[Continued from a previous post]
Five dollars for a haircut, that’s what I’m talking about. But I wasn’t really there for the haircut. I was there to hear Rich talk. I wanted to know about my long-lost rural Kansas relations, and that’s where I was, Way Way Rural, Kansas.
Sometime during the haircut, it occurred to me that perhaps I shouldn’t mention my profession. After all, fundamentalist Christians have been known to call my magical performances “Satan’s handiwork.” Once, I took one of Claire’s Kansas relations to the Magic Castle, and upon seeing the fabulous magician Losander float a table, came to a succinct conclusion:
“That man is in league with the devil,” she said.
The small town of Reading has three churches to serve only 150 people, which implies a devoted group of congregants. The churches’ founding goes back to the 1880s, when men were men and the godless were considered irredeemable. The Groves were Baptists. In the beginning, a fiery preacher had started conducting Baptist services on Sundays in the local schoolhouse. One Monday, a teacher found a gob of chewed tobacco in the bottom of their water bucket. The preacher was called in and informed that the Baptist services would no longer be allowed on school grounds.
“Madam,” he replied, “I fought with distinction in the War Between the States, and I have had gallons of noble blood running down my boots. And I didn’t fight for my God and country just so some pale, anemic schoolmarms could tell me where and when and in what manner I might worship my just God. My dear, the church stays.”
And it did.
If you’re interested in insinuating yourself into the confidence of a small Kansas town, see, it’s best not to draw a 666 on your forehead. As Rich cut my hair, though, I spotted a Styx album next to the hair dye.
“Does that Styx album mean you’re okay with Satan and all his works?” I asked.
Well, I should have. Styx is, after all, Satan’s river. Audacity is my river. And trouble is my business, saith the GAM Raymond Chandler.
After finishing my haircut, Rich turned his attention to Linda’s tottering grandmother, who had come to get her white locks trimmed, as well. I estimated that she was born around 1920, right around the time that Orlando and Frank Groves had so mysteriously died. They were John H. Groves’ children, and they had lived with him on the farm until they were nearly 40. Then, within four months of each other, they both died. What happened? That was the mystery. Had it been an epidemic? As I recalled, that horrific flu epidemic happened in 1918, not 1920.
I ran the mystery past Linda, who turned to her grandmother.
“Gram, do you remember Orlando and Frank Groves?”
I would have preferred if white-haired, older-than-time Gram were an encyclopedia of Reading genealogy, but unfortunately, she was just fighting to stay lucid. So Linda turned to me and winged it herself.
“The person you should talk to is Preston Taylor,” Linda said. “Preston was related to Daisy Groves in some way, as I recall. His father was Preston, Sr., and his grandfather was Perry Taylor, who married Rosa Viola Groves, who’s buried in the Emporia Cemetery.”
I was astounded. I’m quite sure that I couldn’t name a single parent of my own neighbors, and certainly none of their ancestors beyond that. Linda, however, knew Preston’s entire family arboretum. As Linda’s grandmother finished her haircut, she had come to a firm conclusion.
“Have a conversation with Preston Taylor or his mother.”
“Should I drive over to her house?”
“Oh, she wouldn’t talk to you. She hasn’t gone out of that house in at least 20 years. She collects the rents on her land, but she runs it completely out of that house.”
“Does she have agoraphobia?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s a fear of wide-open spaces.”
“I don’t know, she just doesn’t go out. She watches television all day and all night. Doesn’t sleep much at night, either. Come to think of it, skip Preston’s mother. Just call Preston himself.”
By that time, Linda was walking her mother back out to their car, which was a long and laborious task. This is how it looked.
About that time, I must confess, I was getting quite hungry. In order to arrive at Reading on time, I hadn’t eaten lunch. When I reached Emporia, I stopped at a Minimart and asked for a power bar. The clerk stepped back, as if I had asked for gliknishpielen.
“I don’t know what that is,” the clerk said.
Turned out they actually carried power bars, but the big guy behind the counter was confused because of the language difference between California English and whatever the hell they speak in Way Way Rural. But by 5 pm, I was getting dangerously famished. There was no grocery store in Reading. The only restaurant, Miracles, wasn’t open in the evenings.
“Where’s the closest restaurant?” I asked Rich.
“Over in Osage, 14 miles away,” he said.
“What about a grocery store?”
Apparently, he saw the famished look on my face, because he followed up with an offer.
“You can eat with us, if you like.”
We ate in their living quarters, which adjoined the salon. On the stove, my nose detected wonderful things happening.
“Help yourself,” Rich said.
Standing at the stove with an empty plate in my hand, I discovered turkey slices swimming in a yellow sauce, some “cheesy corn,” as they called it (corn kernels swimming in a cheese sauce), and mashed potatoes. In California, it would have been called LDL bait. But it was damn good, so when they offered, I went back for seconds. After all, I had given him a 5-dollar tip on the haircut.
“I especially liked the cheesy corn,” I said when I was done.
“I cooked that,” 8-year-old Haley said with a big smile.
While I sat eating seconds, Rich explained his ingenious plan to revolutionize the business climate in Reading. Vending machines!
“I’ll put these vending machines into this building,” he said. “So if people get hungry at two in the morning, they’ll come here. They don’t even have to wake me up. I’ll put snacks in the machines, apples, Top Ramen. I could even put shower caps in them, or dishwashing detergent. There’s a real need here.”
“What about power bars?” I asked.
When I had finished eating, I floated a risky proposition. I tentatively asked if they all wanted to see a few magic tricks. I waited for Rich’s fundamentalist right hook, but I knew that it might go the other way, too. After all, maybe he was a hippie. His 12-year-old boy was named Freedom. He had some modernist traits, like a willingness not to pray every time he planned on chewing. I wasn’t astonished when he broke into a wide smile.
“We’d love it,” he said.
The kids jumped for joy, clapping their hands.
I started out with sponge balls, which you can see me performing for another audience here:
Sponge balls for a shy kid (2:40): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sdLrPcpA2UI
Then I slipped into some card tricks, such as the kind I perform here:
The Fabulous Flaming Birthday Card Trick (3:41): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtAsAvMuPec
I finished with mentalism, such as I do here:
Mentalism in action at Lula (2:45): http://tinyurl.com/3yoqeun
(On a commercial note, if your company needs to hire a magician for an event or holiday party, feel free to contact me….)
But California is not Kansas, and I made sure to twist my patter to something that was Kansas friendly. I omitted certain urban references that might offend. For example, at one point in my show, I say:
“People ask me, they say, ‘David…’–which is strange, because my name is Chloe….”
These days, references that legitimize transsexuality, even jocularly, seem renegade and hostile to conservatives. Trust me, it happens.
At another point, I say:
“I was going to tell you the secret, but if I do that, the terrorists win.”
These days, it’s sometimes considered leftist to ridicule terrorism paranoia, which is a point of doctrine for many conservatives. Trust me, it happens. One conservative Los Angeles public official walked out of my show because of that line.
But when I had finished with my show for Rich’s family 30 minutes later, I had clearly converted his family into lifelong fans. The kids begged me for more tricks, even though I really had to leave. To placate them, I showed them the secret to a kiddie trick, but then had to wrest myself free. My mind was focused on my one remaining task in town: calling Preston Taylor.
I walked outside for the call.
“Hello?” a male voice answered.
“Hi, my name is David Groves,” I started. “I’m a descendant of John H. Groves, who settled in Reading back in 1878. I’m on a genealogical research trip to find out more about the family, and I understand that I’m distantly related to you.”
There was a long pause. I was concerned, because a river had been running through my head beforehand: that I could be a con man. I could be somebody who had gotten a little bit of information about Preston off the Internet and was attempting to insinuate himself into Preston’s bankbook. I could be trying to steal Preston’s car or land or house or woman. I could be from Nigeria, for Chrissake!
Finally, Preston answered in his unmistakable country twang:
“Well, my middle name is Groves. It’s an old family name.”
We chatted a bit on the phone about how exactly we were connected, and then finally, got onto the topic of Orlando and Frank, the two brothers who died mysteriously within four months of each other in 1920.
“Oh, they were mechanical geniuses,” Preston declared. “I make my living fixing cars, trucks, and tractors out here in Reading, but these guys were amazing. They could fix anything. And they invented things, too. I have a whole bunch of things in my garage that they designed and built themselves. There’s an old ferrotype camera. There are some watchmaking tools. All sorts of things. If you like, I’ll give you one that you can take home and have.”
Preston’s trust of a complete stranger was astonishing and touching. It was the miracle of small towns. We made an appointment to meet, but it would have to be another day, because it was nearly 7 pm. Well, perhaps I could spare another day. I had to attend a relative’s wedding on Saturday, but perhaps I could spare Monday. So we set the date.
As for Orlando and Frank, I haven’t yet found photographs of them, but I have discovered what they looked like from their 1918 draft registration.
Frank Elmer Groves was tall and slender, and had blue eyes. He was prematurely grey.
Orlando Alexander Groves was average height and slender, and had grey eyes. He had black hair.
And finally, I found their obituaries in the local newspapers. Orlando had died in August, 1920, of unspecified causes that I’d like to research further. Here’s his obituary:
But was Frank’s story was even more amazing:
I have no idea what illness Frank suffered from. Perhaps he was lonely for his brother. Perhaps Orlando was the genius and Frank was just along for the ride. Or perhaps he had contracted some incurable illness, like tuberculosis or syphilis. Still, it’s good to know at least some of the story.
[to be continued]