All over the Middle West you find people who know I’m here. Why, there was this woman in Minnesota—you saw her in the grocery-line-kind-of-paper—who found God in her dishwasher, on a scratched plastic Goofy cup. But there are others who know there’s something going on and so are forever talking aliens. Aliens, and I don’t mean just the unregistered citizen-slaves who trim trees and pick fruit, they talk about people of real color, purple, for example, with weeds attached to the person’s undersides or insect parts where their mouths should be. Sometimes that same newspaper puts them on the front page with a star’s parts. And there are also those who know there’s something going on but they can’t quite put their finger to it. What they end up fingering usually isn’t god, in general, the human mind always running to evil like it does. Remember the girl who last year offered her firstborn to the rising river? I was behind her, in my pickup.
Morning, mumbles Rolf from the front of his kitchen while I’m taking up the rear booth as usual and signaling with two fingers for double eggs. Usually he’s hanging over me, looking down my front for whatever hint of décolleté a plaid workshirt from L.L. Bean with darts affords.
Oh, you forgot God’s not sexbound? Heads up. Or at least quit staring at that Goofy cup reproduced in color across the front of that grease-stained paper. Was it all that mention of broadcasting, of seed getting scattered, that made you put me down as male? Think of my usual costume, real sideshow, beard and what can only be called a dress, then fast forward a little, press the amalgam button, add L.L. Bean. Trick or Treat! Open your mind the way I open the local rag, the way I read every little bit which is not a lot in print, I read it even though I know everything, even the truth about the ads to convince people to sell plastic goods through the at-home party method, even about public broadcasting.
Today Rolf’s not so interested in me as in the pager he is nestling into the paw of the moth-eaten Kodiak bear that divides the bar from the kitchen.
A cop comes through the door for it.
I could have sold it, boasts Rolf, waving his broad white hand from behind the bear. Sold it, and made a fortune. A genuine police unit like that.
The cop clips the pager back onto his belt. That will teach me to get comfortable.
I hate cops. I shouldn’t say this but some of them think they’re god. Especially when they’re in uniform. It’s a failing of mine, this typecasting-by-uniform. I should get a uniform, that would teach me. Anyway, whenever I see a cop, I do not like to see him. In response to this one, I waggle my paper like I’m casual and friendly, then his pager goes off.
It does happen.
Doesn’t that mean you have to be somewhere else? Says Rolf.
The cop turns the squawking down. I’m here to protect you for however long it takes to get a take-out coffee. With milk.
One white, Rolf orders a passing waitress.
Rolf likes cops less than I do but he’s Chamber of Commerce, Kiwanis Club, Knights of Columbus. Some of his best friends are cops. This one dates his second cousin.
See—over there! The cop tilts his chin toward Pork, who’s sipping at his own coffee in a booth. Pork hasn’t changed out of the clothes he drove to town in, flowered shirt, shiny pants, and he’s added sunglasses. My theory is, says the cop, the louder the clothes the more likely the crime.
You’ll be arresting the priest in his vestments next, says Rolf.
Let me just play cop for one minute, says the cop. Okay? Besides, I think I stopped that dude not long ago. I think we’ll just have ourselves a little conversation. I’m allowed that.
Be my guest. Rolf shakes his head then steps back behind the register to get a toothpick.
The cop sits down right in front of Pork, steels his jaw and puts his hand on his holster. He’s about to open his mouth when Pork says, Excuse me, officer, and scoots out of the booth to the door.
Wish I could have a picture of that, says Rolf, watching Pork roar out of the lot.
The problem is, the cop says, taking a sip of Pork’s coffee, is that they’re all guilty by the time they reach twenty. I don’t know exactly what of, but they’ve done it.
You could have said Stop or I’ll shoot, says Rolf, catching the waitress with the coffee-to-go.
Rolf, the cop says. I don’t want to leave any holes in your place. The coffee’s bad enough. He sips off the lid of his cup.
Rolf barks like a seal when he’s really tickled, his arms shaking helplessly like flippers at his sides. He barks now, he goes on like this even after the pneumatic door eases shut behind the cop.
Then he takes a big breath.
He slops a wet rag over to the booth where the boy and then the cop sat and he slides that rag way across the table as if he means to clean it, though it is as clean as that rag, then he leans way over to look under the table and pulls off a piece of paper stuck there.
I see all this from my vantage in the corner where he has forgotten me.
Nothing says nothing like something from the oven, hums Rolf, going back over to the register to insert a new toothpick into his mouth. He crumples up the paper. Then he spots me watching him. He says: Do you need a refill or what?
I look as if I have not seen anything. I do that all the time since I see so much so I have it down. I am not bothered by his what, as belligerent as it is, although I do not have the patience that I would like. It is worn thin with parity and ranchers with Cadillacs that fart instead of honk. Thank you, I say, and hold out my cup.
A waitress is beckoned.
As soon as I am finished, I am going to drive out to check my field again. Not one of those hired hands turned up yesterday to plow it under and all that undone growing wears on me, all that grass-in-abeyance. I follow Pork’s route, the one he hightailed out on the side road to where the goods have got to be, right next to my undone field. The wayward always return to the scene of the crime not for its possible reenactment, or even to revel in the details, but to double-check whether they’ve left anything. In this case, it’s everything.
Of course, I know where.
Meanwhile, Rolf tidies up, as is his wont. He crushes my left-behind newspaper into a ball as small as that paper he had already pressed into the overflowing pail below the bar. Then he tells a waitress he will be right back and looks longingly at the very large gun mounted over the entry. He bought it at somebody’s divorce sale so long ago he couldn’t tell you if anybody ever promised it did work. It works there looking good now, as if he has hunted with it and will.
A witching wand for people is what he needs—but he begins to drive. Have you seen a black Porsche? is not what he can ask the lady at the drive-in bank window, the only soul available in this car-driven country. Instead he takes to the street, all the streets in town, which are not many. They’re arranged in the usual grid, these bisected first by train tracks and then Interstate cloverleaf almost gothic in embellishment in comparison to the frame houses that front it so dutifully, street after ruined street against its endless concrete. Rolf drives to the edge of town, to the bronze horse put up by the local orthodontist, soldered onto a Boot Hill where exhumed pioneers are found to have turned into rock, a place where he can’t do anything else but reverse and drive to the exact opposite end of town, to the living’s cemetery, which he does. This cemetery is bordered by the usual drag strip, providing plots for dragsters about Pork’s age and car make.
But no Pork. Rolf cruises past the one drive-in that stays open all winter offering heaters, and then to a quonset where half-breeds dance in summer for what tourists disembark the cloverleaf and need the sight of people who don’t really live there either to make themselves feel at home or at least elsewhere.
Rolf has a moment of enragement. He does not hesitate to stop the car and get out and pound on the hood. A woman, dusting the sill of her picture window not far from the dance site, takes the pounding as a signal of the machine frustration that overtakes us all now and then since the invention of the cotton gin, and not malice.
I drive by on my route that follows Pork’s, lifting my two fingers off the wheel in traditional car greeting. Rolf is getting back inside his car, sulking and thinking. A sure sign he is thinking is that he puts the car in reverse. Reverse is a more determined mode of transportation than forward is. It just is.
Adapted from Tin God by Terese Svoboda. Copyright © 2013 by Terese Svoboda. With the permission of the publisher, Bison Books.