Like most small southern towns, there was no shortage of churches or bars in Pottersville. And both institutions were divided along lines of doctrine, class, and race. Some believed in sprinkling; others in baptism by immersion. Some preferred contemporary music while others would accept nothing but traditional. Some were extremely exclusive, while others were inclusive to the point of completely blurring any discernable distinctions. And leading each, whether behind the pine pulpit or the oak bar, were spirit-men who ranged from evangelist to counselor to one of the crowd.
The Sports Oasis was more of a mainline main street establishment, its congregation boasting the upper crust of the faithful. Unlike an east side or south side congregation, there was social status to being a member of the chosen who attended its gatherings. It was located downtown in the second story of a converted turn of the century inn with an assortment of store fronts beneath it attempting to be quaint.
Atop a florist, beauty shop, and antiques boutique, the Sports Oasis had the open feel of a converted warehouse. A curving bar ran the width of one wall and a stage dominated the other, tables and a large dance floor in between. All this, and there was still room for three pool tables and four dart machines along the wall on the left side of the bar.
I arrived at the Oasis at a little after five, hoping to talk to Alice Taylor before she got busy, but the place was already hopping with the after-work crowd. Even before I ascended the stairs, I could hear the distorted blare of Allan Jackson from a jukebox being asked to perform above its volume capacity. When I opened the door, I was enveloped in a whirlwind of country music, spirits, and smoke; and it carried me to the far end of the bar. This was definitely a full immersion congregation.
Scattered along the bar, men and women in their early thirties lounged casually, their loosened neck ties, coat-draped chairs, wrinkled shirts and skirts evidenced their tough day at the office. They all spoke or nodded to me, though I knew most of them only in passing. When I left Pottersville over a decade ago, I knew everyone; now, I seemed to only recognize vague resemblances to founding families in certain faces. Two young guys in jeans and T-shirts earnestly shot pool while a single couple in cowboy boots shuffled across much of the huge dance floor.
Seated around some of the tables were older Pottersvillians whose concerned looks let me know they were old enough to remember my past. The bartender, an early middle-aged man with coarse salt and pepper hair combed back, gave me the same look as he approached though I didn’t recognize him. When he reached me, he didn’t speak, but merely raised his eyebrows in a wary expression that asked me what I wanted.
“Cherry Coke,” I said. I had to say it loudly to compete with Allan, but he seemed to be able to read lips. It was probably a job requirement.
He looked instantly relieved and smiled as he hustled off to fix it. When he brought it back, he said, “On the house,” and gave me a wink.
“Thanks,” I said and gave him a couple of dollars for his trouble. “Is Alice working tonight?”
“Yeah,” he said. He got very close to me, so that he wouldn’t have to shout and I smelled Polo Sport on his skin and peppermint on his breath. “She gets here about seven. Serves finger foods and does Karaoke.”
“Karaoke?” I said, and feigned embarrassment.
He snickered. “Yeah, I know.… Why?”
“I need to talk to her,” I said. “Just for a few minutes. She told me to meet her here.”
“She usually gets here early,” he said. “You can see her first thing. That way you won’t have to be here later when it gets rough.”
I nodded and failed to suppress a smile. “It doesn’t get much rougher than Karaoke,” I said.
“You have no idea,” he said, shaking his head wearily. “Are you helping your dad? Alice ain’t in no kind of trouble, is she?”
“No kind,” I said.
“She’s a good girl,” he said, adding, “she’s single, too,” as he walked away to wait on other customers.
Hanging from the ceiling in various conspicuous places around the room, twenty-five inch TVs showed a wide range of sports events, and I got so wrapped up in a Lakers/Celtics game that I didn’t notice someone had plopped down on the stool beside me until the bartender approached him. When I turned, I was looking into the familiar blue eyes of a high school acquaintance whose name I couldn’t remember.
“Hey, man,” he said warmly. “How ya doin’?”
“Good,” I said. “How are you?”
He nodded slowly, pursing his lips as he did. “Can’t complain. Can’t complain. What’re you doin’ back in this neck of the woods? Just home for a visit?”
“No,” I said. “I live here now.”
“None,” I said.
“Whatta you do?”
“I’m a chaplain out at PCI,” I said.
“I’ll be damned,” he said.
“Not if he has anything to do with it,” the bartender said, nodding toward me as he placed the bottle of Corona in front of my nameless high school friend and another Cherry Coke in front of me.
“Right. Right,” he said and started laughing. He took a long drag on his bottle and shook his head. “When we were in school, you were one of the craziest sons a bitches I ever seen. Seems like somebody said you had a religious side, but hell, I never saw it.”
“Not many did,” I said. “You had to look pretty hard. Some would say you still do.”
He laughed. “Nah,” he said shaking his head. “I can tell. You’re different, man. I mean you still look like good ol’ JJ, but… I don’t know… just…”
“Sober,” I offered.
“Yeah,” he said as he started laughing again.
“Whatta you up to these days?” I asked.
“Ah, not enough,” he said. “Do a little construction.… I thought about trying to get on out at the prison. Either that or build condos on the beach.”
We were quiet a while, each enjoying our drinks. Eventually the music stopped briefly and the voices of people having a good time echoed in the open hall, joined occasionally by the loud clack of the cue ball driving another ball hard into a pocket. The Lakers, a different team than their former run-and-gun Pat Riley selves no longer had a fast-break, but they had Shaq and could beat Boston at their own half-court game.
The music started again-this time it was a pop-sounding song by Shania Twain. “Country music ain’t what it used to be,” he said.
“Thank God,” I said.
“You like her music?” he asked.
“Like her videos better,” I said.
He smiled. “I heard that,” he said. “You haven’t changed that much.”
“I still like girls if that’s what you mean,” I said.
“Then God bless you,” he said. He took another big gulp of his beer and seemed surprised to see that it was the last. He placed the bottle back on the bar and signaled the bartender.
“What’s his name?” I asked, nodding toward the bartender.
“Same as mine,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, nodding as if that answered my question.
When the bartender brought him another Corona, he took a big swig from it, sat it down a little too hard on the bar and asked, “How’d you do it?”
“Higher Power and all that shit?” he said.
I nodded. “Yeah. That’s a big part of it.… Big part of everything.”
He seemed to really consider this, after which he turned his head up, tilted the bottle back and finished it off. He carefully stood up, using my shoulder for support and said, “Maybe I’ll go to a meeting with you some time.”
“Anytime,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll see you around.”
He walked over and joined the two guys who were shooting pool, leaning against the table as he did. The bartender walked back over, shaking his head.
“Want another?” he asked.
“Man’s got to know his limit.”
“I respect that,” he said.
“Hey, what’s that guy’s name?” I asked.
“Same as mine,” he said and walked off with the empty glass and bottle.
Not far from me, two guys in their early twenties with FSU T-shirts and caps on began having a drinking contest. They were drinking shots of straight Tequila: salt, shot, lime. Salt, shot, lime. The people nearby cheered them on and as I remembered that taste on my tongue and its burn in my throat and stomach, I missed the quick camaraderie and the easy abandonment of tying one on with friends-and strangers.
I signaled for the bartender.
“I’ll have another,” I said. “Make it a double.… And whatever she’s having,” I added when I saw Alice walk into the bar.
He met her on the other end of the bar, pointed at me, and they both reached me at the same time.
“Sorry to have to meet here, Chaplain,” she said, “but-”
“Hey,” the bartender said, “this is a classy joint.” He then placed our drinks in front of us, and moved down the bar.
“Don’t be,” I said. “I feel right at home.”
“I’m not supposed to do this,” she said. “This is confidential information.”
“If you’d rather not,” I said, “I can get it some other way.”
“No, it’s not that,” she said. “I just wanted you to know why I couldn’t do it at work.”
Alice Taylor worked in the business office of PCI where she was in charge of inmate accounts. When she learned that I was trying to find out who killed Nicole, she got word to me that she had information that might be helpful.
“But I’m serious,” I said. “If you’re not comfortable, I really can-”
“You kiddin’? I’d love to be a part of catching that bastard,” she said.
“You mean whoever killed Nicole?” I asked. “Or did you have a particular bastard in mind?”
She smiled, but there was tension in her eyes, and as she pushed her silky black hair away from her face, her hand trembled. “Bobby Earl.”
One by one, the yuppie after-work crowd was being replaced by the less yuppie, more rowdy crowd, as if by an unspoken agreement each knew their allotted time. Mixed drinks were being replaced by bottles of beer as conversations about today’s headlines were replaced by small talk about fishing and football.
“Ever wonder why a televangelist with a weekly national broadcast would come into a humble little prison like PCI?”
“I just assumed he was trying not to forget the pit from which he was dug,” I said.
“That he’s got a soft spot for inmates or feels a loyalty to Warden Stone.”
“That’s because you’re a good man,” she said. “But you’re giving Bobby Earl way too much credit.”
“Uh oh,” I said.
“What is it?”
“I’m thinking maybe Bobby Earl’s innocent,” I said.
“By admitting you think I’m a good man, you’ve just lost all credibility as a judge of character.”
She smiled and punched me playfully-maybe even flirtatiously. “You are,” she said. “Good-looking, good dresser, good chaplain-”
“Good God,” I said. “I had no idea you felt this way.”
She blushed, her creamy white skin turning a pale pink.
Simultaneously, we both reached for our drinks.
As she smiled up at me, I could see the gold flecks sprinkled throughout the green of her eyes even in the dim light of the bar.
“Do you want to know or not?”
“Yes,” I said. “Why does a national televangelist treasure like Bobby Earl come into PCI?”
“To pass the plate,” she said.
I shook my head. “We don’t have plates in the chapel,” I said. “And inmates don’t have money.”
“Oh, hell, yes, they do,” she said, her drink seeming to kick in.
“Well, you ought to know, managing their accounts and all, but there’s no money on the compound so-”
“They mail it to him,” she said.
“Even so,” I said, “they can have-what? — sixty-five bucks a week? How much could they send?”
As she slid a little closer to me, I became conscious of having Coke breath, and slid a piece of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum out of my pocket and into my mouth.
“Sixty-five dollars is what they can spend each week with their cashless card in the canteen,” she said. “There’s no limit to how much they can have in their accounts. Some of them have a quarter of a million dollars or more.”
It took me a minute to process that one, and as I thought about it, she went on to explain some things I already knew, which was fine because I wasn’t really listening anyway.
“There’s no cash on the compound,” she said. “They buy food and certain personal items from the canteen by swiping the magnetic strip on their ID badge. By limiting it to sixty-five dollars, we curtail the amount of bribing and bartering that goes on down there, but it doesn’t stop it. That has nothing to do with how much they can and do have in their accounts, just how much they can spend in the canteen each week.”
“So if one of them wanted to-ah, sow a seed into Bobby Earl’s ministry, how would he do it?”
“Simple,” she said. “Fill out a withdrawal form and submit it to me with a stamped envelope addressed to where he wants it sent.”
“And this happens often?” I asked.
She nodded. “This past year, PCI inmates donated nearly a hundred grand to something called Setting the Captives Free, a Bobby Earl Caldwell Ministry.”
“A hundred thousand American dollars?”
“Yes, American,” she said and punched me again.
“Does that amount come from just a few large contributions or several small ones?”
“Large ones primarily, but there’re more than just a few,” she said. “It’s funny though-” She paused long enough to take a sip of her drink, a Fuzzy Navel from the look and smell of it, and then continued. “-there are small ones, but they go to a different address than the big ones. The Captives ones go to a P.O. Box in New Orleans, the small ones to a street address that I know is his ministry headquarters address because I’ve seen it on his literature.”
“Is there any way you can get me a list of the inmates who’ve made contributions?” I asked.
“I don’t think I could do that,” she said with a smile as she withdrew a sheet of paper folded lengthways from her purse and slid it along the bar to me. “That would be wrong.”
“And being the good man I am,” I said, “I don’t want to encourage you to do anything wrong.”
She smiled, obviously enjoying herself.
“Who’s his single largest contributor?” I asked.
“Was a drug dealer from Miami named Brawer, but he’s no longer with us,” she said.
“Transferred?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “To hell. He OD’d last weekend.”
My eyebrows shot up. “That was him?”
“Sounds like a clue,” I said.
“The strange thing is, you’d think there would be a big increase in donations after one of his visits.”
“There’s a small increase,” she said, “but the majority of contributions are made before he comes.”
“The clues just keep on coming,” I said.
She smiled. “So that helps?”
“More than you’ll ever know.”
“Good,” she said, and when I saw how pleased what I said made her, I was glad I had said it.
She had the same look on her face when she asked, “Are you going to stay for Karaoke?” Which is why an hour later I was wishing I were drunk as I listened to people who were singing songs that they wouldn’t have if they weren’t.