By Richard Babcock
Published by Scribner
November 2002; 0743227271; 326 pages
G. Bowman Epps and Ginger Piper died the same day, the same morning -- maybe, I sometimes imagine, at the same instant. Neither could have known the fate of the other: They were nine thousand miles apart and hadn't spoken in months. In a purely physical sense, their deaths were unrelated. Still, the same day. My father used to place great significance on coincidences like that. The anomalies of life entertained and finally terrorized him. Not that you could pin him down to any specific meaning of events like these. He simply believed the past -- and, worse, the future -- were talking to him personally. He had what you might call a hot view of life, and probably because of that, I've tried to cultivate a cold one. The simultaneous deaths of Bow and Ginger were chance, no more -- though I'll go to my grave believing their last thoughts were of each other.
They were stars, of sorts, of our small town, Laroque, Wisconsin -- thrown together in a way that was probably inevitable, despite their differences. Bow was a rich, scarred, overweight, middle-aged lawyer; Ginger was thirty years younger, a splendid high school athlete, a talented, charming, rather mysterious boy from a bitter family. Overall, I think, each saw in the other a grace, a sort of beckoning of possibilities, that raised them and ultimately pulled them apart.
My name's Charlie Stuart. I'd known Bow -- or, at least, known of him -- for as long as I could remember. To every child in Laroque, he was an unspoken moral lesson: Money can't inoculate you against misfortune. Bow was the son of a banker, the richest man in town. But an early bout of polio had left Bow with a bum right leg and a laborious limp. As if that wasn't enough, when he was four, the family cook knocked a pot off the stove, splashing boiling oil onto the side of his head. Doctors saved the eye, but the scar was permanent -- folds of flesh that seemed to be melting from Bow's right hairline to his jaw. He was a dozen years ahead of me, and as a child I remember watching him around town, a fat, lonely, bookish boy dragging his foot along the sidewalk, his scar lighting up bright red from exertion. Eventually, he went east to college, then came back to earn a law degree in Madison. When he returned to Laroque as a young lawyer, he had a wife, a plain, slender woman with pale skin and dark hair. She stayed perhaps five years, by the end barely venturing out of their house. There was a miscarriage, and shortly after she left.
By then, Bow was wedded to his law practice. He handled criminal appeals, almost nothing else. Some wretched fellow would get convicted of robbing a liquor store, and Bow would take the man's case up through the courts, arguing any procedural error that might overturn the verdict. He was good at what he did; over the years, he made a lot of the criminal case law in Wisconsin. Of course, there wasn't any money in it -- most of his clients were indigents, assigned to Bow by the state, which paid a small fee for the work. But he was an only child and his parents had left him a small fortune. His life lay in the thick transcripts of court proceedings that piled up around his office above his family's bank. He'd disappear for days, poking through a trial record. I think the neatness of the process satisfied him -- disorder reduced to, say, nine hundred pages of type. And from a desk that looked out over the Agnes River and the grubby street of bars and bait shops that lined its bank, he could pick over and second-guess every tactic, every ruling, every moment that counted.
I hooked up with Bow several years after his wife left. He found me one day at the county courthouse, where I used to sit through trials, enjoying the cheap drama. I even sat through a few of my own -- nothing serious, public inebriation, that sort of thing. Bow had seen me around town, and he remembered my father. For years, Bow had battled with his own father, an imperious man as cold as his treasured sheets of financials, and in Bow's mind he and I belonged to a select fraternity of tortured sons. He offered me a job and I became his assistant -- his secretary, investigator, chauffeur, companion. He didn't mind if I vanished for a few days every now and then on a bender, and he wasn't above offering me an occasional drink if he thought it would brighten my spirits. My beloved Lucy, who knew me through this time, thinks Bow stole years of my life, but though I respect Lucy's judgment on virtually everything else, she never really understood how it was between Bow and me.
I first met Ginger Piper while I was working for Bow. At the time, in addition to his law practice, Bow ran a small collection business -- not that he needed the income, but he bought the paper cheap from the bank, and I think he enjoyed the anthropology of it, dipping into the life of the town. He gave it up after a year or so, but at one point a man named Errol Piper turned up as one of the deadbeats. Piper had taken a loan to buy a used truck from Harry Bigler Motors and then stopped paying. Often enough, a letter with Bow's name on it was sufficient to bring in the money, but in this case, two or three letters had been ignored. One of the tricks with deadbeats is to catch them in front of their families -- sometimes the shame works outright, and other times, the wife, the kids, the grandparents start asking later whether that embarrassing bill has been paid. So one evening about dinnertime, I drove out for a visit.
Errol Piper's home sat one road off the highway in a scraggly forest of pines. He'd probably built the place himself -- it appeared to be one of those lifelong projects, an expandable shack with tarpaper siding and small, dark windows. This was late spring, the weather had started to soften, yet bales of straw still circled the base of the house, holding in a bit of heat. I parked on the pine-needle lawn and knocked on the door. A woman opened it cautiously, and before she could object, I pushed inside. In the dim light, she made a hollow, shadowy figure with her arms folded protectively across her chest. I asked for her husband, and in a moment Errol Piper stepped out of a room in back. He stood a slender six feet tall or so, and with a face so cool and withholding he seemed almost ascetic.
"That truck don't run right," he said when I explained why I was there.
"Why didn't you take it back?" I asked.
"Wouldn't of done any good. Bigler knew it was bad when he sold it to me."
"Well, you've had it for a year now. You've got to pay up."
"Hasn't been a year," he said, as if that settled the matter.
"Look, where is the truck?" I said. "Show me what's wrong with it and maybe we can make an arrangement."
Errol Piper looked at his wife. "I don't have the patience for this," he announced, then turned and walked away.
I followed him into the kitchen, a low-ceilinged space cluttered with a mix of appliances and furniture -- an old sink-and-stove combination, a ragged sofa, a plywood wardrobe painted pale green and bursting with clothes. Piper was sitting at a round table with two children.
"You better find some patience," I said noisily, "because Mr. Epps is going to haul you into court." Of course, I knew Bow would never bother to do that.
Piper didn't look up from spooning a milky soup into his mouth. The room was oppressive. The soup had a dense, fishy smell, and the light fixture on the ceiling bathed everything in yellow. I stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to do. Then I happened to glance at the smaller child, a boy I'd noticed so far only as a burry black haircut. He was staring at me intently. His face had a kind of glow, as bright as a new dime, so full of interest and candor that I had to fight an urge to explain to him why I had barged into his family's house during dinner. Instead, I fled, past the ghostly mother and into the night.
That was Ginger Piper. He would have been eight or so then, and it was another eight or nine years before he and Bow struck up together, in the spring of 1966. That seems so long ago, the memories are sepia toned. The three decades between then and now feel like a great divide. Some people say this country changed course when John Kennedy was shot, others say it happened with Vietnam. A case can be made for either, but for a little place like Laroque, the change didn't come so much from an event as from a feeling, a slow-turning, unarticulated revision of attitude. At some point -- 1967, 1968 -- as we watched our televisions or read the Milwaukee Journal or talked over drinks at the Wanigan, it occurred to just about everyone in town that we were all alike. Young or old, rich or poor, man or woman -- the differences, the separations that seemed a natural part of life, no longer counted for much. Distances were breached. The wait was over. Something happened to someone in New York in the morning, it was on television in Laroque that night -- it had happened to us. Someone got something in Los Angeles -- we wanted it, too. The same promises, the same rules (or lack of rules), applied to everyone.
As Bow would have put it, we were all equal, and equally reduced. He was a Menckenite (after one of his heroes) -- a simultaneous advocate of civil liberties and privilege. But I'm not talking in a political sense here. (After all, I come from a family of virulent Democrats. My father's letters to Senator McCarthy were ferocious enough to draw visits from the FBI.) I'm talking about a mood, a shared assumption, and I'm only trying to make the point that when Bow and Ginger struck up, Laroque was a place vastly different from the one it became just a few years after.
Of course, by appearances, Laroque hasn't changed much -- it's still the shell of the boomtown it had been just over a century ago when the lumber business was humming in northern Wisconsin. French trappers founded the town on a rocky bluff overlooking the Agnes River. By legend, the bluff was favored as a campsite because breezes up there kept the mosquitoes down. Though the first white homesteaders built up high, development settled along the river, particularly as lumbering flourished. At one time, three great mills snarled away along Laroque's stretch of the Agnes, as huge patches of white pine forest were cut clean. Today, the open-again, shut-again Hanson Door Company is all that survives.
Even so, the legacy of the town's heyday echoes in countless ways, some real, some rankly commercial. Above all, the past is there in the glorious gingerbread Opera House that sits in the center of town. Bow's grandfather helped build the place. He came out from the East as a young man and founded the Laroque State Bank. The business thrived with the town, and soon he and Laroque's other fathers decided they needed a symbol, a kind of monument to their success. With an opera house, they had some antique civic notion about bringing culture to the muscled, sweaty immigrants who cut the trees and sawed them into planks. More to the point, the town's leading men wanted a place to show off the splendid baubles they'd bought their wives. In any case, an architect was imported from Philadelphia, and in 1890 or so, Laroque acquired its only true landmark. Even today, with the building shuttered and peeling, I'll occasionally see a cluster of visiting fishermen marveling over the elegant Victorian structure. They stare at the cracked and rotting tilework that borders the roof. They consider the tall, silent bell tower, now held vertical by a spider's web of chains and wires. Sometimes, they climb the steps and pound on the thick, wood doors, though who knows why they think they'd be admitted. They seem to imagine that this proud building is a kind of ghost castle put there for their amusement, like the Pitch-'n'-Putt outside of town, or the Pioneer Log Cabin Village, built in 1972.
The lumber business started to move west even before the building went up, but the Opera House carried on for decades. In the twenties, my father brought his muse and his demons out from New York, to manage the place and put on shows. He was a great talker and finagler, and the performances he directed were historic, in their way. People from Milwaukee and Minneapolis and as far away as Chicago used to come by train; on summer weekends, even during the Depression, McGill's Hotel was packed. From my boyhood, I remember those nights in bursts of intense light -- the milling, whispering crowd on Main Street; the reek of exotic perfume; the sparkle of jewels and of bright, freshly polished black shoes; above all, the Opera House, glowing like a Chinese lantern, drawing life from the forest blackness.
A few years ago, when the town was hoping to get the Opera House going again, someone put up some money to restore the great canvas curtain that draped its stage. Over the years, the front of the curtain had been painted and repainted dozens of times with advertisements for Laroque's stores and businesses. By tradition, though, the back had been signed by the cast of each show. When the restorer finally got down to business, the crackling canvas was found to carry names like Katharine Cornell, Lenore Ulric, Walter Hampden, Orson Welles, Herbert Nelson, and countless others, famous then but now long forgotten.
I hadn't forgotten. The stars would eat at our house, gossip about Broadway, make remarks about the locals -- not knowing, or not caring, that my mother was a local girl -- and then move on, often as not taking my father with them. He'd come back a week or so later, just in time to save his job and mount another show. But he eventually wore down all of us, the town and his family. It was Bow's father, the chairman of the Opera House committee, who finally fired him. The shows had petered out by then. This was 1942, when I was twelve -- what my father's personal wars hadn't finished off, the wider war had. He disappeared overnight. Mr. Epps came to the house to explain what had happened, and this time Dad was gone for years.
Opera House never recovered. After the war, they used it for town meetings
or the occasional school play, but it sat empty for months at a time.
Then, in the fifties, during the baby boom, when classroom space was tight,
they braced the stage, opened up the sides, and turned the place into
the high school basketball court. The theater posters in the lobby came
down, replaced by pictures of the team's best players. A big, black electric
scoreboard was hung at the back of the stage. On Friday nights during
the season, everyone came out -- this was before they built the regional
school south of town -- and the Opera House again became the center of
life, an ornate pile of mortar and brick, still stretching, reaching into
the sky, heedlessly pulling us along.
© 2002 Richard
Every now and then, a small American town produces someone with such out-of-place talent that he seems to have come from a different world. In the 1960s hardscrabble town of Laroque, Wisconsin, seventeen-year-old Ginger Piper, a high school sports hero and a disarmingly poised and articulate young man, is that sort of figure. Or at least G. Bowman Epps -- a rich, lonely, middle-aged lawyer -- believes he is.
Bow is something of a town legend too: Ungainly and scarred, brilliant and stern, famous for great inherited wealth, he seems a vestige of a time gone by in a town where the legacy of past greatness -- embodied in the ornate, decaying, and defunct opera house -- casts a literal shadow. But when Bow discovers Ginger Piper, he is energized and inspired. Where others have seen merely a charming basketball star, Bow spies the seeds of something greater and the drive, intelligence, and passion to carry on Bow's legacy as a groundbreaking criminal attorney. When Bow offers the boy a summer apprenticeship in his orderly practice, it is an investment in a certain future, and the initiation of an oddly matched friendship. But when Ginger is accused of a startling crime that changes the town's perception of him, Bow is not only surprised, he's also implicated, and forced to choose between his fierce sense of logic and his admiration for the boy.
The story unfolds as the first agonizing repercussions of the Vietnam War are being felt and the American people are struggling to comprehend a new kind of war. It inspires a startling division between the generations at home, as politics and personal lives inevitably collide.
Bow's investigator, Charlie Stuart, narrates the events thirty years later, adding a perspective colored by tortured memories of his manic father and his halting pursuit of a young woman in town. Anchored by a compelling mystery, Bow's Boy is ultimately about greatness, heroism, loyalty, and justice, and the pain and solace of family.(back to top)
Richard Babcock grew up in rural Illinois, earned a law degree, and then chose journalism over jurisprudence. An editor at New York magazine for eleven years, he has been the editor in chief at Chicago magazine since 1991.