Network news anchor Babette DuBois was smart and sexy, but she didn’t know a lot about print journalism. She was browsing through The Chicago Blade at breakfast as we sat together at the kitchen table in her Loop apartment.
She asked about the relevance of a front-page story I had written in the Sunday edition.
“Look for the ‘nut graph,’” I said. “It’s the paragraph that explains everything.”
I knew what she wanted. She wanted the skinny on the dead-guy-in-a-dumpster story that ran Saturday. There were a lot of unanswered questions. She could see that the story could be a gold mine, the potential for a front-page series. Which means steady work for me for a couple weeks.
She offered to drive me back to Gravel City. I told her I was good taking the train. She opened her purse and offered me a handful of twenties. I was about to get mad … but then I took the money.
“Rocco Gilfeather, gigolo,” I said out loud, walking to the train station. On my way I had a great idea for a feature story. Two blocks later I couldn’t remember what it was. The idea fluttered over the transom like a dirty pigeon and was gone forever, leaving just a few chalky-white splatters of guano.
Aboard an outbound train, the scales of things miniaturize down the northwest line—from skyscrapers, to warehouses, to bungalows, to spotty suburban sprawl. And finally civilization as we know it shrinks and gives way to empty lots, cornfields and gravel pits.
I was the only passenger getting off in Gravel City on this late-Sunday morning. I was in a hurry, wanting to make midday mass.
St. Perpetua was a short walk from the station. It was a climb. The church is the most imposing structure in town, atop a mountain of gravel.
I nodded to an usher at the front door. I made a beeline to the fusty confessional, slightly bigger than a broom closet, paneled in fine wood. My crotchety confessor was behind a fancy walnut screen. I could just barely make out his shadowy figure as I knelt before him.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been a week since my last confession.”
“Is that you, Rocco?” my priest whispered. “I saw the paper. How’d Mike O’Malley end up in the dumpster behind Swank Bar?”
“It’s a puzzling caper. I was hoping you could help me with that, Padre. This is a small town. Have you had any unsavory characters in here with any crossroad confessions?”
“If I could help you, I would,” Father Dempsey said. “I haven’t heard anything … and if somebody had told me about putting the body of Mike O’Malley in a dumpster as part of his confession, I wouldn’t tell you anyway. You know that being a newspaper reporter. We both have to protect our sources. Anything else? Any sins to speak of?”
“Yes, I had sexual relations with a woman last night outside the bonds of holy matrimony.”
“Another one? Was she married?”
“And you’re not married,” Father Dempsey added. I could visualize him tapping his lower lip with his forefinger before dishing out punishment. “Let me see … say one ‘Our Father’ and one ‘Hail Mary.’ What are you doing this afternoon?”
“Going to Swank Bar after church, for a sandwich and a beer.”
“See you there.”
I was sitting at the bar. Two days prior this place was shutdown because of the body-in-the-dumpster caper. That night a stink entered through the back door, let in by the guy delivering booze. It affected the rummies along the bar one at a time. Most were able to keep from getting sick. A few got up and ran out the front door, bar tabs be damned.
Today my priest walked through the front door into the dark place. Things were back to normal. The football game was on. The Bears were playing the Lions. It all happens here … deals, binges, bar fights … and an occasional dead body.
I had before me a tall beer. My priest was old, gray and stooped, wearing his priest collar and a black priest suit. He was an old fashioned kind of priest, the kind that would order a shot of whiskey. And that he did.
A tough guy—a biker in a black-leather vest with a shaved head and a big mustache—was sitting on the other side of the room, facing me, giving me the stink-eye. So I gave him my impression of a wolf guarding winter kill. He decided to look at the jukebox.