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 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 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 23 ~ Joe Learns of His Father’s Betrayal

Chapter 23 ~ Joe Learns of His Father’s Betrayal

Joe and Sam stopped by Max Stein’s home after they left Donna and the Riverside Grill. Joe pulled up next to the curb, looked out the window at a small square house with worn white siding, and grass badly needing a haircut. He got out of the car, Sam followed him. They walked up a five foot long sidewalk. Joe rang the doorbell. It didn’t work. He knocked on the door. A heavyset woman, with blotchy skin, answered the door, partially opening it. She stared  the through the small space proved by the security chain. 

Joe introduced himself and explained he wanted to talk to Sam. He asked if she was Sylvia, she nodded and listened politely, but shook her head no. She told Joe Max’s dementia progressively worsened and on top of that, he suffered from emphysema. Sylvia said Max was sleeping and he usually slept most of the time. Joe asked if Max ever spoke about Joe Ritchie. Anger flashed across her face at the sound of Joe Ritchie’s name. She undid the chain latch and invited Joe and Sam inside cautioning them to speak softly. She led them into the living room. 

The smell of cooked cabbage, smoke, and  mildew filled the air causing Joe to stifle a gag reflex. Sam followed Joe and they sat down on a worn, stained, sofa. The coffee table in front of the sofa held an ash tray overflowing with cigarette butts, and three empty beer bottles. Sylvia plopped down in a worn E Z boy chair across from them.

“I don’t have much time. I got to be to work at Hardees by 8. I work the drive through window until midnight. It’s not much, but it’s something. I don’t suppose either one of you got a smoke?”

“No, ma’am,” said Joe.

“I gave it up ten years ago,” said Sam.  

“I can’t live without them. I don’t know what anybody told you, but I’ll tell you one thing, Joe Ritchie is dirty rotten son of a bitch,” said Sylvia sticking a thumb into the roof of her mouth and adjusting an upper plate.

Joe said, “I thought he helped Max when Max had cancer?”

“Hah!” Sylvia slapped her leg. “He helped him out okay. What he was really doing was helping his self out. That’s what he was doing. In his prime, Max was a genius. All he needed was a break. You ask anybody who heard him, he was as good a drummer as ever lived. Anybody tell you Max started playing drums when he was five? He never had a lesson. He picked it up all by his self. He could fill in on any song anyone played. You didn’t have to tell him the music. He was that good. He was even better as a song writer. The tramp Gloria, who slept with any man she thought might help her get ahead, convinced Joe Ritchie to steal Max’s music and make it his own.”

“How do you know this?” asked Joe.

“I don’t have it first hand, but I know this for a fact. I know this because I was always there. He’d come in and see how Max was doing. Not all time, but occasionally he’d give me ten bucks toward Max’s health costs. Ten bucks don’t go far. It paid for a few packs of cigarettes that’s all. Anyway, every time Joe comes in the room when I was there, Joe starts talking about music. This always got Max’s interest. He was always asking Max about the songs he wrote. He said Gloria went on the road with Danny whatever his last name was while he was in county. He said Gloria needed new music and the Flamingos were going to get back together when Max was better. I knew this was a bunch of horse manure but I didn’t want to say anything to upset Max. When Max came home, Joe Ritchie kept coming and the next thing I know he stops coming. I asked Max about it. Max told me he gave Joe Ritchie all his original music. That was the only time Max and I ever fought. Joe Ritchie stole every piece of music Max ever writ. A year later, Max is listening to a station and he hears one of his songs. He starts swearing and beating his fist. He’s screaming, ‘It’s on the charts. That’s my song.'”

“Did Joe Ritchie perform the song?” asked Joe.

“Hell no. He can’t sing worth a damn. It was one of the big country singers. It could have been Garth or George or Tracy. I don’t remember. But it broke Max’s heart and he’s never been same.”

“Do you remember the name of the song?” asked Sam.

Joe glanced at Sam and wondered why he hadn’t thought of that question. 

Sylvia said, “I’ll never forget it. It was called “Fallen Angel. But the hit was called “Falling Star.” All the words was the same so was the music according to Max. He should know, he wrote it. We even went to a lawyer. The lawyer asked if we had a copy of the music. How could we, the excuse for a man who’s lower than whale crap and that’s at the bottom of sea, took it. Anyway, I got to leave and that means you two can get out of here. You don’t have twenty you can spot me? I’ll pay you back when you pass through town again.”

Sam gave Joe a look. Joe stood, thanked Sylvia for talking to him. He reached into his back pants pocket and pulled out his wallet. He took out a twenty and handed it to Sylvia. She tucked the twenty in her bra and walked Joe and Sam to the door.

The next morning Joe and Max were on the road, coffee in the cup holders. Joe had a breakfast wrap from Starbucks to go with his coffee. Max had a breakfast sandwich and coffee from MacDonalds. They headed back toward Hannibal and across Route 36 to Cameron, Missouri where they’d pick up I-35 to Wichita.

Sam took a sip of his coffee and said, “Who do you believe, Joe? Their stories are as different as night and day.”

Joe shook his head, “Who is Joe Ritchie, Sam? Is he as good as Donna said or as bad as Sylvia said. I’m more confused now than when we began. Donna wouldn’t know about the music. At least I don’t think so. It doesn’t seem like she hung out with Sylvia. If Joe Ritchie befriended Max while he was sick so he could steal his music, he’s about as low a human being as there is.”

Sam sat quietly for a while. He stared out the window as the crossed the Mississippi and went through Hannibal. Twenty minutes later, Sam spoke, “You ever hear of Ken Peterson?”

Joe’s first thought, here comes another story. Joe said, “Never heard of a Ken Peterson. Who was he?”

“You’re the sports announcer. How kin you call yourself a sports announcer and you never heard of Ken Peterson?”

“What sport did he play?” asked Joe choosing not to argue.

“I went to high school with Ken. That was when I lived in Terre Haute. I didn’t always live in a hick town like Greenville. Ken was two years ahead of me. He played centerfield for the high school team and I swear he was better than Willie Mays. Ken could hit the cover off a baseball. He got signed right out of high school by the Cubs. He played only one year of Triple A ball and the Cubs called him up. Have the woman who’s chasing after you look him up. He went to Spring training and won the starting job in centerfield. He lit it up. Everybody in Terre Haute followed what he was doing. He was going to be the next hitter after Ted Williams to hit four hundred. I know he would have made it. He was hitting four twenty two in the middle of July. He scared all the pitchers. That’s like getting a hit every other time. Then he fell apart. He stopped hitting. He was benched by the end of August. The Cubs let him go after the season.”

“What happened?” asked Joe.

“His best friend on Cubs stole his girlfriend. You may as well has stolen his life. Same thing happened to Max is the way I figure it.”