◊ A Shallow Grave (II)
The newspaper clip from the Argus, a weekly newspaper published in early 20th Century, in a sleepy, oceanfront Florida town, beguiled him. The tolerable Argus eventually vanished from the racks and the stores no more than three years afterwards, unable to ply wares against the new Journal, a daily newspaper, brought out not only every morning, but every afternoon as well, cresting like breakers o’er the proud notion of the thirteen hundred or so peripatetic, largely winter-borne, generally hot, and bothered townspeople, who also lived in his birthplace; the young gadflies of the Journal were more poised to shoulder the heavy lifting of the dawn of a new century, the 1900’s, they believed, and better yet, vowed to take the battle against a Florida sales tax.
There was a mystery hidden in the news clip from the Argus microfilm, which returned to him inexplicably years later in Coney Island; it became a daydream of sorts, with different beginnings, middles, and endings. He had been scanning the Argus at Marsh College library, and admiring how it was distinctly verbose, and how it embellished the times. This brief news story was dated to early 1904, and reported an incident in the town, a shooting at a waterfront motel.
He photocopied it, apparently, as Thursday afternoon, as it fell from his satchel to the floor of the Coney flat. He was enamored with it, reading it, spreading it out on the kitchen table, like a Cracker Jack prize, folded it, smoothed it, refolded the corners, and even rubbed it with his hands, as if may help him glean more information, to no avail.
It said the victim of the shooting had rented a room for the weekend at a Mom & Pop motel; the latter was a “gold mine,” with two stories, a new, and grassy court, with a yard, or courtyard, and a swimming pool facing the Atlantic Ocean. It speculated the victim, to his credit, was possibly weighing enlistment in the Service, as a world war was certainly impending, sure to begin in the ensuing years of the term of Theodore Roosevelt, it claimed; people should stay tuned to the news pages. The paper said the “flagitious,” or villianous “crime,” remained unsolved; importantly, it involved a “tourist” from the state of New York, which made the “infraction of the perpetrator” clearly “the devil’s work.” Sources maintained the “perp” was possibly a “transient Crow Indian,” or “even a Seminole,” because one was spotted at the property, and not “conducting any business, or recreating”; there were statements from sundry witnesses, many of whom were out-of-town, and vows from the town’s officials, but no one was entirely sure, or ready to solve the crime.
The townspeople who were usually certain about these things. They could not agree if the fatal shots had come from the unknown, unidentified member of a more indigenous “Woodlands Indians” or a Miccosukee, which was far more likely, as they lived much closer to the town, as opposed to a Crow and Seminole; all of Florida’s Indian population was a studied matter of the residents in this day. They ultimately resolved the crime was the work of a “northern Indian,” a Cherokee, or a Mohawk, but the truth of the matter seemed to dry with the ink of the newspaper page.
The woman who operated the motel’s telephone switchboard was named Melody. He searched for subsequent stories on the internet, and the Argus said Melody was “known to be a firebrand,” who had tried to join the high school’s softball team under a false pretense, a “haircut.” She was implicated thusly in the sordid matter, and decency, when it became a matter of “scalps,” the paper said, should be “swiftly eschewed,” and her name, Melody, which was “admittedly immaterial,” was shortly repeated by a host of sunburned men, and women, who toted umbrellas on the seashore, and hummed her presumed guilt as a bromide; natives, along the solitary sand road of the town, which was still tucked in the woods of the Atlantic coast, knew Melody, and complained for publication, “she couldn’t carry a tune with a pick-up truck.”
There were inevitable rumors of “a tryst,” and a “rivalry.” It put Melody, the strange New Yorker, and the “perp” in the “same place, at the same time.” The unfortunate Yank had reportedly “a taste for Colt, and Browning handguns,” a new fact brought in an exclusive by the Journal, the same week in 1906 the Argus expired. The telephone switchboard operator, Melody, for her part, had seen the man, not the New Yorker, the presumed victim, but the stranger, a transient, and swore to the sheriff he was an “Indian brave, — probably a Sioux.” Troublesome was Melody recanted, however slightly, and to their dismay, when, informed she could testify, Melody added how, the more she thought about it, “it might have been a guy from Barbados.”
The cliffhanger became less visited, and more complex in the ensuing months, and years; the townspeople sighed in fear they may never have a 100 percent of the facts, which was necessary, if they were to live on the Florida “frontier.” To date, and complicating the matter, no body was ever found; gun shots were heard in the motel, and the adjoining motel, and somehow a mainland diner; the motel next door, in fact, was owned, and operated by a “very reliable” woman, the wife of a town councilman, who reported she had not “seen” anyone, but was completely sure he arrived “early in the morning, around four o’clock.”
The Journal hoised the slack of coverage thereafter, and, in a police report, said the “law” suspected now a dead body had been transported at “sunrise,” somewhere else on the east coast by train; a makeshift posse had been formed, and it searched the train stop, and “threw wide open all of the sliding doors” in a painstaking way over a period of several hours. The Journal conceded, in a sidebar, it had been annoyingly pointed out how the suspected train was a Boston & Maine envoy, and not a regular, local convoy of the Florida East Coast railway, which had been the subject of the search. He was enjoying the account during his Thursday morning office hours at Marsh office, and, looking up, he noticed a student pass his office window. He wondered how it actually ended, the investigation, and if somebody else have been in the motel, and then chuckled, “Like who, Bogie?”
He decided it was more of a story than a crime. But, the Journal, in another missive, claimed “the mystery engulfed all corners,” and was now “inclusive of the congregation of the town’s (only) church.” They had learned about it somehow; and, they were “stunned” the crime remained unsolved. Members sadly brokered a potential revelation none of them had yet ventured to ask: Was the victim was alone in the motel room? Or did the stranger from New York manage to procure the company of the telephone operator, named Melody. The minister who was quoted intentionally did not allude to the persisting rumor of a tryst, a rumor originally fostered by the now-defunct, and much more family-oriented Argus. The church minister was caused to intervene to help “diffuse” the people’s visceral fears, in the wake of a looming “war of the worlds.” He proclaimed “any imminent Indian attacks could be prevented, if they did occur.” Newspapers quotes, he knew, did not always make sense. The minister helped the congregation escape their flabbergast on Sunday, by reminding them how ultimately the residents “all knew a great many Indians, and they usually liked them much better than each other.” The gathering was admirable in its show of collective grimaces, and nods. The church resolved peace could be restored, if the minister was inclined, just maybe, as he was asked after the service, by the elders, to conduct a séance, “maybe on a weekday,” and ask the departed victim himself who had perpetrated this crime.
Alas, this was the cleric’s home turf. He protected it. He filled the lobby and the elder’s ears with his bellowing voice, saying, “all sins are forgiven,” and how thus, from seance experience, “deceased people hardly ever remember how they die.” He could only now avail the possibility of viewing the “gory pictures from the Argus,” of which, there were very few. He told them the “harsh daylight was glowing upon this sin, and all of Florida,” as it was May. It demonstrated the “abiding truth of the Commandments,” and it showed they were “also darn good suggestions.”
Losing his awareness, and surprised by it, he heard the chief of the Lenape say, loudly, “Choose!’”
His did not take the Lenape seriously, and, on a Friday, took scarcely anyone seriously. This was occasionally a problem. They called him “pale,” and, in his fog, claimed he was “afraid of deer.” He could not recall a time he was stared down by the dark glares of a buck; moreover, the Lenape had strange habits. They refused to use a word if it began the letter, “f.” They hailed Mesingw, the Lenape Mask Spirit, who was the protector of all animals of the forest, including the deer. It was contradictory.
Nonetheless, he watched, remembering the situation, growing more comfortable in his cloud, the eldest woman of the tribe, gathered blithely at the bonfire, rise and amplify the chief’s request, “Choose now!”
“What is the choice?” one of tribe asked.
“Life, or death,” she posed.
The final weeks of the story from the Journal, which had gained the attention of the church, drew all manner of truth, and fabrication; they pursued snippets from anyone and everyone near the motel that night. One of the younger reporters ascertained the possible travels of chief Osceola, from “central Florida” to the nearby county, and asked the public if “anyone else” had seen him; it was not one of the paper’s greatest moments, the native, annual trick about the travels of Osceola’s head, and it definately seemed unluck to suppose; another editorial offered the “front page, and a jump page” to anyone who could detail the “steamy encounters occuring nowadays between tourists, and our residents at these new, oceanfront motels. The latter offended the church, and banned the Sunday Journal for a week.
The controversy did claim Melody. She was unable to successfully defend her reputation, packed her life in two suitcases, and eventually relocated, first to Jacksonville, and then further north. Her last straw was the published quotes of the councilman’s wife, the one who owned the next-door motel, who was “sure as a Cheshire cat” the switchboard operator had spent “the whole night” with the stranger from New York. (She didn’t submit the exact details, it was later unearthed, — she had viewed Melody slowly removing her dress, after a clench with the New York tourist — because the binoculars she used to witness them were need for her daily birding, and she feared they would be confiscated into evidence.) People felt the councilman’s wife was not the greatest witness, based upon the profit motives of an competing establishment; but, she told friends at the diner, she watched Melody many a night, late into the evening, and she was definitely was of the habit of dispensing with her clothing, and sprinting out onto the beach; one of those nights, the woman was sure Melody had disappeared in the ocean.
There was an answer in the newspaper clip, and it daunted him Thursday, well into the night. He actually knew the answer, in a midlight, or a parallax, it was there, somewhere; in a time when “anything” was “everything.” He did not know what he knew, but he was sure of it. He would see her. He could ask her. But fate is treacherous, the “darkest evening of the year”; to finally find the answer, — what answer? — was to realize knowing was useless, and it was better to never go, or to tempt it. Fate was stark, and colored in black, and white; while a journey to nowhere was always in living color; fate lies a shallow grave. He awoke the following day, Friday, on the couch in front of the television set, having finally dozed, in general agreement with Neil Young: “rust never sleeps.”
“Wake up,” the medic beckoned. “Wake up!”
The second command was unheard; the Coney Island man saw through glassy, dizzy eyes a glimpse of the underside of a water buffalo, which was tied by the Lenape to a nearby tree nearby. He pondered if it was a water buffalo, or what kind of animal it might be, and muttered, “Hmpff.” He decided it was imperative for him to stay awake, and maybe free it, else, a “pale” man, he could be mistaken by the Indians for the large, grayish-brown animal.
The elder Lenape woman felt a need to explain. She said, “We can decide to die in the aura of the Great Spirit. Or we can choose to live, in our own time, and can follow our own path in His service. But we may die.”
No one responded to her; their middling protests were muffled. He could see the tribe members, say, ten of them, gathered at the fire. He heard himself ask them at dawn, if any of them were dead, and one said, commonly, “Some are dead, some are playing dead, and some are supposed to be, but they’re confused.” The native blinked, content with the answer, however confounding.
The elder focused on him, the pale man. “What is your choice?”
He hoped she would skip him. He said, “This is a great honor.”
“Yes, it is!” the elder responded. “So choose!”
“What is the choice?”
“If you choose to live, you will live many, many years in the service of the Great Spirit, possibly die, and become part of the earth.”
“How many years?” he heard him ask.
“Years, and years. Nobody knows.”
“Or,” she said, “You could choose death. You’ll eventually become a part of the horizon, and you’ll live in the aura of the Great Spirit. You must choose, so we know.”
“Ahead of time,” he clarified.
“Yes. You may sit, if you choose to live, or stand, if you wish to die.”
He asked, “That doesn’t make sense.”
He stood and stumbled, in the light of the bonfire, unsure if he had really made a choice, but, feeling forthright, he joined three braves, and a squaw in a stomp dance.
The church minister was quoted by the Journal a month later playing devil’s advocate, opining the New York tourist could actually have been “some kind of a hero,” or “even a martyr”; or, conversely, “He deserved his due.” Fewer, and fewer rose to debate the matter, in public, or private; many readers, the meek of the congregation, felt the minister’s words should be taken to heart, simply because he had gone to the trouble of saying them.
The town fathers took control of the floor in a Journal op-ed, insisting to the town, essentially, if no crime had been committed, it should be forgotten.
The newspaper lastly suggested the shooting could have been a “robbery,” or “just a silly accident.” The visitor from New York was, “a subtantial, and well-known collector of beautiful Colt, and Browning pistols.” He may have been trying to clean one, and it “clipped him.” He could have only fired the pistol in the motel room, like “at the ceiling, or out the window.” He probably made his way out of town. The Indian, who was “innocent, until proven guilty,” could have been his guest, and probably joined him at the train station.
The summer months were arising in the end, after the town fathers held forth, a time of a “weather,” demanding “courage” from the town; there would be “great flashes of lightning,” and “stubborn gales.” The town’s magistrate observed a somnambulent court room, considered making a count of the dwindling number of winter residents therefore, and issued the open floor to any witnesseses to the crime; seeing only an elderly man, with a newspaper on his lap, who was drifting towards sleep, the judge closed the official case. ◊
¤ JUKE BOX ¤
Theme: “Powderfinger,” Neil Young | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 51-,” a myopic vaile (No. 59)
..… from “^; or, CARET,” III of III,
The Echo By Seas; & Other Stories, by Soda Tom,
[Complete Works, No. 01]. Copyright (C) 2017-20, ff.
All Rights Reserved.
Created by Soda Tom