As the army surplus Jeep bounced along the rutted dirt road, Katya von Epps at the wheel, Ralph thought back to when he first got to know her. Every morning she stopped at Sullivan's Diner for a coffee and Danish before attacking the day like a lion to a lamb. Not much taller than Ralph, just an inch over his six feet, she seemed taller by a head. Ramrod posture? Chin held high? Hard to say, exactly.
It was a mile stretch of ruggedness into scrubby forest before reaching The Lutheran Compound, 10 acres cleared for a military encampment. Straight ahead, an airplane hangar, large enough for the Lutheran Compound Air Force, two Piper Cubs. To our right, a garage holding three Jeeps, a VW bus and a pair of 1968 BMW 2002s, the later for use by Katya and the officers. To the right of that, the Central Command Office, a white ranch. Behind that, a Bavarian-style church, a commissary, a clinic.
To the left of all this were living quarters: three Quonset huts for recruits, a couple of two-story modern apartment buildings, one for NCOs, one for COs, most with families. In back, windmills and generators provided energy.
Ralph thought back to last summer, when he'd first visited Katya at her home on a dead-end side street in Spectre. Her house was an extreme gingerbread Victorian, atop a short but steep stone-step hill. In the living room, he saw an Ink Blue 1965 Mosrite Mark 1 leaning in a corner. "Huh! Can you play..."
"Shush," she commanded, picking up and plugging the guitar into a small Vox amp. She proceeded to play a close, yet different, rendering of The Ventures signature hit, drifting into the more complex jazz version composed by Johnny Smith, then segueing into the template of the tune, Sigmund Romberg's "Softly As a Morning Sunrise," adding flashes of Flamenco.
"Yes, I can play it."
"Huh! Wow! I'll say! Wow!"
Katya brewed a pot of herbal tea. To Ralph it tasted medicinal, but he pretended to savor it. In the living room, they made small talk for a half hour or so, before she announced, "Dismissed."
"Time for you to go, little man. How you say? Hit the road, boy."
Before he knew it, Ralph was on the front porch, down the steps, on the sidewalk hoofing it back to his humble cabin behind Sullivan's, wondering what exactly had hit him. "What’s going on? She’s the girl of my dreams. I actually met a girl who appeared to me in a dream. How does that even happen? Yet she's as distant as a star... How can I break through that wall? Answer? I cannot. Unless, maybe, I chip away, chip away, chip away at it? Bit by bit, piece by piece, I'll break down her defenses. I'll use the slow and steady method. Sure. And Atlantis will rise again. Sigh... She has a heart of gold, I just know it. I can save her from her life of loneliness! Yeah, she's aloof. But that's not necessarily terminal. No law of God or man says it must remain so."
With time, Ralph became more involved with The Lutheran Compound, even close to its inner circle. He was accepted, was available for errands. On occasion, he filled in for the pastor, delivering a sermon. He continued to live behind and work at Sullivan's.
When he felt comfortable enough, he asked Katya who was financing the operation, adding, "It's a pretty hefty enterprise. Money has to come from somewhere!"
"To some degree, we're self-sufficient, but yes, outside money is required. For that we have benefactors. This was all their conception. One is a Texas oilman, the other a gun manufacturer in Florida."
"And what's the purpose of it? I see military drills. To what end?"
"That we don't know. We're funded, told what to do, given some, how you say? Wiggle room? Wiggle room for self-rule within the confines of an agenda. We, like a doctor, are on call. We do not know what to expect, but when the order comes down, we are ready, boy."
A month later, Ralph was sitting with Katya on her front porch swing as the sun was setting. She cracked the meditative silence with, "A dream is a truth. But when you wake it becomes a paradox before evaporating in the light of day." Ralph said, "Huh." For the first time, he dared to put his arm around his dream's shoulders and give her a friendly little hug, testing to see just how frigid these waters were. She replied with a swift and sharp elbow to his gut.
"Oof! Ow! Hey, that hurt!"
"Dismissed, boy. Go home, go back to your little hovel, little man. A little hovel for a little man. Perfect fit." Limping home, Ralph tried to think of her as playing hard to get, but his aching stomach protested that nutty notion. On the way, Ralph stopped at a Rexall, bought a bottle of Pepto Bismol. "Looks like you could use this stuff, pal! Kinda green around the gills."
A year after arriving in Spectre, Ralph was driving along a back road when Mr. Plank appeared, sitting shotgun. In recent weeks, Plank had been surfacing in Ralph's dreams, popping up here, lurking there, but not saying anything. He'd just smile or wink or sneer. Now here he was, in the flesh, and he said, "Surprise, Ralphie!" Before Ralph could even react, Plank grabbed the wheel, zig-zagging the car from lane to lane to lane.
Ralph swatted him, quickly righting his Chevy SS and yelled, "What th'! What are you trying to do, get us killed!"
"Heh, heh. Mr. Rockwell, it seems as if you, in your infinite wisdom, have forgotten. I am dead. She killed me. And you did nothing, you didn't even call the cops. Not the next day, not ever. You, sir, are an accessory to murder. To my murder. You’ll forgive me if I take that personally, won't you? One hopes he hasn't spoiled your day."
Ralph resented Plank's overly formal tone. It was like a precocious junior high twerp. Plank was the sort of guy who had a high school diploma but never got the college degree, then spent the rest of his years stewing in resentment as an eccentric autodidact, overcompensating for a feeling of inferiority.
"By the by, don't you ever wonder what happened to your three little girls back in Happy Acres? A certain, shall we say, gentleman, walked out on them. That certain gentleman is you, you sniveling bastard. Say, what if I told you one of them died, was dead and buried?"
"What!" Ralph pulled to the road's shoulder, a road that was deserted except, oddly, for a new Ford sedan parked a short distance ahead. He turned off the ignition and turned to face Plank.
"Just kiddin'. Your three girls are okay, physically. But they cry themselves to sleep, you heartless son of a bitch."
"I'm not heartless! I'm not! I cry myself to sleep, often! I see them in my dreams! And then I see you, gloating! You! You are the heartless one! You! Me? I can hardly sleep at night thinking about Karen and Denise and... and, um... Nancy!"
"Now, now, Mr. Rockwell. You are so, how to phrase it properly, how to give it an astute telling? You are so emotive, so much the dimestore diva. Hello! Isn't it strange that a car should be parked here, on this desolate road? What's up with that? Why don't you take a look? Go on. It won't kill you."
Nerves grated by the pretentious Plank, Ralph got out of his car and huffed to the Ford. Overhead, in a gray sky, vultures wheeled.
All the windows were rolled down, and no one was in it. But wait! In the back seat was an infant in diapers. Dozens of mosquitoes were buzzing around it, feasting on it. It looked up to Ralph as if to say, "Please. Please make it stop. I'm too little. I can't defend myself."
"Whatcha gonna do, Ralphie?" Plank was standing right behind him, breathing down his neck. "You've got to make a decision. You've got to be a man. Oh, but that m-might be r-risky! Oh noooo! Report this to the coppers? Ooooh! You might get in t-t-trouble! They might find you out! You might have to pay for your sins, Rockwell! You sick miserable weakling! Do something! Do something, you stinking rotten piece of garbage!"
Ralph woke with a start, heard the pay phone in the parking lot ringing off the hook. He scooted out the door, knowing it could only mean one thing, Katya calling from the pay phone a mile away from headquarters.
"It's happening," she hissed. "We were alerted to a problem. We dispatched a team to take care of the situation. Lie low." She hung up before he said, "Huh." Swatting away skeeters, he stood there for a minute or two, then trotted back to the cabin. He'd left the door open, and as a result, Ralph was buzzed and bit the rest of the restless night.
After sunrise, Ralph slunk into Sullivan's, sat in a booth in the back near an exit, ordered his usual. Picking up the paper on the counter, he read all about it, under the headline screaming: GRISLY INFERNO!
A bungalow neighboring Tulane's campus had been the scene of a massacre and arson. Pending dental records, the deceased were tentatively identified as Ari Siegel, Lenore Goldberg and Uganda X, all members of Kommune Rouge, an obscure Pol Pot sect. New Orleans cops were left scratching their heads, couldn't conjure a motive. It was impossible to tell if anything had been stolen because of extensive fire damage. Ralph's first thought was, "Huh. I thought all that student commie jazz went out of style with the end of the war and Roe v. Wade and the election of Carter..." Then he began to realize what Katya had been referring to.
Ralph hastily finished his breakfast, trotted to the cabin and sat on the edge of his cot. Fingertips lightly drumming his upper lip, he assessed the situation. With a tilt of his head, he noted that discretion was the better part of valor, and he came to a quick conclusion. The girl of his dreams was a dream, a chimera, nothing worth risking prison for. Before noon, he was well on his way, driving his SS in a north-westerly direction, ready for adventure, ready for whatever came his way. His mind wandered to Dale Evans, that nice all-American gal, kissed by sun, caressed by gentle rain, lighthearted and fancy-free... "There must be plenty of gals like that in Montana. Geez, they're probably the coin of the realm, two cowgirls for every boy. I can hardly wait..." He could see her, plain as day, a honey-blonde Piper Laurie in cuffed dungarees, square dancin', bingo chancin', bronco bustin', her thumbs hooked in belt rungs, saying, "C'mon, Ralph! Let's round up some dogies! I'll iron the city slicker out of yer hide in no time, greenhorn! Make a real man out of ya!"
Breezing along, he turned on the radio, found a peppy song, felt content until he glanced over at a smirking Mr. Plank. "How to phrase this? My good fellow, you are such an imbecile, the proverbial jackass. You can run until you are blue in the face, but you can’t hide." Plank snapped the radio off and said, "Party's over, kiddo!" while yanking the wheel with both hands, veering the SS to a sharp right, careening off the road, tumbling down a ravine, bursting into flame...
Ralph woke with a start, a cold sweat on his brow, on his upper lip, running down his ribs. He was outside his cabin, sleepwalking. "Huh. Sleepwalking! That's never hap-happened before. I thought it only happened in the movies or cartoons..." He returned to his cot and slept for short jags.
After sunrise, Ralph slunk into Sullivan's, sat in a booth in the back near an exit, ordered his usual. Picking up the paper on the counter, he read all about it, under the headline screaming: GRISLY DEATH! This time, not a dream.
After a quick shower, Ralph packed his suitcase, left a note for Brett informing him that he'd quit, to keep any money owed to him. In his SS he hightailed it out of Dodge. With a sign of the cross, he declared the shower a baptism, washing away all of his sins. He was going to reform. "As Mother said, turn over a new leaf."
Ralph pondered Schopenhauer’s doom and gloom worldview: Life as, in essence, punishment. "Some truth to that, alas. But ultimately, good triumphs. This I believe to be true! To be grand! This I believe with every fiber of my being."
He drove for hours, not bothering with the radio. He just drove and drove, a man with a mission, until he pulled right up to the trailer at Happy Acres.
Hopping out, Ralph Rockwell yelled, "Honey, I'm home! Girls! Daddy's home! Daddy's home to stay..."