OUTSIDE POPLAR BLUFF, Missouri
36.69° N, 90.37° W
Tucker Finney, or “Mother Tucker” as he was introduced to us, has acted as our guide to Missouri. Originally from Arkansas, half an hour south of here, Mother Tucker knows what it is like to be an outsider in these parts. Over coffee one greasy morning, Mother Tucker said, when I first showed-up in Missouri, I was told nothing good happens south of Knob Lick. They were right. I took one wrong turn out of Cape Giradeau, arrived in Poplar Bluff, met a Show-Me State girl who said “show me yours and I will show you mine” and a few months later met her Show-Me State father who showed me his shotgun and… look at me now! Tucker raised his cup of coffee overzealously, spilling its contents onto his hand. Ow. Shit, Tucker hissed. He attacked a coffee stain in his cuff with a wet napkin. Not today, Satan, Tucker said. Anyhow, look at me now, wedded with a brood of Show Me State children who show me nothing but insolence and strange DNA. Just look at me now, he repeated under his breath as he blew on his hot coffee. Poplar Bluff: Gateway to the Ozarks, Bucket to Hell, split the difference…
It was Mother Tucker who told us not to go beyond town’s end after sundown. Definitely don’t go drinking at Barn, Mother Tucker said. Unless you’re looking for women easier than peanut-butter sandwiches. Won’t even need your deodorant.
Barn, conveniently located between jurisdictions, is able to skirt around local dry laws, selling liquor with impunity. They have pool tables, billiard cracked televisions and live synchronized noise advertised as music. Don’t come around here wearing a Cubs hat or, even worse, anything Jayhawk. Locals still trace their lineage back to the heroes of the “Bloody Kansas” antebellum border skirmish, a Civil War appetizer with their Free State neighbors to the west. Tonight, there is a house band fiddling in the corner to the percussion of boot stomps and cue ball clacks. This converted stable is over-lit and smells of alfalfa, leather, owl shit and partially-digested beer.
D’Grasso arrives from the bar with three gins & tonic. Reaching my hightop table, d’Grasso slides one cocktail my way, keeping two for himself. His face recedes with a smarmy grin like a tortoise who’s especially proud of a hard-on. D’Grasso says to me, in Tampa, we have a saying, “he who clutches at straws is already drowned.” He takes the cocktail straws out of his G&Ts and tosses them aside with a chuckle. He then quaffs half of his left-hand gin & tonic. The boozy concoction fills the pelican pouch under his jaw. He spits out a lime rind. His molars crunch residual ice. Hair parted neatly down the middle, d’Grasso is dressed like a Wall Street junior executive in a salmon dress shirt under a gray vest. He is always sweating, but he sweats with greater volume when he watches cowgirls heel-kick on the dance floor. As presently observed. His chins jiggle to the bass of the music. He yells something. What?, I ask. Vic!, he yells, I need to confide something to you. Uh-huh, ‘sup?, I ask. I need to confide something, d’Grasso repeats, adding he wants to confide privately. He checks over his left shoulder before drying a moist brow on a long salmon sleeve. He checks his other shoulder. How’s my six?, he asks. I look behind d’Grasso to find a bar full of Missourians who couldn’t give half a fuck. You’re cool, I say. D’Grasso leans in. I turn an ear to him.
I think I am in love with Little V, he says.
D’Grasso is laughing at the hilarity of it all. To think!, after all these years!, he’d meet the love of his live here!, in Poplar Bluff!, Fucking Missouri!, Little V!, a single-mother at the edge of nineteen!
I wince and exhale hard through my nose. He reads my non-verbal reaction. What?, d’Grasso wants to know, his smile fading. Are you in love with Virginia too?, he asks, cheeks immediately flushed with jealous rage. No!, I shake my head. What then?, he asks, barely calmed. I shrug. I look to the band. There are so many things I could say, but do not. D’Grasso is the kind of guy who shoots the messenger and asks questions later. First and certainly foremost, I’m not going to tell d’Grasso Virginia is fucking Sebastian Bacchus. Sebastian is d’Grasso’s bête noire. Sebastian is also my friend. I worry what would happen if d’Grasso learned of their affair. D’Grasso’s reputation around the corporate office has earned him the nickname of “Lil’ Mussolini”. His only qualities are his mercurial temper and casual viciousness the upstairs overlords find desirable in middle managers. D’Grasso has delusions of grandeur & paranoia fueled by incredible quantities of Diet Coke. I do not, however, worry about d’Grasso using his influence to sink Sebastian Bacchus’ career. Nope. But, if d’Grasso knew the truth about Sebastian and Virginia, he would be on the phone with his mother back at The Villages, FLA, asking her to call her brother in Providence to send a cousin promptly to Poplar Bluff, Missouri, to snip Seb’s Achilles with bolt-cutters and break his thumb-knuckles with claw-hammers. No need for that, I think. Let’s not mention Sebastian Bacchus to d’Grasso at all. Instead, I bring-up the publicly-known datapoints. Virginia is the Sheriff’s goddaughter, I say to d’Grasso. I know, but, d’Grasso admits, nodding, his chins quivering. But…
Poplar Bluff has a mayor and a town council and a chamber of commerce, but who really runs shit around here is a private citizen commonly called “the Sheriff”. Even Sheriff Dobbs, the elected official for Butler County, refers to the Sheriff as “the Sheriff”. The Sheriff is a retired SWAT sniper who built a reputation in Kuwait as “the Dale Earnhardt of Tank Commanders” during Operation Desert Storm. The Sheriff’s scowl is so intense, it has forced most of the hair out of his scalp. The Sheriff is also a church deacon and wears a pistol on his ankle during Sunday service. The least controversial theory about the relationship between Virginia and the Sheriff is she is his goddaughter, orphaned when her father, a veteran tank mechanic, leapt to his death from the Liberty Bend Bridge. Other rumors suggest she is a lovechild sired by the Sheriff and his deranged cousin who lives in a cave in Mark Twain National Forest. Or Virginia is the offspring of the Sheriff’s favorite St Louis hooker who OD’d in a Chesterfield motel room a dozen years ago. Or Virginia is, herself, a St Louis hooker the Sheriff wanted to save by bringing her back to quiet Poplar Bluff to build a new life.
The identity of the father of Virginia’s infant daughter, Bella, is equally murky. Regardless of the Virginia origin theories, most assume Bella is the Sheriff’s daughter.
But what?, I ask of d’Grasso as I spit bits of sawdust sipped from my G&T. What’s the plan, man? He shrugs and tilts his head. He doesn’t know. What are you going to do, bring her to fucking Tampa?, I ask. Maybe, he says. I say, good for you, Grasso. I say this to him reluctantly. I don’t want to encourage him, but I don’t want to be a total dick either. I try to be positive and say, Virginia is a wonderful girl. He nods, chins a-jiggle, he knows this. I ponder his options, saying, Sheriff can’t be bought off. And he sure as shit doesn’t like you. But maybe he can meet an untimely end… lightning or some shit, I suggest, thinking the hope of a natural demise might keep d’Grasso from placing a call to The Villages, FLA. D’Grasso is thoughtful for a moment. He asks me, are you suggesting we kill him? Fuck off!, I say. I am suggesting nothing. Except, maybe, you should play the long-game. Or just walk away.
We sip gins & tonic. We think on Virginia as the cowgirls dance before us. Virginia is young, but clever. If she has a love-triangle of older men around her, this might be intentional, something she is playing to her own advantage. Love triangle?, or is it love square with the Sheriff’s inclusion? A love pyramid? Either way, I’m better off stepping aside and letting this shit settle itself out. A smirking sphinx watching the pyramid implode from afar.
Or should I intervene? D’Grasso may be the underdog with regards to low aesthetic appeal or lack of savoir faire, at least when compared to the classically-educated jock, Sebastian Bacchus, but d’Grasso-as-underdog is not a character worth cheering for. One doesn’t get the nickname “Lil Mussolini” accidentally. The guy may very well be a monster. In an ATL Delta SkyClub lounge, d’Grasso told Sebastian Bacchus and me about the games he would play with his mother when he was a child. The goose game at the Rhode Island country club pool. When his mother was socializing in her dark one-piece bathing suit, d’Grasso would ambush her, grab her breast and then tear-off running, shrilling with laughter. It was so funny!, d’Grasso told us, slapping the table. She would get so mad, d’Grasso confessed from the airport bar. Sebastian Bacchus and I listened to this story, holding our Old Fashioned glasses up to our faces to hide the horror there. What devil humiliates his mother publicly with a terroristic tit-grab? This guy. Lil’ Mussolini.
Virginia is clever enough, though, to see the depravity in d’Grasso. I hope. But is she clever enough to read between the lines of poetry spoken by the lothario, Sebastian Bacchus? Sebastian certainly coveted the company of his young paramour, slipping her in and out of his hotel room without d’Grasso, the Sheriff or Mother Tucker ever catching wind of it. But I knew Sebastian Bacchus had no plans checking extra baggage on his return flight home to Annapolis. His love affair would end between here and St Louis Lambert International Airport.
In my silence, d’Grasso has lost himself in the blurred reflection of the mirror behind bar. Just saying, he says suddenly to me in a nasally whine, I’m going to follow my heart, irregardless of what may come.
I put down my gin & tonic and study the exits. There’s a prophetic cramping in my bowels. I turn to the west and in the fog of airborne sawdust, I see dark sails on the horizon. Sebastian Bacchus is coming at our hightop table like a falling anvil. His oily hips swerve drunkenly, but Sebastian’s eyes are laser-focused. This means trouble. The fuck?, I ask. Fuck’d you do? Sebastian Bacchus says, I pissed on the wrong boots. We need go now. There’s a short-bus posse of curb-stomping sod-punchers fluffing each other into a grand fury in the backroom. We need to go. Now, Sebastian Bacchus says. Fuck’d you do?, I ask again. Sebastian Bacchus sighs before explaining, got fresh on the udders of the blue-ribbon prized cow. D’Grasso, who has been trumpeting giggles through his nostrils at Sebastian’s distress, asks, can you define “fresh”? Sebastian says, I got friendly with a local lass without the consent of her brother-cousins. Now they want to tan my hide and make boots out of the leather. Can we go, already?
Quite the conundrum, d’Grasso says, sitting back on his barstool, relishing the moment. I guess you should have taken the car keys when you had the chance. Meanwhile, I still have another cocktail to drink.
You fucking weaselly cunt, Sebastian says to d’Grasso, you fucking mother-titty-twisting cherub-faced bitch.
Duly noted, d’Grasso chuckles, his jowls bouncing with glee. Dude!, I say over the din of the marching Missouri hill people. I reach for diplomacy. I reach too deep. What if?, I ask d’Grasso. What if Sebastian helps you get a date with Virginia? Ha!, d’Grasso laughs. Why would she listen to a silly brute like Bacchus?
Sebastian Bacchus, meanwhile, recognizes my exit strategy. He might’ve been plotting to strangle Lil Mussolini and take the keys from the fat man’s lifeless pocket, but perhaps this is another way out. A deal with a lesser devil. I can guarantee you one date, Sebastian Bacchus declares. At least two hours, one-on-one, you and Virginia at the Taco Hut. You pay, I drive and I wait at the bar.
D’Grasso’s cheeks quit quivering as he leans forward. His eyes stare at Sebastian Bacchus, mulling over the offer. D’Grasso counters, you pay, you drive, you wait in the car and you have a deal.
The two shake hands briefly, parting quick, a mutual disgust of shared palm sweat. We get the fuck out of Barn.
High-beams and floodlights follow us on the trip back to Poplar Bluff. It’s an escort, driving us out, headlights screaming at the back of our heads, not today, Satan!