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Confessions From Shaquapakwa
by Matt Herlihy


Thumbtacked to the back wall of Peggy's Coffee Shop in downtown Shaquapakwa, Wisconsin, is a framed dollar bill commemorating Peggy's first sale eighteen years ago--a glazed doughnut and black coffee. The dollar is crooked in the frame, but no one has ever said anything about it. Around here, it fits right in.

People say Shaquapakwa has been a little off the mark from the very beginning. When the first white man explored the area in 1804, he adopted the local Indian tribe's name for the place. In the now-obscure Pakwa dialect, the name translated, "where the land meets the water." But the folks up the interstate at Elk Harbor say the leader misspelled the original name on the charter. They'll tell you the name "Shaquapakwa" actually translates, "where the land meets the biscuit."

For years the people of this town have not only expected the unusual, they've learned to love it. No one minds that the ashtrays at Peggy's say "Best Western" on the side. Folks have gotten used to people like Father O'Flaherty over at St. Mel's Church, whose nervous twitch enables him to discuss mortal sin and wink playfully at the same time. Around here if anyone were ever caught trafficking, he'd likely be sent to driving school.

So nobody was particularly surprised the day Jasper Dixon died. Death was as real to these people as taxes or livestock. It wasn't the old man's passing on that stirred up curiosity--it was that he just disappeared.

The news broke on an otherwise uneventful Thursday morning in the fall. The youngsters were back in school, and the air was fresh with the smell of burnt leaves and the grunts of 150-pound football players. Peggy was brewing the second pot of coffee of the morning when the foreigner strolled in, the rusty old door bell clanging behind him.

First off, if you wore a tie in Shaquapakwa, it meant you were either dead, Lutheran, or both. It didn't take long before the locals picked you out as a violator of the unwritten Flannel Code. But the visitor wore a pressed shirt with a tab collar, and a flowered tie. A carnation sat in his lapel, and he wore a gold pocket watch on a chain. He carried a cane, yet seemed to walk just fine.

You could tell how old he was from the smile. Our old friend Harlan, who passed away last year, knew what the smile of an elderly gentleman meant. "The older you get," he'd say, "the less you care." The grin on the stranger's face, gold tooth and all, made it pretty clear that his caring days were long behind him.

Removing his hat, the man made a slight bow to Peggy, who was already pouring him a cup of coffee. "A good morning to you, ma'am. Coffee black, and a croissant, if you please."

Now Peggy was no spring chicken herself--her second daughter was married off last spring. But even to her, the stranger seemed like a fellow from a black and white movie. He moved slowly and carefully. His words were polite and distinguished. And Peggy blushed, seeing as she hadn't been called "ma'am" in years.

She poured his coffee into a Howard Johnson's mug. Giving him the croissant, she couldn't help but laugh. The way he had said "croissant," she thought for sure he had sounded ready to sneeze.

The man sipped the coffee, leaned back, and grinned. "Well I do declare. Coffee as delectable as the young lady who has poured it."

Again, Peggy was charmed. The locals were used to seeing her trudge around the shop each day, like an old nun at a mixer. Some had gone so far as to call her "Square Peggy," usually behind her back. But now, she was beaming.

"You're mighty chipper this morning, Peggy," said Cal Fisher.

"Yeah, we haven't seen you this happy since your mother-in-law died," said Mrs. Hatch.

"This coffee ain't pouring itself," said Eddie the Wild Man.

Peggy blushed and gave the boys a quick glare. Then she poured the stranger more coffee, even though his cup was over half-full.

"A fine town you've got here, my dear," said the stranger.

"Why, thank you rightly," said Peggy. "What brings you to Shaquapakwa?"

The man tilted his head back, as if hesitant to tell the whole story. It was that knowing look of someone who knows something you don't. But then, he did.

"I've got a little business to attend to here in town." He smiled once more, and sipped his coffee.

Cal Fischer leisurely left his booth to grab a seat by the stranger. "Well, well--a newcomer in town," he said. "Friend, welcome to Shaquapakwa, home of the world's third largest ball of twine."

Father O'Flaherty approached the foreigner. "Fourth largest, actually. The Japanese have one now that puts Old Twiney to shame." Cal appeared hurt for a moment.

Mrs. Hatch chimed in, smiling at the stranger. "But we've still got the one and only Hiccup Man Memorial Museum."

"Yes, sir," added Cal. "Built in the memory of the late Cletus Spriggs, world record holder for hiccuping. Forty-two years straight."

The stranger was startled. "Dear me. Was this Mr. Spriggs ever cured?"

Eddie the Wild Man leaned in close. "As Cletus aged, it seems the hiccups came at more frequent intervals. Needless to say, after forty-two years the poor lad could hardly breathe. He only made this incessant clicking sound and bounced about the room."

Cal was close to drooling. "They had to tie him in his chair!"

Peggy scowled and filled the stranger's cup. "Please forgive these folks, sir. They mean well." She glared at the crowd that had formed with that look that only a waitress can give.

"Now you seem like a helpful young lady," the stranger remarked. A few of the folks at the counter laughed quietly, hearing the word "young" again with regard to Peggy. She didn't seem to mind a bit. "Could you tell me where a gentleman might have his shoe repaired around here?"

Before she could begin, Cal Fisher turned and spoke. "Why, Jasper Dixon's your best bet in these parts. Been fixin' shoes since before I was born. He's just a block down Main Street."

The man turned to look Cal up and down. Cal's brown hair was tucked into an old Mack truck hat, and his overalls were worn and faded. Even at the not-so-ripe age of twenty-six, he smiled like he was already old enough not to care a whole lot. And he spoke with such sureness, you'd think he'd traveled the world over. In truth, Cal Fisher had only been out of the county once, and some say even then it was just because he got lost.

The stranger frowned, and seeing this, so did Peggy. "I have heard good things about this Mr. Dixon, my friend," he said. "But this morning, his shop was just plain shut down! Closed on a Thursday morning!"

You could say privacy is less than sacred at Peggy's. When the old man mentioned this unusual fact about Jasper's shop, silence spread as thick as buttermilk. Father O'Flaherty began winking heavily, while Mrs. Hatch, still in full cow-milking garb from the morning, awaited the juicy gossip to come. Next to her were her son Ned and Eddie the Wild Man. All were staring at the stranger oddly, with tilted heads and here and there a raised eyebrow.

Father O'Flaherty spoke first, all but body-checking Cal out of the way. "Now here, here we have an unusual situation. A local craftsman laying to rest his labors, and not even on the Sabbath! A clear-cut case of flagrante delicto!" He winked twice, obviously concerned by this happening.

Cal shrugged, and Eddie outright sighed. Father O'Flaherty was that frustrating type of fellow who peppers his speech with foreign terms, not worried about whether or not they're the proper ones to use. If Father really had caught Jasper Dixon in flagrante delicto, he'd be winking like a tart at the USO.

By now Father's winking had in fact accumulated, to the point where he was quite fired up. "But how can this be, friends, unless Brother Jasper had some sort of ill--nay, some cruel affliction!"

Peggy gave Father a queer look. Jasper Dixon, for as far as anyone could remember, had been the only colored fellow in Shaquapakwa. To hear Father O'Flaherty refer to him as "Brother," well, it just sounded a little odd.

Cal spoke up next. "You know, old Jasper has been acting a bit odd lately. Why just last week he was fixing my old moccasins, when he looked up at me. He's got those dark eyes, you know, that tear right through you. He says to me, 'Time waits for no man.' And he laughs!

"Well, just this morning I received a note in the mail. Jasper's very phrase was scrawled out on a piece of paper, with no signature. Like some kind of message, you know? I'll be darned if I know what to make of it."

The group nodded silently. Mrs. Hatch leaned in toward the stranger. Her red hair was hidden in a bandanna, and her forehead was covered by those lines of worry you might find on a politician. "Why Cal, the same thing happened to my boy last week. Jasper was at work on little Ned's boots, when out of the clear blue sky he says something about time and a pocketful of change."

"Time is but a measure of change," the stranger said.

Mrs. Hatch nodded. "Like I said." She looked at Cal with wide hazel eyes. "And sure enough, I got a note this very morning with the same line on it. The writing was shaky, but I could make it out. It seems Jasper had some big confounded secret to tell."

Eddie the Wild Man removed a much-folded sheet of paper from his pocket, and slapped it onto the counter. "I ran into Jasper last week at the library. He was reading Kafka, which is always a bad sign. Then this morning, this came in the mail." He held up a piece of creased paper. "'The great leveler beckons,'" he read. "And in the same disjointed handwriting. Kafkaesque indeed."

Father O'Flaherty joined in, producing a similar note. "'I fear the reaper,'" he whispered, winking. "The epistle came just days after Brother Dixon was in confession. He said to me, 'Life isn't one thing after another. It's the same thing over and over.' Rather macabre, really."

An odd silence followed. The five exchanged curious glances, while the stranger appeared to observe keenly.

Then little Ned raised an arm, in his hand a similar page, and the room was silent once again. He was hardly an imposing figure--small for a ten-year-old, with red hair in a three-week crew cut from Arlo the barber, and a flannel shirt. But he somehow commanded attention.

"Jasper Dixon has realized his own mortality," he said plainly.

And he was right again. You see, Ned never said a word until his second birthday. He never cried, and hardly ever did he change his expression. It was attentive all right, but at the same time detached, like he was tuned in to another channel. Ned Sr. and Mrs. Hatch tried everything--clapping, sneaking up on him, yelling at him--but it was no use. Finally when Ned turned two, Mrs. Hatch had a little party. Nobody came, of course--who would be friends with someone who never talked? So she got all hysterical, crying and yelling at poor little Ned. "Why?" she finally sobbed, "why ain't you never said anything?" Ned looked at his mother and, clear as day, said, "I've simply had nothing to say."

Hoover Elementary School expelled Ned when he was nine. It seems he hadn't answered a teacher's question since kindergarten. He would only stare blankly, or speak in different languages. He would translate entire spelling tests into Sanskrit. The teachers simply didn't know what to do with him. So nowadays he helped out around the farm, reading a full book every night. Although no one would ever say so, everybody knew Ned would be someone when he grew up. Trouble was, he already had.

So when Ned spoke his mind that day, no one argued. When Ned Hatch spoke, it was worth your while to listen. This was no exception.

He stood for a moment in silence. With his arm raised, he looked like a statue in a park. Slowly the folks around the counter began to nod in agreement.

Noticing that the conversation had come to a lull, the local sheriff Miles Breen broke the silence. He had entered just minutes before, but talk of Jasper Dixon's eerie notes had prevented anyone from noticing the clang of Peggy's rusty old bell on the door. Seated now at the counter's edge, he had a worried expression and spoke quickly. "Friends, I have unfortunate news. Jasper Dixon, the shoe repairman, passed on at 9:25 P.M. last night. Heart attack. Died in his rocking chair." He pulled out a note resembling those of the others. "Left a series of notes in a mailbox outside his house just before returning home to expire. Funeral Saturday. Very sad." Upon mentioning the mailbox, he shook his head quickly, headed straight for the counter and grabbed a doughnut. "Very sad." Sheriff Breen was not a big fan of complete sentences. He was in his forties and handsome, yet a bit overweight from Peggy's free doughnuts. Years of police reports and CB calls had made him so concise, he never wasted a word. Rumor had it that when the Sheriff got married, he didn't say "I do," he just nodded.

Father O'Flaherty raised his hands in the air. "This is unheard of! A parishioner dies, and his pastor is not notified? Spiritus sanctus!"

The others stared blankly at Father. In truth, he was always the last in town to know anything. Nearly everyone in town was his parishioner, so he had so many secretaries, all he ever had to do was dress up and go through the motions. See, if you lived in Shaquapakwa, you were Catholic by default--St. Mel's had somewhat of a monopoly on the souls of the town. But folks here didn't seem to mind. They liked the songs, the statues, and especially the ritual. The Catholic Church never surprises you. Our friend Harlan said it best before he passed on: "I like religion. It's good for the kids, and it makes funerals more fun."

Needless to say, the gang at Peggy's were taken aback. The man whose weathered and friendly face they had seen for years was suddenly gone. Peggy was close to tears. The Sheriff's head was bowed in reverence. Mrs. Hatch and Father looked just plain confused, and Ned and Eddie the Wild Man stared blankly at the counter. Cal was eating a muffin.

Mrs. Hatch spoke up. "It's the strangest thing. You never know when your number is up."

"He was such a sweet man," said Peggy. "Never lied to anyone, always had a smile...why, just the other day he said to me, 'Care for a shine?' It was so civil."

"And he sure could fix a shoe," said Cal, finishing his muffin.

"I heard Jasper was the first in his family to go to college," said Peggy. "He studied shoe repair at Elk Harbor Community."

"Junior college," said Ned Hatch, "is a high school with ashtrays."

Once more the shop was silent. Finally Mrs. Hatch said, "Ned, sometimes I don't know whether to laugh or cry." Again Ned looked upward and shrugged.

Eddie the Wild Man ran a hand through his thick long hair. He was one of those unfortunate souls whose hair grew upward rather than falling down. He hadn't had it cut in a good decade, so it was quite tall. Eddie had a long beard and was not exactly a slave to fashion, freely mixing plaids and stripes. Folks called him a wild man simply because even at age twenty-eight, he never seemed to have any responsibility. He would walk through the streets of Shaquapakwa, having conversations with most anyone. Actually he lived comfortably and was quite intelligent and witty. If anyone in town had a bad feeling for Eddie, it was envy for his carefree lifestyle.

The Wild Man leaned back. "It would seem that the shoe man has kicked the bucket." He laughed loudly.

"For God's sakes, Edward, have some manners!" said Peggy.

Cal squinted at Eddie. "Yeah, Ed. Let the poor man die."

Eddie was still laughing. "I can see the old dog now--an angel in wing-tips! Good thing he was a hard worker--I hear St. Paul doesn't like loafers!" He was roaring.

Father's head was in his hands. "Brother Edward. Do try to be civil!"

The laughing quieted down as Eddie began shaking his head. "You people don't understand! For you he's been dead for years! When was the last time you really had a conversation with Jasper Dixon? He's nothing to you but another face. You're eulogizing a man you never knew!"

"He sure could fix a shoe," Cal repeated quietly.

"Much as I hate to say it, Eddie may be right," said Mrs. Hatch. "It's easy to be all cordial-like after a man passes. Frankly, I never said more than a few words to the guy."

Cal laughed suddenly. "Me either. He seemed kind of straight-laced to me."

Father was laughing along. "It won't take long for our wounds to heel."

Now Peggy was roaring. "You two straighten up before I boot you out of here!"

And from there it was out of control. Eddie was chuckling and shaking, Peggy's eyes were watering from her laughter, and even Father O'Flaherty was belting out a hearty Irish laugh. Cal was wheezing. All the while, the stranger was looking on. He seemed curious and amused, and he nodded quite a bit.

Mrs. Hatch laughed until she saw her son's face. He was staring blankly at Sheriff Breen, who seemed caught in the same transfixed gaze.

"A heart attack victim has left a series of prophecies," Ned said.

The laughing halted. One by one the jokers realized that even a single note left at an unforeseen death was indeed a bit unusual. The fact that each of them had received one confused them all the more. All eyes were on Sheriff Breen, who seemed disturbed himself. He cleared his throat.

"You're correct, Ned," he said. "First time the boys and I ever found a note, excepting a suicide. "And I see you folks got 'em, too."

"This is outrageous," cried Father. "This Mr. Dixon must have known his time had come. Otherwise he must have scribed these notes after becoming corpus delecti!"

Sheriff Breen leaned forward, doughnut in hand. He was waving it like a visual aid. "Nope, didn't have to. Mr. Dixon apparently wrote the notes during the heart attack."

Eddie the Wild Man squinted in confusion. "Writing a note wouldn't have been the first thing to come to my mind. Grabbing my chest, okay. Calling out to dead relatives, maybe. But correspondence?"

Mrs. Hatch folded her arms. "Cut to the chase, Miles! What did your note say?"

The sheriff breathed deeply again. "A lot of it's hard to read, of course. With Mr. Dixon having the heart attack and all. Lots of stray lines and scribbles, just like on your notes. Oh, and then his pen ran out."

"Bad timing," said Cal.

"Hmmm," said the sheriff. "He did find a new one, however. Managed to scribble out all the notes before expiring. Mine, however, had two lines. The first was, "'Good-bye to all--you know who you are'. And the second, "'Find Hiram Hopwich.' The end."

Father's eyes were wide. "'You know who you are?' It sounds like Brother Dixon has selected a certain few to receive a post mortem inheritance!"

Cal put down his muffin. "Old Jasper had money?"

Mrs. Hatch rebuked him with a raised voice. "Well, if he didn't have money, he wouldn't have a will, now would he, Cal?"

"I don't know," said Cal.

"Why the old coot was probably loaded!" said Peggy. "I'll bet he was thrifty his whole life, made a modest living, and then departed before he could enjoy it."

"Just think of what old Jasper would have saved up by now," said Cal. "Could be a bona fide fortune!"

The sheriff started another doughnut. "Jasper used to fix my working boots. He'd look up and say to me, 'Miles, it ain't the money that keeps me here. It's giving something back to the people.' I do think he meant it."

"Jasper was always one of my favorite customers," said Peggy, with a glazed look in her eye. "He was quiet, but always left a nice tip. Always had a smile. I'd rightly consider old Jasper a friend."

Mrs. Hatch took a gulp of coffee. "Ned and I, we used to love visiting Jasper. He'd always have a joke to tell."

"I really miss the old guy," said Cal. "I do already."

Eddie the Wild Man stood up quickly. He looked everyone in the eye, one by one, like he was ready to pounce. Then he did.

"You people are a farce!" he said, waving his arms. "We're talking about a face each of you saw every day, but never paid attention to. None of you ever really talked to Jasper Dixon. Sure, he did his job for you, but that was all. And now that he bought the farm and wrote up a will, you're all suddenly his friends. All for the money of a man you never really knew!"

He pointed at the sheriff. Miles, what color were Jasper's eyes?"

The sheriff blushed. "Now, I know they weren't blue..."

"Peggy," Eddie continued, "do you know Jasper's favorite ball team?"

Peggy looked down. "Uh, which ball?"

"Cal. Tell me what Jasper's cane looked like."

After a short pause, Cal beamed. "Wooden, with a handle on top."

Eddie the Wild Man frowned. "Jasper Dixon never used a cane."

Nothing brings silence faster than a good dose of the truth. Everyone at Peggy's knew Eddie was right on the mark. They looked downward, glanced away, or just stared into their coffee cups. Just as confessions were about to pour out of their consciences, Ned Hatch was on his feet again.

"Hiram Hopwich is the wealthiest lawyer in the state, and a local genius on the will circuit," he said.

Mrs. Hatch was taken aback, for her son had said something she had understood. "Why, Ned, you are brilliant! Jasper must've been loaded to hire Hiram Hopwich! We've got to find him!"

"And we've got to read that will!" said Cal.

"Brother Dixon was a religious man," said Father. No doubt his fortune contains a healthy donation to the church."

"And to his friends," said Peggy.

The sheriff smiled coyly. "We know who we are."

"Death does not cancel all debts," said Ned Hatch.

"No, Ned, but it sure is a boost for one's popularity," scowled Eddie the Wild Man.

"Friends, perhaps I should introduce myself," said the stranger, who had been keenly observing the discussion all the while. But no one heard him.

"He must have been a millionaire," said Cal, chewing heavily on another muffin and laughing softly. "At least. He was that good."

The stranger stood up. "I believe I can most certainly be of some help."

"I'm going to the funeral--that's for sure," said Mrs. Hatch. She ruffled Ned's hair. "We're all going."

No one noticed the stranger until he took his cane and tapped it firmly on the floor. Raising his voice a touch, he spoke.

"Hiram Hopwich, attorney-at-law."

You can imagine the reaction of the folks at the counter. Cal just about spit his half-chewed muffin all over the man. Peggy, who was filling Cal's cup, stared at Hopwich and kept on filling well past the rim. Mrs. Hatch was grinning, while Ned and the sheriff stared at the stranger attentively. Eddie the Wild Man covered his eyes. Father O'Flaherty was twitching so much, he looked like he had just eaten some bad fish.

Peggy stopped pouring and smiled. "Well Mr. Hopwich, sir, shame we haven't been introduced. Peggy Konkey, at your service." She extended a coffee-stained hand.

Hopwich laughed aloud. He tilted his head back slowly once more. Truly he was taking his time. "I know, Mrs. Konkey. In fact, I feel I know you all. So pleased to make your acquaintance after reading about you in Mr. Dixon's will."

The regulars exchanged silent, knowing glances. Cal waved a fist in the air behind Hopwich's back. Everyone was smiling except for Eddie, who wore a scowl.

Hopwich laughed once more. "I'm certain you fine folks are just itching to know the details of the late Mr. Dixon's estate."

"Estate?" said Mrs. Hatch. She liked the sound of that word. But she tried to sound casual. "Oh, as long as you're here."

Peggy was beaming. "Have another cup of coffee, Mr. Hopwich. I'm sure we're all somewhat interested."

Cal grabbed the lawyer's shoulder. "Well, was he loaded? How much do we get?"

Hopwich smiled knowingly once more. "Your friend Mr. Dixon has provided for the distribution of all his belongings to one of his friends here in Shaquapakwa. His estate, as outlined in the will, contains everything which he held dear."

"One question...Esquire," said Eddie the Wild Man in a flippant tone. At this the townsfolk stared at him pleadingly, as if silently begging him not to ruin the whole thing.

But Eddie nonetheless smiled and continued. "How do we know who Jasper's 'friends' were?" He said the word "friends" as if it belonged in quotes, without doing that annoying sign with his fingers.

Hopwich stared for a moment at Eddie's hair, then looked him clear in the eye. "Mr. Barcus, the departed has provided guidelines in the will. It's all up to you."

The room was silent, and everyone exchanged curious and confused stares. For one, they didn't know Eddie the Wild Man had a last name other then "the Wild Man." But even more, they were anxious to hear the details of the will.

Mrs. Hatch snapped. "Well, read the damn thing!"

Hopwich was a bit startled by her bluntness, but nonetheless smiled and reached for his briefcase. He withdrew a single sheet of paper.

"During the last weeks of Mr. Dixon's life, he visited me at my main office in Milwaukee to declare his time was nigh. We spent days working out a last will and testament, so that his treasured earthly belongings could be passed on wisely. Here is the product of that work.

"My friends, aside from the legal jargon, the will is simple. Mr. Dixon has provided a single opportunity for one of you to inherit his estate. He's listed you as his acquaintances; my guess is that the notes you received were a final farewell to both you folks and me. For you, this opportunity is Jasper's way of finding out who among you may truly be called a friend."

Hopwich paused. All eyes were fixed on the paper, from Peggy's attentive stare to Father's twitches to Eddie's cock-eyed glare. The lawyer smiled once more, and read aloud from the will.

"'In close to a century in this town, I have learned that a friend is hard to come by. Our paths have crossed in a number of ways, but one thing has determined the depth of our relationship. That thing is honesty. To one of you I am passing on my every material possession--the bountiful harvest of seventy-five years of labor. Honesty will determine which of you will receive it. At the reading of this document, you will each be given an opportunity to prove your honesty, and thus your friendship. Make a single confession to us all. Be honest; be gutsy. The winner, as determined by Mr. Hopwich, takes all. Thanks for the memories, Jasper Dixon.'"

Nothing could be heard but the rustling of new-fallen leaves from the maples outside. All in the room were silent. Hopwich smiled at the nervous lot, whose brains were all teeming with ideas and plans. The entire estate for one confession! This, they thought, would be easy.

Cal was chosen by Hopwich to speak first. At first he seemed hesitant to speak, but the money was enough to cheer him on. He removed his Mack Truck hat, took a big gulp of coffee, and gave honesty a try.

"Last winter I was up north a ways, on Jackrabbit Road roundabout Elk Harbor. It was about midnight, on a Saturday. My friend Buck and I had hunted all day, and in the evening we celebrated a hard day's work with a few brewskies. Safe to say, I was feeling no pain.

"So I was returning home from Buck's place feeling fine. I had my eyes on the road all attentive-like, when out of nowhere a dog jumps in front of the pickup. I tried swerving, but it was no use. Luckily it was a pretty small pooch, not big enough to cause any damage to the truck. But I could see it was hurting. I stopped and watched it for a minute, all twisting there on the road. I got out to take a look, and those little black eyes--well, you could just tell they were in some serious pain. So I decided then and there to do what any God-fearing man would. I got the crowbar out of the back, and brought it to the dog.

"Now I'm from the country. I've killed pigs, rabbits, you name it. But I just couldn't do it to that there dog. Those little black eyes--it was just too hard. It was like this dog was...something special, I don't know. I raised the crowbar half a dozen times over the little guy's head, but just couldn't go through with it."

Cal was close to tears. He put his hat back on and stared into the bottom of his cup. Hopwich put a hand on his shoulder. "You're very brave, Cal. Life is something sacred to all of us deep down. I gather you left the dog to die on its own?"

"No, I ran over it again with the truck. That did the trick."

Cal smiled in an odd kind of way, and a general feeling of uneasiness arose. Peggy shifted in her sensible shoes, while Eddie cringed.

Father O'Flaherty was next. He straightened his collar, breathed deeply, and winked a few times for good measure.

"Yes, Brother Calvin, life is sacred among the beasts of the earth. But man is made in the image of Abba, and has dominion over them. His enemy is not nature, but the vile, corrupt, evil foe of sin! So begins my terrifying confession.

"Last week I was administering the sacrament of reconciliation on a Sunday afternoon. While listening to a parishioner's confession patiently, the gentleman mentioned that he had bore false witness to his wife. Not so much a lie, as a small cover-up regarding some spilled oil in the shed. Well it got me thinking. Friends, I don't believe I sin nearly enough."

At this point Father was building up steam and getting quite nervous. After mentioning sin, he was winking so much, it was almost like he was joking. But this was no joke.

"I thought of the glamour of sin--the excitement, the glory! We live in a culture that thrives upon sin! I wanted to be a part of it all. I made my plan for Mass next Sunday. From the pulpit of our Lord, I would outright lie to the parish! I would be a sinner!

"I was nervous all week. I hadn't told a soul, and wanted to keep my plot a surprise. Sunday came at last, and as I stood ex cathedra for the homily, my time came. The act was simple--I quoted a Latin text, but lied about its translation."

"Was that the quote about sheep and huts?" said Peggy.

Father's eyes widened. "So I claimed. But in veritas, the quotation translated, 'The Catholic Church is a glorified excuse to sell rosaries.' And do you know what? It felt good."

Again silence was everywhere. Eddie was scowling harder than ever at Father, and Cal had the same stupid look on his face. Ned Hatch looked at Father blankly.

"I caught the faulty translation, Father," he said.

Father was surprised. "And you told no one of my blasphemous declaration, Ned?"

"I agreed with it."

Mrs. Hatch just rubbed her eyes and sighed. Ned's face showed a hint of a smirk, but just for a second.

Ever brief in his words, Sheriff Breen stood quickly. "I thought the confessional was sacred, Father. I thought you couldn't tell anyone."

Father grinned a bit devilishly. "Only in the movies, Miles."

The sheriff looked downward, obviously disappointed. After a pause, he raised his head. "Well, that thing with the spilled oil--that was me."

He paused for a moment in thought, then continued. "But there's more. I meant to tell no one of this. But now I feel I must.

"Cal, you may have taken an animal's life. Father, you may have lied. But I confess--I am responsible for the death of Jasper Dixon!"

Needless to say, the crowd was a tad surprised. Cal coughed up most of his doughnut, and Mrs. Hatch half-choked on her coffee.

"Last night around 9:15 my rounds took me to Evergreen Lane, where Jasper lives--well, lived. Anyway, I saw him leave his house and walk down to the corner mailbox. Mailing the notes, I assume."

"At that point, was his heart attack not in full swing?" asked Eddie the Wild Man.

"Indeedy," the sheriff continued. "Mr. Dixon was gyrating as he approached the mailbox. Flapping his arms, beating his chest. I chose to drove on."

Father was shocked. "But Brother Miles, whyever this sin of omission?"

He bowed his head and spoke softly. "Well, you know how those colored folk dance. At the time, I didn't know he was dying. I thought he was being...uh, ethnic."

Everyone waited for more, but that was it. To the sheriff's dismay, nobody seemed impressed or even surprised upon hearing the explanation. In a town as lily-white as Shaquapakwa, you'd hardly expect anyone to even bat an eye. And sure enough, no one did.

Everyone waited for more, but that was it. It hardly seemed a gut-wrenching confession, but such was the sheriff's style. He sat down and started an eclair.

Peggy was next. She stood tentatively and glanced at Father O'Flaherty. Putting down the coffee pot, she began.

"Father, perhaps you sinned against your people. Miles, you may have spilled oil and the like. But my confession makes yours look like mere cries for help. My sin is nothing short of blasphemy!"

Tilting his head, Father gave her an odd look. Cal continued smiling faintly, while the sheriff still bowed in humility.

Peggy continued. "Last spring I heard Father's fine sermon on the body of Christ. He said it heals all wounds, and fills every Catholic believer with the spirit."

"Corpus christi," said Father suspiciously, still unconvinced his sin could be topped.

"Uh, right. Well you know my little dog Hooper was quite sick at the time. The poor thing had some sort of worm. He was throwing up all over, and was very...well, regular, you might say. So I committed my grave sin. That Sunday at Mass, I pocketed my communion host and gave it to Hooper."

Needless to say, Father was flabbergasted. His eyes widened, and he seemed afraid. In a suddenly dry voice, he spoke softly. "Mary mother of God--did it work?"

"Why, like a charm. Right quick Hooper was full of energy and jumping with the Holy Ghost. He kept down his Alpo and even did his doggy business outside. It was a miracle.

"But my confession goes on. I was so swept up in this miracle, I started swiping communion every week. I would slide the host into my sleeve, so nobody would know a thing. I started using hosts in my cooking on special occasions, or in the garden for my zucchini. The body of Christ was in my zucchini bread!"

"That explains that special zing," said Eddie the Wild Man through a smirk.

"Now Father, the good Lord and I have discussed this at length, and I'm sure as it must be a mortal sin. Never again will I make my holy zucchini bread or sacred meat loaf--I promise with all of you as my witnesses! Out of the goodness of your Irish heart, can you forgive me? Can the Maker forgive me? Am I destined to burn in the abode of the damned?"

By now Peggy was visibly shaking. All eyes were on Father, who appeared to have aged a good ten years since Peggy began. His eyes were half-shut, and he seemed hunched over and hurt. Hopwich said nothing, only observing.

"Sister Margaret, the good Lord always forgives. But as far as mortal sin goes, that's a new one by me." He leaned forward even more and looked her square in the eye. "I would not recommend it in the future." Strangely, he had not winked once.

Cal put down his doughnut. "So, Peggy, how did Hooper turn out after the miracle?"

She glared at him. "He was killed by a car last winter on Jackrabbit Road."

Cal nodded. "What a shame." He continued eating.

Eddie the Wild Man laughed to himself. "Cal, it appears you have slain an immensely spiritual dog."

"Aw, that's nothing," said Mrs. Hatch. "Why just last summer I left the door to the pig pen open, and sure enough, one porker got away."

"And wherefore would a pig go?" mocked Eddie the Wild Man, barely fighting off laughter.

"Nowhere near Cal, if he's lucky," snapped Peggy.

Cal nodded slowly. "Now that would be some major league roadkill."

"I took your blasted pig!" exclaimed Father, suddenly rising once more. "Forget the translation! I used your pig at last Sunday's Parish Pig Roast. And was she delicious!"

At this, Mrs. Hatch was fuming. She breathed deeply and pursed her lips. "Well, never mind the pig. Father, last week, I...I lied in confession!" she cried. "I made up those impure acts, just to hear your heavy breathing on the other side. And, oh, was it heavy!"

Father wasn't sure how to take that. "Aah...I could tell you were faking, of course," he stuttered. "And I faked absolving you from sin! Ha!"

Cal chuckled. "You weren't faking anything the day I ran into you at the sperm bank."

A hush fell over the crowd. "Does the Pope allow that?" said Peggy.

Father blushed. "Call it 'being fruitful,'"

Mrs. Hatch shrieked. "You! You could very well have children all over this county!"

"The scary thing is, so could Cal," said Peggy.

Cal nodded. "My family tree's crazy enough already. I think one of my uncles was actually his own sister. After the operation, of course."

"Again, I must confess--aside from the rest, this craziness could all be my doing," exclaimed Father. "Last year at the Easter Vigil, I mixed the incense with a rare Brazilian hallucinogen. Second generation, uncut, I believe."

"I thought those candles seemed extra colorful," said Cal.

"Child's play, Father!" said Mrs. Hatch. "Before moving here, I masterminded a brilliant plan to fake my own death in Idaho. The insurance company never suspected a thing!"

Peggy sneered. "Well, I sold trade secrets to the Japanese regarding a certain local ball of twine! All in exchange for a Honda and some old Godzilla videos!"

Father's face was shaking with rage. He pointed at Peggy. "You! You betrayed Old Twiney!"

And so it began. The bickering lasted a good half hour before the smoke finally cleared. By the end, Peggy had ruthlessly confessed to everything from extensive jaywalking to grand larceny. Cal claimed he had committed adultery with Father O'Flaherty's wife, startling no one but the confused priest. Father later admitted to a minor role in the Kennedy assassination, along with a majority of the seven deadly sins. Throughout the shouting match the sheriff remained in control, until at last belting out, "I admit it! I turn on the sirens for fun! I take free doughnuts and park by fire hydrants! And I don't care if everybody knows!" Ned and Eddie the Wild Man only looked on cynically, while Hopwich remained silent, listening with a keen ear.

Finally the spree of outrageous confessions fell silent when everyone noticed Mrs. Hatch had begun to weep, as if suddenly struck by some earth-shattering realization. The crying started as quiet pants, then grew into bellows and low moans. Sobbing sloppily, she sounded like that loud old woman nobody knows in the back row of every Catholic funeral who attends simply for something to do.

She spoke at last. "These lies and blasphemies are all fine and good," she said. "But I've got a secret so emotional and God-awful, I haven't told a soul. Even now, I risk my future as a mother and a Christian. I may open wounds deep enough to plague this whole God-forsaken town--and how the wounds will fester!" She paused, wiped her nose, and bared her soul.

"Little Ned," she said, "well...he's not who you think." She blew her nose loudly, like a duck. "He was conceived at the sperm bank."

Peggy giggled. "Well, now, that's kinky place to...you know."

"No, no, I get the picture," said Sheriff Breen, glancing back and forth at Mrs. Hatch and Father O'Flaherty. "You two. Oh, wow."

Mrs. Hatch's head was shaking in her hands. "Ned Sr. had...certain medical problems. It seemed so safe. How could I have known?" she moaned.

Cal laughed loudly to himself. "Why, Ned does have his Father's eyes! Ha, ho!"

Peggy joined him. "Talk about a Mother Superior!"

"The Pope definitely wouldn't approve of this," said the Sheriff.

At last the crowd noticed that during the course of their outbursts, Ned had joined his mother in standing. Silence fell as he finally spoke. "I'm not surprised in the least. I have nothing in common with either of you. My confession, be it extreme, is this: I have no earthly parents. I am the second Messiah."

By now Father O'Flaherty had not only quit winking, he could hardly keep his eyes open. Mrs. Hatch glared at Ned fearfully. Hopwich said nothing, only observing. Everyone else listened attentively, even Eddie.

"Look at the world into which we have been thrust," Ned continued, his voice assuming a sinister tone. "Hunger, corruption, bloodshed, ignorance. Weeping, and gnashing of teeth. The time has come for a second leader to save every nation--to found the New Jerusalem. My silence is broken; my mission is begun."

Peggy was dumbfounded. "I had a feeling--"

Ned closed his eyes, speaking as if in a trance. "He was despised and rejected by men..."

Sheriff Breen shook his head. "All this time, we didn't know."

Raising his arms, Ned spoke more loudly. "For glory to your people Israel..."

Cal stared at Ned, his mouth gaping. "Right here in Shaquapakwa. I never would have believed."

Then something happened--something no one would ever fully be able to describe afterward. Ned tilted his head back slowly and for the first time ever, began to laugh. The laugh was deep and loud, growing like a brush fire. "Hahahaha," he said. "HA HA HA HA HAHA!" His head was shaking, and his arms were flailing like a flag. Tears streamed down his freckled face, which by now was blood red. He raised both arms and continued laughing. "HA HA HAAA!"

At once he stopped and took a long look about the room. He raised one arm, like a statue again, and quietly spoke one small phrase.

"My, you people are fools."

Now the silence was intense. Father had all but passed out on the counter, unable to so much as look at Mrs. Hatch or Ned. Peggy and Cal were in shock. The sheriff had closed his eyes and was shaking his head. Hopwich said nothing, still only observing. Mrs. Hatch was now weeping silently. After a moment of watching Ned grin with pleasure, she glared at Father for half a second, grabbed the boy's arm and ran out the door, at last howling once more. At this point, you could say her broken family's chances at winning the honesty contest were slim.

After a moment, Eddie the Wild Man stood confidently. He seemed amused by the whole scene, and still had a tremendous smirk on his face.

"He's right, you know. Little Ned Hatch hit the mark. I am insulted by what I have seen today. It took a man's death--a man you never knew--to bring out the true secrets of your hearts. You have shared your soul with everyone remotely close to you this afternoon, and for what? For money. All for the cold cash of a face in the crowd."

Eddie stroked his beard, and raised his voice a bit. "I cannot claim to have known Jasper Dixon. He fixed my shoes, and I greeted him probably a hundred times. But nobody knew him. Quite simply, he was one of a dying breed who could enjoy the company of solitude. He didn't need to gossip or chitchat--he was a private man who worked hard for his fortune. You people have no claim to that fortune. Admitting that, my friends, is honesty."

Eddie sat down. The folks had received the biggest dose of the truth all day, and they knew it. Father stood up slowly, dropped a dollar on the counter, and walked to the door. He paused for a moment, no doubt remembering the will one last time, but opened it and stepped sadly into the cool afternoon. Cal straightened his cap and did the same. Sheriff Breen, while not leaving any money, bowed his head in shame and walked out. Peggy collected the bills hastily and disappeared into the back. Only Eddie and Hopwich remained at the suddenly quiet counter.

Hopwich leaned toward Eddie the Wild Man and smiled softly. "You have done well, Mr. Barcus. I am continually amazed at what people will do for money. Your insight is impressive."

Eddie merely nodded. Hopwich reached into his attachÈ case and pulled out a yellow envelope. He placed it on the counter, between coffee puddles. "This belongs to you, Mr. Barcus. Your honesty is most admirable. Congratulations."

Eddie stood up and ran a hand through his thick hair. He picked up the envelope and laughed.

"So the Dixon estate is mine," he said, laughing some more. He spread his arms wide and gestured toward himself. "I guess there's a new rich boy in town--wouldn't you say, Hiram?"

He held up the envelope and sighed. "You see, Hiram, you just can't find honesty in Shaquapakwa. It's been crooked from the start, and it's no different now. Nothing's changed, Mr. Hotshot!

"And with my newfound windfall, I can assure you my very first investment will be a one-way bus ticket out of this jerkwater town. Don't look for me at the funeral, counselor! Mark my words--to these poor lying saps, I'll be but a memory. A very distant, very wealthy memory!"

At last he leaned in close, speaking quietly and slowly to Hopwich. "Little Ned was right. You people are fools!" He whirled around and skipped out the door.

It was then that Hiram Hopwich turned to me.

He leaned his cane against my booth and smiled a truly non-caring smile. "My friend, one confession remains to be heard here this afternoon. It is my own."

Reaching into his briefcase, he pulled out a typed and official-looking sheet of paper with two signatures on the bottom: Jasper Dixon's and Hopwich's. "A twenty-thousand dollar flat fee has been subtracted from Mr. Dixon's estate for the rendered services of Hopwich, Bergman and Kropp, attorneys-at-law. Seventy-two hours have been billed to the estate at the standard partner's fee of two hundred per. Travel, accomodations, and related expenses comprise an additional sum, in the neighborhood of one thousand dollars. The remaining portion, less taxes and additional processing fees, will buy Edward Barcus a bus ticket to, at best, Elk Harbor."

Hiram Hopwich smiled again and winked. Grabbing his cane, he gazed once more at the crooked dollar bill, removed his billfold from a pocket, and left a twenty dollar tip. I could still hear him laughing as he skipped into the chilly autumn breeze, the rusty bell clanging behind him.




About the Author


Matt is a special boy and deserves special attention. He was found seven years ago walking across a busy street to go to Jack in the Box. He fits in well and never complains about being second in line. He has a sweet disposition, except when he is going after females or food. Matt has a sense of adventure and can out-swim dogs. He is independent and likes to nap under a tree in his backyard. Matt doesn't want to be a bother, but he would prefer it if you didn't have him put to sleep.