When a man with grizzled whiskers sauntered into Emma’s Café, stopped near my table and stared down at me, I realized my homecoming was a bad idea.
“Davie Smith.” He addressed me as if I were a child. “I’ll be damned.” He plopped on the seat across from me, kicked back the chairs on either side of us and gestured toward two men who were filling three coffee cups at the self-serve counter. “Boys, sit down. Today, we’re takin’ our coffee break with Bovine’s favorite author.”
I felt like a stray dog about to be petted—or kicked.
“What brings you back after all them years?”
“Checking on some old acquaintances.” I struggled to recognize the face hidden behind the beard.
“Grins and me is old acquaintances.” He cocked his head toward the older of the other two men, but his eyes remained fixed on me.
The man with the identifiable nickname nodded, then squinted. “You didn’t forget who me and Joe was?”
“I meant neighbors.” If either of them lived near the farm where I grew up, their faces would be more familiar than my vague recollection of them.
“Neighbors like Thelma Rastner and her kooky brother? Those two codgers still live down the road a piece from your old place.”
“As a matter of fact, I am here to see Freddie Tate.” Joe’s mention of Thelma and Iggy Rastner jogged my memory. The Rastner family adopted Freddie as an infant, and Thelma raised him after her mother died. The day before I left town thirty years ago, I argued with Freddie here at Emma’s Café. We’d have fought if Freddie’s wife and five-year-old son hadn’t been with him. My relationship with Freddie might be the unfinished business my therapist wanted me to repair. My muscles tensed as I recalled her note scratched on yellow lined paper following an apology for missing our appointment.
Take some time to explore your roots. Revisiting key events from an earlier time in your life might help build your confidence and develop your sense of self-worth. Focus on relationships that ended without proper closure.
Returning to Minnesota to pursue proper closure wasn’t my style. I seldom even said goodbye when my phone conversations ended. My childhood experiences were unpleasant, and I was loath to relive them. However, after a triad of successful novels and as many unsuccessful marriages, my life was at a standstill. I could neither write another story nor chance a fourth relationship.
Repelled by her suggestion yet desperate enough to try anything, I left the key to my Chicago apartment with my editor and tried to make light of what might be a serious matter. “If I don’t come back in two weeks, contact the Minnesota Highway Patrol.”
He snickered, “I’ll probably be hearing from them, David, if you travel through the Minnesota hinterlands without a bodyguard.”
The tinge of resentment aroused by his comment alerted my defenses, but I chuckled to express agreement. What I discovered at the café in Bovine that morning became no laughing matter.
“Ain’t you heard?” Joe scooped sugar into his cup. “Freddie killed hisself and his wife. Long time ago.”
Shock and anger erupted inside like the aneurysm my doctor predicted if my stress level weren’t reduced. My disgust for Joe peaked when he described the effects of a shotgun blast on the human body, as he poured cream into his coffee.
When Joe took a long slurp, the younger man said, “Freddie woulda blowed his kid away too, but Teddy was at school.” He glanced toward Joe, then Grins. “Ain’t that right?” Our eyes met. “I knowed Teddy. Me and him was in kindergarten when it happened.”
Joe swiped a sleeve across his beard and moustache. “If you want the full scoop, talk to Thelma and Iggy. They still live at the home place.” He winked. “Just like they was married.” A smile emerged between dark bristles. “Freddie didn’t do the job there. He blew his head off in Henry Tate’s old barn.” He gestured toward Grins. “Me and him drove out there after work. God-awful mess.” He shook his head and grimaced. “Got the wife in the kitchen while she was eatin’ lunch.”
I wanted to tell him her name was Doris, but my voice faltered. Throughout my high school years, I bussed dishes at Emma’s Café and she waited on tables. I visualized the pained expression etched on her face years later when she apologized for her husband threatening me. I hadn’t seen or heard from them since.
With dirt-encrusted fingernails, Joe penetrated his thick beard and scratched his chin as if in serious reflection. He asked, “Didn’t you and Freddie go to the same country school?”
I shook my head. “Freddie finished the eighth grade the year before I started.” The muscles in my face began to relax. I smiled. An incongruous reaction to our discussion, but a safe haven from my past emerged.
Two columns of children faced each other on a playground in front of a white schoolhouse. I was a five-year-old who escaped the confines of my back yard to join the kids during recess.
Children’s voices chanted, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send the little kid over.”
The girl next to me shook her hand free from mine and said, “Red Rover is calling you.” The others shouted, “Run, Davie.”
They directed me to charge through the line of the opposing team who waited, hands linked. Trying to impress them with my best speed, I ran directly toward the tallest boy at the end of the line. I broke through and he dropped to the ground.
“Wow! For a little kid you sure are tough. You knocked me over.” He extended his hand. “Help me up and you can be on my team.” Freddie had imitated an adult imitating a child by falling down to please me.
That was my image of Freddie Tate, but Joe continued to assault my selective memory.
“Say, weren’t you with us the night we toppled Rastner’s outhouse?”
“Oh, no. I’d have been too young to hang with you guys.”
“Too young, hell. You worked here at the café when me and Grins dropped out of the ’leventh grade. As a matter of fact, you told us Freddie’s ol’ man kept their outside privy. Shortly after Freddie and Doris got hitched but before he made her quit her waitress job.” He furled his brow. “Remember how the little witch giggled when we told her what we done?”
Joe had penetrated my defenses.
“I remember ’cause you said they saved it for more important bowel movements.” His eyes shifted to the younger man. “Davie actually said bowel movements.”
I began to hate him.
Joe returned his attention to me. “It tickled the shit outta me and Grins.” His deep throaty laugh developed into a hack. Spittle sprayed across the table, and he wiped his eyes with his sleeve. “I meant to say, it tickled me and Grins ’til we almost had bowel movements.” He made a fist and flung it inches from Grins’ face. “Ain’t that right?”
His appropriately named buddy rubbed his chin. “Yeah, Joe, you’re right.”
My self-image as champion of Freddie’s honor was shattered by my own youthful indiscretions.
Joe added to my guilt by reviewing the details of our caper. “We drove past the farm a couple times with our headlights out ’fore we parked behind some hedges along the ditch.” His eyes rolled toward the ceiling as if a picture of the Rastner farm were displayed there. “Studied the situation a bit and then rushed the outhouse from behind.” He pointed, nearly touching Grins’ nose. “When we toppled it, this clown almost fell into the hole.” Laughing, he slapped him alongside his head and knocked off his cap. Grins merely smiled and put it back.
“The funniest part was Freddie sticking his head out through the hole and yelling his head off. Got a bit scary when Iggy busted out of the house and blasted his shotgun.”
Joe leaned back, pointed an imaginary rifle over my head and faked its recoil. “Probably the same gun Freddie used to blow hisself and his wife away.” He pursed his lips and released a gust of foul breath into the approximate area where the end of the barrel would have been.
He stood and pointed his make-believe gun at my head.
“Bam.” He laughed and aimed it at each of his two buddies. “Bam. Bam.”
I reacted with a stony wall of contemptuous silence.
Wordlessly declaring victory, he extended his hand, but my fingers remained gripped to my coffee cup. He rerouted his arm and adjusted his John Deere cap. “I’d hang around and jaw with you, but some people gotta work.” He pulled a brochure from his shirt pocket, unfolded it and tossed it in front me.
“Out behind Cunningham Implement, we’ve set up a game of Bovine Bingo. Stop by. The heifer might shit on your lucky number.” He stuck his thumbs under his belt, hitched his pants over his protruding stomach and walked to the counter, his grinning and groveling yes-men close behind. They paid the cashier, armed themselves with toothpicks and sauntered out the door.
I glanced at the paper on the table and a graphic depiction of a cow, teeth displayed in a sardonic grin, leered back at me. She stood on a grid drawn on the ground and defecated onto a single square. Dollar signs splattered in all directions. I felt insulted and humiliated, my emotions as drained as my empty cup.
I took a deep breath, stood and walked to the pay phone next to a bulletin board peppered with notices of farm auctions. From a phonebook spewed open like an accordion, I found the number I wanted. I readied a coin above the slot, and when I heard a raspy yet vaguely familiar voice on the other end of the line, “Rastner Residence,” I dropped it into the slot.