Signs of Struggle

Signs of Struggle by John Carenen Page A

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Authors: John Carenen
Payne looked at me as he left. By the time I limped outside, the hearse was pulling away, followed by cars with headlights burning, cars filled with solemn, good people proceeding to the grave. Like all of us.
    In the midst of all the Crown Vics and SUVs, a chocolate-brown Jaguar XKJ pulled away to join the single file of vehicles filled with the grieving on the brief journey to the hungry, open mouth of the earth, waiting to swallow up the remains of one who had worked the land with joy, and now would be entombed by it. I wondered about the Jag’s driver, but then I heard my name called.
    It was Payne, standing at the bottom of the church steps. I joined him and said, “You wanted to talk to me, Sheriff?”
    “I do, Mr. O’Shea. When you dropped by my office I forgot to ask you something important,” he said, looking me directly in the eye.
    Eye contact to Iowans is key. If an adult does not give eye contact when he’s talking to you, he is probably from Minnesota, holding something back or twisting the truth. If a child withholds eye contact, she is lying, and probably has kinfolk in Wisconsin. I looked at him and said, “Ask away.”
    “What are you doing in Rockbluff?”
    “Hiding out.”
    “What are you hiding from? What did you do?”
    “It’s more like what I didn’t do, Constable,” I said, thinking back to Georgia.
    “I don’t understand. Help me out here.”
    “I didn’t die in the car wreck, and that’s why I’m here in Rockbluff,” I shrugged. “Simple is as simple does.”
    “Let’s get a bite to eat,” he said, starting down the steps. “I’ll buy.”
    I agreed to meet him at The Tenderloin Tap, which seemed more like a name for a risqué dance than a restaurant. “I’ll have a question for you, too.”
    The Tenderloin Tap is one of those institutions that have existed forever in small towns, never changing their menu, steadily generating profit; long, narrow and parallel to the street with a counter and stools on one side and rows of booths along the big windows on the other. There is at least one in every village, fighting off inroads from fast-food joints. Local cholesterol always tastes better than cholesterol from national chains.
    The Tenderloin Tap’s neon beer signs offered a kind of comfort Ronald McDonald couldn’t. I joined Payne in a booth, sitting across from him and glancing out the window to the quiet street. I guessed everyone was at the cemetery.
    We ordered from a perky high school girl in a green-and-white uniform who appeared with a pad and pencil. Payne ordered the chicken fried steak, peas and corn, and coffee. I ordered the House Special, a 16-ounce Conestoga Tenderloin, hold the veggies, and a Heineken.
    “Veggies are awful good for you,” pronounced our waitress, whose name was, according to the cursive over her ample left breast, “Bernice.” I didn’t think people named girls Bernice anymore. She added, “No extra charge. You get two. They’re awful good for seniors.” Payne stifled a laugh and looked away.
    “Two steaks? You said I get two? I don’t think I could eat two steaks.”
    “Two veggies, silly! Two veggies are included in the price of the entrée.”
    “Bernice, didn’t you ever stop to think that meat is nothing but vegetables compressed over time, and a whole lot better tasting? The steer ate the green veggies, and I eat the steer. It’s all there. Eliminates the middle man.”
    Bernice’s face fell. She said, “That’s icky,” and left. Payne was shaking his head. In a moment, Bernice reappeared with the Sheriff’s coffee, my Heineken, and a glass.
    “Classy joint, bringing me a glass without my having to ask,” I said after Bernice left. I poured the beer. I took a long drink. Funerals make me thirsty.
    “Tell me more about the car wreck in Georgia,” Payne said.
    I did, but I left out the details, left out how the driver of the

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