Eventually, my inner Charlie came up with something. As my dad used to say, “I’m going to do something, even if it’s wrong.”
I decided I wouldn’t wait around for Felix to finish his business. I coasted into May Town right before noon, parked near the bank, and walked across the street to the donut shop. There was a red open sign made of curlicue neon in the large display window. As I watched, it went out, and one that said closed came on.
By eleven a.m., the donut crowd thinned so much, Saucer Donuts wrapped things up. I knew that much from reading about them online. I hadn’t made as good a time driving over as I had hoped to.
The door was not locked.
When I went inside, the door set off a bell. Rubber flying-saucer balloons hung from the ceiling in numerous spots. They briefly swung a little when the air pressure from opening the door went to work. I noticed the bathrooms off to the side said spacemen and spacewomen. There was a scattering of chairs and tables.
A young man behind the counter was pulling sheets of donuts from racks and pouring them into a large silver trash can. He glanced at me. He was tall and bony, had long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. Some of it had leaked out and was springing over his ears. He wore a white apron over a white shirt and had black pants dusted with powdered sugar and what looked like crusty regions of grease. He looked like a man with a porn collection and a freezer full of TV dinners.
We were the only ones in the place. When I walked over to the counter, he said, “Ah, man, we’re done for the day. I’m getting rid of the donuts. They’re considered day-old now. Just about to lock the door.”
“Are you Kevin?”
He paused in his work. “Yes.”
“My name is Charlie Garner. I talked to you on the phone about Meg.”
“Oh. I don’t have anything else, man. Told you what I know. Look, I can give you a donut before it goes in the can, free of charge, and that’s about it. Already poured out the coffee.”
“I don’t want a donut. Could I buy you lunch? I have some questions about the paradise business after all. You mentioned it on the phone.”
“We have some literature here on the coming of Armageddon and the world beyond. I can give you a brochure.”
“I don’t want a brochure. You were going to talk to me about it on the phone, so let me take you to lunch, ask some questions, and when it’s over, I’ll slip you a twenty for your time.”
“I don’t think you are thinking about becoming a convert. I think you really still want to talk about Meg.”
“Could you make it thirty?”
We strolled over to a place near the bank that looked like one of those old-time cafés you see in movies that take place in the fifties. It was called Cecil’s Eats. It had a clean picture window, and inside were several dining tables and dining chairs from a bygone era, and along the wall were booths with rips in the upholstery and struggling strands of cotton leaking out of them. We were the only ones in there. The lunch crowd had yet to arrive.
I was excited about the place until we got our food. The sandwich was on toasted bread with lots of mayonnaise, some wrinkled lettuce, and tomatoes so thin, you turned them sideways, they were damn near invisible. The meat was limp and a little gray. The crinkle fries were precut and precooked. Warmed up in a microwave. They had a soggy taste, like chewing on the fingers of a drowned man.
Kevin, on the other hand, seemed to relish his meal. I suppose it’s all relative. When I was his age, I liked everything, especially if it was free.
“I’m going to come right out and say it,” I said. “I got the impression you aren’t truly all that excited about this idea of flying saucers taking you off to the Promised Land.”
“Got that impression, huh?”
“It was in your voice. Am I right?”
He casually looked left and right. A few people were filing in, being led to their seats by a waitress.
“I have a job to keep,” he said. “Every third call in, I got to say something about the saucer stuff and planetary paradise. Sometimes I cheat, go as much as ten calls before I mention it. Depends on who’s in there with me. Today, I was just being careful.”
“Get much in the way of response?”
“Be surprised. Not everyone you talk to is interested, but there are plenty looking for another way, you know. Ours is the only one of our shops in May Town that discusses the saucer religion. Idea is to keep it out there but not to beat the drum so much we wear customers out. Got to keep those donuts moving and that money coming in.”
“I’m going to come back to it: Do I detect some disillusionment with the religion?”
“Shit, man. You aren’t one of them, are you?”
“One of who?”
“A Manager. And of course you aren’t. I really thought you were, I wouldn’t have asked. You can spot those fuckers coming a mile away.”
“I’m a private investigator, and I’m looking into something that might help me solve a problem. A mystery, if you will.”
“She hasn’t been heard from as of late, and she’s moved out of her apartment. No one knows where she or her husband, Ethan, are. They didn’t even leave a bread crumb.”
“Ethan, I met him once. He came to the shop with her. I think he dropped her off every day, but that’s the only time he came in that I remember. He was way into the Saucer People. He was like a walking billboard for them. He and Meg, they didn’t seem to go together, you know? Didn’t fit. But who can really know, right? Listen here, I need the donut job. Town isn’t full of employment opportunities, you know. Not for a high-school dropout. I wanted to write comic books. Can you believe that? Me, some small-town kid from Lufkin, Texas, wanting to be a comic-book writer? Wanted to write Spider-Man or Batman or something like them. Realized snappy-quick I didn’t know anything about writing a comic book. And if I did, I had no idea who to give it to. Odd ambition, huh?”
“That’s not odd at all. Unlikely you’ve heard of me, but I’ve written some articles and a book, working on another. Not self- published, by the way. Got a film option on the first one. Stars I’ve never heard of are attached.”
“Yeah?” he said.
“Yeah. And I was serious when I said I don’t think what you want to do is odd at all.”
“Did you go to school to learn how to write?”
“I have a degree in criminology, but no creative-writing classes. Learned from experience and reading. What I do isn’t the same as comic books, but maybe I can find some contacts. Put you in touch with someone in the know.”
I didn’t actually think that and felt bad dangling false hope to a desperate kid — he was maybe twenty years old, at most — but I was willing to swear true love to an amorous sheep and buy it an engagement ring and give it a fun honeymoon in Vegas if it would get Kevin to give me the information I needed.
Kevin played with a French fry on his plate. He pushed it around with his thumb, sliding it through a mound of ketchup.
“Before I got the donut-shop job, I was so low I could have walked under a snake on stilts wearing a top hat with a feather in it. No money. No real home. Couch-surfing. I needed the donut job, and I don’t want to mess that up just yet. Not that it’s a dream job. I make minimum wage, get up damn early to help fix donuts with a couple others. They drift by ten a.m., and I man the shop until eleven or so, then close it up. Doing the donkey work. People don’t buy many donuts after the morning hours.
“Used to do that with Meg, now it’s just me. Job sucks, but the bills, such as I have, get paid. Even rented me a little shit shack over by the railroad track, next to a washateria. No more couches. Place doesn’t have any regular hot water. Big wind blows and the lights go out. Train rattles by couple times a day and once at night like clockwork. Shakes the house. Still, it’s what I got and it’s all I got.”
“I understand. I don’t want to mess you up.”
“Can I see the thirty?”
I pulled out my wallet and placed a twenty and a ten on the table.
I set the saltshaker on them. “It awaits your information.”
“That’s really not much money these days,” he said.
“Fair enough.” I opened my wallet again and slid another ten under the saltshaker with the other bills. “That’s it.”
“Ask me,” he said. “I don’t mean to sound like a money-grubbing asshole, but right now I’m so short on dough, if someone said they’d pay me fifty dollars to shit in a teaspoon, I’d drop my drawers.”
“That’s not something I want to see. And you aren’t getting fifty dollars. How well did you actually know Meg?”
“Like I said, not well. She was a stone-cold fox. She liked to wear blue-jean short-shorts. It was against the rules, but no one was complaining. And that damn anklet, something was sexy as hell about that. Jingled a little when she walked.”
I knew about those short-shorts. Meg sometimes didn’t know her personal worth and depended on her looks and her shape. But I must admit, I liked the looks and the shape too. In our society, intelligence looks best in a nice wrapper. You can think that’s wrong, and you’d be right, but if you think that isn’t true, then who’s kidding who?
“She’s something,” he said.
“I know. I was married to her.”
“Damn, man. You shouldn’t have let that bird fly away.”
“Forgot to close the cage door, I guess. How true a believer was she? I know she was into it.”
“Thing was, six months ago, I’d have said she was one of the truer believers. She could really spout the party line, like her husband. While back, so could I. She didn’t have the kind of money some of the others had, you know, to tithe, but again, those looks worked about as good as dollars for the Managers. They’d drop by the donut shops now and then. Always dressed in black and wearing sunglasses, their hair cut short and slicked close to their heads. They look like the legendary Men in Black. One of them is a woman. She looks like she could turn over a car. Bodybuilder. Maybe more a weight lifter than bodybuilder. The head Manager, though, he’s different. Wears cowboy clothes. You know, a snap-button shirt, pockets in a V shape, with jeans, black cowboy boots with really sharp toes. A black cowboy hat that looks like it’s seen some rain. That dude is big. Basketball-player-tall. You know what I mean when I say Men in Black?”
“Supposed to accompany flying-saucer sightings. Sometimes thought to be government men, sometimes thought to be aliens in disguise.”
“Yeah. These guys, the Managers, they stand around looking threatening. Just thugs is my guess, now that I’m seeing clearer. Cowboy—that’s what everyone calls the tall one—is the head duck. Out at the compound, he walks around with a chimpanzee on a chain.”
“You shitting me?”
“Nope. Chimpanzee is like his constant companion out there at the Landing Pad, the compound, or whatever you want to call it. Mostly the chimp is kept out there, but he brought it into the donut shop some. Thing wears diapers and a collar with a gold name tag on it. Mr. Biggs, the collar says. We don’t let dogs in, but he brings in this foul-smelling ape. He gives it donuts. The chimp looks at me like any moment it might wig out, leap over the counter, and stuff me in the donut fryer. Creepy thing. I heard Cowboy bought it from a dying carnival. It’s as well trained as a wild animal can be. Those things, they are incredibly strong. I bet they’re ten times stronger than a man. Dangerous beasts, can turn on you faster than a drunk mother-in-law. Could reach up your ass and pull your face out through it. It’s big too. Scarred up from mistreatment in the carnival is my guess. Doesn’t look like the ones you always see that are small and cute, lots of shiny hair.
“Cowboy and his men, sometimes just him, come in to check the books—computer spreadsheet, to be more accurate. They pick up the weekly receipts. Though sometimes we drop them off at the bank ourselves. I mean, all you got to do is walk across the street. But it’s a kind of surprise drop-in that they do. Making sure we’re not eating all the donuts, that we’re cleaning the restrooms, and that we aren’t pocketing the dough. And I don’t mean the donut dough.
“They always check us out, but Cowboy checked Meg out a little more than the rest of us. Cowboy talked to her in a way that indicated she might have a chance to come within the tighter circle. I think that appealed to her. She asked about Ethan joining her. He didn’t seem interested in Ethan moving out. I remember one time the chimp came in, she patted it on the head. Chimp looked at her like it was jealous, like she was maybe jockeying for Cowboy.”
“Bacon, our fearless leader, gets the last word out there at the Landing Pad. Bacon likes good-looking women, and maybe he has designs on more than giving them words of wisdom, promising them a front seat on a saucer. His wife, she’s like a walking-dead woman. No fun going on there. Cowboy recruits good-looking women for Bacon, though I’m not saying Meg would have gone for that.”
“But she caught their eye, and after a bit, she wasn’t at the donut shop anymore?”
“All I know is they liked her, had her handling the spreadsheets when they found out she had some college. Next thing, she’s gone. Where she is now, I can’t say.”
“You go out to the compound, this Landing Pad, much?”
“Everyone that’s serious about the religion ends up going there. It’s expected. Controlled. You go out to the mound at certain times, when it’s allowed, and raise your hands to the sky. Money is appreciated. And like I said, some people, picked by the managers, live and work out there. You know, there’s a gift shop. You can buy all manner of shit there. None of it worth a tenth of what you pay for it. But there was a time when I would have given my left nut to have been picked to be out there.
“Then, one night, I’m out there at the Landing Pad, looking up at the sky, along with a couple hundred people praying to the stars, and all of a sudden, I’m thinking how I give the Managers ten percent of my monthly earnings, the money I’m paid by them. Just giving it back to them, right off the top.
“Finally, I’m thinking, What have I been thinking? It’s all an angle of view. One day you accept looking down a corridor, not seeing anything but what’s in front of you, what’s laid out for you, and then another day, for some reason or another, you see a crack of light, a window, and you look out of that and realize you’re a fucking idiot. That’s a hard thing to embrace. Lot of people, even if they look out the window, they been believing so hard for so long and wanting this stuff to be true, they just can’t leave the window open. They shut it. I must have shut it a thousand times before I left it open.
“Few months back, I couldn’t see a shooting star or a jet at night without thinking it was Bacon’s aliens coming to pick us up to do war on a distant planet. Had to look out that window a few times before I climbed out of it. Thinking, too: What chance do I, or a lot of those folks out there, have against bad aliens? I couldn’t win a game of Scrabble in a fair fight, let alone whip aliens in an unfair one.
“Been putting a bit of money back since then. Weekly check doesn’t have much left after I pay bills and the tithing. Been eating a donut and coffee free at the shop for breakfast. At home I have a potpie for lunch, and for supper I toast some bread, put some margarine on it. Eating like that, I been able to stash back enough to leave. Haven’t had the guts yet to make the jump. One day I just won’t show up for work. I don’t like the idea of giving notice, because I don’t like the idea of dealing with them over something like that. Hey, maybe I can keep up with you by e-mail or some such, get a connection to a comic-book company. You know, give it a shot. I got some good stories in my head. Trouble is putting them down, you know?”
“That is the trick, isn’t it?”
“I could use a connection, man.”
“I can do that. Here’s a simple question. Do you think the Managers, the Men in Black, Cowboy, are truly dangerous?”
“Know this much—I’m scared of them. I got no direct reason to feel that way. But indirectly, you know, you get vibes. Hear stories here and there. And they may have an inkling that I’m not enamored with their bullshit anymore.
“Here’s another thing. They’re supposed to have been gathering food and guns for years for the travel, for the big battle. Lot of ships are supposed to be coming. Even if some of that stuff they’ve gathered, the food and the guns, are in the warehouse they use outside of town, even big as it is, it should have been filled long ago. A new one would be needed. Think about that. After all these years, they could have filled up the mound, Bacon’s house, the chicken houses, and the warehouse, which they claim is the main place for supplies. They talk about it all the time, how the warehouse is full of food and guns for the great journey, the great war. Everything’s great, by the way. Nothing is so-so in their universe.”
“Do you know for sure that’s the only warehouse they have?”
“When were you last at the Landing Pad?”
“Couple months ago. Place is guarded with a gate. There’s no fence around it, but there’s lots of woods, and the Managers are defending the place. Not many of them, but they’re not carrying switches.”
“I understand there are tourist visits?”
“They recruit that way. There are times for it, and they’re not weekly. They give the tour, which you pay to take, and it doesn’t amount to much. Mostly it’s just folks interested in seeing the place, hearing from the faithful. They lay on the talk heavy, though. All they need to keep going are a few who believe them and are willing to pay regularly for their seat to heaven. Some people have given their life fortunes for a first-class ticket.
“As for me, another hundred dollars or so and I’m hauling. Got a half-ass car that’ll get me away before it breaks down or the tires blow. I can find another job, some place far away from this shithole. Come next Christmas, I’ll forget I ever lived here. Just smelling donuts makes me sick, and like I was saying, I have to eat one every day because it’s free.”
“Don’t they have kolaches?”
“Hate them more than the donuts. Sausage in them is greasy as my old car’s transmission. Yeah. I think I’m going. I calm down a bit, maybe I’ll wait a couple days. I might wait a week or two, stash back the dough. Cheat them on the tithing, pick up my last check, cash it, and go. Yeah. Now that I think about it, I need a couple weeks’ pay.”
When the bill was brought, I paid it. I lifted the saltshaker, and Kevin took the money under it and put it in his wallet.
“One more thing,” I said. “Can you tell me where this warehouse for the goods and such is?”
“Keep in mind that it is way locked up. Security cameras.”
He gave me an address and I wrote it down in a little black book with a big black pen I carried in my coat pocket.
I told him my e-mail and he put it directly into his phone, tagging it with my name.
As we were leaving the café, Kevin said, “Watch yourself, boss. Managers don’t like folks prying, and they don’t like members talking. Maybe I’m making a lot of shit up in my head now that I’ve seen the light, but then again, maybe not.”
On the sidewalk, we shook hands. Kevin walked the opposite way I was going. Walking home, I presumed. Saving gas and the unnecessary balding of the tires on his escape vehicle.
I didn’t offer to give him a ride.
I watched him cross the street and pass by the bank, making good time.
I walked back to my car.