A Novel

Chapter 3: The Roads 'Round Bureau

Two weeks later (Tuesday, August 18, 1987) » just north of De Pue, where the Illinois River makes its great bend to the south » Camden Brady's grandfather, Durney McKusker, pulled his '85 Cadillac Eldorado into the gravel parking lot of Menocken's Place, a road house at the wedge-like intersection of two roads.

Two roads: criss/cross: one road south down the bluffs into the town of De Pue; the other, Route 29, running roughly parallel to the river between La Salle and Peoria.

[See Document Insert 3-001.]

Built into the bluff behind it, and situated atop a long flight of steps, Menocken's Place sent glowing red light through its screen door and high windows into the late-summer night air, a night air thick with humidity, sensuality-swelling heat that filled the whole timbered valley. Unquenchable, unnamable longing. Menocken's famous red light, emanating from a red-neon-lit, double-barreled, glass-rodded backbar, and red-shaded pendant lamps hovering above black-lucite-topped tables. This intoxicating red light spread like vapor throughout the river valley.

Durney McKusker: crime kingpin for most of Bureau County excepting a tiny crescent along the river, stretching from De Pue to Spring Valley. That small concession belonged to Todd Menocken, the reason being a whole other novel. But most of Bureau County, and a couple counties south, belonged to Durney by virtue of force and acquiescence, that beautiful dance between the racketeer and his clients: he provided services they could not elsewhere obtain, and in exchange they had to pay his price.

Durney and the Illinois Compiled Statutes, hypothetically, assuming the police could not be greased:

38-8-1: Solicitation of Murder.

38-8-2: Conspiracy.

38-9: Homicide.

38-10: Kidnapping and Related Offenses.

38-11-4: Promoting Prostitution.

38-12-1: Assault.

38-12-2: Aggravated assault.

38-12-3: Battery.

38-12-6: Intimidation.

38-17: Deception and Fraud.

38-18-1: Aggravated Robbery.

38-20-1: Arson.

38-26-1: Theft.

38-28-1: Gambling and Related Offenses.

38-28-1.1: Syndicated Gambling.

38-28-3: Gambling Keeper.

38-29B-1: Money Laundering.

38-33-A1: Armed Violence.

38-39-A1: Criminal Usury.

Most of that was then, before he had people to break the laws for him. At his bidding. With impunity.

What troubled him most nowadays were the various conspiracy statutes. You just had to keep fixing and squeezing the machine—a non-stop job of its own. Meanwhile, RICO threatened—G-men jizzing themselves over 25 year old legislation—and he knew he wasn't big enough to take the feds on his own. He just hoped he was small enough not to be worth their while.

Durney gazed into the night sky. Heat lightning irradiated the cloud cover; it looked like the bombing of a distant town, but a bombing eerily without sound. He had witnessed such bombings in the war: dark skies suddenly filled with the marvelous light, and yet producing no sound whatsoever, as if he had lost his ability to hear.

M47, jellied petroleum, white phosphorous.

Burst of light peacefully following burst of light.

God returning to his world: when the Son of Man shall come in his majesty, and all the angels with him, then shall he sit upon the seat of his majesty, and all nations shall be gathered together before him, and he shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats, and he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on his left.

Durney: pretty sure he'd be set to the left. Better make time while you still got time.

He trudged up the wooden steps, opened the rickety old screen door, and entered.

Charlie Aimes was tending bar. No customers. "Hey Durney. What's goin' on?"

Durney sat at a bar stool and nodded, "Charlie."

Despite the heat, Durney wore an old linen sport coat. Charlie, on the other hand, had stripped to his t-shirt, with a bar rag tucked into his blue-jeans.

"What can I get ya Durney?"

"High Life." He wiped sweat from his forehead with a cocktail napkin. "Wish this heat would ease up. The older I get, the more I hate August. Just wait 'til you're seventy one and see how much you like it."

Charlie laughs blandly and agrees.

"Must make football practice a real bitch for the team. Chiefs're lookin' pretty good this year too."

The Chiefs. The Tiskilwa High School Chiefs. Tiskilwa, located about 15 miles southwest of Menocken's, Durney's home for all of his 71 years. Excepting of his time in the war. His home then had been inside his head.

Charlie said, "I hear they got a strong offensive class coming up this year."

"Looks like it. Won't amount to shit of course."

"What're you talkin' about Durney? Ain't your grandson playin' varsity this year?"

Durney's younger grandson, Floyd Brady.

"No that's true. I didn't mean nothing against 'em; like I said, they're lookin' good. People'll get excited. That's good. Good for business; good for everything." He took a drink of his ice cold beer. "I'm just sick to death of hearing about Elmville's big trip—big failed trip—to State last year. I think everyone in Tiskilwa's sick of it." Then, in a mock toast, he raised his glass of beer, and said "Here's to the Elmville Tigers, 1986 State runner up." He spit into an empty ashtray. "Christ you'd think they won the Super Bowl. And that was Camden's senior year—the Chiefs were pretty good that year too—but nobody gave two shits. The Republican couldn't write about nothing but the Elmville fucking Tigers."

Durney's older grandson, Camden Brady.

Two grandsons, one older and one younger.

Charlie came from Tiskilwa too, but now he lived in Marquette. He didn't hear much about Elmville anymore.

But Tiskilwa, just six straight miles south of Elmville, lay almost completely within its economic and social orbit: in Tiskilwa, you had to care about Elmville, even if you didn't want to. People were already talking about plans to consolidate the Tiskilwa and Elmville school districts, which would mean closing Tiskilwa's schools and busing students up to Elmville.

Menocken's was quiet, even for a Tuesday night: no music from the jukebox, no sounds from the untraveled country roads; just silent red neon glowing from the back-bar and cascades of cicada trills flowing in through the screen door and open windows.

Durney asked, as if he had politely deferred the question, but had grown weary of waiting, "Did you sell the stuff yet?"

"No not nearly. You know that."

"Yeah, but I don't know why."

A little irritably, Charlie said "Christ Durney, it's harder than I thought it would be, harder to find buyers. I can't deal very openly around here without Todd finding out. The few people I've been able to push on—, most either don't want it or can't afford it. You know as much as me. I'd just as soon eat my losses. I could sell what's left at cost to a guy down in Lacon, at what he considers cost anyway, but it'd still be better than sitting on this stuff. At this point, I'm only sellin' as a favor to you."

"Yeah? And your ten percent cut—is that a favor to me too?"

An awkward pause. "Look, Durney, you sure sellin' this stuff is such a good idea? I mean, selling it here right out of Todd's own road house? I don't know what the hell I was ever thinkin'—"

"You're the one who said Todd wasn't interested."

"I know but—"

"Why are you asking me these questions? You wanted this side racket. You told me some Mex down in De Pue approached you, but you didn't have the cash to buy in the quantities he was selling. You gave Todd first dibs; Todd didn't want in, so you asked me. I don't see the problem here."

"Well that's true Durney, but I've just been thinkin'—"

"I don't care what you've been thinking Charlie. Unless you can pay me back the money, with interest, that I laid down for this shit, forget your thinking and start selling."

"What if I just gave you the stuff itself—"

"I don't want the stuff. That's one racket I don't want any part of. My end of it all is a loan to you. What you do or did with that loan, well that's your business. But I want my money and far as I can tell, you got but one way to get it: sell your shit. We had an agreement, Charlie. Stop pussy-footin' around and just start selling. Christ! What is this—?"

At that moment, the sound of crunching gravel indicated the arrival of at least one new customer. A laughing young couple entered through the screen door and sat at one of the tables. The young man wore a purple polo shirt tucked into white, seersucker shorts; his carefully groomed, black hair was pomaded and parted to the side. His girl had shoulder-length, blonde hair, and wore a daffodil-patterned summer dress.

Charlie came out from behind the bar to wait their table. When he returned, he whispered, "Jesus Christ, a grenadine rickey for her, and a gin fizz for him. Haven't made those for. . .ever, I think."

The grenadine syrup, when poured into the glass of gin and club soda, looked like dark red clouds of blood leaking from a body into a bathtub full of water. Charlie stirred, dropped a maraschino cherry into the liquid, and set it on a rubber-lined bar tray.

Next he took an egg from the refrigerator. Under his breath: "Hope it's still good." Cracking open the egg, he threw its yolk into the waste basket where it splatted like phlegm-or-maybe-a-fetus against newspaper. He finished the gin fizz, poured it into a Collins glass, and served the drinks.

Not long after, another car entered the parking lot, this one moving fast and skidding on the gravel as it slowed to a stop. Durney and Charlie, hearing somebody rush up the stairs, both moved their hands to within reach of their handguns: Durney's brand new Glock 17 in a shoulder holster under his linen sport coat, and Charlie's old .45 ACP next to the telephone beneath the bar.

A middle-aged man in a tailored, gray tropical wool suit burst through the screen door, letting the door's creaking spring yank it back shut with a snap and a crack against the wood casing. Durney recalled his mother yelling at him as a child, "Don't let the screen door slam!", as he and his friends chased each other in and out of the house. With silent glances, Charlie and Durney signaled that neither knew the man. Durney remained prepared to draw as the man approached the bar.

Charlie said, "Evening. What can I get you?"

"Is there a payphone here?"

"Around the corner, in the hallway, by the bathrooms."

The man thanked him, and disappeared behind the vinyl-wood-paneled wall that created the bathroom hallway.

Although Durney could hear the man speaking, he recognized only five statements: first, "the lady"; second "Nigger Creek"; third, "Back to Glenview"; fourth, "for the lady"; and fifth, "Western Union".

About five minutes later the man returned to the bar, and again approached Charlie. He said, "I'm terribly sorry, but I seem to have gotten myself lost. I was on my way to Elmville, and now I don't know where the hell I am or how to get back in the direction I need to be going."

Durney looked down at his beer and grinned, thinking how this well-heeled man had fallen among thieves, and how Charlie wouldn't seize the opportunity that fortune handed him. Even if he wanted to, he didn't possess the brains, couldn't concoct a shakedown fast enough, to set all the necessary parts in motion. And that was why Charlie, good old Charlie, would always be a bartender. He could barely even provide a coherent answer to the man's simple question.

The young man in the purple polo shirt approached from behind and said, "Sorry to interfere, but I couldn't help overhearing what you said. If you're lost, perhaps my map of the area might be of some help." He began to unfold a map from the end papers of a book. "My girlfriend and I are on a vacation. We started in Alton, and are following the river all the way to Chicago. Well, all the way to La Salle, and then we'll follow the canal on to Chicago."

Overcome with enthusiasm for his subject, he stopped unfolding the map, and began flipping through his guidebook, until he reached a page from which he began to read aloud: "So, right now you're in Bureau County: 'County Seat: Elmville, population five thousand. The Illinois River borders Bureau County on the county's southeast side, where Bureau Creek enters the River, and where the old Hennepin Canal, which at one time connected the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, had its eastern terminus. Bureau County sits on the elbow side of the River's great bend to the south.

"'The principal towns along the river are: Bureau Junction, population seven hundred; De Pue, population two thousand; Marquette, population fifty; and Spring Valley, population three thousand. The floodplain rises to a series of terraces, from which the land then more steeply ascends ancient bluffs to an upland prairie'." He paused, and then said, "We were up in Elmville yesterday and I can tell you there was no prairie to be seen: mostly corn and soybean fields, and sky—a huge dome-of-a-sky. A farmer we met said the corn and soybean fields stretch flat through the county and onward all the way to the Mississippi."

The young man stopped speaking for a moment. Then he continued, "'Tiskilwa, population one thousand five hundred, though not on the Illinois River, lies on the floodplain and makes for a scenic detour—'"

Durney interrupted the young man's recitation, saying, "Your guidebook there sounds a little out of date—those populations can't possibly be correct."

"It's an old WPA guide I found in a bookstore: A Scenic Tour of the Illinois River Valley by the Federal Writers Project. So the populations are probably from about nineteen forty. But otherwise we've found so far that this old guide is still pretty accurate. We have newer maps and guidebooks in the car, but this one has all the romance and adventure." He finished unfolding the map, saying, "As I said, we have newer maps in the car, but not much can have changed around here since this one was published."

Leaning over the young man's map, Durney pointed to a town right on the river, and, addressing the man in the business suit, said "That's De Pue, the nearest town. But it's in the wrong direction if you're headed to Elmville. Step outside the door here, and take the road on your left, you'll drive back up out of the valley, and eventually hit Route Six. Take a left there and Route Six brings you all the way into Elmville."

The man in the business suit thanked everyone. He laid a twenty dollar bill on the bar, saying, "a round of drinks on me," and then immediately walked back out the door, leaving with almost as much dispatch as he had entered.

The young man looked down at the twenty dollar bill and said, "I guess I'll take another gin fizz. My name's Aaron, by the way."

Both Durney and Charlie nodded their heads and smiled, no smirked. Charlie mixed the gin fizz, and a second grenadine rickey for the girl, even though she hadn't asked for it. He pocketed over half the twenty as tip.

Durney shook his head as he heard the city slicker pulling his car out of the parking lot onto the wrong road, driving in the wrong direction.