TRUTH BY ITS OWN SOUND (3rd draft)
P A R T O N E (1st 25 pages)
Sam Strauss struggled to cut his toenails. He was hunched over, mid-snip, his jaw clenched, when his doorbell rang. He could make out a hazy stranger on the other side of the faded lace panel. He straightened up, put down the scissors, and slowly made his way to the oor.
"Who is it?"
"Are you Rabbi Strauss?" the stranger asked.
"No, I am not Rabbi Strauss. I am not even a rabbi. I'm Sam Strauss."
"Hmmm. They told me you were a rabbi."
"They told you wrong."
"May I come in?" asked the stranger.
"For what reason? To delay me to cut my toenails? They'll get so long I'll step on them yet."
"You can still cut your own toenails?" the stranger was honestly surprised.
"I'm only seventy!"
"I'm close to the same, but I need help with mine."
"I often draw blood," Sam said.
"Then maybe I can be of some help."
Sam opened the door. The gentleman certainly looked dashing. Much care had been taken with his dress, this Sam could tell with one glance. And a neat mustache at a time when most men used some new-fangled shaving device to make themselves as hairless as women.
"Someone like you isn't going to help someone like me with toenails," Sam stated as fact.
"My name is August Mears, son of Bernhard Mears, grandson of Siegfried Mears, great-grandson of Otto Mears, the 'Pathfinder of the San Juans.' Third generation American. And I always make good on my offers," he said as he entered.
Sam was startled. He had hoped to find someone from the Mears family for a long time now. Had given up looking. There hadn't been anyone from the Mears family in the town of Minimum since Siegfried, this man's grandfather, had moved away almost a hundred years ago. To where? Nobody knew. This Mears was tall with a full head of wavy grey hair and he was
handsome in spite of the deep wrinkles around his eyes. Sam doubted they were "laugh lines."
But, of all the names the man named, there was one that he didn't name, "Chief Ouray." And he didn't mention the Document or the mission. Sam could only assume that Mears was going to get around to it. Sam could mention it himself, but something held him back. He handed Gus the scissors. "Make yourself useful, and be careful. The scissors are sharp."
"Nail clippers are better for this."
"I misplaced them," said Sam.
"Well, it's a good thing I came when I did, then," said August.
August began his task with surprising delicacy and dexterity. "Do you have a nail file? ome of these edges are a little rough."
"No nail file," said Sam. "Not necessary."
August cut and trimmed and did his best to shape the yellowed claws of the old man.
A snip of a nail sailed across the room and landed on the worn linoleum, then, "Why would they tell me you are a rabbi?"
"People are idiots."
"When I asked for you by name several people told me the same thing: 'Oh you mean the rabbi.'"
"An old Jew is a rabbi, period. You try to tell them different."
"So you never were a rabbi?"
"Never. I was a haberdasher." Sam paused. "Do you need a rabbi for something? You'll have to go a long way."
"No, no, not at all," said Gus.
"Be careful with that toe. There's a corn in between," said Sam.
"Yes, I can see that."
"You come all the way to this speck on the map to cut an old man's toenails? And you dress up for the occasion, too?"
"When I got dressed this morning it wasn't with the intention of cutting your toenails, I can assure you. But, regardless, I would have dressed the same way. Habit is a tyrant.”
"You said you asked for me by name."
"So I did. Otto Mears was my great grandfather, as I said. And the reason I came here
from Colorado, where I live, is because I believe he knew one of your ancestors."
"Which one do you mean?" Sam asked, thinking Mears was about to make the reason
for his visit known.
Sam hesitated. Levi was his great great grandfather from the eighteen hundreds. If someone from the Mears family was ever going to show up, it made sense that he would mention Levi. Sam waited to hear more but Mears said nothing. It seemed he too was waiting.
"The big toes you can cut shorter. They grow faster," Sam said.
This was no coincidence, this man showing up, but before he revealed much about himself, Sam expected the man to reveal himself. "Why are you so interested in Levi Strauss?" Sam asked.
"He knew my great grandfather, Otto. I think they both lived in this town for awhile."
"I've heard stories from my father about Otto. But there are pieces missing. Maybe you know something."
"Probably a different Strauss family," he lied instinctively.
"But this town used to be named 'Minyan,' no?" asked Gus.
"I think so. I'm not so sure."
Gus didn't understand why the man was acting so confused. Gus had proof that their ancestors knew each other, probably had even lived here together for some time. And the fact that Sam was still here indicated that some of the Strausses had never left.
"Does the name Otto Mears mean anything to you?" asked Gus. "Or maybe Siegfried?"
"I don’t know. I have to think about it."
"Didn't this town used to have a large Jewish population?"
"That's 'once upon a time' stuff; a kosher butcher, a mikva, three synagogues. The last one was burned down ten years ago."
"Burned down! By who?"
"For firemen's practice. Most of the Jews were gone by then. We couldn't even get a minyan."
"But you stayed."
"Where would I go?"
Mears stood, stretched out his back, and said, "Well, I think I'm done here. What do you think?"
Sam wriggled his toes, bent forward and inspected each one. "Good enough."
"Can we talk now?" asked Mears
"What were we doing all along?"
"Getting to know each other."
"You got to know my toes. But what do I know about you?"
"You want to see my toes?" Mears teased.
Sam laughed and didn't recognize the sound. When had he heard it last? He couldn't remember. But now he was laughing with this stranger. He enjoyed it in spite of being suspicious. A person could use humor to distract, to deceive.
"Now we can get to know each other from the top down, instead of the bottom up," August teased.
"Schnapps?" Sam asked.
"Ah, Schnapps!" exclaimed Mears.
While Sam and Gus were getting to know each other from the top down, everybody else was in the town meeting. They already all knew each other top down, bottom up, and sideways. In a town as tiny as theirs there was seldom anything new. But this meeting, held in the old grange hall whispering of decay from the floorboards, was about big changes; among them, the new name of the town. And a town named "Minimum" was certainly not going to attract new people to the new town they were developing. It was 1999 and some folks believed the new millennium was tantamount to a miracle that could manifest itself with just about anything.
"Well the town attracted my parents!" said Starla.
"It sure did!" said her mother, Loretta Hill.
"You're husband was born here. Like most of us. We’re trying to get people to come here because they want to!" said Joe Landy, the dairy farmer.
"Now that we have a waterfront worth coming for, we’re in a good position to attract more folks," Mayor Chouteau said. He was a baby faced 49 year old who was easy to believe.
"I'm all for that, but it doesn't mean you have to change the name of the place, does it? A name carries history," said Landy.
"'Minimum's been our name for a hundred years!" said Starla.
"Oh, more than that!" said Loretta. "The town was settled in the mid eighteen hundreds."
"If it was good enough for our forefathers…and mothers…it's good enough for us. Besides, what would we call it? Our name is unique," said Landy.
"I actually researched it. There's not another town with our name in the whole country. Unlike Washington or Springfield, or Greenville," said Starla.
"Are there a lot of those?" Loretta asked.
"Dozens," said Starla.
"Some folks were suggesting 'Riverton' since it's on the river," said Loretta. "Do we have a 'Riverton'?"
"You mean in South Dakota? I don't know. I don't think so," said the mayor.
"We should name the town 'Big Muddy.' After the river." said Landy.
"Isn't there a town called that already?" asked Starla.
"Well I don't think a name like 'Big Muddy' is all that appealing, personally. Though it beats 'Minimum', that's for sure. Why anyone would name a town something like that I could never understand. What can you expect living in a town like that? Just the minimum. Expect more, you have to move out," the mayor said. People laughed at that. Then the mayor added,
"And that's exactly what our young people do, too! They move out! If we don't get more people moving in, the new name will have to be 'Miniscule!' "
"We're all agreed we need more population. But with all due respect Mayor, do we really have to change our name to do it? I, for one, don't think it will matter," said Landy.
"I hate to contradict you, Joe, but I'm pretty sure it'll matter a lot. You know I subscribe to 'American Mayors Monthly?' Well, I read about a town out east that changed its name to 'Sleepy Hollow' instead of North Somethingorother, and tourists just flocked there."
"Doesn't sound like such a great name to me. Sounds dull," said Landy.
"That place has a history. It's where Washington Irving's 'Stories of Sleepy Hollow' was written. The cemetery Icabod Crane galloped through is located there. "
"Icky who?" asked Landy.
"Anyway, they took advantage of their history. They changed their name, started putting up some condominiums, had some farmers markets, some music festivals, and they attracted folks. I read all about it. So not only do we have to change our name, we also have to think about what we have here to attract people. What kind of lifestyle can we offer?" asked the mayor.
"'Lifestyle?'" asked Starla.
"Yes, 'lifestyle!' You and me, we have a life. But new folks coming here want a life style. You know, like restaurants, and condos ,and walking trails. You know, yoga studios."
"But we have acres and acres of woods," said Starla.
"Safe hiking trails with no poison ivy or ticks or - " the mayor tried to explain.
"Well maybe we should just cut down all the forests and pave them over!" Starla groused.
"We actually have walking trails. All they need is some cleaning up," the mayor said.
"Where's the money going to come from?" Starla asked. "The waterfront revitalization already put us in debt."
"The extra revenue the new folks bring in. That will repay the debt and fill our coffers."
The mayor took a calculated pause, met each person's eyes as he had learned to do when campaigning, and said, "And that's one reason why we need to change our name. To appeal to folks seeking a lifestyle."
The large hall was getting stuffy with the afternoon heat. The room was way too large for an air conditioner, so meetings held during the warm months had to be in the mornings, before it got too hot. People shifted in their hard chairs, crossed or uncrossed their legs, pulled a stick of gum from their pockets or purses.
The word, "lifestyle" hung with the dust motes in the sunlight. Starla pictured an invasion of people with their SUVs stuffed with expectations and the taxes on her small flower farm going up.
"It's a new millennium, folks! We can't be stuck in the horse and buggy days!" Chouteau implored.
"Well, if this Y2K thing explodes like they predict, we'll wind up back in those days," said Landy. "And frankly, I would prefer it. I think I'd like being off the grid."
"We're barely even on the grid!" Starla said. "Speaking of which, don't you think we should at least get cable in this town?" "I'm glad you brought that up. I've been speaking to some utility companies about exactly that," said Chouteau.
"Some of these buildings go back a long ways," said Starla. "Are you planning on knocking them down to make your condos?"
"Actually, I think some of them are eligible for historic landmark status. Starting with the old First Bank building. It's a beauty."
With that, Mayor Peter Chouteau ("Pierre" by birth) knew it was time to end the meeting. On a positive note. He knew all of these folks for a long time now and he knew who said this but really meant that. Who would benefit from these changes that were surely coming, and who knew it, and who hoped for it, and who hoped against it, and why. He noted who wasn't there, too. Easy to get distracted by what was in front of you. Later on, alone, he would mentally review each row, each seat, and check off every resident. The ones missing, whose opinions mattered, those he would have to handle one on one. A visit to each home. His wife would have to make some of her pies. He would have to remember to pick up several pounds of cherries on his way home.
When Starla Hill was younger, she wished her name had been "Starlight." Starlight Hill sounded like a place where lovers went to see the stars and to kiss. They would lie there side by side on a warm summer night, their sweat finally dry on their skin, and stare straight up, unafraid of the big sky. She was a tomboy growing up and stayed that way. There never really was a moment when she "came out." People seemed to just figure it out. Or not. It just didn't seem to matter much.
But she was in the closet about still being a virgin at twenty-five. How could she be otherwise when she wasn't interested in men and there wasn't another woman for miles who shared her inclinations and captured her heart. She sometimes felt near to bursting with longing for someone. When that happened she would drive in to Yankton to the one dyke bar, sit there, feel ridiculous, finish one beer and leave. If a woman tried to talk to her she got tongue-tied. She wasn't clever or a quick thinker.
But then one day Lila appeared, suddenly, like a mushroom after a rainstorm. You saw it and wondered if it was there yesterday only you hadn't noticed. Then you realized that it was the rain that had coaxed it from the soggy soil … and soon enough it would be gone.
Lila had found Starla like a dirty penny on the street that you pick up in spite of it being dirty, hoping for good luck. There was Starla, covered in dirt, squinting into the sunlight, her stick-straight red hair and bangs framing her freckled face. Lila's first thought was: Pippi Longstocking all grown up! And yet her breath caught.
As Starla did her errands, Lila had followed from a distance. When Starla exited the hardware store from the side door she bumped right into Lila, who had stationed herself there strategically, to watch.
"You've been on my tail since the grocery," Starla stated.
"Wow. I guess I'm pretty bad at this tailing business."
"You know how many people live in this town?" asked Starla
"The sign out on the road says, 'Minimum, South Dakota, population 352.' "
"Three hundred forty. That sign hasn’t been updated in a while.”
"And you know all of them, no doubt."
"I should have thought of that I guess."
"Who are you?"
"Lila Baker," she said, and noticed that Starla wore no wedding ring.
"And you're following me around because …?"
"Well, I wasn't exactly following. I was - "
"Call it what you want. But I'm not the type of person people follow. "
"I guess that makes me the first!"
"Well, I don't know if - "
"What's your name?"
"So, you're a local."
"Yep. This is all local dirt," she said, indicating her coveralls. "So where are you from?"
"Sioux Falls. I'm on the lam."
Starla couldn't quite read her tone and it made her feel stupid.
Lila knew immediately that her approach was all wrong for this green-eyed country mouse. "Sorry. I don't mean to be a smart ass. But, truth is, I am running away from an old life. Nothing illegal. Don't worry."
“You don’t sound like Sioux Falls.”
“What do I sound like?”
“I don’t know, but not from around here.”
“It’s Brooklyn you’re hearing,” Lila confessed.
“Like in New York?”
“No, 'New Yawk', she joked.”
”Well, I’ve never been to Brooklyn.”
“You’d hate it.”
“I bet I would, too. So why are you here?"
"I was driving and I needed a break. And curious about the name of the town, too"
"No one really knows anymore."
The women walked to Starla’s pick-up.
Lila quit her clever routine and delivered herself straight up. With this skinny farm woman she had to be sincere. She could do sincere.
Starla quit feeling like a yokel as soon as Lila apologized for her tone. A person could say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, but it was a show of character that they recognized it. And made corrections. She glanced at the ring finger. But the way Lila had been tailing her, she already knew. It made her uncomfortable but also it made her flush.
Truth was Lila wasn't harboring any interesting secrets either. She was just fleeing from the place where her last relationship went bad. She had grown up in Gowanus, Brooklyn near the putrid canal and longed for wide open spaces. Her family's history in that neighborhood went back generations. All the men were cops and firemen and EMTs. All the women were
part of the auxiliaries and the church. Between the kids and their friends and her parents' friends, her house was always stuffed with people. She shared a bedroom with her two sisters, her two brothers shared a room, and her parents had a room. When her grandmother became too sick to live alone, her parents turned the porch into a bedroom and she moved in, too.
Being part of this crowd called "a family" wasn't much fun. She was the middle child of five and aside from being known as the "tough" girl in the family, she had no identity. She didn't consider herself "tough" just because she got angry if someone messed with her. Unlike most girls, when she felt threatened she didn't become afraid, she became irate. She once nearly struck a homeless person who got too close and cursed at her. And once she cursed like a truck driver at a guy on the subway who made a lewd remark. And once she slugged a guy who came up behind her on the street and grabbed for her backpack. Being only five feet five inches tall, and the shortest in her family, people got a kick out of her fierceness. But Lila had never considered her size in those moments of pure reaction. She didn't think at all. And she wasn't "fierce." Actually, just the opposite.
It wasn't until she went away to college that she realized what a non-individual she was. She didn't have an opinion, a thought, or an idea that was her own. Even her clothes had first belonged to her older sisters. But she had made one decision, one odd and individual decision that surprised everyone, including herself: she chose to go to school at Black Hills State University, at the extreme western edge of South Dakota. It had nothing to do with the courses, or choosing a major, or what rating the school had. She had looked at a map and marveled at the vastness of the land out that way. She read up on the geography and history of
the place and decided it was as different from her hometown as she could possibly get.
On the airplane heading out there she stared down at the vast flatness that ended at the Black Hills. South Dakota seemed so far west but it was the western end of the state that was the gateway to the real west, and that was where she wanted to be. As soon as she left the airport in Rapid City she could tell the air itself was different. She took a deep breath and never looked back.
The learning took place while she rode horses, took walks in the Black Hills, and worked on a ranch to make some money. The college learning did not interest her in the least. She dropped out, got a place in Spearfish, and called it home for several years, accepting a mostly celibate and often lonely life in exchange for the canyons, the streams, and the sweet smell of summer.
Three years later she was ready to move on. With the single-minded task of finding herself a girlfriend, she moved due east to Sioux Falls, with its population of over a hundred and fifty thousand. If she couldn't find someone there, then Minneapolis was not even a hundred miles away. Surely there was someone out there for a short-waisted gay woman with a sharp wit and a curious heart.
April 3, 1993
Compensatory Structures. I felt like a small boat bouncing on the
waves when I got to Sioux Falls and met Susan six months ago.
She quickly anchored me. She has her own home and has already
been married and divorced. And she has more ideas and opinions
than anyone I've ever met. She convinced me to see a therapist
and I didn't see any reason not to, so I went. Of course the first
question the therapist asked was "Why are you here?" And I
answered honestly, "Because my lover asked me to." As soon as
I said it I realized how lame it sounded.
"Do you want to be in therapy?" she asked. I told her I had
never thought about it and I didn't care much either way, so why
not? She asked why Susan thought I needed therapy and the best
I could come up with was that Susan thought I needed to figure
out who I was. That I was an 'un-person.' The therapist asked
if I was insulted or hurt by that, but I wasn't. I actually
I explained to her that when I lived in Brooklyn sometimes I
would walk past the lit-up apartment buildings at night and I
felt like I could easily just walk inside one of them and step into
one of those lives and nothing would change. She said that was
an unusual feeling. And I guess she should know. She's the
therapist. I told her I keep a journal and she called it a
"compensatory structure," meaning that I was compensating for
something. She said it was a place where I could be heard. That
I started it because I could never get anyone's attention in my
family so I basically had to talk to myself!
Is it good or bad? She said it was common for people to do this.
And that it would help me learn more about myself. I said
I guess I wasn't unique, was I? And she said that everyone
was unique, but maybe not as unique as we thought we were!
She said "If there's one of you, there's thousands of you."
Being with Susan for over a year now I feel like she has definitely
helped me grow up, but is this the person I want to be with
forever? How does anyone answer that question! Mom and Dad
have been together for something like forty years but I think after
awhile inertia takes over. My passion for Susan has gone, mostly.
The therapist says that's normal. After passion fades there is either
a true love and bond, or not. Passion is like a veil that lifts. When
we see what is really under that veil, we might be shocked.
Under Susan's veil is a thoughtful, methodical person. The same
as if there was no veil. Sometimes it feels like she wants to
create me, not love me. But just when I think maybe I have had
enough we will have a moment of sudden hilarity.
The other day she said I looked "pensive," and I thought she said
I looked "pencil." We laughed so hard we cried. Of course now my
nickname is "Pencil." Last night she said, "Pencil, what do you say
we go get Chinese food?" and I cracked up. Shared laughter is a
powerful bond. Something I never realized before. Maybe even
more intimate than sex?
The other thing we discussed in therapy is that I like experiencing
new things. It even has a name: "neophilia!" I guess there
are thousands of me!
As Loretta Hill left the meeting at the grange hall, her cosmetics case fell out of her purse and hit the sidewalk. Its contents spilled out; old, used up, labels worn, mirrors cracked, the lipsticks sticking their stubby tongues out at her. She bent down and scrambled to gather everything up and stuff them back inside their case, tried to pull the zipper closed, and when she couldn't, realizing it was stuck, understood why everything had fallen out in the first place.
Seeing all her stuff lying on the sidewalk like that, she felt exposed. It all looked so sad. The worn out goods of a pathetic middle aged widow. If she weren't so afraid of the mirror, she would have replaced all that make-up a long time ago. But as it was, she only looked at herself once a day and then only quickly enough to dab on a little eye shadow and lipstick. Then she turned away. So she hadn't noticed the sorry state of the make-up.
The next morning after she got dressed, she removed everything from the make-up case and laid it all out on her old bureau for inspection: an eyebrow pencil she never used because she had never plucked her eyebrows. Eye liner that made her eyes tear. Two lipsticks, one bright pink, one burgundy. The bright pink looked better with her pale skin, but the burgundy was more sophisticated. Both were mere stubs anyway. The rouge was just a soft red halo in its case, the mirror cracked a long time ago. There was eye shadow, lip-gloss, foundation, cover-up. The stuff she actually used was all used up. The stuff she never used, she never used.
She dragged her metal wastepaper basket over to the bureau and with one swift motion swept all her stuff into it. It made an explosive sound that startled her. Looking at it, she had an urge to reach in and take it all back. Worn out and used up but still, it was hers.
Now she really looked at herself in the mirror: some sagging starting under the chin, pale as always, but not puffy. She reminded herself that she was fifty-two not twenty-two, and that she should be grateful to be alive and healthy and proud of her naked face. Instead she called Viola at the diner and told her she wasn't coming in.
In the late morning, after she had eaten her breakfast and showered, she went to the drug store to replace everything she had thrown out earlier. The store had the same comforting aroma of baby powder and minty ointments that it had had her entire life. And Barney, the pharmacist, was comforting too, in his own somewhat distracted way. He knew everyone's health secrets. Loretta wondered if he judged people for their ailments and their remedies. If he did, he would never, ever let on. For that, especially, Loretta was grateful. She didn't much care if anyone knew about her predictable winter bronchitis and the touch of arthritis in her fingers, but some of the other "female" stuff was no one's business.
She wondered how long the pharmacy could survive with so few people left. Thankfully for Barney, these days everyone took some kind of medicine or ointment or pill or drops. Even the under thirty-fives were taking stuff now, for not being able to sit still or focus or face a day without therapists and coaches and encouragement. But who was she to judge them? When she needed help she was glad it was there for her.
At the perfume counter she picked up a sample of something and sprayed it into the air, not on her body, in case she didn't like it. Then she headed for the make-up. While she was waiting in line to pay, she decided to go back to the perfume counter for another sniff. She picked up the smallest bottle, "Eau De la Vie."
"Selling like hotcakes," Barney remarked when she put the perfume on the counter.
"It's hard to make out. It’s also hard to resist,” Loretta said. "Smell it," and she handed him the bottle.
"Wish I could, but I haven't been able to smell a thing since 1991. Polyps,” he said.
"Oh! I forgot about that, Barney. That's a pity," Loretta commiserated.
"Selling like hotcakes though," Barney repeated.
The next morning Loretta woke up, as usual, at six o'clock, and took her shower and ate her breakfast. She carefully opened each new lipstick, rouge, eye shadow, and foundation and sat them out on her bureau, just to look at them and enjoy their newness. After making up and before getting dressed she sprayed some perfume on her wrist and a little behind her ears. Not
too much. She didn't want to waste it.
As she was brushing her (still mostly) red hair with her new brush, bringing her wrist up to her head over and over, the perfume seemed to get stronger and more familiar. By the time she had put in her hair combs, she was feeling a little overwhelmed and had to sit down. On the edge of her bed, she brought her wrist to her nose and sniffed in deeply. The aroma nearly
knocked her backwards.
All morning at the diner she tried to resist the impulse to sniff her wrists, to pinpoint the trace of scent that was making her feel like she needed to cry. At eleven o'clock, it was an effort not to burst into tears so she dashed to the ladies’ room, sat down, and cried silently into her hands. Was it about her late husband, Al? After five years? Did the perfume bring back a memory? Truth was she had no idea, but it felt good to cry just the same.
"So, you mentioned your great grandfather was called the "Pathfinder of the San Juans," Sam said as he and August (now "Gus") drank their iced tea.
"Yes, indeed. According to my father, Otto's main line of work was transportation. He knew that commerce depended upon it, and there was good money to be made. He built a road through the San Juan mountains of Colorado, and a railroad, too. "
"He was an immigrant?"
"From Estonia. Orphaned young. Came here in the eighteen fifties to meet up with an uncle in San Francisco who never materialized. He was only eleven years old. Had to sell newspapers to eat. Poor kid. No mazel."
"What Jew has luck?" asked Sam.
"Otto made his own luck. Did anything it took. It's hard to believe he did everything he said he did."
"My father, Bernhard. I'm talking about railroads, and investing in mining stocks, and fighting in the Civil War."
"On which side?"
"The Union, of course. He fought right alongside Kit Carson. He bought land, he ran a store, he got government contracts."
"And what else?" Sam asked, hoping Gus would talk about the gold.
"That's not enough?"
"And what about children?"
"As far as I know, he had only my grandfather. But who knows? Apparently he spent some time wheeling and dealing with some Indians, so maybe he had more children."
"Maybe he joined a different tribe!" Sam laughed, but still expecting the name of the Chief to come up.
"Then maybe I'm part Indian!" Gus grabbed the schnapps bottle by its neck, as if he were about to choke it to death, and poured himself a goodly amount this time. "Do I look Indian to you?" He turned profile, lifted his head in a noble pose.
The schnapps having done its job, Sam laughed until he turned red. Then Gus turned to face him, moved in closer: "What do you think of these cheekbones?"
"You have cheekbones? Where?" Sam asked as scrutinized Gus's face.
"Here, right here," Gus pointed to his cheek.
"Yeah, yeah, I think I see one," Sam teased.
Sam offered Gus the spare room, which meant that several days later Gus was there when Chouteau stopped by, holding a cherry pie.
"I hope you have a sweet tooth, Sam," said Chouteau.
"Of course I do. And so does my friend Gus."
The men shook hands. "And where do you hail from, Gus?"
"Wherever the hail I choose to."
Chouteau smiled at the dodge. But he couldn't quite tell if this guy was telling him to mind his own business or was just trying to be clever. "Well, welcome to our town just the same," he said. "Planning on staying awhile?"
Gus didn't like people who peppered him with questions. "Might," he said.
Okay, it was Gus's way of telling Chouteau to mind his own business. No more questions for the visitor. Chouteau turned to Sam. "Didn't see you at the last town meeting," he stated.
"Maybe you need glasses."
Chouteau laughed. He never knew what to expect of Sam Strauss.
"Did Betty bake this?" Sam asked.
"Well I certainly didn't! I'm a menace in the kitchen."
"A menace," repeated Gus.
Sam brought a knife to the table and sliced the pie. Gus helped himself to several slices as he scrutinized Chouteau. Such scrutiny made Chouteau nervous. He had met this kind of man before. In fact, he thought, this kind of man eventually shows up in every town, every city, every country in the world. A man who trusted no one because he knew his own heart too well.
"You brought sweets to sweeten some news?" asked Sam.
" Betty wouldn't let me come empty handed."
"Well, Mister Pierre Chouteau, what can I do for you?" Sam asked.
Chouteau paused. He wasn't sure why, but he didn't feel like talking shop in front of the stranger. " 'Do'? Nothing. This is just a friendly visit to someone I haven't seen in town for awhile. Everything okay?"
"'Everything?' No. Some things, yes."
"Some things are better than nothing, I guess".
"A rabbi couldn't have said it better," Sam said.
"Coming from you, that's quite a compliment."
This conversation was obviously not why this guy has come, Gus thought. He's holding back because of me. The innocent expression, the homemade pie, acting all neighborly. For some reason it irked him.
"So, how long have you lived around here?" Gus asked.
"As long as I can remember. And my daddy before me, and his daddy before him. They were originally from France and came to the 'New World' to make their fortune."
"How'd that work out for them?"
"Pretty darned good, at first. But then the fur-trapping business got overcrowded and the animals were pretty much eliminated."
"The 'Tragedy of the Commons,'" said Gus.
"No matter," Gus said, not hiding his derision.
"I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a tragedy, but -"
"It's not meant to be taken literally. It's meant to -"
"So what happened at the meeting?" Sam interrupted.
Chouteau held back. In Gus he knew he had a natural adversary. "We'll talk another time. I don't want to impose on you and your … guest," he said, and left.
For Sam Strauss to have a "guest" was just short of alarming. The stranger flatly refused to give up his last name. As a former detective, Chouteau knew something was up. How well did Sam know this man? They seemed on close terms. But Sam was an eccentric. Could be he was being taken in by the guy.
Sam had a wide swath of valuable riverfront and Chouteau was pretty sure he had no heirs. And he hadn't introduced this Gus fellow as family either. Just when the mayor was making headway revitalizing the waterfront, this stranger shows up: an old dandy of a man with a belly full of mean. It could not be a coincidence.
The Chouteaus of the fur trapping days were always the ones who guarded the forts, warned of Indian attacks, kept people safe…or tried to. His great-grandfather, Pierre, had witnessed a few scalpings and after that, eliminating the Indians became his religion. His grandfather, also Pierre, took up the cause as well. By the time his father came of age there weren't any Indians left outside their own reservations, where they holed up and rotted from drink and poverty. Still, they chose not to move away. That's what his father couldn't understand. Just because they had the reservation as their own didn't mean they were forced to stay there. They could have joined civilization, gone to school, college, learned a trade or something. Chouteau could remember his grandfather explaining that they were "savages" and refused to assimilate and reap the benefits of the white man's culture. That they refused to
accept the inevitable. And for that they had paid the price. A price too steep, Chouteau believed.
The mayor had been a cop, a detective, and chief of police. He chose to be a mayor as way to escape the criminal justice world. Now he was aiming to be governor and his team was pretty sure he could make it. But he needed some wins under his belt. To take this town from decline and inevitable decay he had looked to the river. They had one mile of waterfront (two if you included Sam's piece) on Lake Lewis and Clark. Cities and towns all over the country were reaping the benefits of the environmental movement that had been such a royal pain in the ass over the last decades. Now, with waterways that were much cleaner, there was a lot of money to be made in building housing.
Other mayors were courting all kinds of developers. He did his research, got the county to fly him out east, and met with some pretty savvy folks who taught him how to manage the whole revitalization project and how to come out "smelling like roses" in the process.
The riverfront was cleaned up, the old school bus garage demolished, some new roads put in that ran down to a nice new park with spindly new trees, where people were starting to picnic. But there just wasn't the population to justify retail. To get retail you needed people, to get people you needed … to appeal to them. A sandy beach would be of particular interest. And Sam had that: the only access to the water.
He knew Sam did his shopping on Wednesdays and, being a man of strict habit, the mayor knew he could expect him at the grocer's at two. Chouteau ambled in, looking all coincidental, when he found Sam in the produce section. Gus was nowhere in sight.
"Sam, how the hell are you?"
"Mister Mayor," said Sam. "The cherries look good. The peaches, not so good."
Chouteau plucked a cherry from a batch and popped it in his mouth. Made a face. "Well, looks like I got a lemon instead of a cherry!"
Chouteau grabbed a plastic bag. He had to buy something…anything. "So, Sam, how have you been? I don't want to be a pest about it but you don't come to the meetings anymore."
"It looks like they do okay without me."
"How would you know?"
"People talk to me."
"So catch me up on the gossip."
Sam tasted a grape. One thing he did like about the mayor was that he wasn't too proud to admit that he cared what people thought of him. "What if no one moves in? The town will go broke."
"People will move in, Sam, especially if the river is more accessible. That's what I want to talk to you about. When can we get together? Alone."
Sam roamed the produce section. "What's to talk about?" he asked.
"Just part of your riverfront property. Not the entire thing. Just a part. For the town."
"The money will be good."
"I don't need it."
"Well, the project can proceed without your land, Sam, but with it… well, it would be a big improvement. Attract a lot more people."
"Why would I want more people?" Sam picked up several ears of corn, dropped them in his basket.
"But you just said you were worried that more people wouldn't move in!"
"I didn't say I was worried! I said other people were worried!"
Chouteau was stumped. "That's a lot of corn for one person," he said. "By the time you get to the last one, it's going to taste like shit."
"I have a guest."
"Oh, of course. I forgot. What was his name? Gus something or other?"
"You're asking who he is."
"You know me a long time, Sam."
"I don't trust him either, just so you know."
"Then why are you letting him live with you?"
"To keep an eye on him."
Chouteau laughed. He should have known better than to worry about Sam Strauss.
"You think I'm a dunce?" asked Sam.
"I was just a little concerned for an old friend, that's all. That man -"
"August Mears. Says he has some kind of lineage. "
"Lineage? Like royalty?"
"No! Of course not royalty. Family history of accomplishment in the old West."
"What does he want with you?"
"He's getting around to that."
"But how did he find you?"
"He's getting around to that too. "
Chouteau tied up his bag of grapes. "Well, Sam, keep your eye on him and if he so much as takes a glass of water without asking, you call me, ya hear?"
"I can take care of him," Sam said.
"Okay then. Take it easy," Chouteau said, and headed to the checkout line. He knew Sam would probably never sell, but he probably should have figured out something Sam wanted before asking. Of course the man didn't care about money or population! But the truth was that Chouteau had no idea in hell what that man did care about.