Chapter 14 – Part 2. The Old Man Met Joe’s Father
Joe decided Sam was nuts. He started to get up when Sam touched his arm, “You want to hear about Joe and the Flamingo’s then keep your itchy ass in the seat. You young people got to show more respect and patience.”
Joe forced a smile, “Go on, Sam. I’m listening.”
“All right. I had to give you the background stuff. You don’t know nothing until you know context. Maybe I didn’t go to college, but I graduated from the school of getting knocked down and getting back up. Yes sir. I graduated with honors from that place.”
“What about Kenny?” Joe prodded.
“I was just getting to that. You gonna drink your coffee? You only took a sip. If you’re not going to drink slide it on over.”
Joe slid the worst tasting coffee he ever tasted in his life across the booth to Sam. Sam took a sip and said, “Man, this is strong. It’s going put hair on my chest, not that I need any more. I like it. You don’t know what you’re missing, son. The guy next to me happens to be Kenny. I say, “Kenny?” He turns a bit sideways, you know you can’t turn full sideways when you’re at the urinals it’s against urinal protocol. That’s another rule. Anyway, Kenny goes, “Kiss my ass if it isn’t Sam Fidler.”
Joe made a mental note of Sam’s last name and was going to text it to Jody. It is one piece of information.
“Well Kenny and me, we go way back. Kenny invites me to have a drink at a bar down the street. We have a beer and talk over old times. He tells me he’s working with Merle. Can you beat that. Kenny Langoff, who can’t tell up from down, got himself a job working sound for the king of singers, Merle Haggard. He tells me he has to work sound for this other group, the Flamingos. They were a warm up act for Merle. He said the lead guitarist and singer, his name was Joe something or other. I think it ended in a vowel. It was some kind of foreign name like Mexican or Italian. I can’t tell the difference. I got nothing against them, I like their food.”
“What did Lenny tell you about Joe?” Joe prodded again.
“I tell you, I didn’t like this guy from the second I seen him. The damn fool was wearing sneakers instead of cowboy boots. Do I have to same more?”
Joe shook his head.
“Besides, he couldn’t hit the right note if it stood right in front of him. His mama must have been the one told him he could sing, because he’d scare a cat off the fence at midnight with what come out of his mouth. There was this girl, now she was a looker. She was pure country. She was poured into her jeans and was wearing real cowboy boots, she looked mighty fine with her blonde hair and all. She could sing. She sounded a little bit Patsy Cline and a little bit like Tanya Tucker. I could tell she and Joe were together, the way they looked at each other. Joe could play the guitar okay, but he was no Merle, no sir. The other guitarist was fair at best. He played like he smoked one too many of them funny cigarettes. Now, the drummer, he was the only one with any real talent. He’d whack away on the drums trying to give whatever they was doing a good beat. You could tell he was frustrated.”
Joe glanced at the time on his iPhone.
Sam noticed and said, “That’s the trouble with young people, you’re always in a rush and miss out on life. It’s the last time I’m gonna tell you to take the ants out of your pants. Don’t make me lose my place. Kenny was telling me that Joe wanted Kenny to get him some cocaine for the Flamingos. Kenny told him to find somebody else. He don’t do drugs. Kenny, he’s a straight shooter. He tells Joe to find another sound man. Joe pleaded with Kenny to do the sound. Kenny said he’d do it but he’d need help, it’d cost an extra fifty dollars. That was me. That’s how I got to shake Joe Flamingo’s hand. I never seen him again.”
Joe said, “Thanks.” He offered his hand and stood up.
Chapter 13 ~ A Startling Conversation at the Urinal
When Joe walked into the gas station, he saw donuts sitting next to a coffee bar. Two truck drivers were filling up thermoses at the coffee bar. They glanced at Joe. Joe nodded. They nodded back, and Joe headed for the room marked, Men’s. When Joe reached the Men’s room, he pushed the door and saw four urinals. He held his breath, the men’s room smelled as if the urinals and toilets hadn’t been cleaned in a week. He had to go, so he started breathing through his mouth and walked toward the urinals. Two of them had Out of Order signs posted on them. An old guy with a face resembling an overcooked bake potato and a shaggy hair cut that gave every appearance it was self cut without the aid of a mirror. The old guy was standing in front of the third urinal. The only empty urinal was next to the old guy. Joe noticed that the first three urinals had large full page ads on the wall advertising goods he assumed the gas station sold. The fourth urinal had an old faded poster featuring the deceased country singer Merle Haggard.
Joe walked up the to fourth urinal. The man next to him, gave a slight glance and returned his stare straight at the wall. He said, “A guy your age doesn’t have to wait for the flow. I been here five minutes and I believe I’m going to be successful. You got to be my good luck charm. You live around here or traveling through?”
All Joe wanted to do was empty his bladder, but he didn’t want to be impolite. He said, “Passing through.”
The old guy glanced over and said, “I know you from somewhere. I won’t forget.”
I don’t think so. I’ve never been here,” said Joe.
The old guy said, “I’m retired. I can stand here all day if I have to. It’s not boring, guys like you come and go. I get to ask them where they’re going. Where’re you headed?”
Joe rolled his eyes up at the poster, and was eyeball to eyeball with Merle Haggard. Joe said, “Quincy, Illinois.”
“I know where that is, it’s on the Mississippi River. You ever swim in the Mississippi?” asked the old guy.
Joe only wanted to finish up and get on the road. Stopping here was a mistake. He said,
“I’ve flown over it, I never swam in it.” Joe finished and zipped up his pants and turned toward the sinks.
“Too bad. Only real men can handle it. I remember when I was your age, I was working on a barge and jumped in and swam to shore. Know why I did it? My buddy bet me a buck I didn’t dare do it. Hell, they never stopped to get me and I never got my buck. I didn’t get my pay either. It’s coming.”
The old guy said, “I seen you staring at the poster. I met him. Shook his hand.”
Joe said, “Merle Haggard?”
“Don’t bother me, son. I’m flowing and when your flowing you’re knowing.”
Joe walked away from the urinal to the sinks and began washing his hands.
The old guy came up and stood at the next sink. He said, “I stand in front of the urinal for ten minutes to go for ten seconds.”
Joe half smiled and nodded and reached for a paper towel.
“Nope. It wasn’t Merle. If it was, I’d never wash my hand. It was the leader of the Flamingos. I got to shake the group leader’s hand. He’s a lying son of bitch.”
Joe turned and looked at the old guy and said, “Joe and the Flamingos?”
“I don’t know his last name. I think the guys last name was Flamingo. He named the group after himself, Joe and the Flamingos.”
Joe said, “Can I buy you a coffee and a donut? I’d like to hear your story.”
The old guy looked at Joe in mirror and stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
Chapter Nine ~ Digging Up Dirt
Joe stood up, walked to refrigerator, opened it, pulled out a bottle of beer, opened the bottle, and carried it back to his gramma. He said, “Gramma, this is your third beer. You sure you can handle it. You’re not a big woman. I don’t think you weigh more than a hundred ten pounds and you’re no more than five feet two inches tall.”
Teresa took a long sip of her beer then set it on the coffee table in front of her. She said, “Beer don’t bother me.What bother’s me is water. Water puts the weight on you. You don’t believe me? Go weigh yourself then drink a big glass of water, then weigh yourself again, you gonna gain weight. Besides, they put so many chemicals in water to make it clean you might as well be drinking laundry detergent.”
Joe shrugged and decided not to get into a debate on how many calories are in a glass of water. Instead he said, “I never heard of Joe Ritchie or any family with that last name.
There were no Ritchie’s living near us. I didn’t go to school with any. At least I don’t remember any families near us.”
Teresa looked at Joe and said, “You know why there was no Ritchie’s living near us? You want me to tell you why?”
“Yes,” said Joe. He wanted to keep the conversation moving.
“That’s because the Ritchie’s are no good riffraff. Every one of them. They not the scum of the Earth, they lower than the scum of the Earth.”
“How do you know this, Gramma?” ask Joe trying to visualize what Teresa said.
“I tell you how I know. I know it because anybody who raise a son like Joe Ritchie can’t be any good and they got to be lower than scum. That’s how I know.”
Joe kept quiet. He took a small sip of his beer so he didn’t have to answer.
Teresa continued. Joe Ritchie he’s four years older than Annette. He quit going to Ohio State when he was a junior so he could start his own band. He got this stupid idea he can sing and play guitar. He got two other nobodies to quit with him and they start a group. He thinks he’s gonna make it big.”
Joe interrupted Teresa, “Did mom know him when he quit going to OSU?”
Teresa waved her hand, “No, she didn’t know him them. Don’t interrupt me. They start a group and call it Joe and the Flamingos. What kind of name is that? Nobody ever saw a flamingo around here. They start playing at some beer joints. Annette, she’s underage, but they go to this beer joint I think it was called The Crazy Cat but it’s closed. They don’t check the ID of the woman if they are pretty and Annette, she knock any man’s eyes out of his head. She got this dark, curly hair. She’s got these dark brown eyes. Her skin is a bit darker like yours and mine. I’m from southern Italy, not like the snobs from northern Italy. She’s got the face and body that make a man’s heart stop cold when he looks at her. You get your looks from her. Believe me, Joe Ritchie his face can’t make the cover of a dog magazine.”
Joe said, “She fell for Joe Ritchie, a college dropout? I never heard of Joe and the Flamingos.”
“Ah, you think I’m surprised you never heard of a has been, never was been? But, Annette fell for him like a ton of bricks fall right on top of her. She stop paying attention to her studies, she starts being Joe and the Flamingos groupie. When she come home we fight all the time. I tell her Joe Ritchie is a no good bum who not going to do anything with his life. Annette? She’s listening to her heart instead of me. I’m going embarrass you now, but you can’t embarrass the dead, so it’s okay if I say it. Annette dropped out of college and starts living with this guy. I beg her to use protection. She tells me not to worry. You ever know a mama not to worry, of course not. Six months later, Annette tells me she got a loaf of bread in the oven. You know what I mean? She was pregnant with you if you’re brain’s not so good.”
“What did Joe Ritchie say?” asked Joe.
“How do I know? He never come by. Me and Patrice never see him. Annette tells me the Flamingos are on the road and he’ll be back and they gonna move together to Hollywood when he makes it big. Then they talk about getting married. She ask me if she can stay in her room until Joe Ritchie comes back to get her. What I am going to say? Of course, she can stay in her room. You know what happened to the Flamingos? I tell you what happened to them. They flew the coop. They never came back. All she get is a few letters from Joe Wright. Joe Wright, huh! I shoulda named him Joe Wrong. But his real name is Joe Ritchie. Now you know the whole story. What you gonna do with it?”
“I’m going to find Joe Ritchie. I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m find him.”
“Joe, I warn you, you digging up dirt. You know what happens when you dig up dirt you should leave in the garden?”
“No, Gramma, I don’t have any idea.”
“You gonna end up tracking the dirt in your house and you gonna be sorry.”
Chapter Four ~ A Dark Secret Revealed
Joe picked up his beer and swirled the bottle. He stared in the dark gold liquid searching for answers. After a moment, he set the bottle down, looked over to Tony and said, “I never again set foot again in the attic until the other day. That part of the house was taken away from me in an instant. For a long while, I believed I did something terribly wrong. I didn’t understand what I did, but I I knew I crossed a line I should have never crossed. Mom never mentioned it. It is as if that moment never happened.
Tony couldn’t help himself, “I think I remember your mom being angry with you. At the time, I felt bad because I told her we looked all over for you. She called for you and you didn’t answer. Then, all of a sudden, she heard a thump in the attic and got this look on her face and took off. The next thing Anna and I knew was we had to go home. Were you ever curious as to what was in the metal box?”
“I thought about it every now and then. I wasn’t sure if it was what was inside the metal box or the fact that I was in the footlocker and messed things up. I hadn’t thought about it in years. I wasn’t sure until I cut the duct tape on the metal box and opened the box. The old hook latch I had so much trouble with when we were playing hide and seek was broken. I wondered for a moment if I broke it. For an instant, I felt guilty.”
Tony looked at his friend. He wanted to prod him. He could see the struggle in Joe’s face. Tony wondered what was in the box that was eating at his best friend. Joe was always the toughest of the two. He protected Tony, stood up to bullies. He’d just as soon fight on the playground as to backdown.
Joe said, “Look at me, Tony. Who do I favor, my mom or my dad?”
Tony thought the question was coming in from an aircraft not on his radar. He said,
“Don’t take it the wrong way, you’ve got a big nose. Neither your mom or dad have a big nose.”
Joe cracked a half smile, “I know. Who do I favor? Maybe my eyes, cheeks, mouth. I know neither mom or dad have a nose this big.”
“Your nose is big but it’s in proportion to your face. You don’t favor your dad. Your mom had dark brown eyes and your eyes are dark brown. That’s a similarity. You’re taller than both. You have any tall aunts or uncles?”
“No, both sides of the family were on the shorter side. I’m six one. I don’t think there is anyone over five feet eleven inches. I’m making a point, let me go on without interrupting me.”
Tony knew enough to back off. He waited.
Joe said, “When I opened the box, I found cards, letters, documents, and some photos.”
He paused and took a sip of his beer. Then he continued, “I’m a bastard.”
Tony looked surprised, “Everyone knows that.” Tony failed in his attempt to add humor.
“Seriously, Tony. Dad is not my dad.” Joe held up his hand to stop Tony from speaking. He continued. I picked up an old photo. It was of mom. It was weird looking at photo of my mom in a bikini on the beach. In the photo she was being carried by a tall guy, about her age, with a nose like mine. Her arm was around his neck, and he was holding her off the ground. They were both smiling. You could tell they were in love.”
“This doesn’t mean anything,” said Tony instantly realizing he should be quiet.
Joe ignored Tony’s comment and said, “There were a couple of other photos. There was one with them kissing. There was another with mom and the guy, this time he was in an army uniform. My heart was racing when I saw the photos. I didn’t know or suspect anything. But, I had this feeling, you know the kind of feeling you get when you know something is not going to turn out the way you want it to turn out if you keep on going?”
Tony nodded and stayed silent.
“I set the photos on the table. I began digging through what else was in the box. Mom saved letters and things like that. All this was before the Internet and email. I don’t even know if people write letters anymore, do you?”
Tony was unsure if he should speak. He shook his head no indicating he didn’t know anyone who wrote letters. He shrugged his shoulders.
Joe continued, “I read some letters between mom and aunt Estelle. That was mom’s older sister.”
Joe looked over a Tony, “You know my birthday, right?”
Tony said, “Yah, November 29 …”
Joe cut him off, “That’s right. “I’ll be twenty-nine this year. I asked because the postage stamp date on the envelope was dated twenty-eight years ago. It actually came December 27th, nearly a month after I was born. Mom and dad married eight months later. I never thought much about me being born before mom and dad were married. Mom told me things like that happen when people are in love and not to think anything of it. When your five or six you believe everything your parents tell you. I opened the envelope and read the letter. The letter wasn’t long, maybe a couple of paragraphs.”
Joe stopped, put his right elbow on the table and cupped his chin in his right hand. He drifted away from Tony for a minute, and gathered his thoughts. Joe took a deep breath and sat back in the booth, then leaned forward as if he were telling Tony a state secret. He said, “The letter starts, ‘Dear Annette. I met someone else. Whatever we had between us is over. I hope you won’t be mad at me.'”
“Is that all he said?” asked Tony.
“No, he said he loved her for a little while, but being away in the army caused things to happen he didn’t expect to happen. Then he added the killer sentence, he said, ‘Give little Joe a hug and kiss for me each night.'” When I read that line,Tony, I wanted to punch the son of a bitch in face and break his nose. That’s how I felt.”
“But you have the same last name as your dad. How do you explain that,” asked Tony.
“That’s easy. I did some digging. In this state you can change the name on the birth certificate up to one year without going to court. All you have to do is fill out some forms. The letter was signed, yours affectionately, Joe. He didn’t even have the guts to say I love you to her. I picked up the envelope and looked at the return address. His name was Joe Wright. He was a Lieutenant at the time and stationed at Fort Riley in Kansas. I’m going to find him. I don’t know what I’m going to say to him, but I’m going to find him.”
“You don’t want to do that, Joe. Let it go. For all you know, he’s dead.”
“If he’s dead, I’ll spit on his grave. I’m going to find him, Tony. I’ll find him even I have to
spend every cent I have.”
“Think about it first, Joe. Don’t let your emotions run away with you. What do you know about this guy other than a name, Joe Wright? In this city, Columbus, Ohio, there have to be hundreds of people with the last name, Wright. You thinking about hiring an investigator?” said Tony.
“I’m going to find him by myself. While I’m looking for him, maybe I’ll learn something about me. I’ve always felt there was a missing piece in my life, this could be it,” said Joe.
Tony leaned closer, “Besides an envelope, letter, and a few photos, what else do you have?”
“I have the bastard’s DNA and a no quit attitude. I’ll find him. Oh, yes. I’ll find him.
“Look, Joe. If your mind is set. I’ll take tomorrow off. Come over to my house. We’ll both work online and see if we can dig something up about him. Maybe we’ll find an obituary, you never know.”
Joe nodded. They clinked bottles. Tony took the leftover pizza home. Joe went back to his apartment. It was empty since Marie left. Even though it was ten at night, he changed clothes and put on his workout gear and headed out for a five mile run.
Chapter Three ~ Be Careful for What you Might Find
Twenty Years Earlier
It was a lazy summer’s day in the middle of July. The sky was nearly perfectly blue with the exception of a few cotton ball clouds. The outdoor temperature was pushing 98 degrees and the heat index was close to 107 degrees. Air conditioners hummed. In homes without air conditioning, portable fans worked overtime to give residents relief. The Astore household had the air conditioner running on 78 degrees. Eight year old Joe and his two friends, Tony and Tony’s older sister Anna sat in the living room watching TV. Tony was a year younger than Anna.
“Turn off the TV. You kids need to play. Go outside and get some fresh air,” Joe’s mom called from the kitchen.
“It’s too hot, Mom. Can we have some ice cream?” asked Joe.
“No, you may not have some ice cream. It’s for dinner. And, how many times have I asked you to say please?” said his mother, making more of a statement than asking a question.
Joe picked up the remote and turned the TV off. The four kids looked at each other as if life support tubes were disconnected from their bodies.
Joe said, “We can go outside and ride our bikes over to the school parking lot and race around the light poles.”
Anna said, “Are you serious? It’s too hot to do anything.”
“We can go to the playground and see who can go the highest on the swings,” said Tony.
From the kitchen, his mother hollered, “That’s too dangerous.”
“Does your mom hear everything?” asked Anna.
“Sometimes, I think she has a hearing super power,” said Joe.
Anna whispered, “Let’s play hide and seek inside. We’ll be cool and the TV will be off. Since I thought of it, one of you two will be it.”
Tony and Joe looked at each other and nodded. Tony said, “Can we hide outside?”
Joe said, “Mom is in the kitchen. We can hide in the garage, the basement, the bedrooms, or the attic. We’ll stay out of the kitchen. If you’re found, you’re out. We can’t run, mom will send us outside for sure. Since I came up with this, you’re it, Tony.”
“Why do I have to be it first all the time?” asked Tony.
“You won’t be it in the next round. Come on, let’s have some fun. Tony, lie face down on the sofa and count to one-hundred by 5’s,” said Anna.
Tony lied down on the sofa. Joe gave him a throw pillow to hold on top of his head. Tony said, “Ready, set, go. Then he started counting, “Five, ten, fifteen …”
Joe and Anna scattered. Anna headed into the garage. Joe quietly opened the door to the attic and stealthily climbed the stairs. When he reached the attic door, he twisted the knob slowly and gently pushed the door open, closing it behind him. He looked around the attic for the perfect hiding place.
“Here I come, ready or not,” hollered Tony.
Joe could hear Tony scurrying around below him. He had to think fast. The attic was nearly barren with the exception of his dad’s old footlocker from the days he was in the army. Joe walked over to it. He unclipped the hinges, and opened it. He thought he could fit inside if he curled his knees up to his chest. The only items he saw were his dad’s army uniforms, that was all. He lifted the top two uniforms out and saw a small metal box at the bottom. He was about to take it out and set it on the attic floor, when he heard Tony say. “I got you Anna. I think Joe’s in the attic.”
Joe stepped into the footlocker. He picked up his dad’s two uniforms and placed them on top of himself. He carefully stuck an arm out on the side of the uniforms and lowered the cover. He then pulled his arms under the uniforms and curled up in a ball. His head rested on the small metal box.
Joe heard the door to attic open. He heard Tony say, “I gotcha. You might as well give up. I know you’re in here.”
Joe held his breath while he lied in the box. He heard the attic floor creaking. At first the sounds moved away from him; then they came toward him and stopped next to the footlocker. Tony gave the footlocker a kick and said, “You can get out, Joe. I found you.”
Joe stifled a laugh and squeezed his eyes shut thinking if he couldn’t see Tony, Tony couldn’t see him. Joe heard the locker open. He heard Anna say, “I told you, he’s not in there. There are only old army clothes. He’s not in the attic. Did you look under his bed?”
Tony said, “No. Let’s go.”
Joe heard Tony and Anna close the door to the attic. He heard their footsteps walking down the stairs. Each step growing further away. He waited another minute. Then he pushed the footlocker open and sat up. Joe climbed out of the footlocker, turned and began to rearrange the clothes. He spotted the small metal box. He picked it up. He shook it. Something was inside. He could feel it sliding back and forth as he shook the box. He sat down with his back against the footlocker and put the metal box on his lap.
The metal box had a small, hook clasp with the hook under a protruding metal ball holding the top secure to the box. Joe tried to slide the hook to the right, it didn’t move. He tried to wedge the fingernail of his right forefinger under the hook, that didn’t work. Joe stood up and carried the metal box around the attic looking for something to push the hook. He spotted a wire coat hanger lying on the attic floor by the heating unit. Joe was hurried to get the coat hanger, in his haste he tripped over his untied shoestring. The metal box fell out of his hands. He picked it up, and remained still, hoping no one heard him. He didn’t hear any sounds. He retrieved the coat hanger, walked back to the footlocker and sat on the floor, resting his back against the footlocker. The metal box sat on his lap. His right hand held the coat hanger.
Joe straightened out the hook part of the coat hanger and jammed it against the hook on the box. The hook moved. He hit it again, the hook slid to the side. Joe put the coat hanger down on the attic floor, and turned the metal box so that it would open facing him.
“What are you doing?”
Joe turned and saw his mother standing in the attic doorway, her arms akimbo. He said, “Nothing, Mom. Just looking through things.”
In a flash his mom was standing next to him and grabbed the box out of his hands. She held the box close to her chest and gestured toward Joe with her right forefinger extended, “Don’t you dare go snooping up here again. Tell your friends to go home and you go to your room.”
Drunk on the Wine of the Beloved
A Poem by Hafiz
The beauty of this poem is beyond words.
Do you need a guide to experience the heat of the sun?
Blessed is the brush of the painter who paints
Such beautiful pictures for his virgin bride.
Look at this beauty. There is no reason for what you see.
Experience its grace. Even in nature there is nothing so fine.
Either this poem is a miracle, or some sort of magic trick.
Guided either by Gabriel or the Invisible Voice, inside.
No one, not even Hafiz, can describe with words the Great Mystery.
No one knows in which shell the priceless pearl does hide.