My mind was hurtling along at breakneck speed, so I did not quite pick up on what Happy Jack… or whoever he was…was asking me.
I was too busy looking around the would-be radio station—a simple one-room building, not as big as my kitchen with unpainted concrete block walls, a slanting card table with one gimpy leg, two folding chairs, and a rusty filing cabinet.
There was nothing here that even remotely resembled radio equipment…not that I had ever seen any in person…but I knew what a microphone looked like and this “station” boasted nary a one. How exactly where they going to broadcast?
“Well, Mrs. Higginbottom, have you?” Happy Jack asked, all the while stuffing tattered file folders and roadmaps into a cardboard box.
“Have I what?” I asked, hands on hips, my no-nonsense stance.
My stern face did not rattle Happy Jack in the least. He tilted his head to one side and held up his thumb, artist-like, as if to size me up.
“Have you ever thought about being on the radio?” he repeated and went back to packing.
“No, I’ve never thought about being on the radio. Why would I?”
He took a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his forehead, then plopped down on a folding chair.
“Zeke says you’re a legend in this town…for your singing. He told me about the time the church choir was on tour and the bus broke down and you hopped on a train and went ahead alone and gave the entire concert as a solo performer. That true?”
“Yes, it’s true,” I said. “It’s also true that there are two detectives in Hog Holler at this very moment looking for you, Mr. John McMullen.”
At the mention of his real name, I expected he would dash out to the car and hightail it to the highway. But that wasn’t what happened.
He only rubbed his forehead. “Wow. That takes me back. Haven’t used that name in a while.” Then he stood and went back to his papers. “Let me guess. Sims and Fontana?”
“Yes,” I spluttered. He already knew? “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of here. They know who you are and where you are, and they’re coming for you.”
He folded in the sides of the box. “It’s all right. I won’t be here much longer.”
“How many names have you made up anyway…when you come into nice little towns like this and con good hard-working folks?”
“Oh,”—he was maddeningly calm—“half a dozen, I guess.”
“You weren’t ever going to finish this radio station, were you?” I asked.
“I thought I might this time. This is the closest I ever came, mostly because of your husband.”
Edging toward the door, I intended to prevent his escape if at all possible.
“What do mean by that—‘because of my husband’?” I demanded.
“Because,” he said, turning the card table on its side, and folding in the rickety legs, “he drummed up so much business for me. He was going to form his own band. Did you know that?”
“Band? He said he was going to have a morning talk show.”
“That, too.” Toting the card table to the door, Happy Jack leaned it against the wall. “He talked Shorty Hawkins into learning mandolin, Curly Phelps into the harmonica, and let’s see”—gazing up at electrical wires dangling down from bare rafters, he tapped his finger to his chin—“George Hoover into learning the fiddle.”
“I…didn’t know that,” I said, wondering if mid-life crisis was catching.
“Would you tell Zeke I said goodbye?” he asked, walking over to the box. “He would’ve made a great banjo player, if we’d had a little more time.”
“Zeke?” I asked. “He’s been taking lessons for weeks and still can’t play anything but ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star.’”
“But he puts his soul into it, doesn’t he?” Happy Jack asked, lifting the box. “That’s what makes a great musician. The rest of it is just fingering. Anybody can learn how to do that.” He nodded at the door. “Would you get that for me?”
Pondering the music in Zeke’s soul, I put my hand on the doorknob. “I don’t suppose it would do any good to ask for the money Zeke paid you for the lessons.”
“I could give you a refund,” he said, “but then I wouldn’t have money to put gas in the car, so I can leave your charming little town behind. Besides that, Zeke got his money’s worth.”
“Got his money’s worth? There isn’t going to be any band, much less a morning talk show.”
“No,” Happy Jack said. “But he got to dream a little while, and you can’t put a price on that.”
In spite of myself, I was mesmerized by the notion. When was the last time I’d dreamed about anything, but the kids doing their homework without arguing or fifteen minutes to myself after I’d finished the supper dishes?
In the end, I stepped aside, holding open the door so Happy Jack could clear out before Detectives Sims and Fontana could nab him. I watched him drive away.
I closed the door on WHOO. No need to lock it. There was nothing left inside. Except a broken dream and nobody wanted one of those.
To Be Continued