The Man Who Fell in Love with the Stump of a Tree
The strangest man in the world came to town about a year ago.
People don’t come to this town. They leave.
At one time, it had been a pretty good town. But no more. It had once been a nice little bedroom community for a huge auto plant in nearby Anderson, Indiana. But the plant closed years ago and our town started closing down too. About the only people who stayed were older folks who didn’t see any other options that made a lot of sense. There were a handful of people scattered throughout younger age groups that didn’t have any other options, period. And me. I found another better-paying job in another state but turned it down. Then I stopped looking.
I stayed here because I couldn’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be. I had a job. I felt comfortable with the people I knew, even if most of them were older than me. I liked my home. I liked my bar. I liked the diner in town a lot. I ate there everyday. I couldn’t imagine having lunch anywhere else. I couldn’t imagine living in another home or going to another bar or doing anything else on Friday nights than attending local high school football games and basketball games. That was pretty much my problem, I guess. I wasn’t one for imagining things. What-ifs made me feel uncomfortable.
My town, Tivoli, Indiana, wasn’t near anything worthwhile. It wasn’t on the way to anywhere worth going. It didn’t have anything worth seeing. It was just a town with half the businesses shuttered up, a few old man bars, a truly spectacular diner, a library that no one used, two gas stations, an old doctor, an older dentist and a drunk lawyer. It had an abandoned stock car track south of town. An abandoned glass factory also south of town. Some abandoned car lots. Abandoned churches and lumber yards here and there. Abandoned hope everywhere.
In a small town you run across some strange folks. When I was growing up, when things were good and the future was fine, some off-the-wall folks here and there were part of everyday life. We didn’t think much about them. My kindergarten teacher was an old maid who had once gone to bed for twenty years because her fiancé left her standing at the alter. There were four or five farmers who got together in a pole barn outside of town and smoked belladonna every Saturday night. One of the town dentists, we had two at the time, used to have a bucket by his dental chair for discarding extracted teeth. His cure for any dental problem was to pull a tooth or two. And he only emptied the bucketful of teeth when it started overflowing, about once every year and a half. He simply threw the teeth on the roof of the one story building next door from his second story window.
He was the one that stayed.
When a town starts going sour, as Tivoli did, people get even stranger. More people talk to themselves or the phantoms walking beside them. They talk louder and gesture more wildly. There’s more vandalism. There’s more graffiti that makes less sense. A church that worships UFOs is founded.
So, in a town of strange, you had to really zig-zag outside the lines to be called that. And Ringo Wink Pitchwinger was, as everyone who met him agreed, one of the strangest acts in our dying circus of a town.
He looked strange. He dressed strange. He talked strange. He had a strange name, for cryin’ out loud. He made it even stranger by the way he introduced himself.
“I’m Ringo Wink,” he would say in his voice that jumped around from high-pitched to low-pitched like a nervous adolescent on speed, but you can call me Wink, winky-wink-wink,” he would say while winking his loopy left eye.
Behind his back people called him Winky Wall Eye.
He was moderately tall, about six feet two, and very, very skinny except for a round little potbelly that looked like he had swallowed a playground kickball. He had one blue eye and that crazy brown eye. His skin was a delicate shade of Elmer’s Glue-All with a cellulose sponge complexion that spoke of teenage years squeezing zits. His hair was saddle brown and stringy with a bald spot that was a thick stripe down the center of his scalp for a reverse-Mohawk effect. He had a Dave Letterman gap in his front teeth. He smiled all the time.
His clothes were clean but silly. No natural fibers were to be found anywhere in his wardrobe. He usually wore sky-blue, too-short, Sans-a-belt slacks, short-sleeved shirts in Starburst candy colors of some shiny material that was so thin you could see the wife-beater undershirt underneath, neon-colored socks with two stripes at the top and PF Flyers tennis shoes, black with pencil-eraser colored soles.
Women found him creepy. Children found him scary. Men found him full of it, but funny. I found him at Annie’s Diner. Or, rather, he found me.
I was having Dixie’s Diablo Mixed Meat hash with poached eggs. It was one of the Diner’s specialties and my favorite. I was at the point where the spices, peppers and whatever else mixed into it that elevated regular Mixed Meat hash to Diablo, were beginning to make my scalp tingle and forehead pop tiny beads of sweat.
He walked in and sat down.
Annie’s wasn’t one of those places you just walked in. Everything about it screamed old grease and bad food. The windows facing the street were buggy on the outside and smeary on the inside. Scotch-taped on them were all sorts of Xeroxed flyers in various shades of white, dirty white, and sunfaded colors. If anyone wanted to tape something up, they could. Annie never took anything down. Never. I know there was a missing cat flier from 1988.
Against one wall were booths with cracked vinyl seats and dirty-yellow foam rubber trying to escape. When Annie and her sister, Dixie, felt unusually energetic, they slapped some duct tape over the cracks. The wall beside the booths was decorated with anything anyone wanted to tack up, also. There were old insurance calendars, football schedules from jr. high and high school, business cards from real estate people and tri-fold brochures hawking who-knows-what.
When Wink sat down, Annie walked over and gave him a menu featuring mainly breakfast food, served all day, a few soups and many chilis, from Chili Blanco made with chicken and white corn, to Cincinnati Chili served on top of spaghetti. The grease may have been old but the food was good.
“Need some coffee, honey?” Annie asked. Strangers were called “honey” and regulars were called “sugar” if unmarried, “darlin’” if married.
Wink did his Ringo Wink, winky-wink-wink bit.
Annie smiled and asked him again about the coffee.
“I like my coffee like I like my women, black and full-bodied,” he said.
Annie’s stopped smiling and snorted. The only other time I had heard her snort was when the county health inspector came around and told her the hanging lightbulb above the grill wasn’t up to code and needed to be encased in something so it wouldn’t shatter and get glass in the food.
“If it ever shatters and glass gets in the food, we’ll throw the food away,” she said. But he wasn’t convinced, so she eventually bolted it to the wall and put a screenwire cage around it.
After Wink described his coffee preference he proceeded to tell no one in particular but everyone in the place some unfunny, corny yet borderline offensive jokes. No one even laughed politely, which was unusual considering most of the people were of the age that compelled polite laughter for anyone trying their hand at humor, especially strangers.
He cleared out Annie’s in a hurry.
I stuck around because his bad jokes and silly banter amused me.
In fact, I kind of stuck around most of the afternoon because I didn’t have anything better to do.
“What do you see in that jerk?” people in town would ask me.
“Well, for one thing I enjoy his B.S. He makes me laugh. And, deep down, I think he’s a nice guy.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“I just don’t like him,” Annie told me one of the few times I was hanging out at the diner without him.
“I also think, I’ve seen him before, I just can’t figure out where,” she said.
Another old coot sitting in the diner, Gifford Brown, told me practically the same thing,
“He’s been around here before,” Gifford said. “I’m sure of it.”
Gifford looks to me like he’s had some chromosome damage. People in town say he’s “touched in the head.” He usually doesn’t talk much and when he does say something it usually has nothing to do with what anyone else is talking about and rarely has much to do with reality. So, it was rather odd that he said something not odd.
However, I asked Wink about what they said and he said he’d never even been in the state of Indiana before.
Wink and I usually met at the diner and I’d have my Diablo Hash and poached eggs or mile-high meatloaf and he’d have a cup of coffee and a plate of crinkle-cut fries.
Annie didn’t say much to us when we were together. The few times I came in alone she had plenty to say.
“You’re a pretty nice guy. That Wink clown is going to get you in trouble,” she’d say.
There were whispers in town that we were a gay couple. We weren’t. I wasn’t.
After spending some time at the diner, I would go back to work and meet him at the Tic-Tock Bar afterward. We’d drink boilermakers until closing and tell stories and joke around. The guys in the bar eventually accepted him and grew to appreciate his silly stories, bad jokes and drunken banter.
Then he fell in love with a stump.
One Friday night he wanted me to take a drive out in the country instead of taking him home to the apartment he rented above the old five and dime, which was now a consignment shop.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Just drive,” he said.
So I drove up and down gravel roads west of town, turning left or right when he told me. We drove until a little past four and finally he asked me to take him home.
The next night, after the bar closed we did the same thing. Sunday, after I went to church, we drove around again, only this time we were sober. Finally, around midnight, he asked me to stop. We were on the county line road next to the abandoned Rutherford farm. I pulled the car over to the side of the road.
He got out of the car. He walked around a squinting at the fields.
“Turn in here,” he said.
“There’s nowhere to turn,” I said.
“C’mon, do the old Winkmeister a favor and turn in,” he begged.
I didn’t much like the idea. Even though there wasn’t a fence, I was afraid of getting stuck. However, there did seem to be an old lane running into the heart of the farm, although it was overgrown with weeds. So, I turned in and drove for about 100 yards until the vegetation seemed to be fighting back a little too much.
“Satisfied?” I asked.
“You ain’t got what it takes to satisfy the Winkman,” he said.
The car made its usual clicks and pops of a heated engine cooling down.
“Let’s get out,” he said.
“Wink, I’m tired, let’s head back,” I said.
“C’mon, let’s get out a take a walk. The Winkster doesn’t ask for much.”
“The hell you don’t. For the past three days we’ve been driving around all over the damn county.”
“I’ll give you some money for gas.”
“Whatever. Anyway, I’m tired and want to go home.”
“Please? Pretty please with titties on top?” That’s the kind of politically incorrect stuff Wink said. You’d laugh and feel guilty at the same time.
“Oh, alright,” I said.
“Geeze you’re a pain in the butt,” I added just to keep the grumble going.
So we started walking further back from the road. It was hard going because the land had little knots and holes in it, and there were rocks and old cans and stuff to trip you up. We crossed a dry creekbed and up a bit of a hill. At the top of the hill we turned left and made our way through an overgrown mess of trees, burrs and thorny things. I followed Wink silently because he seemed to know where we was going.
Finally, we came to a clearing.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” He asked.
“What?” I said. I could barely see anything in the darkness.
“This area. This tree.”
“This tree,” he said, pointing.
“Wink, that isn’t a tree.”
“It was a tree.”
“It isn’t now.”
“But it was. It was once a beautiful walnut tree. Full of life. A strong, hard tree. ”
I chuckled because Wink never talked like that. Those words sounded funny coming from him. But he wasn’t kidding. In fact, I wasn’t sure, because there wasn’t much light, but I could’ve sworn I saw a tear at the corner of Wink’s eye.
“Let’s sit awhile,” he said as he sat on the stump.
It was about four feet across and rose up off the ground about a foot.
So we sat. I didn’t think this would be a good time to talk, so I didn’t. Wink didn’t. I could hear a train rumbling in the distance and some wildlife sounds I couldn’t identify, except for the crickets.
Finally, after about 15 minutes, Ringo sighed dramatically.
“Are you ready to go?” He asked.
“Yea, I guess,” I said.
It seemed like a good time to bring up something.
“You know Wink, I Googled you the other day,” I said.
“I must’ve been pretty damn drunk, ‘cuz I sure as hell don’t remember it,” he said. “Was it good for you?”
“No, I’m serious,” I said.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“What don’t you understand?”
“This word Google.”
“You don’t know what Google is?” I asked.
“No friggin’ clue. Sounds dirty, though.”
I didn’t believe him. I thought I had seen a laptop at his place one time when I dropped him off and had to walk him upstairs. He also seemed pretty current in his thinking. He would know Gooogle. But I let it drop.
“Anyway, I looked you up on the computer, the internet.”
“What did it say about me?”
“You don’t exist. Your name doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a name Pitchwinger. There’s not even one in the New York phone directory.”
“Yet I do exist, don’t I?”
“Yes you do.”
“See, computers don’t know everything.”
“I guess not.” I was too tired to argue.
Later, on the way home, he said, “maybe Pitchwinger is my stage name.”
“You were on stage?”
“I’m always on stage, my friend,” he said.
“Tell me how the play turns out,” I said.
“Probably not happily,” he replied.
That was the last time I ever broached the subject.
Wink disappeared after that. I didn’t see him the next day. Or,the next. And the days turned into weeks. I wondered if he had left town, although I never checked his apartment. Annie, at the Diner seemed a bit nicer to me, although she never mentioned him. In fact, no one ever mentioned the lack of Wink.
It was as if my little town could only accept so much strange. Wink was just a little too much. The town wanted to slowly die with what little dignity it had left. Wink wanted to paint it in clownface and dress it in slapshoes and throw creampies until the very end.
Wink had left no mark. He had affected no one. To me, his so-called best friend, his departure seemed neither bad nor good. It just was. His memory was a vapor. It rapidly dissipated. I remembered he looked strange but I couldn’t remember his face. I didn’t miss him. On the other hand, I wasn’t glad he was gone. My life was neither richer nor poorer for having known him.
The odd routine of Tivoli, Indiana, quickly reverted to what it was before Wink.
Seven and a half weeks passed.
It was half past noon in Dixie’s Diner.
I was battling the demons of the Diablo hash yet again. Gifford was talking nonsense to no one. The drunk lawyer was nursing a hangover.
The door to the diner opened. One of the old-timers stopped in mid-sentence a harangue about Paris Hilton. Annie tensed. Gifford stopped talking.
“Hey buddy boy, how’s your hammer hanging?” Wink asked before the door had even slammed shut.
Thus began the subtle change that was life in Tivoli with Wink. Annie got a little grouchier. The old coots left Hollywood behind and gossiped about Wink instead. Gifford’s gibberish revolved around knowing Wink.
Wink and I began again our nightly drinking. I didn’t realize how much I missed his profanity-stained humor until I was around him. It was comfortable and kept the mood light. Once in awhile, I even laughed.
However, the complexion of the nights took on a different hue than before. If Wink got too drunk, he would insist we visit the stump. I really didn’t like going out to the stump. But, I didn’t dislike it enough to make a fuss about it. So, about three nights a week, sometimes four, we ended up sitting on the stump and staring at stars.
Wink’s mood would change when we were at the stump. The innuendos and schoolyard jokes would stop. His drunken slur would become almost romantic.
One time he said to me: “I love this place.”
“What Tivoli?” I asked.
“No, here, right here,” he said.
“This tree stump.”
“You guessed ‘er, Chester.”
“You love this tree stump.”
“You’re not right.”
“Never claimed I was. Don’t you like it out here?”
“Wink, I’m not quite as fond of it as you are. In fact, there are many places I like a whole lot better,” I said.
“Well, you just don’t know much about what’s important in life.”
I couldn’t think of an answer, so I didn’t say anything. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what was important about a tree stump.
Most of the nights when Wink and I ended up at the stump, I could tell what was going to happen pretty early. Wink would order two shots with his beer and that was my clue to slow way down, because I was going to be doing some driving. In fact I would pace myself with glasses of water and stick to beer, skipping the Bourbon.
One night, however, I’m ashamed to say, that I didn’t pace myself very well. And in our drunk-logic, we figured it was a good idea if we stopped off at a package store and got a bottle of Wild Turkey to pass around.
I had this feeling that the night sounds were somehow a little different around the stump. But maybe it was just the liquor.
We sat with our backs against the stump and passed the pint bottle back and forth. We were about three-quarters of the way through the bottle when a man stepped out from the shadows of the woods.
I couldn’t see him very well in the darkness, but he appeared to have a shaved head and was wearing dark clothing.
He walked briskly, purposefully and in a straight line to within three feet of Wink, staring straight at him the entire time. I noticed the man was holding something in his right hand, down by his side. He didn’t once even look at me.
“Greg Day?” He asked.
“How did you find me?” Wink asked.
“You are Greg Day, aren’t you?” The man asked.
“No, his name is,..” I didn’t finish because Wink nodded “yes” and the man raised his gun and blew Wink’s head off. He fired two more shots into Wink’s chest.
He turned his back on me and calmly walked back into the shadows. I had blood and bits of Wink all over me.
At first the county Sheriff thought I was involved somehow. Or at least that’s the way it seemed. He questioned me on and off for twelve hours. Finally, even though he thought my description of the shooter was “lame”, he let me go.
A day later a team from the FBI showed up. They questioned me, too, but only for an hour. They seemed to believe I had nothing to do with Wink’s death. It was almost as if they didn’t care.
On that very same day, they found the remains of the first child. They eventually found twelve others. Eleven of them were girls between the ages of 5 and 11 and had gone missing during a five-year span that ended 13 years ago. One was a young girl buried two months ago, sometime during the period when Wink went missing. All of them had been tortured and molested. All of them were from within a ten-mile radius of Tivoli, but none from the town itself. I heard that there were other children’s graveyards in other cities in the Midwest that the authorities attributed to Wink.
I never did find out who the stranger was who had finished off Wink. Maybe it was a rogue FBI agent. Maybe it was the father or brother of one of the girls killed. Maybe it was some sort of bounty hunter.
In a small town, even one that was a little peculiar like Tivoli, there are lines you shouldn’t cross. My friendship with Wink crossed it. I heard the whispers and the gossip and the innuendos. People were polite to me, but there was a certain brittleness whenever they talked to me. Most people thought that somehow I was involved in the last child’s death. There was nothing else to explain why Wink and I were together so much.
I always realized I didn’t have much of a future in Tivoli. Now I knew I didn’t have much of a present, either.
It was time to leave.
BIO: r2 has been published in Mysterical-E, Out of the Gutter, Nefarious and DZ Allen's Muzzle Flash as r2. His non-fiction stuff's been in Playboy, Esquire and Vanity Fair under another name.