you can eat Friday night fish dinner at Guthrie’s Restaurant.”

“What’s the point?” Joe begged.

“I’m getting there. When you’re playing poker you got to know the basic strategies and odds. That all makes sense. What lots of people who play poker don’t realize is that you’re really reading people. The better you can read people, the better your chances of winning. Granted you have to have the right hand. This is my point. Jody’s holding a pat hand. She’s pretty sure what she has in her hand is a winner. You got nothing. You’re only chance of winning is to bluff your way through. Jody knows you got nothing. She knows she holds all the winning cards. You gonna throw away your money by calling her bet or you gonna fold your cards and move on to the next hand?”

Joe raised his eyes up looking for a comeback but he knew Sam was right. He didn’t want to tell him he was right. He said, “Okay, I’ll fold my hand. You feel better?”

“It’s not about how I feel. I’m not looking for my father. I’m here to help you out. Recall the movie The Blues Brothers?”

“Yah?”

“Just like the Blues Brothers, I’m on a mission from God,” said Sam.  

“If you’re on a mission from God, how is this thing going to end,” contended Joe.

Sam reached for the bag of pretzels. He said, “When we get to Kingman, let’s stop and get a refill, these are really, really good. Now, for your question. How do you want it to end?”

“I’m looking for an answer, Sam. I’m not looking for another question.” Joe said, “A part of me only want to see him physically, not talk to him. I want to see what he looks like. Another part of me wants to get in his face and say, ‘I’m the son you never thought enough about to see.” I’d like to hit him as hard as I can for what he did to mom. I wouldn’t shed a tear for him if he was in line at a soup kitchen. That answer your question?”

“Too bad we don’t have a punching bag for you to hit. You got a lot of anger you’re holding on to. You sure you don’t want a pretzel?” 

“Can you blame me for being angry? How would you feel if you were in my shoes? Look what we’ve learned about him. He cheated Max out of his music. He robbed Gloria of ten years of her life. What about Rosa and his daughter? Monica? She hasn’t hit bottom. How many did we miss? What do you say to all that?”

Sam finished chewing a pretzel, then took the bag and tipped it upside down into his mouth catching all the pretzel crumbs. He took a sip of his soda and said, “Two things come to mind. You ever hear of Willie Wilson?”

“Here we go again, Sam. Whenever you get stumped for an answer you start telling me a story about some guy you knew and try to teach me a life’s lesson. I don’t even know if these people are real. For all I know you’re a natural storyteller and you like pulling my chain. You like getting a rise out me so you can show me where I was wrong and where you are right.”

Sam didn’t answer. The miles passed one after the other. A half hour later a sign on the right read, Kingman 30 Miles. Sam punched Joe on the bicep.

“Ouch. I have black and blues on my arm where you whack me. What is it you don’t understand about me not wanting you to hit me on my arm to get my attention?”

Sam said, “You telling me you don’t want to learn from Willie Wilson’s experience? If you don’t want to hear it, I won’t tell you. It’s up to you. No skin off my back. Intelligent folks learn more from watching other people and listening to other people than by reading a book. A book gives you one kind of knowledge. It may or may not be useful. It’s like reading a recipe. My grandma baked the best chocolate chips know to mankind. Everybody wanted her recipe. My grandma was the kindest woman I ever known, she’d write out the recipe in long hand, there was no computers then. Truth is, even though the recipe was exactly the same one she used, she was the only one winning blue ribbon after blue ribbon at the county fair for her chocolate chip cookies. Her extra ingredient was love. She put lots of love into baking them. See, everybody was interested in the ingredients. Nobody wanted to watch her make her cookies.”

Joe turned a slightly apologetic look toward Sam, “I apologize for unloading on you, Sam.”

“I don’t remember anything, Joe. After we stop in Kingman, I’ll tell you about Willie Wilson.”

“I’d like that, Sam. I’d really like that.”