The Crossgrove Stories

‘Tis a strange town, Crossgrove.  And strange things be happening there.  Most say it’s because Crossgrove is the center of the universe.  Sure.  Laugh.  But it’s the God’s truth.  It is.  Of course, as Dr. Tupidsay is quick to point out, “Our mistake was not in thinking that we were in the center of the universe.  Our mistake was believing that the center of the universe was any place special.”

The Faith of a Mustard Seed Miracles, for the most part, are absolutely useless. So what if you can move a mountain? A moved mountain does little more than make those uncertain of their faith somewhat more certain that, if necessary, another mountain might be moveable should it become necessary in the future. But then, such feats are rarely necessary. When all is weighed out, it probably would’ve been easier to have gone around the silly thing to begin with. And then, few people rarely worry about where that mountain was moved to. Some poor old farmer, mortgaged up to his nose hair just to make ends meet (and not very well at that), is finally able to envision some hope, finally able to think that maybe, just maybe, he and his sainted wife of thirty-four years, who struggles day after day to find new and interesting ways to cook dirt, might be able to some day relax, retire, and not have to work sunup to sundown and then some. Then suddenly he finds a mountain sitting on his farm. Let’s face it, try as you might, you simply cannot farm a mountain. And as for the beets, well, they’re under about a trillion tons of rock. The poor farmer’s wife, God rest her soul, is too. Oh well. Of course, the farmer was counting on his beets to make the mortgage payment. He was counting on his wife, too. The banker was duly impressed when suddenly there was a new, cheaper route for the proposed Winesap Freeway. He also had heartfelt sympathy for the farmer’s losses, especially the beets. He also foreclosed on the poor schmuck’s mortgage because he couldn’t make his payment. Luckily, the farmer really didn’t need to be evicted. It became a complicated legal issue. The Winesap Brothers, Inc., general contractors with reputed mob connections, claimed that since they had owned the mountain before it was moved, then they still owned it, regardless of where it now sat. The bank, on the other hand, claimed that since they owned the land below the mountain, then they should consequently have rights to all the land above it. They were perfectly willing to concede, though, that the Winesap Brothers, Inc., could retain possession of the mountain as long as they provided adequate access to the land beneath it. A lease agreement was suggested. The whole mess was tied up in court litigation for years and was finally settled when, quite unexpectedly, a flood killed all contesting parties. A side note: The farmer who had owned the land under the mountain to begin with was given one hundred acres of worthless scrub from the Winesap Brothers, Inc., just to make sure he didn’t clutter up the legal process with any silly motions of prior ownership. That worthless scrub suddenly became most of the southwestern shore on the new Winesap Lake, named after those very same brothers who perished in that tragic flood, and it suddenly became worth just an unimaginable amount of money, since that was the shoreline with the best public access. Unfortunately, the farmer had signed away his property rights just the day before to the Bidwell Telecommunicational Evangelical Ministries. Praise the Lord. One final note: The farmer died before the proposed Heaven’s Gate Biblical Theme Park on the shores of beautiful Winesap Lake was ever announced. According to the coroner, he apparently ignited after drinking just a whole bunch of Sterno. His final words, muttered just before he ignited his cigar (and subsequently himself), and heard by absolutely no one but God and me, were, “The only good miracle is money.”

Staying Dead It was a complicated legal issue. It was a lot more complicated than Charley Four-Fingers had ever expected. Of course, all Charley Four-Fingers had been expecting was to remain dead. That’s usually what happens when you’re shot twice in the head. Charley didn’t remember being shot twice. Truth be told, he didn’t have much memory of being shot once. And he certainly didn’t have any memory of being dumped out of a boat in the middle of Winesap Lake with several cement blocks tied around his ankles. What he remembered was waking up in the mud and muck that had until quite recently been the lake’s bottom, untying the ropes to the cement blocks that had sunk out of sight in the mud, and slogging his way to the shore. That’s when things got complicated. Charley Four-Fingers had been a contracted hit. Frankie Marciano wanted Charley dead because Charley had killed Frankie’s brother. That in itself had all been a big misunderstanding. Charley had been trying to kill Frankie, mostly because Frankie had Charley’s finger. It did, in fact, teach Charley not to go around flipping people off. Granted, there’s a family resemblance, but it was still a pretty stupid mistake – not the cutting off of Charley’s finger, but the killing of Frankie’s brother. So Frankie wanted Charley dead. So Frankie hired Lennie “The Knife” Newsome. Only Lennie doesn’t use a knife anymore. He uses a gun. Two shots, right to the head. But then Lennie gets caught. And then Lennie rolls over on Frankie. So pretty much everybody ends up in jail, except, of course, for Charley, because he’s dead. Only Charley doesn’t stay dead. Call it a miracle if you want, but Charley comes walking into town just looking like hell. You would, too, if you spent the better part of a year on the bottom of a lake after being shot in the head, twice. Charley cleaned up pretty well, and you couldn’t even see the bullet holes if he wore a hat, and the lights were dim, and you stayed back, say, 40 feet. Even at that, he wasn’t the kind of guy that you’d want over for the evening, unless you were having a Halloween party. But then, he was pretty much that way before he was pitched in the lake. At any rate, it was shortly thereafter that all the lawyers got involved. The state contended that regardless if Charley came back from the dead, he had been dead, and therefore it was murder. Frankie contended that you can only be convicted of murder, a conviction, by the way, that wasn’t too strong to begin with, what with there being no proof that he actually ordered the hit except with what Lennie was saying, and then Lennie was only trying to save his own ass... where was I? Oh yeah, Frankie was contending that it was a crock to be convicted of murder while the guy you supposedly had kacked was alive and well (mostly) and trying to figure out where his wife went with the insurance money, which was another legal problem by itself. And Lennie was just confused. I mean, should he give the money back? After all, it was one of those unwritten professional promises that the people you were paid to kill should stay dead. Of course, Lennie could kill Charley again, but Frankie would still want Lennie dead for rolling over on him, which made Lennie hesitant about giving back the money regardless, or, for that matter, killing Charley again. Did that make sense? But then everything was settled when all the contesting parties, with the exception of Charley Four-Fingers, were allegedly blown to bits in circuit court by the Guido Brothers. They really were blown to bits, it was just the part about the Guido Brothers doing it that was alleged. They were wanting to take over the Urbana District of town, the Guido Brothers, that is, although why anyone would want the Urbana District is beyond me. Of course, that just left Charley Four-Fingers, and he wasn’t a problem at all. He had killed Sleepy Marciano, Frankie’s dim-witted brother. He was convicted in nothing flat. After all, he had shot him on Public Access TV where Sleepy worked as a sound technician. Channel 47’s ratings were never better. They got the death penalty. The prosecutor, not the TV station. And it was there, on death row, that the priest came to visit Charley in the waning minutes of his life – Charley’s, not the priest’s. With no hope of a pardon or a commuted sentence, the last thing the priest ever said to Charley was, “Aye, there’s no hope now but for a miracle.”

The Gift of Grace Mrs. Lannie Newcomb had always boasted that she wouldn’t open her front door to anyone but Jesus Himself. Those who didn’t know Lannie too well would invariably ask how would she know if it were Jesus. To which she would always reply, “Oh, I will know. I will know.” However, Lannie slid back the deadbolt just the same after peaking from behind the curtain that tightly covered the narrow window that ran parallel with the solid front door. It wasn’t the big toothed smile of Baxter Cox, or the sweet wave of Sandy Simmons that made Lannie open the door, but it was Norm Clearwater that had made the difference as he stood behind the other two attempting to hold a T-shirt so it could be seen over Baxter’s and Sandy’s heads. Printed on the T-shirt were the bold words, “I Am Saved.” They were the Soul Patrol. The Soul Patrol had been the brainchild of Sandy Simmons, who was the marketing director at KMEN, radio 101.1, 100,000 megawatts of pure saving grace in stereo. Listeners could pick up KMEN bumper stickers at the radio, select area churches, and local Tasty Burger restaurants. It was simple. If the Soul Patrol happened to see a KMEN bumper sticker on your car, then you were a winner. The Soul Patrol had seen a KMEN bumper sticker on Lannie’s ’72 Ambassador Station Wagon. “And you’re a winner!” chirped Baxter Cox, never breaking his smile. It was a hideous T-shirt, and Lannie wouldn’t’ve ever worn it, even if she wore T-shirts to begin with. On the front was a large cross that had big, bright red drops of blood dripping off of it. Arching over the top of the cross were the bold, blue words, “I Am Saved.” In large black letters across the back, along with a list of their advertisers, was the radio station’s motto, “Hell is for Thee, Not Me.” Norm had shown Lannie both sides with the flourish of a TV game show host modeling the prize for the studio audience. Though the flourish didn’t make the shirt any more desirable, Lannie wanted it just the same. It was free, it was hers, and by God, she wanted it. As she reached for it, however, Norm pulled it back. “Yes, ma’am,” Baxter explained, “you won the shirt. But can you wear it with a clear conscience?” “I most certainly have been saved,” Lannie testified without hesitation. “And may the Lord be praised for that. But let me ask you just one question. If you were to meet the Lord Jesus this very minute, would you meet Him with no troubles on your mind? Is your soul truly free of sin?” Lannie hesitated, and worry clouded her countenance as the words she had heard just that morning on the radio came back to her: “It’s not the big sins. It’s the small sins. They’re like moths chewing holes through your soul.” And with those words the memory of every transgression that Lannie could’ve possible been guilty of came fluttering through her mind like a swarm of blackened moths. The tears followed. “Praise Jesus!” “Praise Jesus! Amen!” Sandy Simmons and Norm Clearwater had echoed Baxter Cox twenty minutes later, when Lannie, emotionally drained but filled with the joy of an unburdened soul, was finally allowed to hold the coveted T-shirt firmly in her hands. “Through the forgiveness of the Lord Jesus, you have once again been saved,” Baxter exclaimed. “Praise the Lord,” Sandy followed. “Amen!” “For none of us can truly be free of sin as long as we live in a world filled with the evil temptation of the Tempter himself, the evil Satan!” “Lord help us!” “Amen!” “Except for you, Lannie.” Lannie looked up questioningly with her tear streaked face. “Yes,” continued the soothing voice of Baxter Cox, “you can be free of temptation. You can be guaranteed never to backslide again. You can be sure, once and for all, that the Kingdom of Heaven will most assuredly be yours!” “Praise the Lord!” “Hallelujah!” Lannie started to ask how that could be possible, but she was suddenly unable to speak. The only thought that came to her mind was, “Oh, shit!” as she saw Sandy Simmons pull the small, chrome pistol out from inside of her jacket.

Water to Wine It was like three days after the really freaky stuff started to happen before Garrett realized what was going on, sort of, and even then it wasn’t Garrett that figured it out. Carlos was over at Garrett’s place and he asks, like, “Hey, where’s all this wine comin’ from?” And Garrett says something like, “I don’t know, man, somebody keeps leavin’ it here.” Garrett was pretty wasted, but there’s nothing new about that. So we get to figuring stuff out. We know all of Garrett’s friends, because they’re us, and we wouldn’t be leaving any wine lying around. I mean, everything in his kitchen is full of wine. Milk jugs, soda bottles, ketchup packets, even the sink is full of soapy wine. At first we’re thinking, “Naw.” You know what I mean. But then Carlos says, “Why don’t we do a test or something?” Carlos always had his stuff together like that, you know. He could think these things out even when he was wasted, and I mean we were wasted. Well, you would’ve been, too, what with all that wine just sitting there waiting to be drunk. Don’t get me wrong, some of that stuff was pretty crappy, but some of it was pretty damned good. And it’s not like you’d really care after your fourteenth glass. At any rate, Carlos takes in this glass of water to Garrett, and he no more than touches the glass and it turns to wine. It was a white wine of some sort. It probably would’ve tasted better had it been cold, but we were in the middle of an experiment. So Carlos gets some soda and POW! Red wine. We tried everything in the house. No matter what Garrett touched, it turned to wine. Well stuff like tacos and pizza didn’t. It had to be liquid. But that’s still some pretty weird stuff. It was like that Midas dude, only everything Garrett touched turned to wine instead of mufflers. We thought it would be cool to see what would happen if Garrett actually touched wine. You know, would it turn to water? Se we went to this really nice wine place, you know, where they meet you at the door and everybody wears suits. And we gave Garrett this bottle of something called Don Perry Gnome, or something like that, and it turned into a wine cooler. Man, you wanna talk about being pissed off. We barely made it out of there without this dude calling the cops. So we get back to Garrett’s place and Elizabeth comes over and the first thing she wants to do is call a priest or a nun or someone like that, but ol’ Garrett says, “No way.” It’s not that Garrett had anything against priests or nuns. I mean, he went to confession when he had to and mass when he couldn’t get out of it. And he was always polite to the nuns, calling them “Sister” and all like he really meant it. But once the church found out about Garrett turning water into wine, well, you could just kiss the partying days goodbye. I mean, you can’t very well tell a priest to get the hell out, and who wants to be wasted when there’s a nun around? Then Steve gets this idea, well, after we got rid of Elizabeth. You know, there’s a lot of wine there. More than we could really drink. And what the heck, it wasn’t like we couldn’t get more in a hurry. So Steve starts telling everybody he knows, and Steve knows a whole bunch of dudes. Next thing you know, we’re selling all this wine really cheap. Steve even has them bring something to put it in. And it’s not like you have to have an ID. Well pretty soon we’ve got all this cash. Hell, there must’ve been a hundred and fifty dollars there. And we were starting to think that we’d finally hit it, when everything went to crap. I guess some kid went home wasted and his parents freaked or something. At any rate, this kid narced on us. So the law shows up. Well, we all booked it out back, except for Garrett. Mind you, Garrett’s not had anything but wine to drink for, like, three weeks. He even had to drink wine on his breakfast cereal. You know, those little marshmallows are really pretty good with red wine. At any rate, Garrett’s wasted. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, Garrett could hold his own against anybody. I remember one night when he got in a chugging contest at some bar and just blew everybody away, and then he even got us all home. But that was just one night. Three weeks straight is going to mess up anybody, and I don’t care how cool they are about it. So the cops get all involved, and next thing you know, here comes Liquor Control. It’s like they want a piece of the action. They didn’t care how Garrett was making all that wine; they just wanted money. Garrett made like he didn’t know anything about any of the money, which I guess was pretty easy because he didn’t, but they didn’t really believe him. They leave all these forms and make all these deadlines and tell him what will happen if he even tries to give any of that stuff away. And Garrett just says, “Cool.” And he’s still got to deal with all the distributing to a minor stuff. But it gets worse. It’s about then that these two really mean dudes show up. The Marciano Brothers. They had a card. They gave it to Garrett after beating the living hell out of him. They said he was moving in on their territory. After they left we snuck back in, and I’m telling you, Garrett was messed up. Luckily he was so wasted, because if he’d been straight, I bet it would’ve hurt like hell. And it’s not like Garrett could really call the cops, even if he could’ve focused long enough to dial 9-1-1. After all, they told him to stop making wine. Like that was going to happen. Even his toilet was full of wine. It’s like a day after the Marciano Brothers had been there when these other dudes show up. They said they worked for somebody named Winesap. They didn’t have a card. They told Garrett that if he went with the Marciano Brothers they’d kill him. And they meant it, too. And then they messed up Garrett’s apartment. They broke all of his furniture and busted the TV. Which was cool, because they left Garrett alone, and the apartment looked pretty much the same when they were done as it did when they started. Only we were really bummed about Garrett, because these guys weren’t messing around. I mean, you figure out what to do. If he tried to tell anybody what happened, no one was going to believe him. Water to wine? Comon! Besides, it’s kind of hard to explain anything to anybody when you’re so messed up. Se he’s screwed there. And without filling out all those forms, Liquor Control wasn’t going to do diddly, except turn him into the cops. Winesap or Marciano, what’s the difference? Either way he goes, he’s screwed there. I suppose he could’ve booked it out of town, but nobody had a car that would run except for Marcus, but it really wasn’t Marcus’ car, so that wasn’t going to work. Besides, it’s not like going somewhere else is really going to change anything. But then Garrett just ups and dies. I don’t want to sound cold about it, but yeah, he dies. Alcohol poisoning. We were all bummed about it, not just because we weren’t getting free wine anymore. Heck, most of us had stopped hanging out there when the bad guys started showing up. I mean, we all really liked Garrett. I guess it’s all pretty ironic, you know, what with how Garrett liked to party so much and all. But then, it could be like Marcus always said: Irony is God’s idea of a practical joke.

A Seller’s Market Mrs. Bimbaum sat across from Doug Durst in the only corner booth of Finley’s Diner. After going over the several pages of legal documents she had in front of her for one final time, she peered over her reading glasses, which were perched on the end of her nose. “By the terms of our agreement,” she said, “you keep the Ibanez, but I get all the sound and recording equipment, I retain the rights to all prior recordings, and I get your soul.” “Wait a minute,” Doug interjected. “We never agreed to the soul.” “I’m sorry,” said Mrs. Bimbaum with a polite laugh. “My mistake.” Mrs. Bimbaum had been Doug’s third grade teacher. She was also the devil. She had offered to appear as someone other than Mrs. Bimbaum once Doug had found out her true identity, but he found it was easier to remember that she was Satan as long as she looked like Mrs. Bimbaum. Blake had been the first band member to sell his soul, which was surprising. It wasn’t surprising that he sold his soul, but that he still had one to sell. Blake. No last name. Blake, however, wasn’t his real name. His real name was Arnold. Arnold Kolinski. Blake had reasoned correctly, though, that Arnold Kolinski wasn’t a great stage name. Blake had wanted to change the name of the band, as well, but the other band members had flatly refused. They liked The Lard Cheeses, and if Blake didn’t, he could take his lead guitar and vocals and go somewhere else. To everyone’s surprise, Blake hadn’t left. Even more surprisingly, Blake hadn’t traded his soul for fame and fortune. All he wanted was for the band to play some really big venues and for their songs to get some air time. Mrs. Bimbaum was true to her word. In the summer of ’76 The Lard Cheeses had toured the Midwest with Peter Frampton. They had been the opening act, followed by Gary Wright and Santana. They were the band nobody remembers, the band nobody even knew while they were onstage. They were the band everybody wished would hurry up and get the hell off the stage so the concert could begin. Still, they were large crowds. And a couple of their songs did get air time. Mind you, it was very late at night and they were underground stations, but that’s the sort of thing that can happen when you’re not specific about terms. Steve West was specific. His soul went for a kilo of sesimillia, seven teenage groupies, and a top of the line Hammer bass. Leslie Meyers, on the other hand, wanted fame and fortune. She didn’t even ask for new drums. Just fame and fortune. And that, too, was dutifully delivered by Mrs. Bimbaum. Steve made a modest profit off all that pot, which he reinvested in cocaine, which was reinvested in heroine, which made everybody a fortune, shortly before they were busted, which made them famous. “And that’s why,” Doug explained to Mrs. Bimbaum, “that I want nothing to do with any of your deals. They all turn out for crap.” “All you young men are the same,” exclaimed Mrs. Bimbaum. “You have such nice up-bringings and then you use such filthy language. Besides, how else do you expect these deals to turn out? After all, you’ve sold your soul to the devil. You were expecting happily ever after?” “I didn’t sell my soul,” Doug reminded her. “They all did.” “But you profited from it,” Mrs. Bimbaum reminded him. “Very little,” Doug was quick to point out. Doug realized that he retained no rights whatsoever to anything, and aside from the Ibanez, he had walked away with nothing. But nothing was what he started with, and the way he figured it, if the VH1 story didn’t bring in enough publicity for him to live on itself, at least it could be a springboard to a revitalized career, one that would be free of Mrs. Bimbaum. Doug left Finley’s with caution; he had no doubt that Mrs. Bimbaum would not play fair, but that knowledge alone gave him the advantage. Regardless of what she might try, he knew that all he had to do was reach St. Jude’s and catch the afternoon confession with Father Thomas, then he’d be home free. As he walked down the sidewalk, Doug mapped out the route in his head. If he continued west on Urbana, he’d go right by the Night Owl bar. It would probably be in poor taste to go to confession with liquor on his breath, but chances were fairly good that Father Thomas would never know the difference. Besides, with the penance he’d have to do for tricking the devil, a few more Hail Marys really wouldn’t matter.