(I’m having so much fun working on my novel that I’m going to post the chapter that occurs immediately before the sceneI posted last night – it’s still pretty rough, but I kind of like how it’s coming together. The setting is the fictional south eastern Wisconsin town Orchard Depot, and it’s November of 1979)
Right before our eyes the town was changing. Sometime in early November, suddenly and without warning, the giant green brontosaurus that marked the intersection of State Highways 17 and 47, was gone, replaced by a CLARK sign. Richter’s Sinclair had become a casualty of the late seventies oil crisis, one of many Sinclair stations across the country to be sacrificed. Roman Richter still maintained ownership of the franchise, and he still ran his mechanic business out of his garages, but Richter’s Clark would never come close to the Orchard Depot landmark that the green brontosaurus and Richter’s Sinclair had been.
There were other changes, too, starting with the sudden departure of the town president Frank Cornish two years earlier. If the downtown sidewalks seemed emptier, it’s because they were, more people choosing to do their shopping at the plush shopping malls and non-descript strip malls that were popping up on the swollen edges of Racine and Milwaukee, nibbling away at the flat farm fields, moving ever closer to Orchard Depot and offering national chain hardware and grocery and pharmacies that the owners and operators of the downtown businesses couldn’t compete with. Even Frank Cornish, before he left, sold off the Orchard Depot lumber yard to a regional conglomerate.
The old Cornish home, the grand Victorian mansion that stood on the hill next to the high school, had already been sold and foreclosed upon, and was starting to sag under the weight of its age, while weeds took over the front yard. Cornish Park, the forty acres across the street was the big donation Frank made to the town he loved so much, and was the one landmark that bore his name.
It wasn’t just the town that was changing,
Days after I turned twenty one years old, Angela Pollard, of Michigan City, Indiana, became the first steady girlfriend I’d ever had.
This was also the time that I started a new job, working evenings, two to ten P.M., unloading delivery trucks and packing orders on the loading dock of a company called Open Pantry in Racine. Our schedules were such that I’d get off work an hour after Angela started the overnight shift at the Town Friar, so after its tumultuous start, we were forced to slow down the pace of our romance. Which was just fine with me.
I’d make a point of stopping at the Town Friar every night on my way home from work and ordering dinner. Angela would serve me, and, as it was still in the slow time of night, usually be able to break free to sit with me for a few minutes, when we’d discuss the events of our days. I found myself looking forward to these moments, mentally logging things that happened during the course of the day as things I’d have to tell Ang about. It was a new experience, having a friend that I could share the details of my life with.
Nights Angela was off, usually Tuesday and Wednesday, I’d drive straight to her apartment and spend the night. I was making up for lost time by engaging in Olympics gold-medal worthy sexual gymnastics. I was a quick learner and an enthusiastic experimenter.
None of that got in the way of our mission to find Matt’s body. Angela made sure of that. I, on the other hand, would have been happy to finally forget about Matt for a while/. I was enjoying working my $4.25 per hour job and my first real relationship with a living, breathing woman, one who not only looked great but was able to make me feel things I’d never imagined feeling. I was falling in love, both with Angela and with the idea of falling in love. It’d been so long since I’d allowed myself to even dream of these things coming true that I was willing to let them take me where they would.
It was Angela who kept us tethered to reality, and the fence post she kept us tied to was Matt, and the search for his body. I recognized a determination and drive in her to uncover the truth that was waning in me. She’d have to be the driver, and I’d be a willing passenger.
The subject of Tom Musgrave and why he lied about seeing Matt became the point of focus, with Angela becoming obsessed with the question, why did he lie? She became convinced, and in turn convinced me, that once we understood Tom’s motive for lying, the answers to the remaining questions would fall like dominoes.
The years after we discovered the lifeless body of Matt Pollard couldn’t have turned out more differently for Tom Musgrave and me. Where I began my downward spiral and became an object of derision and fear and perhaps the most reviled individual in Orchard Depot for what I did to Sam Richter, Tom, on the other hand, became a source of pride and something of a cherished Orchard Depot celebrity. It was basketball that did it, as Tom starred first on the middle school team, then the high school team, where he shattered all of his older brother Jim’s scoring records, making the class C all-state team and accepting a scholarship at one of the state schools, UW Stevens Point. He was the team’s starting shooting guard, averaging twelve points a game his junior year and, at Thanksgiving, just a week before the 1979-80 season was to start, was listed by the newspapers as a possible all-American candidate.
As I observed my one-time best friend’s ascension into sports stardom, I couldn’t help but feel that the fates were rewarding him for lying about the body and punishing me for insisting on the truth. It also became apparent that the more successful he grew, the bigger of a dick he became. This was more fact than opinion, as I’d overhear classmates talking about what a snobbish cunt he was, and watch them roll their eyes in disbelief over yet another example of his arrogance.
When we were still best friends, in the seventh grade, he was only a slightly better basketball player than me, and we’d wage epic one on one battles against each other. Then after the body and the lie, after we split and went our separate ways, Tom blossomed and pushed his way out of the shadow Jim cast, while I was left to shoot baskets by myself in the driveway. Where Tom progressed, I digressed.
It wasn’t just basketball, either. As high school bled into college, I retreated inside of myself, spending most of the time alone, reading and watching television. I fell into a lonely rut, and I put on a few pounds. While I wasn’t fat, I was well on my way to becoming just another pear shaped late twenty or early thirty-something idiot.
Then I attempted suicide and failed, and spent nine long months in the state psych ward in Madison. Bored out of my mind, I quickly discovered the gym and running track, and ended up spending a large portion of my waking hours on their treadmills and weight machines. I ran a minimum of three miles every day, most days going five or six. By the time I was released, I was in the best shape of my life.
So it was that on Thursday, Thanksgiving morning, I looked out the picture window of my mom and dad’s house and saw Tom Musgrave, home for the holidays, in his sweats, jogging down Vicksburg Avenue in the chilly grey morning, and decided that I’d go for a run, too. But first I called Angela up.
“Ang,” I said, “meet me at the grade school playground in about fifteen minutes. And bring the photo of Matt.”
I slipped on my running shoes and exited our house out the back door, and started running, heading due west through the back yards for two blocks, until I got to Highview Avenue. Figuring I’d intersected Tom’s route and gotten the drop on him, I slowed down to a jog and headed north on Highview, toward where it ended at Thirteenth street, toward where Tom was. As I approached Thirteenth Street, I looked to my right and sure enough, jogging west on the sidewalk, was Tom Musgrave.
I timed my exit from Highland and entered the Thirteenth Street sidewalk so that I ended up by Tom’s side.
“Hey, Musgrave,” I said. “Mind if I join you?”
“Go fuck yourself,” he said, not even looking at me.
“I’ll take that for a ‘go ahead, Jack.’”
“Leave me alone,” he said.
“I will, I will, I promise,” I said. “Right after I ask you one question.”
Tom didn’t say anything, he just kept on running. I stayed right there at his side. I was having no difficulty maintaining his pace. We got to the corner of State Street, and I slowed down and let Tom choose which direction we went. Luckily, he chose left, toward the elementary school, where I’d told Angela to wait for us.
As we headed towards the elementary school, I said, “I’ve got just one question for you.”
“Fuck off,” he said, louder his time.
Ahead of us the school playground came into view, and I could see Angela, sitting on one of the swings, waiting for us.
“Why did you lie about the body?”
Tom didn’t say anything, we kept running. I wouldn’t leave his side. We were just about even with Angela when I reached over and grabbed him by his unzipped sweatshirt, stopped and said, louder, “Answer me! Why did you lie?”
“Get your fucking hands off of me,” he yelled, ripping my hands off of his sweatshirt. They were free for only a second, then I grabbed him again. I could see him reaching his right arm back to throw a punch at me. Before he could launch it, I stuck out my left leg and pulled him over it. He fell hard on the sidewalk, and I was on top of him, the same way I was on top of Sam Richter when I hit him with the tire iron. From my periphery, I could see Angela, running over to us, with the Polaroid in her hand.
“Get off of me,” Tom was yelling, flailing about, but I still had him pinned down when Angela got to us.
‘Not till you tell us why you lied,” I said.
“I didn’t lie.”
Angela was bent over, holding the photo out in front of his face. “Look at this. Look at it.” Tom at first wouldn’t look at the picture, jerking his head from side to side, but then he caught a glance of it, and recognition sparked across his face. “That was my brother, asshole. Thanks to you, whoever killed him is still walking free.”
Tom’s expression softened and he stopped resisting. I still held him, pinned down, when we could hear the sound of a police sirens, at first distant but getting closer with every second. Tom lifted his forehead but I grabbed him by his scalp and shoved his head back down on the hard sidewalk.
“Why, fucker? Why did you lie? ” I said. The sirens were getting louder.
“I don’t know! Ask Jim,” he said.
“Yeah, Jim,” he said. “He told me to. I don’t know why.”
“Jack, the cops!” Angela said. A squad car had just turned down State Street, the siren louder and approaching. I got up, leaving Tom laying on the sidewalk, and grabbed Angela’s hand, and we ran across the playground into the small grove of trees on its eastern edge.
We stood there, in the trees, catching our breath, hiding from the cops.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. From across the baseball field and over the playground, we watched the scene on the State Street sidewalk. The police car was parked on the side of the road, its lights silently flashing. Tom was standing, dusting himself off. Two officers were there on the sidewalk, talking to him. Angela and I watched as they got back in the car, leaving Tom on the sidewalk. The lights on the squad car went dark, and it slowly pulled back out on State Street and drove off.
“They’re leaving,” Angela said.
“Yeah, my guess is that Tom didn’t want to press charges. Not with his brother involved in this whole thing.”
“Do you know his brother?
“Yeah. Jim’s always been a great guy.”
“Do you think Tom’s telling the truth?” Angela asked. “Do you think Jim killed Matt?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, no. Yeah, I think he’s telling the truth. But no, I don’t think Jim killed anyone.”
I was trying to process what had just happened. Angela was distracting me with all of her questions. It wasn’t as much what Tom said as it was the way he said it, the expression on his face. His entire demeanor softened after he saw the picture. It became apparent to me that, despite his lying, the corpse of Matt Pollard had left just as indelible a mark on Tom as it had on me. The expression on Tom’s face when Angela showed him the photo was of instant recognition.
I started walking Angela home. It was going to be a big enough day without the altercation with Tom, as Angela had accepted my invitation to Thanksgiving dinner with my mom and dad. It was going to be nerve-wracking enough, as we’d also decided we’d use the occasion to tell mom and dad about Matt, and that it was more than random coincidence that brought Angela to Orchard Depot and into my life.
But none of that mattered as we walked across town. All Angela could talk about was Tom Musgrave, and his admission that he lied, and that we’d have to get to his brother Jim to find out why.
“So you don’t think Jim killed Matt?” she asked.
“No, there’s no way,” I said. “There’s just no way Jim killed anybody.”
“But can you be certain?” she asked. “Maybe he has a dark side.”
“Jim?” I couldn’t help but laugh. “A dark side? You’ve obviously never met Jim. One of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet, even if his little brother did turn into a dick head. Did you know he was there the night I hurt Sam Richter?”
“At the gas station?”
“Yep. He witnessed the whole thing.”
“Then that proves he was involved!”
“How does that prove anything?”\
“Well, how do you know it doesn’t? We’ll just have to talk to him this weekend.”
“Oh, he’s not home. Don’t ask me how I know this, my mom must have heard it and told me. He’s with his wife’s family in Texas, her folks retired down there.”
She stopped in her tracks. “Texas?”
“Yes. So what’s the big …”
“Does he have two kids?”
“Yeah, a boy …”
“And a girl. Does he work at the Plastics factory?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Holy shit,” she said. “I know this guy!”