Authors: Tristan Egolf
Thunder rumbled across The Basin.
Ephraim was gone.
Whatever the reason for Owen's return to Stepford, finances weren't the problem. Although he had less than a grand to his name (which wouldn't have gotten him off to so much as a working start in New York City), the fact was: the cost of living in Stepford was really no lower than in Philth Town or Baltimore.
Neither were matters of employment the cause of it, asâeven though, yes, he had just been fired, with disdain, as a crime beat reporter in Gorbach (pop 10k), Louisiana, and couldn't rely on references thereâhe had nothing, no business connections in Stepford, to fall back on in the event of disaster.
And as much as he might have preferred to blame his parents, they weren't responsible either. In point of fact, they had left the area, bound for Connecticut, seven years earlier: his father in seeking out long-distance bicycle routes, on which he was given to foray, his mother in search of that New England lightâher “acrylicist's dream”âby which to paint.
In retrospect, they would claim to have stayed in the area for so many years for the
. Once it was gone, they had left, went the story.
But not before Owen had shouldered the brunt of it.
Whatever, family matters had nothing to do with the situation at hand.
And he couldn't consider himself to have
gotten over it
) either. Worldly experience hadn't succeeded in galvanizing his tender hide. He certainly hadn't returned with outstanding hopes of recapturing lost youth.
No, he wasn't in town on account of a personal crisis or taxes or bankruptcy. No, he hadn't burned all of his bridgesâor exhausted the last of his options â¦
He had returned for one reason alone. And a long time due, it had been:
The fight game.
Owen had seen his first boxing match (Clay v. Liston II) at the age of five. Since then, nothing of any significance to happen in the ring had escaped his attention. Much of his “traveling road show” (the heap of things he now carted from town to town) consisted of a sizeable video libraryâroughly three thousand bouts on tapeâfive or six boxes of memorabilia: gloves, pictures, trophies, wrapsâdozens of books and hundreds of magazines, all of which Owen had read through repeatedly, tracing the history of the sport from gladiatorial Rome to the present day â¦
Over the years, he had dreamed of one day committing related knowledge to print. Yet, to date, he had published a mere two articles touching on the subject. The reason being, as he was aware: he couldn't evaluate any contender's performanceâthat is: critique it in printâwithout ever having stepped into a ring, without ever having taken a punch in his life.
While his love for the sport had never faltered, it had remained, thus far, vicarious. In youth, the allure of music, books and film (along with a field of grass) had piqued his interest as much as the fight game. He hadn't played organized sports in school. Most of his adolescence had gone into priming the noggin for freelance reporting. His twenties had passed in a flurry of same, with all the attendant indulgence in vice. His body had held up remarkably well, considering. So had his mind, for the most part. Until now, plenty of time had remained for “salvaging mortal wreckage,” as he termed itâor, less dramatically, getting in shape.
Decidedly, that was no longer the case.
At present, his physical constitution, though not yet waning, had certainly peaked. His tide was now all the way in, so to speak. (And he hadn't even
to quit smoking in a decade.) The number of seasons remaining to pick up the sport, from the inside, proper, was limited. Learning the ropes could go on for years. Owen had five of them left, at best.
If ever he planned on entitling himself to write on the subject, or even to watch it, then now was the time to find a gym, quit smoking and work like never before. He couldn't expect to have anything up on the matadors, cops and bear hunters out thereâthe algebra teachers and ATF agents and all the wrong cowards at large on the rockâwho wouldn't have lasted a round in the ring, who would've been spat on and booed and insulted and driven right out of the house as disgraceful (not to mention the legion of half-witted journalists already plaguing the sport) without having warded off incoming blows on his own, and throwing a few in return.
His conscience simply wouldn't allow for it.
He had come “home” to get punched in the face.
With that in mind, he had settled on Stepford for two basic reasons, both of them practical: first, between Philth Town, Pittburgh, Rudding, Horaceburg, Alleytown, Stepford and Yorc, Pennsyltucky probably harbored the richest boxing tradition on earth. Residing in any one of these towns would have tapped him into the source directly. And, like it or not, despite his absence, he already knew his way around Stepfordâadding to which, as importantly,
: he also had ties to Roddy Lowe.
Three time Golden Gloves state champ and, presently, accomplished professional junior welterweight, Roddy was truly a home-town legend. He and Owen had met through a mutual friend. (Which is to say: their medicine dealer.) Courteous, humble, attentive, impeccably groomed and tailoredâand charming to bootâhe often prompted the same remark from strangers: “
I've never met anyone like him
.” Dependably brimming with euphemistic
vernacular, Roddy had always presented a figure more suited to 1940: one part dying breed / old-school gentlemanâa deferential ham with the ladiesâone part dutiful Christian soldier / chevalier of the righteous light, and one part anachronistic cross of beatnik, homeboy and wharf rat brawler: a throwback in every regard, if incongruous, more: a decidedly singular character.
he was loyal. Roddy would've bent over backwards to help out a friend in need. Owen had known he could count on as much. It was taken for granted ahead of the move.
While puttering north in his overstuffed Legacy, Owen had accepted, then embraced, his decision. Fifteen hours behind the wheel, nonstop, and he'd surfaced from Dixie intact: as usual, Stepford appeared and seemed to straddle the Mason / Dixon equally: not quite the South, yet a hundred miles shy of New England, and vaguely Midwestern all over, Pennsyltucky consisted of Philth Town and Pittburgh. The rest was West Virginia.
The apartment, it seemed, had been waiting for him: twenty-five classified listings and, clearly, the choice of the lot: a one-hundred-year-old colonial flat near the Beaver Street projects. Instead of immersing himself in the well-to-do cracker suburban ring around town, he would settle with the resident poor therein, who hadn't the means or desire to ruin it. This would resolve his sidewalk issues. Along with the gingerbread eyesore modules. As a new Caucasian, he preferred the old ghetto.
His lease was secured in an afternoon.
Landing a job had been easier still.
Even though he'd come back willing not only to put his profession on hold, for the moment, but to tackle the grind, if necessaryâbe it temp work, dishes or pick-hoeing mule apples out of the cracks on Route 21âhe was still able, somehow, by stroke of unlikely fortune, to land a job reporting. In truth, he'd submitted his file to
on a whim while heading to an interview with a dog-walking agency over on Lime Street. Passing the five-storied glass-front building, he'd decided, for the hell of it, to go on in.
The lobby's receptionist, a scowler with her hair pulled back so tightly it was thinning down the middle, had examined his resume. Her tag read “Josie.” Frowning, she had mumbled, “I've got to use the phone.”
Her pronunciation of “phone” had been laden with the Dutch Anal Puckerâthe Stepford drawl. Owen hadn't heard that lilt in yearsâthe nasally rolling “
” (with an umlaut) of “Br
g's” a regional microbrewery. Of “p
nies” galloping over a field. Of “p
ms” by moonlight. Of “t
tem” poles. And of secretaries named “J
sie” on “ph
ns” â¦ By slowing down the enunciation and rolling over, forward and back, the “
” while simultaneously curling the top lip sharply toward the nostrilsâthereby exposing the two front teeth (hence the “anal” pucker) and pressing one's tongue almost flush with the roof of the mouth, then forcing a tonsillar bleat through that openingâone may hope to re-create this phenomenon within a controlled environment. Anyone who's ever left the county would have to recognize it as local stuff. Only the people of Stepford Town could demand of their faces the work of an anus.
Owen had turned to walk out the door when she snapped her fingers, still holding the ph
n. He had turned back. Annoyed, she had motioned to
âflexing a finger. Again, she had looked away. Someone had picked up the line on the other end. Soon, the receptionist had glanced up to ask, “How soon are you available?”
Incredulous, Owen had shrugged. “What time is it?”
The voice on the other end must have overheard him. There was laughter, cawing. The receptionist hung up. “Mr. Jarvik will see you now”âhanding him back his resume.
She nodded. “Terrance Jarvik.” Her voice had gone flat. “The city editor.”
He sat on a chair in the waiting room, convinced that his time was being wasted. He figured his background check was running, and shortly, somebody would give him the boot.
(As soon as he landed a job, he would have to quit smoking. That was the goal he had set. Which left him in no kind of hurry, for the moment. The four-alarm hell ride was fast approaching.)
Laughter drifted out of an office. Followed by: “Where is he?”âcoughed with delighted approval, by the sound of it. “Send him in here!”
A woman in blue secretarial gear appeared in the doorway. She beckoned to Owen.
For the next better part of the afternoon, he had sat in a comfortable leather recliner being lauded with undeserved praise by a strangerâa gaunt, wiry old ferret of a man, overdressed, in a gabardine numberâwho couldn't stop laughing and shifting in starts at his desk, and who hadn't introduced himself yet, although Owen was naturally left to assume he was dealing with Editor Terrance Jarvik. That much was likely. The rest was unclear.
It seemed that the old man had gotten a hoot out of Owen's “reason” for leaving Gorbachâwhich, admittedly, sounded preposterous, but which had been at least
true: his boss in Louisiana, a mouthpiece for corporate land deal interests (the true half), had made inappropriate “advances” toward himâan allegation intended to ward off inquiry more than to entertain. The fact is: the charge wasn't meant to be funny. Yet Jarvik, strangely, was all busted up by it. Stranger still, he hadn't appeared to believe the story, and yet, for that reason, was all the more thrilled and, evidently, impressed. By admitting, thus, to horrible references, Owen had bought his way out of themâout of the need to address them.
Or so it appeared.
He hadn't the first idea of what to make of it.
On walking in, he had taken Jarvik for simply eccentric, a cracked old goat of a very-big-fish-in-an-empty-pond type, a lettered Yankee from old southern money, perhapsâwith no one around him at present to pose any challenge or threat to his eminenceâwhich, in itself, had grown flaccid, as suchâfull of bluster and affectation, he was.
However, as the meeting had proceeded, the old man's fervor began to appear less than voluntary. He must've been pushing seventy plus, so maybe his mind was just falling apart. But his gaze had appeared alert and attentive. And his energy level was through the roof. He may have been nearing retirement, yes, but he hadn't seemed ready to go out quietly.
Apparently (being the operative term), the gist of his current dilemma was this: in the previous month, an unexplained rise in disturbancesâor, as the old man had coined them patronizingly, “rural mishaps,” had swept the easternâalmost a third ofâStepford County. Notably similar incidents of breaking and entering, arson, criminal trespass, robbery and senseless destruction of property had been reported across the area known, unofficially, as the Amish Basin. Accounts of livestock assault, theft and harassment were unexplainably numerous (twelve by the last count) from Laycock to Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse to Paradise and all through Blue Ball. The highest frequency of incidents appeared to be occurring in the less residential expanses of corn and tobacco fields south of New Holland, off of Route 21, along the township borders. Statistically, the area couldn't have boasted a recent history of much less crime. Low-key barroom brawls had let out in the local taverns from time to time, and there
a significant biker culture, with multiple road gangs headquartered locally. But most of the resident “underworld,” so to speak, usually kept pretty much to itself. Cases of actual breaking and entering had never been filed on the present level. The willful destruction of property was almost unheard of, even toward Halloween.
October had always been strange in The Basin. But rarely, if ever, to such extremes. The public records, according to Jarvik, reflected as much in no uncertain terms. “Trouble in Paradise isn't the norm,” he claimed, unable to skirt the term. The Basin was characteristically dull and uneventful in most regards, to the point where even
didn't opt to retain a full-time farm beat reporter. Any news worth printing was normally gathered once a week by a “hack” for inclusion in Sunday's “Lifestyles” section.
That particular “hack,” it seemed, had quit the paper two weeks earlier. Meaning:
was critically understaffed one dependable field reporter. Attempts to fill the position had, for whatever reason, come to naught. For the moment, two city reporters were splitting the sudden barrage of complaints down the middle. This, in effect, had demanded their overtime, travel through unfamiliar terrain and, as Jarvik pronounced, “more common sense than either fool can manage to summon.”