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Please note: This Internet publication of Risen is © 2000 by Jan S. Strnad. It is not public domain and may not be duplicated without permission!

Risen
by Jan Strnad

 

Eight

Ma's Diner was already in pandemonium when Deputy Haws walked in.

Claudia White, the night nurse at Cooves County Hospital, was in a screaming match with the Ganger boy who gripped a teaspoon in his hand as if it was a switchblade and looked ready to spoon her to death. Jedediah Grimm, the undertaker, had hold of Ganger by both arms but that didn't stop Ganger's elbow from shooting back where it caught Peg Culler and made her drop two armloads of breakfast specials. Nurse White's mother seemed on the verge of a heart attack and Reverend Small was urging everybody to calm down and Merle Tibbert, owner of the Rialto Theatre, pounded the table and screamed for boysenberry syrup. Ma screamed at Tibbert from the service window but Haws had no idea what he was saying because he'd lapsed into Mandarin or something...it might have been Tongues for all Haws knew. Tom Culler sat at the counter looking sick and Brant Kettering sat next to him scribbling furiously in his notebook. Everybody else either observed nervously or wolfed their food like they planned to sneak out on their check during the hullabaloo.

Haws' arrival calmed the place down, but it wasn't because of the sudden appearance of the law. It was because, when he saw him, Galen Ganger's jaw dropped to the floor and he forgot all about Nurse White and the room spun and he fainted dead away. As a bonus, Tom Culler turned as green as a cartoon character and heaved his breakfast onto the countertop. It was everything Haws could have wished for, and more.

***

Brant knew that the article ran long and was too raw for publication, but he wanted to write it out like it happened first and save it for his book. He could water it down and objectify it later for the Cooves County Times. He wrote:

John Duffy's alleged return from the dead would be old news by the time the story made it to the Times. What I couldn't provide in terms of timeliness I determined to make up for with depth, or, failing that, width. I wanted to see what the town was thinking, and for that there was no better observation post on a Saturday morning than Ma's Diner.

For many of the citizens of Anderson, Saturday morning breakfast at Ma's was the social event of the week. Ma's had its regulars, like Merle Tippert who lived alone and ate most of his meals out and who reserved Saturday morning for his weekly treat of waffles and boysenberry syrup, the hell with what Doc Milford said about his cholesterol. But anyone was likely to show up, if not for breakfast then for a donut and a cup of coffee, just to hear the current buzz. Any news worth telling would have made the rounds by telephone, but for a quick overview of public opinion about the co-op manager's new hairpiece or Carl Tompkins' decision to carry a line of Japanese power tools down at the hardware store, Ma's was the place to be.

So I hied myself thither to get the lowdown on Duffy.

An angel got its wings as I entered. I presume an angel got its wings because a bell tinkled overhead.

I've often wondered exactly how that works--not the bell because I know how a bell works, but the angel business. How does it all stay in balance? What happens if there are more bells ringing than angels needing wings--do all the bells on Earth fall silent until the wingless angel population recovers? Or do the bells keep ringing and a lot of undeserving angels suddenly sprout wings and quickly and guiltily flutter off for a round of golf on the nearest par-seventy cloud bank? Did Frank Capra know what he was talking about or is it possible that he just made the whole thing up?

I was clearly in the proper frame of mind to debate life after death as I took my favorite stool at the counter, the one near the cash register where I'd receive maximum exposure to la femme Culler. I don't know why I can't get this woman out of my mind. For some reason I find her delectable. The fact that she's encased in her own world of troubles as rigidly as if sealed in lucite and is therefore unattainable only makes the attraction stronger.

Anyhow, I sat down and it was several minutes before Peg was able to take my order. The joint was jumpin', and the topic on everybody's lips was John Duffy. I tried to tune my hearing to a single conversation at a time, aurally tablehopping the way I do with the television and the remote control. Eventually, though, the debate took on a more diner-wide scope with people shouting from one table to the next as the issue got deeper and murkier and closer to deeply held, heartfelt beliefs.

The brouhaha seemed to start with Claudia White. Claudia is the night nurse at the hospital and was on duty that night when Duffy appeared from the stairwell in pursuit of Curtis Waxler, the janitor. Doc Milford had prescribed sedatives for the shock Claudia had received to her psyche and ibuprofen for the pain from the bump on her head she took when she fainted at the sight of a man she knew for a fact to be dead throwing open the stairwell door and calling out, "You there!" Maybe she'd stopped taking the sedatives or never took them or they weren't strong enough or she was one of those people on whom drugs have the opposite effect, but for whatever reason Claudia was clearly not sedate. Her voice was up an octave and her hands were waving in the air as she told the story to her mother, sitting across the table from her ignoring a bowl of oatmeal.

"He weren't dead," opined Merle Tippert sitting at the next table by himself. "And this here syrup's maple, not boysenberry. Peg!"

Peg looked his direction even though she was busy filling a coffee cup. He held up the syrup dispenser and hollered out, "Maple!" as if he were saying "Hemlock!" or "Radioactive toxic waste!"

"Sorry, Merle, I'll be right there," Peg answered.

"He was so dead!" Claudia called over to Tippert. "You think I don't know a dead man when I see one? I've been a nurse for fourteen years and I think I know a little more about death than you do who wasn't even there!"

"He weren't dead," Tippert maintained. "Doctors!" He practically spat the word. Merle Tippert practically spat most of his words, which is probably why business was down at the video rental store he ran right next to his movie house. "Videos!" he'd spit at customers. "Television!" He didn't like to rent out movies on videotape. If twenty people would just decide to watch His Girl Friday on the same night he'd show the darned thing at the Rialto and they'd see it the way it was meant to be seen, on a big screen with an audience. But society was splitting off into one's and two's who sat in their separate houses and watched movies on little screens all by themselves because they had to watch what they wanted to watch when they wanted to watch it and just stop it right in the middle if they felt like taking a bath or something, which you might as well do since nothing made after 1945 was worth seeing anyway. And don't even mention that direct-to-cable crap.

"Doctors!" Tippert spat. "Don't know nothing! And Doc Milford hasn't had a sober day in twenty years!"

"Don't you go bad-mouthing Doctor Milford!" Claudia warned. If Doc Milford had been running for Pope he would not find a more ardent supporter than Nurse Claudia White. She overlooked his occasional afternoon nip from the flask in his bottom left hand desk drawer because she knew that he'd devoted his life to their little town and she, for one, was grateful for it. Maybe the rest of the people in Anderson didn't appreciate how rare a dedicated physician was these days or how many towns bigger than theirs went begging for a good doctor, but Claudia knew. She knew. And she wasn't going to let a comment like Tippert's go by without calling him on it. "He's given a lot more to this town than that ratty little movie house of yours ever did," she said.

"Yes, and he's done it half-drunk most of the time, too," Tippert countered.

"He was stone cold sober when they brought John Duffy in," said Claudia, "and Duffy was dead as a door nail."

Claudia turned to Jed Grimm, the local undertaker, for confirmation. "You saw him, Mr. Grimm. Of everybody in town, I expect you've seen more dead people than anybody. Was Duffy dead or wasn't he?"

Jed Grimm was working on a short stack with fried eggs and a side of bacon but he didn't waste a second before announcing loudly, aware that eager ears were waiting for his verdict, "That he was, my dear. He was as dead as they come."

Claudia shot a there-you-see look at Tippert who just humphed and called out again for his boysenberry syrup, his waffles were getting cold.

"Then you would agree that Duffy came back from the dead?" I asked of the mortician.

"Now that's another question," Grimm replied. "I haven't seen him since that afternoon, so I don't know that he's alive again. Besides," he chuckled, "resurrection's not really my area of expertise, is it? Perhaps the Reverend Small...?"

And he gestured toward the newest member of the Anderson community, the newly-arrived Reverend Small who was even now mentally preparing the next day's sermon while picking at Ma's version of a fruit platea sliced banana and a few wedges of apple topped with fruit cocktail from a can. He did not seem comfortable with the topic. Or with the fruit plate, either, for that matter.

"Well," he said as all eyes swiveled his direction, "there are precedents, of course, for this kind of thing."

"Louder!" called a voice from the far side of the room. It was Carl Tompkins, still smarting from the past two weeks' grilling over his Makita decision and eager to see someone else on the hot plate for a change.

Reverend Small adjusted his volume upwards and continued.

"There are precedents," he said. "Lazarus. And the Savior himself, of course."

"Are you saying it's a miracle?" Peg asked, adding, "More coffee?"

"No, thank you," Small replied.

"No, which?" Claudia White asked. "No coffee or no miracle?"

"No coffee. As to the miracle, well, who can say?"

"If you can't say, Reverend, who could?" some smart aleck asked. I think it was me.

"Well, of course, I didn't see the deceased. I'm sure Mr. Grimm's credentials are impeccable, but--"

"Louder!"

"I'm sure Mr. Grimm knows what he's talking about!" Small repeated. "Still, such a bold display of God's work as resurrection--well, the Church doesn't sanctify such things without considerable evidence. Now, near-death experiences, thanks to modern medicine, have become almost commonplace, but Duffy--"

"Never happened!" Mr. Tippert snorted. "Like my boysenberry syrup!"

Peg turned red, said "Sorry!" and scurried back behind the counter. Ma stuck his head out of the service window.

"I have cat once that come back," he said. "Back in China. Cat have kittens and no one to take care of. My father, who was very kind man, have unpleasant task of drowning kittens."

I noticed a cloud pass over the face of Carl Tompkins' wife, Bernice.

"He wrap up in sack all kittens and he take sack to river to drown, only when he open sack to place in stone to make heavy, he see all little kittens and they so cute he can't stand thought of trapped in sack and drowning. So he take stone and he hit kittens bang, in head, so death come quick, and then he put stone in sack and kittens and throw in river.

"Next day, one kitten come back. Blood on head, very sad, and my father see kitten and can not bring self to kill kitten again, so I get to keep. Only, stranger thing.

"Kitten never grow up. Kitten stay kitten, many years. Live to be old kitten, but never cat. Very strange."

Ma was shaking his head as he drew it back into the kitchen leaving a stunned silence in its wake, as if everyone had been hit in the head with a stone. Bernice Tompkins nudged her husband Carl and they gulped their coffees and Carl put a half-eaten donut in his jacket pocket and a five dollar bill beside his plate and they hurried out, Bernice leading the way. Bernice was known to have a soft spot for felines, owned twelve at present, and so I guess Ma's story hadn't set well with her.

Then the door opened and Tom Culler walked in with the Ganger boy.

Peg looked up with a smile ready, but it turned into a scowl for some reason (sharing her opinion of Galen Ganger, I can guess what it was) and the two boys took the Tompkins' former seats at the counter. Peg quickly scooped up the five-dollar bill as she shot a hostile look at the Ganger kid, as if she expected him to steal it. The boys ordered Cokes and the conversation returned to John Duffy, Merle Tippert providing the transition.

"The cat weren't dead," Tippert said. "Neither was Duffy. People don't come back from the dead."

"So you're not buying into the miracle theory, Mr. Tippert?" I asked.

He snorted. "Dead's dead."

"Well I know what I saw and I saw John Duffy dead and I saw him a few hours later walking down the hallway toward me healthy as a horse." Claudia White was not giving an inch.

"Perhaps it is the Second Coming," her mother suggested.

"From what I hear of Duffy, he's a pretty unlikely candidate for Savior," I said.

"What're they talking about?" Tom asked his mother as she brought them their Cokes.

"John Duffy," she said. "His wife murdered him yesterday afternoon and now apparently he's come back from the dead."

Tom and the Ganger boy exchanged incredulous looks. They both seemed to turn a shade paler.

"You're kidding," Tom said. Peg gestured toward the assembly.

"Ask them," she said.

A chorus of voices validated her story, all except Merle Tippert who snorted derisively.

"I don't believe it," Tom said.

"At least somebody in this town's got some sense," Tippert said.

"It's the Second Coming," said Mrs. White, expounding her theory. It seemed to have gained solidity in her mind from having sat there for a minute, kind of like what Ma's pancakes do in your stomach. "Jesus has come to Anderson and he's working miracles," she announced with conviction.

"Bullshit!" the Ganger boy said.

A hush fell over the diner. No voice spoke, no fork rang against plate, no ice jiggled, no coffee slurped. The people of Anderson were accustomed to profanity, but they kept it in their fields and houses and workplaces where it belonged. It arrived at Ma's Diner in the middle of a discussion about life everlasting and the Holy Christ like a bandito at a bar mitzvah.

The Ganger boy continued: "Like Jesus would have anything to do with this shithole!"

"I happen to love this town," Claudia White said, "and I do not appreciate your calling it...what you did. And I don't think anyone else did, either." She looked around for approval and received enough nods and murmurs of agreement to spur her on. "I'd like to know just what you find so offensive about this town," she added snippingly, which with Galen Ganger was a lot like asking a Libertarian what was so wrong with the federal government.

Ganger swiveled off his stool and headed for Nurse White's table. Tom put out his arm to stop him, saying, "Galen...don't." Ganger shoved the arm aside and sauntered toward the nurse with fire burning in his eyes.

"Let's see," Ganger said, "how about the fact that it's in the middle of no-fucking-where, halfway up the ass of the universe? How about the fact that there isn't dick to do except fuck sheep or watch shit movies in some piss-smelling movie house."

Merle Tippert bristled visibly.

The Ganger boy was closing on Nurse White and I saw something glisten in his hand and for a moment I thought he'd pulled a switchblade, but then I saw it was only a teaspoon that he was twiddling between his fingers.

"I don't like your tone...or your language," Claudia White said.

"And I don't like your fucking face, so that makes us even," Galen replied, and he kept walking.

Reverend Small looked like he was going to crawl under his table as the Ganger boy passed, but then he sat up straight and ventured to say, "Young man...." Ganger whirled around and pounded the Reverend's table with the flat of his hand and yelled "Shut up!" and made everybody jump. That put an end to the Reverend's interest in discourse.

Jed Grimm was watching the scene unfold as if expecting he might get some business out of it. He started slowly inching out of his booth as the Ganger boy walked by. I couldn't tell if he was going to make a run for it or what.

"But what I hate most about this stupid, fucking, ugly little town," Ganger said, "is the people. The boring, stupid people." He leaned in at Claudia White, and though she backed away from him, she held his gaze. She looked right at him, right into his eyes, and she never blinked. Her jaw was clenched tight and her own eyes were invisible behind narrow slits, but she never looked away.

"Boring. Stupid. Ugly people," Ganger said, "like you, Nurse White. People who believe every stupid fucking story they hear."

I don't know what devil possessed Nurse Claudia White to spit in Galen Ganger's face, but I'll bet he earned his pitchfork for it. She could hardly miss at that range. It took Ganger by surprise, that was for sure, and he jerked back reflexively. The next instant he was cocking back his arm, his hand balled into a fist, and he'd have planted it on the woman, I'm certain, but for Jed Grimm.

Grimm is a big man, big like a football player, and normally the most easygoing guy you'd ever hope to meet. But for a big, easygoing guy he moved damned fast and he was behind the Ganger kid before anybody knew it, his arms wrapped around the boy's chest, pinning his arms to his side.

Claudia White, who moments earlier had been chastising Ganger for his language, begin to spew out such a barrage of obscenities at such volume that I half expected her head to spin around in a circle vomiting pea soup.

Ganger yelled back using words that made his earlier profanities seem like sweet nothings by comparison. He squirmed free of the undertaker's grip but Grimm was on him again instantly and grabbed his arms as he pulled him back. The kid's elbow shot out, trying to catch Grimm in the jaw but instead hitting Peg Culler who'd been watching the whole incident, dumbfounded, with plates of eggs and pancakes and sausage balanced all up the length of both arms. The plates went flying and crashed on the floor and Ma stuck his head out of the service window and started yelling something in his native tongue.

Merle Tippert yelled at Ma demanding boysenberry syrup and Ma yelled back in Chinese and the Ganger kid shook his spoon menacingly at Nurse White. They kept up their exchange of threats and vilification as Grimm dragged Ganger toward the door and nearly backed into Deputy Haws who stood there with one hand on the door and the other on his weapon.

The Ganger boy took one look at the deputy and must have thought he was about to get shot because every last drop of color drained from his face in about one-hundredth of a second and his eyes rolled back into his head and he fainted dead away. I turned around to locate the source of the wet, retching sound behind me and saw Tom Culler emptying his stomach all over the counter.

Deputy Haws said he'd take it from there and dragged the Ganger boy off and Jed Grimm helped load the body into Haws' police car. Then Haws drove off for the Sheriff's office, grinning like the cat who swallowed the canary.

All in all I'm not sure what I learned about Anderson's collective attitude toward John Duffy's return from the nether world, but I did have a hell of an exciting Saturday morning.

I don't think Merle Tippert ever got his syrup.

Brant read through the words on the computer screen and was generally pleased. He had to find a more original metaphor than "the cat that swallowed the canary" but other than that, it was a pretty fair first draft.

He was ready, now, to go have a few words with John Duffy.

***

Madge was certain that something awful was about to happen to her.

She couldn't put her finger on why, but the premonition was there, like when she felt...just felt before anyone in town had the slightest reason to suspect it...that the Mathewson girl was going to run off with Bobby Speers.

"I just had a feeling," Madge would say when others asked her how she'd known that Elaine Mathewson would throw over her steady boyfriend, Herman Johnson, and ride off with Bobby in his red Mustang convertible to Las Vegas. "I guess you could call it a 'premonition' if you wanted to."

Madge had another premonition now.

John had been sober and industrious since his return, but it made Madge uneasy, like when Jimmy Swaggert cried on television. It wasn't natural. Not that she wanted the old John back, not by a long shot, but deep down she wasn't so sure he was gone. People don't change like that overnight.

He'd said that they had work to do, but he didn't say what it was. He'd busied himself around the house, fixing dripping faucets and the like, but surely that wasn't what he meant. The way he'd said it made it sound more like some kind of mission, but John hadn't breathed a word about anything like that. She wondered what he was waiting for.

It was the waiting and the not knowing that made her nervous. That, and the voice in the back of her head that kept whispering its warning in her ear. She was feeling the premonition as a coldness in her veins when Brant Kettering drove up and tooted his horn.

The toot was a kind of courtesy in Anderson, extended by visitors who hadn't phoned before dropping in. It gave you time to button your pants or get your hands out of the dish water before you had to respond to the knock on the door, and if you didn't want to be home to visitors, it let you quiet down and make yourself invisible until they left.

Madge had often had reason to take advantage of the toot. When she had a bruise she didn't want anyone to see or her eyes were swollen from crying, she'd hear the toot and move quickly to switch off the radio she was listening to and hide in the pantry. They couldn't see her, then, even if they peeked in the windows, but she couldn't see out either and had to stand very quietly so she could hear when the car drove away. One day she'd seen Bernice Tompkins walking her way with a basket of kittens and Madge had a black eye and hid in the pantry and she'd stayed there for forty-five minutes, imagining Bernice circling the house and peering like a spy through every window.

Hiding was Madge's impulse now, but she couldn't say why.

John was working on the back porch banister that'd been wiggly as long as Madge could remember. She could see him through the back door and saw him look up and scowl when the horn sounded, as if he didn't want to be dragged away from his work. That wasn't like John, either, who was usually happy to put off any chore, especially if it meant a sociable drink or two.

She went to the door and was there when Brant knocked. His appearance was no surprise to her. He'd approached her before, when she was a murderess, but she'd refused to say anything for fear that the first word would be like the first tiny rock in the dam to give way, and that after that would come the torrent of abuses and complaints bottled up over twenty years of marriage. She didn't want to complain then, and she sure as heck wasn't going to get into it now.

***

Brant studied the Duffy place as he walked from the car to the front porch. It was shabby, not quite ramshackle but needing a lot of tender loving care. He knew from the gossip that tender loving care was a rare commodity in the Duffy household.

Madge answered his knock. Brant had no idea how he was going to get this ball rolling considering her sphinx-like silence when he'd tried to interview her in her cell, but he hoped that talking to her in her own home would be more productive.

He couldn't imagine how Duffy would respond, but Brant was prepared to duck.

"Hello, Madge," Brant said warmly.

Madge returned his "hello" but didn't invite him in.

"I guess you know why I'm here," Brant said.

"I expect it's about John," Madge replied.

"It's a big story. I thought he might want to tell it from his point of view. I'd like to talk to you, too, of course."

"There's nothing to tell." It was John Duffy's voice, and it had an edge to it. He'd appeared from the kitchen. The grim look on his face made the hammer in his hand seem more like a weapon than a tool.

"Must have been quite an experience," Brant said, trying to sound conversational. When Duffy didn't take the bait, Brant dropped another worm into the water. "Waking up in the morgue like that, must have been a shock."

"It's over and done with," Duffy said, advancing. He put his hand on the door as if to slam it shut.

"Maybe for you," Brant said, "but all of Ma's Diner was debating the principles of the thing this morning. Darn near started a riot. Any light you could shed--"

"It just happened, that's all."

Brant sighed and scratched his head. "Well, if that's the quote you want me to run...."

Sometimes the best way to get a subject to talk is to just shut up and let the silence become a void that they feel compelled to fill with words. As the seconds ticked by, Brant got the impression that he could stand on that porch for seven days and seven nights without John Duffy ever uttering another syllable. Madge, though, was another matter.

"He's changed," Madge said, almost without moving her lips.

Duffy whipped his head around and glared at her like a rattlesnake suddenly aware of a descending boot. Madge knew that glare even without actually seeing it, but the test of John's redemption had to come sooner or later and so maybe this was it. "I don't know what he saw on the other side," she said, "but it changed him."

"In what way?"

Madge chose her words with great care. Practically everybody in town knew her and John's history, but there was no need to splash it all over the front page for those who didn't. On the other hand, she wanted people to know that he was reformed, and having it reported in the Times made it somehow truer.

"For the better," she said at last, and then added, "and that's my last word on the subject."

Brant opened his mouth to speak but the door swung suddenly toward him and shut with a finality that told him the interview was over. He turned away from the Duffy place and got back in his car and drove off, not knowing that behind those walls John Duffy had just knocked his wife to the floor.

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