Agincourt after dark…
A COLUMN OF LOCAL INTEREST AND INTROSPECTION
by Howard A. Tabor
“The Scarlet Number” (Act I, Scene 2)
Life is a marathon. Run the race or stand on the sidelines; I recommend running. Wear your colors proudly and don’t get in the way.
Each runner bears a number large enough to be identified by race officials and fans at checkpoints along the route. Those of us running the race of life should also have to wear numbers—scarlet numbers—drawn from the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition), used by mental health professionals to assess their client/patients. Those identifying numbers would facilitate real social interaction along the way and alleviate a lot of unnecessary discomfort, disappointment and outright pain. Rooster Leer had (and probably still has) Narcissistic Personality Disorder (#301.81), though the DSM-IV’s scarlet number won’t be showing. That would entail a level of personal introspection of which she was fully incapable.
Enter Ken Tucker, the only person Rooster may have held in even moderate esteem. He was twenty-five years her senior and from Dubuque.
The family name was Taucher, of German ancestry, but it probably got changed at Ellis Island…or during WWI when being German wasn’t such a good idea…or for convenience in the business community. Soon after Ken’s birth in 1918 his father disappeared from the scene. Mom relocated from Ohio to live with a sister in Dubuque; she never remarried and died when Ken was about to enter high school. The disappearance of one parent and the preoccupation of another with family livelihood left their mark on Ken. What scarlet number would he be sporting in the race of life?
Ken married Evelyn in 1945 and they had one child, a son. Don’t envy a salesman’s life; it’s hard. On the road, eating in restaurants, sleeping on foreign sheets…alone. Did Ken try to be a better father than his own had been?
Ken and Rooster seem to have connected in the summer of 1976; think of it as a bicentennial project. The “time capsule” I received last week includes an ad from a 1970s singles magazine purporting to be hers. Before the internet(s), this is how we connected socially during the swinging sexual revolution. The ad portrays a woman of substance, well-employed, stable, domestic, seeking a gentleman friend; there were intimations of kink. The truth may set us free, but honey attracts more than vinegar. They met in Grinnell, about half way between. A time capsule receipt identifies the Starlite Motel; one snapshot shows the May-December couple at a wayside picnic ground.
Rooster’s notes to Ken hint at infrequent meetings (liaisons?) for the next five years. But half a conversation is often worse than none at all. It is clear that there were expressions of love on both sides, but who knows what we mean by that much abused word. Their meetings became less frequent until the winter of 1981, when Ken asked a favor of Marielle, one final courtesy that she could do for him, something he could ask of no one else. They set a day in January at the truck stop motel in Fahnstock, but Marielle failed to appear, sending a note afterward about some medical issue, the over-adjustment of a drug and a resulting seizure. Ken returned to Dubuque, his favor unfulfilled, not knowing why until her note arrived.
A second date was set in February. This time they met at the truck stop restaurant and checked in to the motel together. Marielle left to get her things for the evening they would spend together. Ken waited. He pondered. He knew. He understood.
Ken wondered what note would arrive this time. How do you top a diabetic seizure? This time he took a different course.
He knew where she would be: her window booth at The Roost on Highway 7. As he walked toward to bar, Ken could see her scarlet mop against the glass, an adoring arc of retinue facing her. What options crossed his mind? Turn tail and run or step in for a beer before the long drive east to the Mississippi?
Harry Pogemiller was tending bar that night in 1981. Harry is cursed with total recall, so be careful what you say within earshot. He remembers that night very well, not because of any “scene,” but because there wasn’t one. Ken simply walked in, unnoticed. He ordered a draw beer and then stepped to the edge of her circle, people he recognized but did not know. He saw then that it was acceptable for Marielle to be horizontal with him alone but not vertical with him in public. Whatever she got from him when they were together was something no one else should know. What might it do to her reputation? A man old enough to be her father, the father of anyone in her circle of friends.
Marielle noticed Ken. “Didn’t you get my note?” she asked, startled to see him just ten feet away. “No, I didn’t.” He walked back to the bar.
Life drained from her face. Her posture sagged. Some minutes later she went to the restroom and Ken watched for a chance to speak with her alone. “I can’t stop you,” she said, staring into a corner of the entryway. Harry Pogemiller recalled the precision of Ken’s next words: “I asked you earlier today to let me in, to let me know you, to let me help. Inadvertently, you’ve done exactly that, and I’m grateful for what I’ve seen, what I’ve learned about you and myself. Believe this: I want only the best for you, but that won’t include me.” He left the bar and drove beyond the gravel field of mercury-vapored light.
The accident report from the Poweshiek county sheriff’s office is a model of economy and tact. The motel clerk remembered them checking in at 7. Harry recalled their final words at 12 and the calm in Tucker’s voice. Ken’s car left the road a few miles east of Grinnell some time between 2 and 3 a.m. Alcohol was not a factor.
I’m anxious for the day forensic science (our friends at CSI & Co.) will have a test for final thoughts; when a swab of grey matter smeared across the windshield will yield the last thoughts that cross our mind the moment life is gone. What did Ken think a second before his car mangled that sturdy tree? I have to believe it had nothing to do with Marielle; that it had been the tragic coincidence of a patch of ice and a startled deer.
Mary Ellen Leer’s local career outlined last week gets wildly mixed reviews. Folks who knew her take extreme positions; few fall in the middle. But the voting isn’t over. Even death can’t guarantee a bottom line, despite society’s preoccupation with summation and assessment. There is one observation, however, that I can make about Rooster and Ken: They were both hollow; it’s just that one of them discovered it about himself and learned not to quench his thirst at a well gone dry.
Two questions persist: Why me? Why now? I searched the internet for information on Marielle Leer and located her on-line résumé; it was updated late last year. This is what I found: 1) She claims an advanced degree in Theatre Arts from Drake University in Des Moines, though the registrar’s office at Drake has no record of the university awarding her a degree; 2) She claims a relationship with the Goodman Repertory Theatre in Chicago, which the Goodman is unable to confirm; 3) Her widowed mother lived three blocks from me until her passing a few years ago, cared for by Mrs. Leer’s surviving older children. No sign of Marielle.