I left Memphis early, meeting the sun somewhere around Jackson as I stopped for breakfast. If you ever wonder if the food at a diner was any good, just look to the spread of asphalt outside. If it’s nothing but stripes, keep going. But if it’s wall-to-wall taillights and license plates, that is a place worth stopping at.
This diner had three empty spots. Near, far, and really far.
Near looked like an option but it wasn’t. Close to the entrance, a big old passenger van with Missouri plates parked three-quarters in one space and one-quarter in another.
It would have fit in one spot, but the driver either didn’t have the skills or thought they were special. I was leaning toward the first given the number of dents on the white body. The mess of a parking job left plenty of space for my Ultra Classic.
But you don’t park a thing of beauty next to an idiot.
Far looked like an option, too. There a man sat on the parking block, feet planted wide, elbows on knees. In one hand he held a to-go cup of coffee; in the other a cigarette. A drag. A sip. Another drag.
I respect a man enjoying his breakfast. There was no need to chase him out.
Really far wasn’t a space so much as a triangle patch at the end of the line. It was made for a bike.
I parked and locked her then headed to the door, saying good morning to the coffee drinker on the way. Inside, the diner was hopping. I wanted the counter, but it was full. I settled for a table, taking the seat that let me see the whole place. People watching has always been a hobby of mine. Most people sat in two’s, like the diner was an ark and Noah himself seated them.
Two construction workers.
Two old men.
A mother and daughter, which still made two.
There was one group of eight, which sat as two tables of four. They were talking as much as they were eating as the waitress set the last of the plates on their table.
She left them for me. “Morning, Sunshine. Care for coffee?”
“Morning back to you,” I said back with as much enthusiasm as she gave to me. “Yes, to the coffee…Daisy.”
She smiled, showing off a perfect row of pearly white teeth. “We have a few specials this morning. The first is two eggs as you like ‘em with a side of biscuits and gravy. Then we have a—”
“The first is good for me,” I said, cutting off the list of things I didn’t want. Biscuits and gravy, well, that could have been my middle name.
“Miss? Miss? Could you bring more coffee?” The woman calling for Daisy was the mothering type. And the man she mothered was a tall and wore a suit.
He was a swan in a diner of ducks.
The twin quads – the two tables of four – became the entertainment I watched while I waited for my breakfast. The flock was made up of five women and three men. The swan was the center of attention, the ducks fussy about him. Every time the woman to his left went to take a bite of her pancakes, the swan interrupted.
Pass the salt. A pat of butter. Be a dear, two strawberry jams.
The twin quads kept Daisy hopping. Why was it that groups like them couldn’t get it together to ask for everything all at once?
When Daisy brought my breakfast, her disposition wasn’t quite so sunny. “Here you go, just as ordered.” She set two plates down with enough food to feed a crew. “Let me get you a warmup on the coffee and anything else?”
“It’s good Daisy,” I told her softly. “It’s all good.”
And it was. I’d put it second only to my own gravy.
My belly full, I paid my bill, gave Daisy a sunny tip, and rode east. It wasn’t long before a billboard caught my attention. A shooting range where you can bring your own or fire their collection of “old and unusual firearms.”
Bear Arms was a place for sportsman and lover of firearms. I count myself as both. My own guns were at home, so I had to take advantage of Bear Arms’ arsenal.
A 32 caliber Smith & Wesson No. 2 Army. A Colt Lightening 50 Express Carbine. A Peabody Martini Exhibition Grade Musket. A Winchester Model 1894 Rifle, a model I had in my own collection.
I spent a peaceful hour making all kinds of noise. The powerful release of gunpower and lead sung up my arm to my soul. It was that part of me that was hurting. I’d killed a man. Whether intentional or not, it was my wheels that ran over Dexter Green. My hand, or rather my foot on the gas pedal that killed him.
I took in a deep breath, looking to heaven as I rode. I have a tight relationship with God. I don’t expect he’s too happy with me right now. I know I wasn’t. Maybe the clean up I’d done in Memphis would count in my favor. I could only hope.
A couple hours later, I parked the Ultra Classic in another parking garage, this one attached to The Hermitage. In 1910, it cost a million dollars to build, which was probably something stupid like $110 million today. Now that I think of the costs of things, it was a pretty good deal.
The Hermitage was an architectural jewel, full of art and deco, marble and glass, arches and staircases. After checking in, I found a comfortable place in the main lobby to admire the scenery. I can do a lot of things, build nearly anything, but I can’t paint for shit. So, naturally, I respect the hell out of anyone who can. Given that my days were numbered, I took the time to appreciate the manmade beauty around me.
A couple about my age sat nearby talking about the prior day’s visit to the Grand Ole Opry and the Opryland Resort property. Teresa and I had been to Nashville years ago. We didn’t make it to the Opry, bad timing and all. So programmed the GPS, saddled back up, and made the short trip to the Grand Ole Opry.
The Opry is a performance hall, the roots of country music. It had re-invented itself more than a few times, keeping with the changes in style and technology. Nashville grew around it, including the Gaylord property with it’s small world inside our bigger one. It has a nice hotel with more than a few restaurants and a garden worth seeing whether you liked plants or not.
I bought the last ticket for the tour of the performance hall. It was a special ticket because of the behind the scenes peek at the stage and the seat to the show that came with it. If you weren’t aware, the Opry is a radio show. People traveled in from near and far to hear performances from country music stars past, present, and future.
Crossing the parking lot, one of those things that once you see, you can’t unsee, sat in front of me. It was luxury RV. On the side, in bold, colorful lettering was “Jesus Saves…and So Does Bob.”
I just shook my head. What else was there to do?
I walked on and through the awaiting door. To enter the Opry, you have to go through a metal detector. Not a surprise in this day and age, but something I wasn’t prepared for. A thin man in a security uniform slid a bowl to me. “Keys, chains, and so forth in the bowl, please. You can leave your belt and shoes on.”
I started emptying my pockets.
Chain to my wallet. I kept the wallet.
Ka-Bar knife I picked up in Memphis.
Six 30-caliber casings.
What was there to say? I looked up, waiting for the raised eyebrow and handcuffs. The guard took my bowl and handed it around his side of the metal detector. He didn’t say a word, so I walked through. It went off, so they wanded my belt and my boots. Then looked past me.
I turned, expecting to see someone wearing a badge.
I found a woman near to a hundred figuring out how to get her walker through the arch.
Another guard, the one who received my bowl, put it on a shelf and handed me a claim ticket. “The tour starts in the meeting room, down on the right.”
Huh. Not a word about the knives or the casings.
I took my time wandering down to the meeting room. I suppose with arrest imminent, half the people would spend time looking over their shoulder every twenty seconds. The other half would race point to point, never seeing the sights along the way. Me? I was in the third half, those who knew this, more than any other, was the time to smell the roses.
I studied the pictures. Artists I listened to. Some I sung along with. There was a lot of history in these walls. The pictures led to the meeting room minutes before the tour was to start. I entered and joined twenty-some others. About half were clustered in a group and who should be at the center but the swan from the diner. His ducklings were still fluttering around him.
The swan was dressed finely. He was tall, a good six-two. He wasn’t broad, which gave him the illusion of even more height, despite the size of his belly. His hair was styled with not a strand out of place. His cheeks were ruddy, laugh lines carved into the corners of his eyes. He wore a suit, one that had been tailored given the difference between his waist and his chest. He was a man of means.
His flock was just ordinary folks. The ladies wore dresses or nice pants with a blouse. The men for dress pants and button-down shirts. One wore a tie. They were neat and clean but there was a difference between the swan and his ducks.
The tour was led by a little blonde with a broad smile. “Hey y’all, gather round and we’ll get started. That’s right. Come in close. I don’t bite.”
We did as she said, surrounding the woman who couldn’t have broke five-foot tall. For the most part, people used their common sense, the taller letting the short up front.
The exception was the swan, who used an arm to sweep a woman behind him. It was the one who sat next to him at the diner. The one who he hadn’t let eat a bite without interruption.
“Welcome to the Grand Old Opry. I’m Dorothy and while this is not Oz, you should be prepared to be amazed.” Dorothy laid out the rules about staying with the group, keeping our hands to ourselves, and what we shouldn’t be doing with cell phones. Then we began to parade through the public and private spaces of the Opry.
“You were at the diner in Jackson,” said one of the ducks. “I’m Martin. We came all the way from Missouri.”
“Hippy,” I said, holding out my hand to shake his as I remembered the passenger van that took two spots at the diner. “I’m from a little bit of everywhere.”
Martin laughed. “I like that. Wish I could say the same.”
We started talking as strangers do. Been here before? No. Favorite country artist? Willy Nelson. Roy Clark. Porter Wagner. Johnny Cash. Wayland Jennings. Buck Owens. I could keep going.
Favorite song? See previous answer.
It was a pleasant conversation. One I enjoyed. Until the swan looked over his shoulder and saw Martin with me. Those waxed brows furrowed and he snapped his fingers. Martin looked guilty as a schoolboy and left me to take his place in the flock.
Our group continued down a corridor and stopped as Dorothy went into an elongated response to a question.
“Do you know where you’re going to spend eternity?”
The voice over my shoulder belonged to the swan. He looked down at me, both figuratively and literally.
“Yes, sir. I do,” I told him. “Do you?”
He tilted his head, a small grin on his face. It wasn’t a nice smile. It was more like he was royalty and I was a peasant. “I’m an ordained minister.I know where I’m going. Reverend Bob,” he said. “Maybe you’ve heard of me.”
I offered my hand. He accepted with a firm shake of a hand wearing two thick rings.
“Can’t say as I have. I’m Hippy,” I said. “Maybe you heard of me.”
His smile grew. “Mark this day on your calendar Mr. Hippy, because it is the day you are saved. It is the day you stood in the presence of the Lord’s greatness through his disciple and received his forgiveness.”
This man, with his fancy suit and waxed smile, stunk like a skunk. “How do you know I need forgiving?”
“We all come into this world needing forgiving,” he said. “We are human beings, born with the seed of evil. That seed grows as a man grows. Sins of the body, Hippy, those can be forgiven.”
Dorothy led our group on and we followed.
I’ve lived a long life and have made my peace with God. It took some time but what he said eventually got through this hard head of mine. I’ve been lucky to meet real people of God. People who give without ever asking for something in return. Preachers who bust their ass on the jobsite each day because the Lord’s gospels were their calling, not their paycheck.
I have stood in the presence of true goodness.
Which was why I knew exactly what Bob was.
“A water for you, Reverend Bob.” One of the ducks handed him a bottle. “Do you need anything else?”
Bob opened it and sipped. He sneered and handed it back. “It’s not cold.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Her face fell in embarrassment. “It must have gotten warm in my bag. Let me run back to the van and get one from the cooler.”
I waited for him to decline the offer. After all, we were in the middle of a tour. He did not. The woman left the tour group, heading out the way we had come in.
“Where are you going to spend eternity?” I asked him.
“At our Father’s side.” There was no hesitation in his voice, no doubt.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this man saw himself at the front of the line, but I was. He went on, talking about sacrifice and suffering, sins and forgiveness. The funny thing was, I got the impression, he wasn’t talking about himself. He was talking about everyone else.
The other man in his flock joined us. “Reverend Bob, did you—”
“Harry, can’t you see that I am in a conversation?” His tone was sharp as an ax and just as heavy.
“Sorry, Reverend. I’m sorry, sir,” he said to me.
“We’re good, Harry. I’m Hippy.”
Harry didn’t speak, looking to Reverend Bob for permission.
The Reverend didn’t give him the nod as his focus was on me. “You go to church, Hippy?”
Which was none of his business. “The world is my church and all in it my brothers.”
He snorted in laughter. “Godless men have only fire and brimstone to look forward to. Today truly is your lucky day.”
Now, it would have been easy to be insulted. What Bob didn’t get was that me and God, well, we were good. Like I said, I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled with me about old Dexter Green, but he wasn’t going to desert me any more than I was him.
I separated myself from Bob and started talking with the ducks. They were proud to count themselves among his flock and paid thousands of dollars a year for the privilege. They looked up to Bob and not just because he was taller. They looked up to him because he had convinced them they were below him and the only way to climb out of the hole of sin was to pray and tithe.
And not necessarily in that order.
A friend shared with me a simple way to tell if someone was good or bad. Good people raise others up. Bad people raise themselves up by pushing others down.
The flock? They were good ducks.
Bob? He was no swan.
But how to expose Bob for what he was? After all, the ducks weren’t going to listen to a stranger telling them their prophet on earth was a grifter. Hell, they’ve probably been told that. More than once. And by people they loved.
I pondered the dilemma as Dorothy took us backstage to a soft rising of oohing and aahing.
I did a root cause analysis, which is a fancy way of saying I thought down to the heart of the matter. Each and every one of the ducks was a good person—someone who lifted others up. Why would a duck ingratiate themselves to someone who took and never gave?
Someone with the letters PHD after their name could probably come up with a reason, but I couldn’t.
By the time Dorothy had us back to the meeting room, I was friendly enough with Bob and the ducks to get an invite to join them at the Opryland Hotel before the show. The hotel wrapped around a large area with restaurants, gardens, and a stream. It was topped with a steel and glass structure that must have been a pain in the ass to build.
Reverend Bob led the group to one of the restaurants. Like the self-possessed man he was, he dismissed without seeing people beneath him. He damn near snarled when he gave his name at the podium only to find out the reservation was under Mindy. Bob sat at the head of the table, his gopher woman, Mindy as it turned out, on his right and me on his left. He ordered appetizers for the table and the surf-and-turf for himself. The others ordered less lofty meals. For myself, I chose steak and potatoes.
“You say that you know you’re heaven-bound?” I asked him. I suspected it wouldn’t take much to get him talking and it didn’t.
“I do. Hippy, when you give yourself into God’s hands, there is nothing on this earth that can bring you down.” He went on to elaborate and made it clear as crystal that he was talking about himself. The rest of us, those who hadn’t been hand chosen, well the path was a longer and more expensive.
“It’s like a get-out-of-jail free card,” I said, making the analogy as ugly as I could. “Once you’re in, what you do here doesn’t matter. I like that idea, Reverend Bob. And I want in.”
His eyes swept from my head down. I guess I haven’t told you what I look like. Well, they don’t call me Hippy for nothing. My hair went white some time ago and is long, down to my shoulders. It stays in place thanks to a bandana. My moustache and goatee are long to match and don’t need a bandana to stay where they’re supposed to. I didn’t take many clothes when I left Indiana. Today, I wore a T-shirt from Stone’s Harley Davidson.”
Bob didn’t let what was going on in his head shine through. He’d be a mean one to go up against in a poker game.
“I inherited Mom and Dad’s house and the acreage,” I said. “I’ve been putting money aside since I started working.” I didn’t put a number out there. Anything he imagined was going to be better than what I could make up to tempt him.
“We’ll start addressing those sins with weekly sessions and get you on the path of truth and justice,” he said, leaping for the bait. “You’ll be expected to pray, to study the bible, to tithe. It’s not about the money, of course. It’s about what it represents.”
I nodded to cover that I’d just thrown up in my mouth a little.
“I’m in,” I said, pushing my empty plate away. “When do we start?”
Reverend Bob finished his wine, a fancy Italian one called Amarone. His plate was just as empty and he dropped his cloth napkin atop it. “Come to my RV and we’ll talk.”
I stood and pulled money from my wallet, more than enough to cover my share.
Bob did not.
The ducks started murmuring in a way that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. All eyes were on me, and they were wide. The whispers between neighbors seemed to say this invitation was a rare occurrence.
One I wondered if people walked away from.
Wanting to put some distance between me and Bob, I made an excuse to use the restroom and call the wife before meeting him at the RV.
He hesitated, then bowed his head. “I’ll have everything ready when you arrive.”
Oh, shit. Have you seen a horror movie? Like any movie? Ever?
Maybe I really should call Teresa. At least she’d have a chance of finding my body.
I went into the maintenance room. It wasn’t Bass Pro, but it would suit. I borrowed a duffle bag, removing the contents and putting them aside. Then I filled it with everything I could possible need…well, there was one more thing. And I bought that at the restaurant.
I knocked on the RV’s door maybe fifteen minutes later. Bob opened it. He’d lost the suit jacket and tie, and unbuttoned the top button. “Hippy, I was beginning to think the devil had had he way with you.”
“Not today, Bob.” I stepped up into the RV and I was right. Luxury wasn’t pretty enough word to describe the interior. Hand-crafted cabinets, multiple large screen televisions, quartz countertops. Steps to an upper level. “This is some spread you have here. You all travel in this together?”
Bob shook his head. “This is my oasis. My place to get away, collect my thoughts, refocus my energy. Please, sit.”
“I brought you something.” I set a bottle of the restaurant’s highest shelf Scotch on the table. “To show my appreciation for the interest you’ve taken in me. Where do you keep your glasses?”
Bob and I began to talk. I drank enough for a lifetime back in my twenties and kept with simpler things now. But I knew the power of the bottle and Bob? Well, he should of known it, too.
We started down the path he wanted, how my soul was black and blighted and he was the only way to the light. I nodded and followed where he wanted to go. Until…his façade started slipping, signs the alcohol was doing it’s job.
See, a little while back I learned some latin. In vino veritas. It means there is truth in wine. Or, what we all know, drunk people can’t lie.
I dug in the duffle and brought a little black puck. Not the kind you use in a hockey game. The kind you use to share a conversation to a Bluetooth speaker sitting outside the RV.
“What is this, Hippy?” Bob asked, his clumsy hands picking at disc.
“It’s a disseminator of truth. Whatever you say is transmitted for everyone to hear.”
He managed to pick it up and brought it close to his mouth. “I am . . . awesome.” He grinned at me.
I nodded. Seeing as he was just the right level of drunk, I pulled the Scotch away. “You are the hand selected instrument of God on earth?”
“I am,” he said with absolute certainty.
“Why do you think he picked you?”
He brought the mic to his lips. “Because . . . I am awesome.”
My mouth twitched. Couldn’t help it. “Help me understand your calling.”
Bob dropped the puck on the table, then caught it and set it right. “My calling is to collect together the lost souls of Missouri and shepherd them to heaven. It’s not easy. There’s too many people these days who only want God in their life when things are hard. God’s not like that, you know.”
“I do know. Bob, how much money do people give you for shepherding them?”
Bob’s answer on how full his offering plate was had me wishing for a drink. When I asked what he did with it all, I got an education in operating costs. The mortgage and utilities. The few employees who were paid below far market. The volunteers who were earning “God credit” through good deeds.
The numbers weren’t adding up. “Where does all the money go, Bob? Do you use it to help people struggling?”
He leaned into me. “Everyone is struggling, Hippy. Everyone. It’s part of the path. People need to struggle just like Jesus did. It’s the way to get through the eye of the needle.”
I leaned in, mirroring him. “Are you struggling, Bob?”
He snorted. “I’m his disciple.”
I understood the unspoken implication. Struggling was for everyone else. And with that, I’d had it. “I’m going to take this RV apart, Bob. I’m going to expose you for what you are.”
“Oh, you’re one of those.” Bob threw his head back and laughed. “And what exactly am I, Hippy?”
“You’re a man, Bob. Just like the rest of us.”
Well, Bob went real still at that. “You can’t do that.”
“Yeah, I can.” I leaned down and pulled a Stihl chain saw out of the duffle bag.
“Hippy, wait, can’t we talk about this?” Panic was sobering him up real fast.
“Go ahead and talk,” I said, pulling on the gloves and eye protection. “I’m not stopping you.”
And talk he did. He explained his twisted logic of the money and gifts being due to him. How others out there were worse than him. How destroying the RV would accomplish nothing.
For all his talking, he still didn’t get it.
It wasn’t about him.
It was about Martin and Harry and Mindy and everyone else in the battered passenger van. Good people who lived their lives lifting others up and didn’t see that they weren’t getting the same.
If he had said even a single, positive word about the ducks, maybe I’da changed my mind. But this swan in buzzard’s clothing was blind to his own ways.
I set the saw on the floor, put on ear protection, and prepared to pull the starter. If it didn’t start, I’d look the fool and maybe take it as a sign to stop.
It started on the first pull.
The motor roared in the small space. Bob’s eyes widened and he stumbled back. His mouth moved but I couldn’t hear what he said and didn’t care to lip read. I walked toward Bob. He crab walked back toward the cockpit. I took a right at the stairs to the exterior door. The blade went through the fiberglass like butter, making a Hippy-sized opening in the door.
The ducks were on the other side. When I went back to the restaurant for the Scotch, I tagged Martin and invited him to the show. Seven people stood on the other side of the door. Seven different reactions.
Disappointment. Shame. Embarrassment. Anger. Disbelief. Denial. Sadness.
One of the women pointed behind me. I turned as Bob came out of the RV. The chainsaw discouraged whatever he had planned. I went around to the back of the RV, the ducks followed.
The composite exterior was no match for the chain’s RPMs.
If I had thought this through, I’d done it from the inside out. As it was, the window I opened was only about three feet high over the RV’s floor. It was enough to look through to the opulent— hey, there’s a word for more than luxury —to the opulent interior.
Then I went to the side of the RV and did a little precision cutting.
Jesus Saves, it said.
And nothing more.
I called Teresa from my room at the Hermitage the next morning. “I went to the Grand Ole Opry yesterday. If they don’t hang me, we should come back and do the tour and the show. You would like it.”
“They don’t hang people anymore, Hippy. Even stubborn old goats like you.” Her voice trailed off like she was only paying half attention to me.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking up the Opry to see…Hippy! What did you do now?”
Never offer up the truth to a smart woman. “What does it say I did?”
“It says that someone exposed a preacher for misappropriation of funds to the church elders, who demanded the Nashville police arrest the man. The FBI has been called in.” She gasped. “Did you really take a chain saw to an RV?”
“Does it say I did?”
“Of course not, but I know it was you.” She paused and I could picture her shaking her head. “What am I going to do with you?”
No Bobs were harmed in the making of this episode. Same goes for ducks, swans, and buzzards.
The Hermitage Hotel just may be TG Wolff’s favorite place to stare at a ceiling. They also set the bar for awesome suite bathrooms. The Grand Ole Opry is one of the coolest places ever, even if you aren’t a country music lover, and The Opryland Resort is worth more than a few hours of your time.
We tackled a nasty bad guy in this episode and some of you might have gotten offended. If you did, first you might want to remember this is fiction and then ask why it bothered you. If you didn’t, then you’re doing just fine.
We hope you enjoyed the ides of January, Josh. Godspeed.