What goes by at seventy-five miles an hour beyond the glass barriers of windshields and windows, what catches your eye when everything is whizzing by, Ralph Bettinger knew, was the pearl in the oyster. He prided himself on framing picturesque shots of Americana, scenes found just off U.S. highways, nestled in the heartland.
Yet, everything he saw outside his car was on its way to oblivion. The vintage landscapes of Grant Wood and Norman Rockwell were being swallowed up by a social virus called progress. All those beautiful vistas were vanishing! Indeed, disappearing acts were happening all around him, like his own long-gone youth, like common decency and good music, like Leah.
After Leah died, Ralph determined to record what he could with his camera and leave it as a testament to future generations, detailing a time when journeying involved more than merely driving as fast as the law allowed to reach a destination. He wanted the future to know that at one time, folks found solace in open spaces.
Cruising down an old, Farm-to-Market road in northwest Oklahoma, Ralph pondered the fate of dinosaurs. The great beasts had been destined for extinction by a changing world. That was exactly how he felt. If men like him were categorized by today’s young techno-freaks, they would be labeled obsolete. Sure as hell, the evolution of technology had doomed his kind.
It was difficult to stand alone, or rather, to drive alone from destination to destination without a real sense of arrival. If Leah were still here…Ralph pushed that thought away, turning his attention instead to modernity’s monster eating away more and more of the world where he once lived. One-of-a-kind cafes and shops disappeared daily, replaced by McDonalds and Wal-Marts. The age of cloning, Ralph acknowledged, began long before Dolly, the sheep.
Sooner or later, his antiquated soul would join those already passed. That thought didn’t bother him much. The method of passing might be frightening or unpleasant, but the idea of escape offered some comfort. At least I’ll be with my own kind, the old man thought.
Until then, Ralph vowed to photograph the remnants from his time. “I will record all that I can until I reach the road’s end or until my car quits on me, whichever happens first.” A rusting ’65 Chevy Biscayne parked outside a Craftsman bungalow with a cistern in the yard, a butter churn at a flea market, an empty porch swing in front of a farm house, all were documented with Ralph’s camera.
Ralph didn’t like to stop the car for too long. People grew suspicious of a man standing outside their property with a camera in his hand. He could talk to them and explain his desire to capture a vanishing world with his camera, but the thought of explaining himself made him tired.
“It’s exhausting,” Ralph spoke aloud. More so since retirement, more so since his wife Leah died, more so since he sold his home and converted the proceeds into a gasoline fund. Still, a man had to keep driving if that was what he set out to do. Didn’t he? Ralph raised his hand imploringly from the steering wheel, before answering himself with a silent nod.
Up ahead, a dilapidated billboard caught his eye. Ralph lifted his foot from the accelerator, and the car slowed as he approached the faded image. Flaps of curled paper clung to the board as though staking a claim against time. It deserved a closer look, not a fly-by glance, but a deep study.
“What was it advertising?” Ralph muttered. He felt an old familiar excitement as he parked his car on the side of the road. He was confident he could get a great shot of the wild shrubs growing up beside the furling paper, peek-a-booing through the branches. The woman’s smile was preserved, though one eye was completely gone and her neck seemed to disappear, bleached out by the harshness of too much sunlight.
The billboard, with its fraying advertisement, stood in front of a small copse of trees and brambles. He walked closer to inspect what words, if any, were still visible, noting a familiar slogan: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby.” He raised his camera and focused before the familiar click of the shutter assured him that he got the shot. Shifting a little to the left, he focused his camera again for another take.
He took several shots from different angles, gradually edging into the copse to survey the board from behind. The highway and clouds made an appealing backdrop. As his foot sunk a bit into what appeared to be a dry gully, Ralph spied a small heart-shaped object poking through the red Oklahoma dirt.
It was attached to a key chain. A tug brought it loose from the earth along with its six, rusty keys and a small leather strap, brittle from exposure, with the word, “wow,” etched into it. But it was what Ralph saw beneath the spot where he had uncovered the key ring that caused the old man to jump back, almost dropping his camera. There, in the gully, was a lady’s wrist watch on what appeared to be a skeleton’s hand.
Ralph dug deeper, too intrigued to stop, despite the fact that he knew he should. It was a crime scene, after all, but if not for him, it would still be undiscovered. He figured that gave him some claim to explore a bit more, tantalized by the idea of uncovering something hidden long ago.
After a small amount of excavating, Ralph caught sight of rotting fabric and a partially exposed rib cage. He dug a little more and found the grinning, fleshless skull. The image was macabre and instinctively, Ralph grabbed his camera. He snapped seven shots. It wasn’t charming Americana, but it was worthy of documentation. Maybe more so than anything else he’d seen on his driving odyssey.
How long had that poor woman been there without discovery? Ralph thought of Leah resting in the cemetery lot that they had chosen together. Whoever this was had been denied a decent burial. No headstone, no place for a family to pay their respects. It was a cruel injustice that needed to be rectified. With that thought in mind, Ralph placed the key ring in his pocket and trudged back to his car.
The nearest town was twenty-two miles away. Willkommen, Oklahoma, population 4,850, appeared proud of its German heritage, evidenced by street names such as Muenster Avenue and Berlin Boulevard. An Oktoberfest announcement was placed in the window of a café that advertised a bratwurst lunch special. Ralph liked what he saw. He was of German heritage himself. He had spent many holidays at his grandparents’ home where potato bread and goulaschsuppe and apfel schnee were served regularly. Willkommen revived those fond memories, and despite the gruesome discovery Ralph had recently made, he found himself smiling as he drove around the town square.
The sheriff’s department occupied a highly visible corner location. Ralph parked his car and went inside. There was one large room with several desks, all but two were empty. Two curious faces looked up as Ralph walked in. “Excuse me,” he began, “but I believe I have stumbled upon some human remains just outside of town and–”
“Oh, no,” a heavy, middle-aged, brunette gasped, bringing her hand to her bosom as though Ralph’s words had struck her.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Ralph replied. “About twenty miles east of here. I was stopped at an old billboard to take a picture when I found what I think is a woman’s remains.”
At this point, a tall, young, blonde man rose from his chair. He swaggered toward Ralph with obvious confidence. Cocky, Ralph thought. Power and youth, an unpleasant mixture. The young man put forth his hand. “I’m Sheriff Kurt Eisenberg. Didn’t catch your name.”
“Ralph Bettinger. I am an amateur photographer, and I was just taking a few photographs of your area to include in my travelogue.” Ralph quickly offered his identity and his hobby, thinking an explanation for his activities would establish his credibility.
“A travelogue, huh? And you’re going to include Woods County, Oklahoma? My goodness. We are finally going to be put on the map, Aileen,” Kurt Eisenberg directed his remarks toward the woman before fixing his gaze again on Ralph. “You said ‘human remains,’ right? You sure about that?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Unless livestock around here wear watches and carry key chains.” Ralph responded in turn. He didn’t like being treated like an old coot when he was only doing his civic duty. He reached in his pocket for the heart-shaped trinket on the set of rusting keys. “These were beside the body.” He handed the key chain to the young sheriff who stood studying it without a word of response. Ralph waited for the sheriff to speak and when he didn’t, Ralph continued.
“The skull and ribs are intact. One of the hands has broken off, but I imagine there is enough there to link it to a missing person’s report,” Ralph paused, noticing the sheriff’s attention to the brittle piece of leather. “There’s a word etched on the other side. I believe it says ‘wow,’ which might be helpful.”
“Let me get my hat, and you can show me what you found,” Sheriff Eisenberg said before turning to the older woman at the desk behind him. “Aileen, give Lance a call. Tell him to meet me out by…where did you say you found this?”
“On FM 336 behind a billboard on the south side of the road. The board has an old Virginia Slims ad on it.”
The sheriff turned back to the woman and said, “By Mitch Werner’s place. He’ll see my car. Tell him what you just heard.”
Ralph chose to drive his own car with the sheriff following close behind. He figured he could point out what he had found and then leave the gruesome discovery in the sheriff’s hands. Ralph wanted to locate a hotel for the evening. He was tired and needed to get some rest. He assumed the sheriff might not want Ralph leaving town right away, and that was fine. In fact, it felt rather good to be involved in something important, if only peripherally.
He led the sheriff to the spot behind the billboard. “It’s amazing no animal has dug the bones up and destroyed them. I would have thought a coyote or a dog or something would have smelled the corpse and destroyed it.” The sheriff remained quiet. “The key chain should provide a great clue, as should the teeth. That leather strapped marked ‘wow’ has got to be homemade, and probably by some kid. I’d run that down, if I were you.”
Ralph hated the way his advice sounded. He wasn’t a cop, and he had no training, and here he was telling the sheriff how to do his job simply because the sheriff was a kid. “Sorry,” he apologized.
“For what?” Kurt Eisenberg appeared not to have been listening.
“Well, I was just commenting on the key chain and the leatherwork with ‘wow’ stamped into it. That should be some kind of clue.”
“It’s not wow.”
“The leather piece says ‘mom.’ If you’d turned it right side up, you’d have seen it.”
“Really?” Ralph inquired, curious how the sheriff would have known such a thing.
As if reading Ralph’s thoughts, Kurt Eisenberg explained. “I know because I made it fifteen years ago.” The young man sighed and scanned the sky overhead, avoiding Ralph’s face and the shallow grave as he continued. “It was a Christmas gift for my mother. I gave it to her two weeks before she ran off with a petroleum landman from Tulsa.”
Ralph wasn’t sure what to say. “I’m sorry,” seemed inadequate, but it was the only thing he knew to say.
“All these years, no cards, no calls, no visits. I could forgive her for leaving my dad, but not for leaving me. And now, here she is, back home. Maybe she was leaving that bastard, and he chased her down and killed her.”
“Maybe, but maybe not,” Ralph offered as he considered other possibilities.
The young sheriff made eye contact with Ralph as though really seeing him for the first time. “Well, it’s been so long, I doubt we will ever know.”
Two other vehicles pulled up about that time and parked behind Eisenberg’s cruiser. The three officers listened as Ralph explained once more how he happened upon the shallow grave. Immediately after hearing his account, Ralph was excluded from any further discussion, and after a few more moments, he was dismissed entirely from the scene. He felt both relieved and rebuffed, but he also felt hungry, so he headed back toward Willkommen with the idea of getting a room for the night and something to eat.
Ralph found a room at The Deutschlander, a moderately priced hotel with a restaurant in the lobby that looked out on Berlin Boulevard, the main artery of Willkommen. The convenience of the hotel restaurant suited him. Ruth Anne, an attractive, redheaded waitress, was talkative, and Ralph was grateful. It was nice to hear a living, breathing female voice. Leah’s memory was a comfort, but there was no substitute for human interaction. Ralph casually asked about Kurt Eisenberg, claiming they had just met. Ralph didn’t reveal the reason for their meeting. Instead, he inquired if Kurt had grown up in Willkommen, and when the waitress said that he had, Ralph asked about Kurt’s parents.
“Sue and I worked together at Larry’s Lunch Counter. It’s not called that anymore. Larry died and now, it’s called The Depot,” Ruth Anne explained. “Kurt’s daddy was the sheriff before Kurt. Kurt’s okay, but his daddy was mean, more so when he drank, which he did a lot, especially after Sue left him. But most folks overlooked it. I guess they felt sorry for him, though I’d heard enough from Sue not to waste my pity on the guy. Besides, he didn’t stay lonely. Aileen Watts couldn’t wait to comfort Hank. She and about half the other desperate women in this town.” The waitress smirked.
“Yeah, Hank Eisenberg took advantage of his status as a jilted husband and single parent. But none of the gals were like Sue. Sue was a real beauty.” As Ruth Anne described Sue, Ralph flashed to the grinning skull in the gully. It was impossible to recall that scene and connect it to a beautiful woman. An expression from his German grandmother popped into his mind: “der Tod as Leben schandet.” Death mocks Life.
“A bit of a flirt,” Ruth Anne was saying, “but I never thought she’d bail. It crushed Kurt when she left. That boy loved his mama. She never even called or wrote. I suppose she was afraid Hank would come after her. But to abandon your only child, that’s cold. Anyway, Hank raised Kurt by himself, for which he deserves some kudos.”
“Who did Kurt’s mother take off with?” Ralph asked. It occurred to Ralph that if the man were still alive, he might be able to provide some clue as to how the woman ended up behind a billboard just outside of town.
“The guy was Nolan Deaver, and he was gorgeous. We all thought so. I was only nineteen and looking as good as I ever would, but it was Sue who got his attention.” Ruth Anne paused and pointed out the window in the direction of the establishment where she and Sue Eisenberg had worked together. “That’s where Nolan Deaver liked to eat. He was friendly to all of us girls, but Sue was the one he liked most. Tittle-tattle is what she used to call flirting with the customers for bigger tips. I guess there must have been more than that to it, but I was naive, so I believed her when she swore there wasn’t.”
“Didn’t she have parents or siblings that she contacted after she relocated? Somebody with whom she maintained contact?”
“Sue was raised by her grandparents, and they had both passed on by the time she ran off with Deaver. It’s a blessing, really, that they were already dead because the scandal would have killed them.” Ruth Anne gave Ralph his ticket and then excused herself to seat some other customers. As he reached for his wallet, Ralph made a note of the name Nolan Deaver with the idea that Kurt Eisenberg should question the guy, if he could be located.
The next morning, Ralph had breakfast at The Depot where Sue Eisenberg had once worked. He had his camera with him, loaded with fresh film, as he anticipated photographing some of the more novel spots around Willkommen. The buzz in the diner was about the new Wal-Mart that was being built on the west side of town. Ralph overheard a young girl reporting what she had learned. “There’s going to be a McDonald’s inside the Wal-Mart! Lyle Vickers is on the construction crew, and he said they might put in a drive-through window, too. That way, we can get McDonald’s without having to go inside Wal-Mart.”
The news excited everyone in the diner, except Ralph. The charm of this isolated community would soon fade, Ralph lamented, and nobody in Willkommen had the power or the will to stop it from happening. What they perceived as gain, Ralph perceived as loss, and once more, he felt the intense isolation of his age. As he finished his coffee and paid his check, he weighed the loneliness he felt among people against the loneliness he felt when all alone. Sometimes, it felt like a toss up.
The news was out before the day was through. The skeletal remains found by the Werner farm were believed to be those of Sue Eisenberg, the runaway wife of the late Hank Eisenberg, the missing mother of Willkommen’s present sheriff. Ralph heard it everywhere he went. The name of Aileen Watts, the brunette who worked as a dispatcher for Kurt Eisenberg, came up repeatedly. “Aileen hated Sue. Maybe she killed her,” one older citizen said. “Kurt better locate that fellow she left with. He may be a psychopath. There may be more bodies buried all over Oklahoma. What was his name?”
“Nolan Deaver, wasn’t it?” Ralph volunteered, inserting himself into the conversation.
“Yeah, that’s it. How did you know? Are you the photographer?” The suspicious tone in the questioner’s voice somewhat amused Ralph. Strangers are always suspect.
“I overheard it,” Ralph replied. “And yes, I am the photographer.” He motioned toward his camera. A crowd began to gather and Ralph was asked repeatedly to tell how he came across the remains of Sue Eisenberg.
The more he told the story, the more involved he felt. And the more he learned of Sue and Hank’s volatile marriage. Sue was a flirt, no doubt. Hank was a jealous, controlling husband, empowered by a sheriff’s badge which ensured he wouldn’t be arrested for roughing up whoever triggered his wrath. Aileen Watts had been his mistress and perceived Sue as her nemesis, even after Sue was gone, though most agreed, there was never any real competition.
“Aileen imagined she was more important to Hank than she actually was. Hank had a dozen Aileens,” an old codger volunteered, and those around him agreed, naming a few before someone told them to knock it off. Those ladies were now grandmothers in the community, and what was past was past. Hank was dead and his personal history shouldn’t be dragged up when it could hurt some of those still living.
Because Ralph had no real deadline for completion of his personal travelogue and because he had no strict schedule to keep, he booked his room for a week, waiting in anticipation of news regarding the now infamous Nolan Deaver. No longer in Tulsa, Deaver had been located living in Oklahoma City. An oil and gas landman for Connor Petroleum, he and his wife Donna had four children. He was a member of the Lions’ Club and a Boy Scout Leader. When he learned he was wanted for questioning, Nolan Deaver offered to drive to Willkommen immediately. “To assist in any way I can,” he was quoted as saying, but Ralph noted the inflections used by those telling the story indicated sarcasm.
Nolan Deaver was described as a womanizer, a city slicker, a possible murderer. The people of Willkommen spoke with a conviction that Ralph found frightening. He pondered the xenophobia of the tiny community. It made him wonder if he had romanticized small towns and their charm. Bigotry, self-importance, and small-mindedness were abundant. But where else could you find a waitress as sweet as Ruth Anne or a bakery that charged only a quarter for a cup of coffee? Ralph asked himself these questions as he wandered around the square, observing the crafts on display in shop windows while picking up more than his share of town gossip.
Deaver’s arrival was equivalent to a visit from the governor. Ralph recalled Ruth Anne previously describing Deaver as “gorgeous.” The man stood five foot, ten inches max, with a balding dome and the ruddy face of one who had spent too much time in the sun, surveying oil and gas wells and securing mineral rights from farmers. “Gorgeous,” Ralph thought was the one adjective he would never have applied to Nolan Deaver.
The protocol for criminal investigations might be standard around the country, perhaps, everywhere except Willkommen, Oklahoma. Aileen Watts made sure of that. Kurt Eisenberg interviewed Deaver all afternoon, and Ralph, like the rest of the town, waited for Aileen to report the details. She appeared periodically in the bakery to pick up coffees and pastries.
“He’s such a liar,” she declared on her first visit to the bakery. “Deaver claims he never had an affair with Sue, and we all know he did. My lord, they couldn’t keep their hands off each other in plain sight. She would pat him every time he sat down at The Lunch Counter. It was sickening,” Aileen spewed.
“Sue patted us all, as I recall.” One older gentleman sitting in the corner spoke loud enough to draw the attention away from Aileen momentarily.
“Oh, right, Darryl. She touched you all. You liked that, didn’t you?” Aileen came back. With a tray of coffees, she headed for the door. “But if they weren’t having an affair, why did she leave with him? Can you answer me that?” With that remark, Aileen pushed out the door, not waiting to hear any replies.
“Funny how riled Aileen gets whenever Sue Eisenberg’s name comes up,” someone observed. “You’d think she’d get over it after all these years.”
“It ain’t right to speak evil of the dead,” another voice weighed in.
“Well, it ain’t right to leave a body in a ditch, either. But somebody did just that. Poor Sue.”
“Poor Kurt,” the baker added. “I hope Aileen has the sense to keep her mouth shut around him. He doesn’t need to hear her opinion of his mother.” On that, everyone agreed.
By evening, Ralph had heard several versions of Deaver’s story. But each one maintained his claim that he never had an affair with Sue Eisenberg. A boy named Jody who worked afternoons at the sheriff’s office as Aileen’s assistant, reported to the congregation gathering at the bakery, waiting for more details. “Deaver says that he and Sue were friendly at the diner, but nothing more than that. He did say that Hank threatened him more than once, accusing him of messing with Sue. He’s offered to take a polygraph. Aileen got real indignant when he said that.”
There were more than a few folks willing to put Aileen Watts at the top of the suspect list, but Ralph couldn’t picture Aileen as a murderer. Aileen’s self-image, Ralph surmised, depended on her being a nobler woman than Sue Eisenberg. A murderer was lower than an adulterer. Aileen wouldn’t have been able to judge Sue so harshly if Aileen had committed a worse offense. Her self-righteousness justified her affair with Hank. Hank Eisenberg was a wounded husband and she, Aileen Watts, was his Florence Nightingale. Ralph thought he might ask to photograph Aileen at her desk the next day. There was something about her face that he understood. He wanted to document it so when he felt a surge of self-righteousness coming on, he could quell it quickly by staring into Aileen’s face.
Later that evening while Ralph was having his dinner, Ruth Anne told him, keeping her voice low as though she were conveying a secret, “Deaver’s gone. There was no evidence linking him to anything. Only old rumors, and most of those from Aileen Watts, who nobody listens to.” Ruth filled Ralph’s water glass and then seated herself across from him as though it was natural for waitresses to join diners while they ate. “The thing is, Kurt can’t be objective. Somebody should tell him that.” Ruth Anne stared at Ralph for a moment.
“Don’t look at me,” Ralph said, shaking his head. “I’ve already been the bearer of bad news, and you know what they say about killing the messenger. What has Kurt said? Is he locked into Deaver as the only suspect?”
Ruth Anne glanced up over Ralph’s shoulder before answering. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him yourself?” She nodded in the direction of the door, and Ralph turned to see Kurt Eisenberg heading toward them.
The young sheriff didn’t look near as tough as he had when Ralph first approached him in the sheriff’s office. That cocky, confident kid was gone. In his place stood a shaken, injured young man, and Ralph felt oddly responsible.
“May I join you?” Kurt asked, and Ruth Anne quickly scooted out of the booth making room for Eisenberg to sit down.
“Certainly,” Ralph said.
“An iced tea for me,” Kurt called out to Ruth Anne as he took a seat. “More pictures?” He asked as he glanced over at Ralph’s camera.
Ralph nodded and wiped his mouth before responding. “Yeah, I’ve taken three rolls of your charming town. I’m glad I stumbled onto Willkommen, though I wish I hadn’t been responsible for so much commotion. How’s the investigation going?”
Kurt Eisenberg sighed. There was a tremor in his sigh, and it moved Ralph. He assumed that Kurt knew the truth. Ralph had suspected it all along and now, the son had to deal with reversing the feelings he had carried for fifteen years.
“This case will most likely remain an unsolved mystery,” Kurt began.
“But you know something, don’t you?”
“Maybe, maybe not,” Kurt quoted Ralph’s own comment made early on when they first met, back when Kurt still had his swagger, when Nolan Deaver could still be considered a cad, when Sue Eisenberg was still considered a runaway mother.
“Something always bothered me,” Kurt admitted. “My mom had purchased three new blouses the day before she disappeared. Why would she leave those behind? Those blouses were hanging in her closet with the tags still on for about a week. In fact, all her clothes appeared untouched. Then, they were gone. When I asked my dad about them, he claimed I was mistaken, that my mother had packed up everything before she left. I knew what I had seen in her closet. My dad was lying to me. When I noticed the tags still on those three blouses, I felt confident that my mom had just taken off for awhile. My folks argued a lot. Sometimes, they’d spend the night apart, letting each other blow off steam. But if she had been planning to leave permanently, why buy new clothes and not take them?”
“That does seem strange,” Ralph agreed.
“It was. My dad’s version of events changed over time. He told everybody that Deaver pulled up in front of the house for my mom, arrogantly honking the horn. He claimed she told him she was leaving with Deaver and would not be back. But after talking with that guy, I don’t believe it. Deaver said my dad threatened him one night at the diner shortly before Deaver was to leave town. Deaver said something smart. He wishes he could take it back. He fears he may have triggered my father’s rage.”
“What did he say?” Ralph pushed his plate away and waited for Kurt to relay Deaver’s story.
“He told my dad, ‘if you aren’t man enough to keep your woman, you’ll have to kill every real man that comes along. But even if you eliminate all the competition, you still can’t make her want you if she doesn’t.’ Deaver said he felt real clever after delivering that little speech. He left town thinking Willkommen had a jackass for a sheriff and that he, Nolan Deaver, had for a moment, put the guy in his place. Now, he feels guilty, like maybe he started some trouble that got my mom killed.” Kurt stopped briefly and then added, “I think maybe he’s right.”
Ralph understood that the murder of Sue Eisenberg would probably remain officially unsolved as far as the town was concerned. But Hank Eisenberg had been found guilty by his own son. Ralph’s arrival had given Kurt his mother back, but her return came with a price.
Outside the restaurant, the two men shook hands. “You’ve got a great little town here,” Ralph offered in parting. “Not many left like Willkommen.”
“I wouldn’t know,” the young sheriff replied. “I don’t travel much.” And with that, he gave Ralph a final wave and turned away. Watching Kurt Eisenberg disappear down the street, Ralph doubted the young sheriff would ever want to see Ralph in his town again. And that was a pity, Ralph thought, because he liked this town. Leah would have liked it, too.