Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 35

Part III

A Reckoning


“Does it seem like I’m looking for an answer,

To a question I can’t ask?”

—Nora Jones, ‘Nightingale,’ Come Away with Me (2002)


Black volcanic glass.

That’s the word that came to me as I sat on that kneeler in the church. It was a strange name for an Illinois town, to be sure—the closest thing to a volcano in Illinois are a few ski slopes in the northwest part of the state, and those would barely qualify as hills in Colorado. Of course, Illinois also has towns named Oblong, Benld, and Boody, so maybe Obsidian isn’t that strange after all.

After my hours of kneeling and praying in the church, I suppose you could chalk it up to divine intervention, but that’s the funny thing about inspiration, divine or otherwise. No matter how strongly we feel about a moment of clarity like that, it’s still just a crapshoot.

Countless fortunes have been made and lost on people trying to surmise the difference between good inspiration and bad, and now I’m driving three hours southwest, hoping like hell that Obsidian, Illinois, was an example of the former.

For as long as I have known him, Whistler has guarded his murky past history like an old hermit hordes a nugget of gold. As far as I know, I am the only one that even knows the location of his boyhood home, revealed to me in his inebriated delirium that night on the beach.

I was raised in Obsidian, right on the Mississippi River…

There has to be a reason why he has always hidden the secret so carefully—dirt worth digging up, skeletons in closets, waiting to be exposed. I shake my head and sigh, reaching up to the dash to grab my pack of Marlboro Lights. I’m placing every hope I have for a future on my fucking amateur detective skills.

So much for divine inspiration.

Despite my misgivings, the drive calms me. All of the events of the past twenty-four hours—imprisonment at the hands of Gil Grady, my death march along the banks, my salvation by the hands of my father—it all left me feeling dull and strange. I’ve heard people talk about “out-of-body experiences,” though I’ve never really bought into the idea. As if our very soul could somehow separate from our physical being.

Still, I can’t really reconcile the events of the last day with my own, physical being, either. The whole affair feels as though it had happened to another person, as if I were an actor on a stage, stepping into a dramatic role before hanging up my costume at the end of the night.

I reach over and click play on my iPod without selecting a playlist. I pray silently to Tommy as I drive. If I ever need the reassurance of his synchronicity, this was it. As I follow the two lane highways west towards the Mississippi, though, no more inspiration comes.

When I pull into Obsidian, Illinois, a sense of recognition sweeps over me, though I am quite sure that I have never seen this place. I drive down the main strip with a bizarre sense of recollection that takes me quite a while to understand. By the time I reach the opposite end of town, I finally realize why this place seems so familiar. Though distinctly different from Drury, the layout of the town is exactly the same. The buildings and homes are crafted in a slightly different style, but the landscape is the same. A main street that curves past a downtown business district, a handful of bars sitting on the edge of town, overlooking a large suspension bridge, crossing the muddy river below.

The major difference, though, was that the town felt older, more dilapidated. I pulled into a turnout near the bridge at the end of town and walked out towards the base of the massive structure. Unlike the Golden Eagle Bridge, which still served as a major thoroughfare for the county—as far as Culver County roadways go, that is—this bridge seems quiet and forgotten. Culver County’s meager populace depended on the Golden Eagle Bridge for connection to jobs and cities on either side. As such, the bridge was fairly well kept. Though you might not be able to tell from the peeling paint, the bridge was strong and fortified.

By contrast, this bridge looks like it was ready to fall into the depths of the muddy water below.

As I stare at the crumbling old piers of the bridge, I think about the decaying skeleton of the ‘Old Bridge’ back home. A historical marker in the park boasts of the bridge’s proud history as a part of Old Route 66. In that light, this bridge seems doubly cursed—too far from the interstate system to be viable thoroughfare and without any ties to our great nostalgic past. Outside of the residents of Obsidian and the surrounding area, this bridge was completely forgotten by the outside world, doomed to one day crumble into the river below, only to be forgotten forever.

The sun is just beginning to set, bathing the river below in a dull, orange light that reminds me of the halogen lamps of the Golden Eagle, a sight which further deepens my uneasy sense of connection to this place.

I start my search for answers in the only place that seems to make any sense, a local Tavern named Pup’s Place. As I walk through the door, I expect to see the immediate glares of the locals. Though several people turn and give me a hard look for a few seconds, they all quickly relent back to their various conversations. I wonder if they can somehow sense their own, a fellow river rat.

I drink for an hour without talking to anyone, scarfing down an over-priced frozen pizza and scanning the room for potential informants. I had been starving when I walked in, and attempting to drink and keep my wits about me on an empty stomach seemed like a bad idea. Besides some stale popcorn in a filthy machine in the corner, the pizza was my only option.

By even the nicest of estimations, the bar was a shit hole. Judging from the warped floorboards and the proximity to the river, the place had survived a flood or two, which would explain the vague odor of rot and mildew that hung in the air. On the bright side, though, like any really good dive bar, the place had ice cold beer, and the locals seemed to tolerate my presence at the end of the lacquered bar top.

By eight o’clock, I’m beginning to feel as though this whole trip will be a waste. I was stupid to think that I would be able to find something here. It has been decades since Whistler lived here, and even if I found the right person, why would they talk to me?

Confronting a complete lack of options is a sobering reality. The strange dream I have been living for the past few years is over, and I literally have nowhere else to go. Drury is no longer an option, and by now Gil Grady might be looking for me with even more zeal that Whistler.

I stare at the empty, sweating bottle in front of me and think about Caroline. I can see her lying on a California beach, next to a bustling pier, her skin turning an ethnic shade of dark under the glare of a sunny, western sky. Why didn’t I just go with her when I had the chance?

Of course, deep down I know the answer to that question already. The twisted desires that had driven me to Whistler and his merry band of hooligans in the first place were the very same things that kept me tied to them. I had walked away from my life, once. Turned my back on a home that I had known and loved, and driven east with an absolute determination and certainty.

And I had felt guilty about it ever since.

From the moment I arrived at Whitehaven, I had been plagued by a persistent, gnawing lump that set low and deep in my chest. A cancerous ball of emotions that I could never explain or identify, but I could feel with an absolute certainty. I couldn’t identify the source on a conscious level, but I recognized all the same.

It’s tempting to say that the root cause was Tommy…or my mother—to write off the feeling as a textbook side-effect of grief and loss. The truth, though, is more complicated. Deep down, I know that the tumor of guilt had been there even before Tommy had died, maybe from the very day I was born.

My whole life I have been plagued by a vague notion of culpability—haunted by a belief that there was some way that I didn’t measure up, urged forward by an irrational need to atone.

Staring at this empty bottle, all of these truths come into much sharper focus. Clarity is the one positive side-effect of finding yourself dangling at the very end of your rope.

“You gonna drink another one of those, or are you content to stare at the bottle?”

I look up to see that the bartender has changed. The scrawny, tattooed old man that had sold me the pizza has been replaced by a plain looking-but attractive woman. If I had to guess, I’d say that she was maybe five or ten years older than me, but her exact age was hard to pinpoint. Her body seemed fairly firm and youthful enough, and she sported trendy clothes and stylish, short-cropped hair. Despite the youthful façade, though, there was something in her face that made her seem older. A slight wrinkling of her eyes, the furrowing of her brow. Small details that belied her attempts at a more youthful appearance.

“Yeah,” I said, “I’ll have another.”

She walks down to the end of the bar and grabs me another Budweiser without bothering to check my exact order. As she bends down into the cooler, she glances back at me and catches me looking at her ass. Rather than take offense, she smiles slyly, flipping off the cap with a silver bottle opener.

“You’re not from here.” She makes the statement without a hint of doubt. Like Drury, this was a place where strangers didn’t need to be identified. “So, what in the hell could possibly bring you to Obsidian?”

I take a long pull from the icy bottle, and stare back into the bartender’s pretty face. Her eyes seem to have lifted, the vague sense of age I had noticed on her face somehow softened. “I’m looking for an old friend,” I say. “Someone that I’ve lost touch with.”

She looks at me for a moment with an inquisitive, guarded gaze. More than likely, she’s trying to gage the threat level that I pose. Certain societal rules are left by the wayside in the river valley, but other codes of conduct often fill up the slack. Without a doubt, loyalty is one of those unspoken bonds that is somehow strengthened by the river hollers. Her measured gaze is nothing more than a test of earnestness. “How old of a friend?” she says carefully.

“I haven’t seen him in over fifteen years, and I really need to find him.” I keep purposely thin on the details. Though small-town folks are notoriously hungry for local gossip, they also know when to respect a man’s privacy. Besides, if this place is anything like Drury, this woman understands that vague details hint at places that you don’t necessarily want to go. “I know he’s from here, though. So, I thought I’d start in the beginning.”

She slaps her hands together, and pours herself a Captain and Coke in a tall bar glass. “Well,” she says, “since before Reagan was in office, this particular establishment has been the go-to watering hole for local residents, and I have been a bartender here, for more years than I’d like to admit.” She pulls the drink to her lips and takes a long, deep swallow. “So, if you’re looking for help with your quest, I think you’ve come to the right place.” Whatever test she was giving me in her mind, I have evidently passed. “So,” she continues with a shrug. “What’s his name?”

“Well,” I say, proceeding carefully. “I called him Frank, but his really name is Francis…Francis Patterson.”

The woman furrowed her brow and took another long sip from her drink. “Hmmm, I can’t say that the name rings a bell, but there used to be a lot of Pattersons in the area. Of course, most of them are all older than dirt,” she said. “Is your friend your age?”

Of course, I wasn’t sure of Whistler’s exact age, but I could make a decent guess. “No, but he’s close, maybe five, six years older.”

“The only Patterson that I know of that was close to our age is dead,” she said. “He was two years older than me in school, died when we were sixteen.” Her eyes glazed over a bit as she reached back to retrieve the long-forgotten memory. “It was weird,” she said. “The whole town shut down for a few days. We got a half-day off school to go to the funeral.” She shook her head and looked back at me. “That probably sounds stupid,” she said. “A whole town shutting down for a funeral.”

“No,” I said, “not at all. I’m from a little town like this, too.” I remember everyone from school showing up at Tommy’s funeral, too. They had to set up extra chairs in the back of the church, and even that wasn’t enough. They didn’t call off school, but none of the teachers really did anything that day, since half the building was gone to the funeral.

I knew first-hand how much one death can change the direction of life within a small town.

“Anyway, Bruce’s death was a really big deal because of his family. His dad was kind of like a de facto mayor of Obsidian. Everything that happened here did so with his approval.” She grabbed a bar mop and started robotically wiping down the bar. “But Judge Patterson moved away after that. Too many memories, I guess.”

“He was a judge?”

“Yup,” she says, pointing vaguely towards the back corner of the bar. “The municipal building down the street is named for him. He was a county prosecutor and then a district judge. Pretty big shit, as far as these parts are concerned.”

“And he didn’t have any other children,” I ask.

“Nope, just Bruce, that’s it.” Suddenly, she snaps her fingers in the air. “There was another one, though, a cousin or something. He was only here for a year or two. What was his name?”

“Was his last name Patterson?”

“No,” she says, “but he lived with them for a while. I think his parents had died or something.” She rubs her temples, trying to pull the name from her clouded memory. “I think it was a weird name, like Vaughn, or Zeke…Xander maybe?”

“Xavier,” I ask. “Could it have been Xavier?”

She snaps her fingers and points in my direction. “That’s it,” she says. “Xavier.”

It was too close to be mere coincidence. A boy named Xavier living in a Patterson household? It had to be him.

“Can you tell me any more about him?” I ask, a little too excitedly.

“Not really,” she says. “He moved away a long time ago, they both did.” She walked down to the end of the bar, grabbed another beer, and brought it back. “I can tell you who would know, though. Dolores Grossman.” Once again, she points vaguely down the street as if the boxy walls of the bar don’t exist. “She works at the library. Pretty much every day. She’s a cousin of Judge Patterson, and she loves to talk.” She pushes the opened beer down the bar towards me. “Especially to cute young men.”

The flirtatious tone in her voice catches me a bit by surprise, and I feel a slight stirring in my jeans. Though the thought of taking her to bed has already crossed my mind, a pang of sadness shudders through my chest when I consider the possibility. I’m not sure if it’s Caroline or Aimee, but even the consideration fills me with shame.

Vague loyalties biting me in the ass again.

I drink one more beer, then slip two twenties down on the bar, more than enough to cover my tab. The bartender is standing at the other end of the bar, pouring a cheap scotch for a grizzled old man. “Thanks for the help,” I say, before stopping in my track.

“Hey, one more thing before I go.” She walks back down the bar towards me.

“Sure,” she says, with an expectant smile.

“The kid…Patterson’s son? How did he die?”

Clearly, she’s disappointed by the question. Her face droops, and I see that nearly imperceptible vail of age fall back over her eyes. “It was terrible,” she says. “A train wreck…passed out behind the wheel on the tracks.”

When I hear the words, I turn quickly away and shuffle out the door before I throw up.

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