I read an article once on a North American tribe called the “Nacirema.” It was an anthropology piece about these people who spend hours of their day focusing on body care in a single room of their dwellings. If you don’t get the joke, feel free to speak to a reporter visiting another part of the United States asking sensitive questions and feeling entitled.
“How did you like the revival?” I ask Irving Fletcher.
He leans back in the chair in my office, his camera bag resting on my desk among the controlled chaos of paper work. I did not provide coffee.
“Wild time,” he says with a smile on his fat face under the blue Cubs cap. “Those people love the hell out of Jesus, don’t they?”
“Yes they do. Hope you got some good pictures of old time religion here in the South.”
“Nothing that looks really like poverty, though. Everybody all dressed up. Still need to find some real poor people for the article. I asked, but everyone was singing and I don’t think they heard me.”
Few days ago, Mr. Fletcher here came to the library looking for, his words, “poor black people” in our area so he could take pictures of them. Rather than have him set off into the county to get shot in a meth trailer or just people who did not like his phrasing, I sent him to a church revival. Now he is back and I am kinda glad he is not dead.
“Can I change the topic? Got a few new folks in town I think you might have heard of. Wonder if you could tell me about them.”
“I’m sure I don’t know anyone from around here, but I’ll give it a shot. Guess you tried looking them up on The Google.” He says it like I have never heard of the Internet.
“More curious about your perspective. As a journalist. You ever get the scuttle on the Wheeler Outfit?”
He laughs. “You’re kidding.”
“They’re here. Courtney Wheeler is staying down at the Inn on Main with two guys that look like rejects from seventies action films.”
“What does she want in this shi- here?” He stopped himself, but I know what he thinks of our little town. And he is right, parts of this place are a true shit hole no matter how much plumbing we pipe in. But he is also from out of town, so I can not let him get away with it. Nobody picks on family but family and all that.
“She has come, like yourself, to our fine little community to dig up secrets that don’t exist. Thinks there’s something here that ain’t. Not running around digging for gold like a fool, but still she digs.”
“Well, hell, I’d give it to her.”
I open my hands, showing them empty. “Nothing to give.”
“Give her something. You don’t want her around here.”
“Big reporter like you scared of her and the Outfit?”
He leans forward, he brow knit and the Cubs hat high on his head. He taps my desk with a finger. “Look. You wanna know about Courtney Wheeler? All I know is some really spooky shit. Not like the old days in Chicago with gangsters shooting each other up. Wheeler’s once did that. Strutting around in five thousand dollar suits with high class girls on their arms, guns under them. Then Tommy Wheeler went and found her.”
“What makes her different?”
“Like I said, spooky shit. People disappearing and coming up raving like madmen. One guy was running girls on a corner down on Lower Wacker, a Wheeler corner the way I hear it. On their turf without sanction. One day he just goes missing. Wife files missing persons, all that. Two weeks later they find him picking flowers off graves at Graceland. His eyelids were missing and he’s singing about seeing stars. Died two days later from exhaustion. Never slept.”
“And the Wheeler’s did it?”
“She did it. Courtney. Whole mess of stories like that. People from the Outfit going missing, too. She rose up the ranks and they kept making money, even after Tommy died. Big people in their corner. So like I said, give her what she wants.” He pulls the cap down on his head.
“How’d he die? Tommy Wheeler?”
Irving smirks. “In bed. Said they couldn’t get the smile off his face for the funeral so it was closed casket. Others say he looked like death and that’s why. All shriveled up and dry like a mummy. Anybody’s guess, the coroner and mortician both were found the next week. Parts of them, anyway.”
He stands up and looks down at me while putting that camera case on his shoulder. “You seem like an okay guy-” for a Mississippi hick, I fill in “-so give her whatever she wants and pray she leaves.”
I stand and walk him to the door. “You going back out to the county?”
“Hell no. I’m going back to Chicago. Get lost in the crowd and forget you ever brought her up.”
“What about your pictures?”
“Boss can deal with the revival shots or nothing. This place is too strange for me.”
He leaves and I watch him go, thinking about the Nacirema. How looking at a thing from another angle can seem strange and odd. Our little town, hosting someone as dark as Courtney Wheeler, must look ripe for the picking with all our small town secrets. But there’s darker things here, things that burn cold and long and dark. That smolder with anger waiting to be unleashed.
I hope Courtney Wheeler and her body guards do not want me to unleash hell.