The Bright Lights Burn

The hills of eastern Kentucky, near Hyden. (Monte Dutton sketch)
The hills of eastern Kentucky, near Hyden. (Monte Dutton sketch)
  • SEVEN YEARS IF IT’S A DAY

The walk down to the mailbox wasn’t far, but it was hilly. The right knee, operated on so long ago, was wearing out again, and there wasn’t a damn thing Riley Mansfield could do about it.

He now understood what was meant by the term “trick knee.” One morning, he had left the cabin to run a few errands. He’d had to wait for a prescription at the pharmacy, and when he’d risen from the chair, his right hand had slipped slightly when he’d put his weight on the arm. The knee slipped a little to the right, but it hadn’t hurt until he’d gotten back in the truck, stopped at Dollar General, and noticed it aching while he picked up some raisin bran and bread. By the time he’d gotten back to the house, he could barely walk. That was a Sunday. For the rest of the day, and then the next two, he’d hobbled around and spent as much time as possible with an ice pack on it. By the time his doctor’s appointment had arrived, it was about the same as it had been before the slip, which was weak. The doctor x-rayed it, then sent him to an orthopedist two days later, where he’d had an MRI, and then the orthopedist’s office had called to summon Riley in for “an evaluation,” and Riley, who knew there was damage to cartilage and the knee cap, figured he’d wind up having a nice, minor, arthroscopic procedure that would only require a week or two before he could get on with life, knee restored and strong.

Ah, hah, hah, hah!

By Monte Dutton
By Monte Dutton

What the doctor, whose name he had trouble remembering, had told him was that cleaning up the damage would induce only the briefest of good, that the problem with his knee was arthritis, and that the only solution was a knee replacement, which being only forty, he probably wouldn’t want to contemplate unless it got a lot worse. The doc even said he’d recommend against wearing a brace because “that would only cause it to swell.”

In other words, it wasn’t going to get any better. If it went out again, the doctor had said to come back, and he’d give him a shot of cortisone.

Thanks, but no thanks. Riley had left the doctor’s office bummed, and the next two weeks had blossomed into one of the more creative bursts of songwriting he’d ever experienced, due in part to the fact that he’d spent most of the time stoned.

              My daddy used to say / You gotta be a man / You gotta pull your weight / You gotta work the land / Every time I tried and failed / He turned away from me / And by the time I was a man / It was too late for him to see.

              Oh, scuppernongs and muscadines / Bubble gum two for a dime / Orange Crush over ice / Sawmill gravy over rice / That’s the way / My world / Used to be.

Nearly seven years removed from the various incidents that had led him to a national reputation as a hero in the War Against Terror, much had changed. He wasn’t at all bothered that his celebrity had faded. He’d never wanted or enjoyed it. He was now financially secure but still living modestly. He and Melissa, his partner during the year of his crisis, had been married for five years. He now had a cabin in Kentucky, up on a hill, where he and Melissa could get away. Back in Henry, South Carolina, his nephew kept an eye on his place while he was away. In the hills near Hyden, he was near his songwriting partner, Eric Hays, and guitarist Wade McKeever, both of whom had been with him when he’d nearly gotten himself shot on the Washington Mall. Hyden was closer to Nashville, where Riley frequently had business, and a safe distance from Henry, where life had only grown more complicated since he’d been swept up in terrorism and government conspiracy. Somehow, the good people of South Carolina had held it against Riley that he’d helped expose a president as a murderous crook. Even after Sam Harmon had resigned, the Palmetto State had still voted Republican, joined by only Mississippi, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Utah. Riley couldn’t even remember the name of the Republican nominee – seems like he was Harmon’s vice president – but he could remember the names of the states that whoever it was had carried.

Riley thought the world a better place, just maybe not South Carolina.

Not that Kentucky was a bastion of liberalism, but Riley found more privacy there. Seven years might have been a century. People were vaguely aware that he was somebody. They just didn’t know whom. His friends knew all about him, but most other folks didn’t care to know. He was just a nice fellow in a poor, humble, coal-mining town, up in the hills and isolated. Hell, Twitter hadn’t even caught on. Everybody was on Facebook, though. They kept up with one another’s families, one another’s babies, one another’s casseroles, and, of course, the University of Kentucky’s basketball team.

He took comfort in reading the local paper. “Chicken coop burns!” and that sort of thing. He liked reading about the run-of-the-mill works and deeds of run-of-the-mill people. He wondered if he’d have been better off had he not stopped some poor dupe from blowing up an airplane, had he not been pursued across most of the country by a madman bent on his destruction, and if he hadn’t given up so much of his privacy that people now expected him to drink with them, get high with them, anywhere, and any time. Those were his fans. His enemies still wanted to kill him, figuratively, he hoped.

Melissa walked out on the porch, where it was cold. She brought coffee that was hot.

“How’s the knee this morning?” she asked.

“It’s a pain to walk back up that hill. Level land ain’t bad. This ain’t the place for level land. It’s good for it, though, I reckon. It’s weak. Maybe the walk every day makes it stronger.”

“Have you noticed that?”

“Hell, no,” he said.

“Well, what’s going on in beautiful Leslie County this week?”

“You know it’s the Redbud Capital of the world,” Riley said. “Says so right here on the masthead.”

“Somehow, that does not surprise me.”

“Yeah, we got a lot of bud ourselves.”

“But enough of our silly lives,” Melissa said. “What’s going on with the Rotary Club?”

“Ah, pancake supper before UK vs. Tennessee on the big-screen at the community center. Five dollars, all you can eat.”

“I’ll pass.”

“It’s for a good cause,” Riley said. “Let’s get high and go.”

“We are not going to make a spectacle of ourselves,” Melissa said.

“Might get a song out of it.”

“Odds are, you’ll get a song, anyway.”

This is my first sketch of Riley Mansfield because, when I wrote The Audacity of Dope, I didn't sketch.
This is my first sketch of Riley Mansfield because, when I wrote The Audacity of Dope, I didn’t sketch.
  1. LIKE OLD TIMES

To his satisfaction, Riley Mansfield’s position had descended in the public consciousness, but he still had his moments. During the year following the 2008 election, he had appeared many times on television, so much so that cameras had often been set up in his South Carolina home for live transmissions via satellite trucks in the yard. It didn’t happen much anymore, particularly when he was holed up in Kentucky, writing songs. Hyden was even less accessible than Henry.

Riley had befriended some popular television personalities, and he continued to make occasional appearances on late-night talk shows. It was Wednesday, and Riley was off to Los Angeles through Chicago. He didn’t like flying, which was understandable since a plane he was on had almost exploded, but that was a bit of a shame because, in managing to save a turboprop Dash-8, its crew, and passengers including, most crucially, himself, he flew free on the airline in question and cut-rate on most of the others. He still counted for something in aviation, and it took lots of flights to pay for even a Dash-8.

Blue Grass Airport, four miles west of Lexington, was a two-hour drive, and an unusually smooth one at that. Hyden wasn’t near much other than the Daniel Boone Parkway, but that provided a four-lane path to Interstate 75 at London, which in turn led right to Lexington. The purpose of the trip was a gig on two shows, Overnight with Johnny Passineau on Thursday and For the Love of Night, Hosted by Kristine Carlton, which was taped on Friday but didn’t actually air until the wee hours of Saturday. He made his way out and back, the networks put him up in a fancy hotel, and Riley planned to spend Saturday, exchanging songs and brainstorming with a couple West Coast pals, and fly back to Lexington on Sunday. Melissa was staying home. She wasn’t interested in the talk shows and buddy sessions. She said she’d rather tend to things at the cabin. One goal was to prepare for leaving Kentucky. She’d had enough of the seclusion. Riley might find it invigorating, but Henry wasn’t so bad. Hyden had less than four hundred residents; Leslie County’s population was a little over 11,000. Henry was a town of about 8,000 in a county of roughly 55,000. Henry was their home. Hyden was the anti-home.

Melissa hadn’t told Riley it was time to go home. It wasn’t like that. Their marriage was one of mutual intuition. He’d get the message, and, before long, she’d have him thinking it was his idea. Meanwhile, Riley had to go to L.A. and act like he knew what he was talking about. He’d sit in a nice, comfortable chair and tell jokes about life in South Carolina and Kentucky, and then he’d close both shows by playing his guitar and singing. On Overnight, he’d have a splendid band to accompany him. On Love, he’d sit on a stool and accompany himself with a harmonica. A smattering of people in Hyden would accidentally happen to see him, and probably most of them would figure he just looked like someone they’d seen in town, and they wouldn’t be watching in the local bars because there weren’t any. Leslie was a dry county, though it was quite smoky. The Mansfields hadn’t come there for the booze.

Getting to Los Angeles wound up being a bit complicated for Riley, who discovered his travel plans were amiss when he tried to get his ticket at the airline’s kiosk, where he was electronically informed there was no record of any flights attached to his “current user profile.” He figured it was just a mixup. The line wasn’t long, and he’d have had to check his luggage there, anyway.

“Ma’am, I’m supposed to be going to Los Angeles through Chicago, and the kiosk doesn’t seem to have been privy to my plans,” Riley said to the woman behind the airline’s garish panel.

She asked for his frequent-flyer number. After bit of hunting and pecking, she said she had some bad news.

“Oh?”

“Mr. Mansfield, your reservation was on Flight 262, which departed at 7:45 this morning, not 7:45 tonight.”

“Well, I’ll be a … no, I’m not going to tell you what I’ll be,” Riley said. “My records showed 7:45 p.m., my wife’s records said 7:45, there’s no way I would have booked a flight at 7:45 in the morning because I’ve just driven two hours to get here … and what probably happened … is that I’ve screwed up royally.”

The woman laughed. “I’m gratified to hear you at least have a sense of humor.”

“I gotta be on TV with Johnny Passineau tomorrow. I don’t know how to get there. You tell me the best option.”

None existed. Riley maintained his composure, admirably, picked up his guitar case, and rolled his suitcase down to the airline that allowed him to fly free. He hadn’t made a reservation there originally because getting to the West Coast was a bit more complicated. Specifically, Riley didn’t like giving ground, but that’s what he wound up doing, going northeast to Philadelphia and then west to Los Angeles. He called Passineau’s personal assistant and asked her to get the hotel to hold his room and have him picked up at LAX at, oh, midnight, West Coast time. Being chauffeured around in Los Angeles was better than anywhere else. Driving those freeways was an acquired skill, and those who didn’t do it regularly got rusty. Riley figured the last thing he’d ever want to do, late at night and sleepless, was drive the 405 sober, and driving it stoned was a double-edged sword.

The federal bureaucracy may not have approved of its deviants, cowboys, and nutcases, but it took care of its own. The Department of Homeland Security, stacked with crazed firebrands during the presidency of Sam Harmon, still had its share of religious ideologues, though the craziest of them all was tucked away in federal prison. Jed Langston had gone to prison for the murder of Philippe Tiant, the attempted murder of Riley Mansfield and the journalist Adam Rhine, and other actions that came to light in the aftermath of tumultuous 2008. He had his friends, though, and they had friends in the federal prison system, and they were in positions to bend some rules and place Langston, who ought to have been considered high-risk, to a prison like Seagoville, which was in Texas, a state where Langston had lived, and which was low-security, not that Langston wanted to escape. He was reportedly resigned to his fate and maintaining his faith in the Lord.

Two men owed Langston a lot. He hadn’t squealed on them. They had worked with him in the murder of Philippe Tiant, also known as Fattih Ghannam, who had been arrested for attempting to blow up the small commuter plane that also carried Riley Mansfield on a flight from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to South Carolina’s Greenville-Spartanburg. Mansfield had performed the terrible injustice of saving a plane full of lives, and Tiant had made the mistake of letting his conservative political leanings earn him a spot in the government as a sacrificial lamb. Tiant, who had been assured no bomb would explode, had been understandably alarmed once one, placed almost by happenstance in Mansfield’s guitar bag, did, in fact, explode after Mansfield hurled it, guitar and all, out the plane’s emergency exit into a peach orchard. Since Tiant had not been killed on the plane, Langston had been forced to kill him later for the impertinence of realizing that he’d been expendable.

The records had been cleaned. Jed Langston had kept his mouth shut. On that day in Miami, when Langston shot Tiant in the head, his accomplices had been Kurt Hasselbeck and Leeds McCormick. They were still with the agency. They owed Langston a considerable favor, one that separated his incarceration from their freedom. They kept tabs on Riley Mansfield. They didn’t always know when he was in South Carolina and when he was in Kentucky. What they did know was that he was in Los Angeles for at least two days. For a long time, Mansfield had been untouchable. Five and a half years had passed since Langston, President Harmon, National Security Adviser David Branham, Assistant Director of Homeland Security Banks McPherson, Republican Party advisers Sue Ellen Spenser and Garner Thomas, and a dozen others – had been found guilty of a wide range of charges. A few, most notably Spenser, were already out.

Just about the right amount of time had passed regarding Mansfield, and Hasselbeck and McCormick were on the case, not the government’s, but Jed Langston’s.

Riley found the man holding up the “Mansfield” sign easily as he descended on an escalator to the baggage claim. He’d had to gate-check the Taylor guitar he brought along. It wasn’t his favorite guitar. It was his favorite that he’d be willing to risk the airlines getting their hands on. He had his laptop in his backpack, his guitar in its case, and his weed hidden safely in his luggage. Airport security wasn’t interested in marijuana, at least not in small amounts. If they had been, it’s all they would have done.

The onerous delays in travel left Riley a bit frazzled. He asked the chauffeur if he had any “smoke,” and the fellow said, no, but he thought there might be some blow somewhere back there. Riley said he wasn’t interested. Instead, he bummed a cigarette and smoked it on the way to the hotel.

Years on the road had left Riley with little appreciation for the virtues of the luxury hotel. It was just a place to sleep. That duly noted, it was a nice diversion to be put up in a swanky joint on his trips to the late-night, talk-show circuit. He always thought of Melissa and how all these frivolous luxuries – showers with thermostats to set the water at a specific temperature, automatic fireplaces in both living room and bedroom, a complimentary bottle of wine (which Riley would take home to the wife rather than imbibing), et al. – meant more to her than to him. She’d gone with him several times before. This time she’d opted out. Perhaps she’d grown tired of it all. She’d have pitched a little tantrum over the travel mix-up, and since he thought she’d booked the flight, he hadn’t even told her about it when he called during the Philly layover. It would only have made her mad. She may have made a little mistake. The odds of error would have been greater had he handled it. He was in L.A., a little late, but no big deal. He reached his room, handed the bellhop a twenty – they were ubiquitous, and resistance was futile – and unpacked everything even though there was only one small, zip-lock bag, chosen to fit inside a bag of coffee, and he liked coffee, but not that much. No one could smoke in the rooms, but it was in the air once one sat on the balcony, even after one in the morning.

Especially, Riley suspected, after one in the morning.

From across the way, on another balcony, Agent Leeds McCormick watched Riley smoke weed through his night-vision binoculars. He and Kurt Hasselbeck had been waiting four hours. Hasselbeck had left to find some coffee and pastry. He’d be mildly disappointed when he got back to find Mansfield was just where they expected him to be, and they could get some sleep and save the pastry for the morning.

Near Los Angeles (Monte Dutton sketch).
Near Los Angeles (Monte Dutton sketch).
  • HIGH IN LA-LA LAND

The simple arithmetic of West Coast time was a frequent source of confusion for Riley Mansfield. He awakened at eleven, yawned, encountered the usual surprising stiffness of his first waking step, and as cobwebs cleared and pain shot up and down his spine, he managed to stagger to the coffee machine in the kitchen that looked like something out of The Jetsons.

Eleven o’clock. That’s not bad. Oh, wait. That’s two in the afternoon back home. Shit. Where’s my phone? Where’s my ice pack. I forgot to put it in the freezer. Oh, well. Walk it off.

It was pretty out. He thought it would be nice to go out on the patio, overlooking the courtyard, and sip his coffee while smoking a nice, fat joint, but then he thought about all those photos on the Internet showing Hollywood types smoking weed on hotel balconies, even though he figured his photos were no longer worth much on the open market, he decided to err on the side of caution, knowing this was Hollywood, and soon he would be among its beautiful people, and that would invariably involve opportunities to get high.

He unplugged his cell and glanced at his email, then perused the Twitter and Facebook feeds. He called Melissa and told her he wished she had come.

“Me, too, right now,” she said.

“What’s wrong? Anything happen?”

“Oh, nothing. I just had to take a shot at some guy at two in the morning.”

“What? We must have a bad connection. I could’ve sworn you said you shot somebody.”

“No, baby, I just fired the shotgun over his head as he and his partner ran away. I busted the side window in their van, though. I woke up and heard someone trying to get in the door,” Melissa said. “I got the shotgun out of the closet and set off the alarm. The flashing lights went off, and the siren, and I ran into the living room with the gun, and these two guys took off running. It was all so fast, I didn’t have time to be frightened. I went out on the porch and took two shots above their heads. I didn’t really mean to, but they were in a, you know, what do you call it? Conversion vans?”

“Yeah, the kind people fix up the inside and shit.”

“Well, I shot out the sort of small window on the left side.”

“That ought to help the police find it,” Riley said. “They been by the house yet?”

“Yeah, I talked to them on the phone, obviously, right after the alarm went off, but they came over to fill out a report a couple hours ago. Everything’s all right.”

“I reckon they must’ve known I was on with Johnny Passineau, probably figured you come with me. I’m just glad you’re all right. Maybe I’ll cut the trip short, be back Saturday night instead of Sunday.”

“Don’t worry about it. Things are all right. No damage. They didn’t even get the door busted open. Whoever it was, they ain’t coming back.”

“You got any idea at all who it was?”

“Nah, mainly I didn’t see nothing but the back of their heads. There were two of them. You know, skinny, desperate, meth heads, I reckon.”

“So, you all right?”

“Passing tolerable.” At least one local expression had found its way into Melissa’s vocabulary.

“Baby, I’ll call you once I get to the studio,” Riley said. “I just got up, and I gotta get dressed and go tape the show. Text me if you need me, and I’ll call right back. If you need somebody to talk to, call up Eric. He’ll come over.”

The bell tones that denoted incoming text messages had been going off the whole time Riley was talking to his wife. The limo was coming to pick him up in ninety minutes. He figured it was the minimum he would need to sip his coffee, check all the human intrusions that an iPhone empowered, shave, shower and get ready to go on TV. He dragged, though, couldn’t get motivated, and wound up letting the time sneak up on him. Riley threw on his favorite jacket without first putting a shirt on under it, stuffed a western flannel shirt in the small overnight bag he had placed in his suitcase, along with some Chapstick, eyedrops, and, of course, weed. He threw the bag over his shoulder, picked up his guitar case, and headed to the lobby.

The chauffeur took the case and put it in the trunk. Riley got in the back seat with the travel bag. The chauffeur matter-of-factly informed him that he’d placed some pot in the console. Boris was his name. They were now friends, and Riley realized that, when one came to L.A., there was no reason to keep any denominations other than twenties in one’s wallet. He opened the console. Not only was there weed. Two joints had been elegantly rolled.

How’d they get Melissa?

Three hits were plenty. Riley started thinking about how he really didn’t know where he was going. Every time he’d ever done the Passineau show, he’d been picked up at a hotel, most times the same one, and taken to the studio, and he’d never paid the slightest attention to how he got there. Now he was behind smoked windows, with the sun roof partly opened to dissipate the other smoke. His trains of thought got progressively more profound, at least until he progressively lost them. When they arrived at the destination, Riley peeled off five twenties for Boris. He didn’t know whether or not Boris had paid for the weed. He also didn’t care. He walked into the building and was directed to the green room, where he could leave his stuff and go rehearse the song he was going to sing with the band. At that point, Riley realized his bag was still in the back seat of the limo. He walked as quickly as he could manage. The knee didn’t hurt. Nor did anything else. He opened the door, and the sunlight staggered him for a minute. The limo was gone. Riley, with no shirt at all under his purple jacket, found a tourist trap a block away, and perused the tee shirts. Strangely, he felt the need to buy a tee shirt that didn’t clash with the purple of his jacket, so he passed on the olive green. What he purchased was a gray shirt with black letters that read:

MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM IS

INNATELY SUPERIOR TO YOURS*

*GOD HATES YOUR ASS

It occurred to Riley that such a message might not play well on network TV. Nor did he think his mother would much care for it. He liked it, however, and decided he would button up the jacket halfway. It wasn’t the way he had planned to dress, but it was acceptable, and he was a pot-smoking musician, and, so, really, nothing much was off limits. No one expected him to dress like Tony Bennett. When he got back to the green room, he took the jacket off and put the shirt on. The band got a kick out of it. They worked out a nice arrangement for his humorous song, “Uh, Huh,” and George Liggett, the leader, added a nice, tinkling piano accompaniment. Riley was always astonished at how quickly that band could pick up a song. It was such a pleasure to work with pros. He’d had a similar experience in Nashville with the Grand Ole Opry’s house band, but he’d only been on the Opry twice. Passineau invited him to appear on Overnight a couple times a year.

When Riley returned to the green room, he discovered that the night’s other guest, Hayley LoBianco, had arrived. She was the star of one of the network’s few remaining sitcoms. Riley was thankful she mentioned its name while asking how he liked it. He’d never seen it. He lied and said he loved the show. The actress said she had read Adam Rhine’s book about the events of 2008, The Tumbling Dice, and thought he was a great American.

He asked her if she got high. “Oh, shit, yeah,” she said, saucy, a Texan, or maybe an Oklahoman. She had that rebellious streak he liked, and she pulled out hers before he could pull out his. It was illegal to smoke anything in what matched the description of “a dressing room,” but, of course, this would just not do, and marijuana was supposedly illegal if one had no medical card. Supposedly. The room had a high ceiling and a fan that sucked smoke up what was, effectively, a tunnel posing as a ceiling. It was sort of ingenious. Hayley named the strain, blueberry something or other. She lit up, and they smoked their minds. She asked a lot of questions for which he had rather simple answers. Who didn’t like Shakespeare and Hitchcock, for chrissakes? She could have asked questions about Riley’s own music and received simple answers. Things had gotten awfully simple.

“I really like you,” Hayley said.

“I like you, too,” he replied. “A small part of me just got bigger.”

She burst out laughing.

“No. I didn’t mean that. I meant I learned a lot about Shakespeare. And Hitchcock.”

Then he burst out laughing, too.

“Hey, would you like to go with me to a party?” she asked. “After the show?”

“Yeah. Shoot, yeah. Now, you know, I should say, you do know I’m married, right?”

“Sure,” Hayley said. “Melissa. I told you I read the book. Did she come to L.A. with you? I’d like to meet her.”

“No. Sometimes she does. This time she didn’t.”

“I’m all alone, too,” she said. “My husband, Paul, is on a shoot in Morocco. He makes documentaries.”

“Cool,” Riley said, not having the slightest idea of anything else to say. He was a bit fixated on her breasts, trying not to stare, wishing he had sunglasses on, even inside, because he wouldn’t be having to steal glances while otherwise maintaining eye contact. He was sure Hayley LoBianco had grown accustomed to men examining her tits. Are they real? That is the question.

Riley knew he was in trouble. Only once, before they were married and the only time he had ever eaten mushrooms, had he been unfaithful to Melissa. He was reasonably sure he was going to get another opportunity. Maybe, if he could just get over this lovely high, he could find his morals. Maybe they were in the gym bag in the limo, along with the weed he didn’t need, the Chapstick, the eye drops, and the flannel shirt with pearl snaps. He asked her if she’d like to step outside for a smoke, and she said, no, that was why she had come so early, so that she could avoid the paparazzi, and, by now, she knew those vultures were out there.

“Isn’t it funny? In this town, you could stand on any street corner, smoking a J, and, I’d say, the odds would be seventy-five percent that a cop would walk right by you without saying a word,” she said. “If you stood at the same corner, and lit up a cigarette, every single person walking by would stare at you like you were a criminal, either that, or they’d bum one.”

“The person who would bum one would also be the person who’d have some coke to sell you.”

“You like coke, sweetie?”

“Nope,” Riley said. “Never tried it. Other than a few regrettable exceptions, I advanced up the drug chain to marijuana and stopped there. I like it. It’s enough. Don’t go nowhere else.”

“Me, too,” she said. “Pretty much. Most of the time.” She started giggling again. “I mean. Seriously.”

“Miss Hayley LoBianco, I sure am glad you’re going on the show first. I’m faded.”

“As fuck?”

“Yeah,” he said. “That neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, Agents Kurt Hasselbeck and Leeds McCormick took in a match between the Los Angeles Kings and the Edmonton Oilers at Staples Center. They knew Mansfield was supposed to appear on talk shows on consecutive nights. They deemed it less disruptive to spring their surprise on Friday night, which still left Saturday to spare. He was supposed to fly back to Kentucky on Sunday.

Passineau dropped by to chat while Riley was in makeup.

“Do you know how many times you’ve been on the show?” he asked Riley.

“No clue. Dozen times, maybe?”

“Fourteen times. This is the fifteenth.”

“Wow. That comes out to, what, twice a year ever since …”

“The incident,” Passineau said.

“Yeah. The incident. That’s a good way to put it.”

“What have you been doing?”

“Oh, got some new songs I’m going to try to hustle on Saturday,” Riley said. “Bought a cabin up in the hills of Kentucky, a place to get away. Up there, me and Melissa are so cut off, it’s easy for me to hole up and do some writing. Plus, I got friends in the area, folks I can play music with.”

“Weed’s plentiful.”

“Yeah. Weed’s good.”

“CD in the works?”

“Nah. It’s about time, but I’m not exactly a big seller. Most of my income is from others recording the songs I write.”

Passineau smiled. “You and Claude Herndon still buddies?”

“Me and him don’t see much of each other,” Riley said. “I reckon his star rose and fell with Sam Harmon’s. And I reckon if Claude could’ve ruint me, he’d’ve done it by now. It is so damn frustrating to him that, when he told me I’d never work in Nashville again, I told him I hadn’t never worked in Nashville before and wasn’t of a mind to get started now.

“I don’t think no singers have blackballed me, anyway. I’m doing fine, Johnny. You?”

“I’m not getting any younger, Riley. I doubt I’ll be doing this five years from now.”

“Still like that money, though, don’t you?”

“It’ll do in a pinch,” Passineau said, trying to say something Riley might.

Back in the green room, Riley plunked away at his guitar for a while and to smoke a little of his own weed, i.e., what he had brought with him from the limo, just to settle his nerves. When Riley had been a boy, his alcoholic father had often picked him up at the movies, bourbon on his breath. Before he pulled away, Marty Mansfield would take a swig, chase it with a Seven-Up, and say he needed “a little something to knock the chill off.”

Something like that. It occurred to Riley that there might be some significance that he’d forgotten his clothes but remembered his weed when he exited the limo.

The first time Johnny went to break, after the monologue, George Liggett dropped by the green room and asked Riley if he’d like to sit in with the band on harmonica. Riley said, yeah, that’d be cool, and Liggett said just walk out while Johnny was having an audience member race on a tricycle against a chimpanzee. He’d just let a few screaming notes blare when the band went to break, and then they’d wind down the jam just before Johnny brought in Hayley LoBianco.

“Cool” was all Riley had to say. Liggett left him in the room alone with a monitor of the show being taped, a tray of sandwiches, and some soft drinks. Riley pushed a few sandwiches aside and rolled a joint over the tray. He watched a bit of the hijinks, smoked a cigarette because he craved one powerfully, walked over to the sink and gargled to clear his throat, and walked out on the bandstand with seconds to spare. Riley hardly ever sang the blues, or wrote the blues, but it was fun to jam the blues with a harp. Weed would make a man try notes he couldn’t hit sober. He had told Merritt all he had with him was his D harp, because he planned on using it the next night on Kristine Carlton’s show, For the Love of Night.

“Check,” Merritt had said. The bandleader had an endearing ability to keep it simple.

After pointing out that Riley was sitting in with the band, Passineau introduced Hayley LoBianco with a clip of her hit sitcom. The clip provided a perfect opportunity for Riley to make his way from the bandstand to the green room, where he watched his new acquaintance play the best dumb blonde imaginable for a brunette. She giggled at almost everything Johnny said. She mentioned Riley, said she’d enjoyed meeting him backstage, and referred to his harmonica playing as “killer.” She did an imitation of her co-star, Sam something or other, that was so bad the audience loved it. Riley thought it no more difficult to ascertain that she was high and close to stoned than if she’d brought a bong out with her, but he figured the television audience would give her the benefit of the doubt the same way he’d never suspected Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon were blitzed back when he’d stayed up late on Friday nights as an eight-year-old. They’d just been funny. Irreverent. Like Riley was about to be.

Hayley returned to the green room just as Riley was leaving it and told him she’d wait for him so that they could go together to the party. Riley asked her to wish him luck and pecked her on the cheek. He entered to the tune of “This Land Is Your Land,” which was the song Riley had just sung when Jed Langston had tried to shoot him.

“Pretty familiar tune, huh?” Passineau asked as the applause died.

“That’s sort of weird, man,” Riley said. “I’m known forever for the song that almost got me killed, and I don’t even get royalties for it.”

“It was July the Fifth, not the Fourth, in 2008,” Passineau said. “Let’s take a look at the clip. Now, you weren’t supposed to sing but two verses, right, and you went ahead with it.”

“Yeah, you see, most people don’t know all the verses. I can’t remember whether it was the third or fourth, but one of the verses that Woody Guthrie wrote was kind of populist in theme, and President Harmon and his advisers were insistent that I not sing that verse.”

“So, naturally, you did it anyway.”

“And it damn near got me killed.”

“Let’s roll the clip. This has gone down in the annals of America, folks.”

Watching the defiant look on his face always gave Riley chills, even when he was stoned. He could tell the moment when he’d picked Jed Langston out of the crowd, see how the look in his eyes changed, how he’d been overcome by foolhardy courage, how his expression, defiant, had almost dared Langston to take a shot at him.

              I faced temptation / And they betrayed me / With the voice of angels / They tried to slay me / But in my mind / The words were righteous / This land was made for you and me.

              Then he saw himself, his younger self, back before the knee went this bad, turning around because he wanted to see if Langston would actually shoot him in the back and because he trusted the two FBI agents he had befriended to protect him. Ike Spurgeon, tackling Langston, had been wounded by a shot an Army sniper had intended for the would-be government assassin. Riley often wondered if Langston would have killed himself had not a half-dozen cops appeared on the scene and separated him from his handgun.

When the clip was over, Riley got a standing ovation. It happened every time he was on the show.

“Riley, you don’t get out much, do you? I’ve heard you referred to as reclusive,” Passineau said.

“Wouldn’t you be?” A sprinkling of laughter. “Isn’t it nice we can laugh about it now?

“I’m not a recluse,” Riley added. “No one at home would say that. I go to the high school football games, the county fair. I’m around town. I don’t, uh, avoid anybody. I just sort of make it harder for people to find me. I’ll talk to them, but they’ve got to come to me. I won’t do interviews on the telephone. I sort of like to look folks in the eye, size them up. Most of them gotta want to see me pretty bad to come down to Henry, or, now, up in the hills, where I can play hard-to-get even better.”

“You have moved, right?”

“Not moved. I just bought a simple little cabin in Kentucky. It’s got all the conveniences of home, and that’s where Melissa, my wife, and I go when I need to get away and just concentrate on my writing. It’s beautiful, and it’s isolated, and, mostly, the people are real nice and let me do my thing. I’m not antisocial or anything, but it does seem like, the more people start to forget what happened back then, and the less interest they have in what I’m doing, the happier I really am. When you get started in the songwriting business, you’ve got access to a world that doesn’t involve celebrity, and then, when that changes, you can’t just back off and be an observer anymore. You can’t lean over on the drink box at some pawn shop, fiddle around with the guitars, and watch the people come in in and try to sell something of theirs ‘cause they need the money. It ruins it when people show up just to get your autograph, tell you how much they wanted to meet you, and just generally kiss your ass. I know there’s a lot of folks who always wanted to be famous. For me, it’s just always been overrated.”

Riley knew he was talking too much. In an interview, particularly one that was broadcast, it was important to answer the question and move on.

“Do you think anything has really changed in the country?” Passineau asked.

“I don’t know.”

Passineau waited, expecting more.

“I mean, I’m like I was before the only way I could live was to keep a little airplane from blowing up,” Riley said. “I wasn’t political. I just tried to be a good citizen. I voted. I tried to know basically what was going on, and, I think, the way it works is, something happens, and, for a while, things change, but then there’s a, I don’t know, uh, things just bounce back the other way, kind of, and I think that’s what’s happening now. President Murrah has been reelected, and he can’t run again, and the Republicans are doing whatever they can to win the next election, and, you know, back in, oh, 2010, that didn’t seem possible. Let me just kind of make it clear. I’ve got nothing against President Murrah. I voted for him twice, but, on the other hand, I don’t think much changes except it shifts from one president, one politician, who’s bought and paid for, to another who’s bought and paid for by another whole group.”

Still talking too much. I feel like a civics teacher or something.

“What do you do now, seven years after all that, when you’re not songwriting?”

“Well, you know,” Riley said. “I still got a wife. Me and Melissa, we still fuck a lot.”

Ah, short and sweet. What’s late-night talk without the occasional bleep? The crowd loved it as much as a middle-school kid whose coach slipped up and let an f-bomb explode.

Passineau mugged for the cameras.

“Do all these acts of congress provide for the pitter-patter of little feet?”

“No, we, uh, this is something we talk about, but, so far, no plans for kids. I love kids, but, right now, it’s just not practical.”

The look on Passineau’s face called for more explanation.

“You know, there’s always weed laying around and shit,” Riley said.

“Always weed laying around, ladies and gentlemen.”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” Riley said. “Shoot, next thing you know, the cops’ll be showing up with search warrants and shit.”

Two bleeps for “shit” and one for “fuck.”

“I shouldn’t have said that, either. You know, back when my friend Adam Rhine was following me around …”

“Adam Rhine, the Rolling Stone writer and author of a book about our guest and the 2008 election …”

“That’s right. Anyway, I used to ask Adam how it was that he could write an article in the magazine with all the details of him getting stoned with some rock star, and I said, you know, how do you do that without having the cops all over you, and he said it was a matter of not being anywhere where it was a problem.”

“And …”

“One of the places where it ain’t much of a problem,” Riley said, “is California.” He smiled. “So … I’m here every now and again.”

“Weed ain’t much of a problem, ladies and gentlemen,” Passineau said. “When we come back, Riley Mansfield is going to perform a song. Maybe he’s got a little time for some weed.”

“You are stoned out of your gourd,” Passineau said as soon as commercial break started. Even though the show was taped, they ran it as if it were live, complete with simulated allotment of commercial breaks.

“I’d say just about everybody here is,” Riley said. “I reckon, about everybody but you, Johnny.”

“I can’t handle it,” he said. “I can’t handle anything. I haven’t had a drink in ten years.”

“I don’t hardly drink, neither, Johnny. I don’t see why anyone does, unless weed ain’t available.”

Then he walked over to the microphone stand and stool between the host’s desk and the bandstand. His guitar was waiting for him.

When the break ended, Passineau said, “Now my hero, Riley Mansfield, is going to do a new song for us. Riley, ready?”

“Thanks, Johnny. This is a funny little song about the tiny difference between the phrases ‘uh, uh,’ which is ‘no,’ and ‘uh, huh,’ which is yes. George, lead me in with your rinky-dink pi-nanner!”

The drumbeat gave him just the right tempo to put a little feeling into the words.

              Well, I hobble around in constant pain / But I got more money than Herman Cain / Ain’t got as much money as him / But it’s constant trouble that I’m in / Uh, huh / I’ve been broke, I’ve owed the bank / I’ve seen my credit fall in the tank / More than one woman has broke my heart / I’m going on twenty with brand-new starts / Uh, huh.

              It’s not the same as uh-uh / Oh, baby, it’s uh, huh / Just nod your head / Uh, huh.

The second verse had an off-color line, and Riley had an alternate lyric he used if he was playing where kids were present. He didn’t think it was obscene, though, and no one had said anything when they rehearsed it.

              I fall in love about once a day / But most of it don’t bounce my way / Sometimes I get to the promised land / Some of the time, it’s my right hand / Uh, huh / But I ain’t ashamed of nothing I’ve done / I’ve never backed off and I’ve never run / If I could do it all over again / I’d take a different path to the same old end / Uh, huh.

              It’s not the same as uh-uh / Oh, baby, it’s uh, huh / Just nod your head / Uh, huh.

              Oh, the kind of gal who falls in love with me / Is the one with whom I can’t agree / Making love is great, of course / But not getting broke like a horse / Uh, huh / Well, the parts are different on guys and gals / But they sure do fit together well / You can rock and roll and wiggle around / In different places in different towns / Uh, huh.

              It’s not the same as uh-uh / Oh, baby, it’s uh, huh / Just nod your head / Uh, huh.

Johnny walked over, said, “Good, clean fun, that’s what that is, ladies and gentleman, a great American, Riley Mansfield, and he’s been a great friend of the show. Good night, everybody!”

George Merritt and the band cranked up the closing theme, and Riley stood around, chitchatting a little with Passineau, and then he made his way back to the green room, where, as she’d promised, Hayley LoBianco was waiting because it was only five in the afternoon, and there was time to have a nice dinner and then go party.

Partying with the beautiful people. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Partying with the beautiful people. (Monte Dutton sketch)
  • FAR, FAR AWAY

Some adjustments had to be made. Riley told his trusty chauffeur, Boris, that he would catch a ride with Hayley LoBianco to the party. Hayley gave him the address, which he, in turn, passed along to Boris along with another five twenties. Boris said he slept during the morning, anyway, and that the best time for business was during the wee hours because there was no shortage of luminaries who needed assistance getting home. Boris gave Riley a business card.

NITSCHKE BROTHERS LIMOUSINE SERVICE

“Is my brother and me,” Boris said. “I handle several network talk shows, personally. Mr. Passineau, he been good to me and my brother Vaclev. You call me, and I come. Don’t matter. Four in the morning, six, don’t matter. After six, maybe you can catch a ride, but, no matter. If you need to wake me up, wake me up. Cell number is there for your convenience.”

Another ride, another five twenties. Boris knew he had a live one.

The next problem was getting Riley and his guitar into Hayley’s Lexus convertible, whose trunk didn’t have enough space for the Taylor Riley had selected for his trip to the coast. In fact, the trunk wouldn’t have had room for any guitar because the hard top folded into it. Riley’s long legs were tough to fold under the glove compartment. Fortunately, the IS 350 C had a cramped back seat that really wasn’t fit for much other than Riley’s hard case and overnight bag.

Riley noted the car had a six-speed, automatic transmission and thought to himself, What a shame. What’s the use of a car like this if you can’t really drive it?

              Women.

              The party was at the home of a prominent television producer, Jerry Huntingdon, and perhaps the reason he didn’t look like a Jerry Huntingdon was that he was born Jakob Rubinowicz, or so said Hayley LoBianco, whose name was really Holly McLintock. Rubinowicz was from the Bronx, McLintock from just off the Llano Estacado. They were equally above their raising. Riley took pride in being himself. In that, it seemed he stood alone at the mid-grade Hollywood party. The signs of cocaine were prevalent. Men with sweaty faces, smoking cigarettes nervously next to the pool. Beautiful women made no more beautiful, really, from breast enhancement and facial tightening, sniffing involuntarily from too many snorts. A gay sitcom star from one of the cable networks told Riley he’d like to play guitar with him. He said he had his. Hayley left to get one of the valets to go fetch the Taylor, though he wasn’t wild about the idea. He was fairly confident he’d be playing to an audience too wired to pay attention. The sitcom star was named Ronny, or maybe Lonny, and maybe he wasn’t gay, but the way he looked at Riley sure did suggest it. Riley wanted to get high but not with Ronny/Lonny. Intellectually, Riley believed “to each his own,” but it was a bit more complicated in personal interaction. Riley wasn’t gay, not even a little.

Dude gave him the creeps. He hated it, but he couldn’t transcend his prejudices. He felt mildly threatened by Ronny/Lonny and ashamed of himself for feeling so. Meanwhile, he needed someone to speak to Ronny/Lonny by name so that he could remember which was right. It was one more source of awkwardness. Riley tried to be friendly, perhaps to excess. What he needed to do was chill, and he knew exactly how to do that, and he also knew there were minor stars of stage, screen, and Hollywood outside, willing to help. He excused himself from Ronny/Lonny, walked out to the pool, and may have been there a good thirty seconds before Hale Berwick, who had portrayed Joe Don Looney in a biopic produced by a sports network, passed him a spewing joint, tightly rolled.

It hit the spot, but Berwick seemed to think it was only good manners for Riley to snort some cocaine with him, and Riley had to say politely that it wasn’t his thing. These people talked about cocaine as if it came with a Boy Scout merit badge.

“Oh, okay,” said Berwick, who thankfully wasn’t in character as Joe Don Looney, the late, great pro football nutcase.

Riley knew a little about Looney and asked Berwick if the movie included that anecdote about how Looney hit a towering punt during practice, looked up, and screamed to the heavens, “How’d you like that’un, God?”

“Oh, yeah,” Berwick said. “I killed it.”

Riley walked back inside, wondering whether the actor was talking about the scene or the punt. The timing was right. His guitar had just preceded him, but the valet had lingered so that Riley could give him a couple twenties. By Hollywood standards, it was probably cheap. Riley figured the ATMs of Hollywood and Beverly Hills must do more business than a McDonald’s drive-through. Then again, who would go to McDonald’s in Beverly Hills? Riley might’ve if he didn’t have a chance to smoke a cigarette. Food was plentiful, but lots of it Riley couldn’t identify.

The gay actor’s name was Ronny Marsch, which Riley learned when Hayley told someone to go get him. He was a good guitarist, so much so that Riley could barely relate. Ronny had had the lessons, probably piano before guitar, and Riley had learned how to play by going to a pawn shop and strumming away at a beat-up Ovation as it gradually sucked less and less. Their musical tastes were dissimilar. Fortunately, Riley had the harp in his guitar case, and he could muddle along, flitting in and out of Ronny’s songs with long bursts, rising and falling. He’d never tried to play harmonica along with covers of Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Elton John, but he endeared himself further to Marsch by playing a couple country-flavored John tunes that he just happened to know. He sang “Texan Love Song” and “Danny Bailey,” which caused Marsch to gush with compliments that would have made Riley more uncomfortable had he not wisely smoked the weed. A modest crowd had gathered, there around another fake Hollywood fireplace, and some of them even paid attention when Riley played a couple of his own stoner songs, “Wake and Bake” and “Stoned at the Crack of Dawn.”

“I am somewhat unique in that I have written not one, but two, songs about getting up early in the morning and smoking weed,” Riley said. “Of course, I’ve never actually done that myself.”

Riley settled into a comfortable buzz of wine, weed, cheese, and crackers. As it turned out, he needn’t be concerned about masculine weakness. Hayley might as well have brought him for “show and tell.” Once her discovery proved a hit, playing music for all the people she wanted to impress, she left Riley to his own devices. Riley could have gotten laid, but he wasn’t going after it. It would have been tough had it been lying in his lap, but he thought it important to be loyal to Melissa and went outside again to call her and let her know as much.

Melissa answered, sounding a bit agitated.

“Sup?”

“Oh, I just … hauled a hamper of clothes I just folded to the bedroom,” she said. “I was up late waiting for them to dry. I’m a little winded. You?”

“Oh, I got drug along to this Hollywood party where half the people you’ve seen but don’t know their names are standing around trying to be cool after snorting way too much cocaine,” Riley said. “Fortunately, they got ample quantities of weed. You know me. I don’t play that serious shit.”

“I miss you,” she said. “I miss South Carolina, too. I want to go home.”

“Get semi-packed. We’ll drive back the next morning after I get back.”

“What’s the party like?”

“Oh, I gotta get back to it in a minute. I’m playing songs. This dude in a TV sitcom – I’d have to go online and figure out which one it is – wants to be my gay lover, I think. You needn’t worry, my dear. The only folks out here interested in taking me to bed are apple-cheeked lads who just love my Southern accent.”

“Take some pictures with your phone of the fake boobs,” Melissa said, laughing.

“If it gets a little wilder, and some of these gals start letting ‘em hang loose, I’ll be sure to wade in there and be amateur paparazzi. I gotta get back inside and play a few more songs, Melissa. I’m trying to hustle some songs tomorrow. I’ll be home late Sunday night.”

Melissa would never love the hills. Eric Hays was never going to leave them. It could never be more than a harmless fling, she thought, as she climbed back in bed with Riley’s dear, dear friend.

 

Mrs. Mansfield's dream. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Mrs. Mansfield’s dream. (Monte Dutton sketch)
  • MELISSA, UNDER WATER

Melissa Mansfield hadn’t let her husband go off to Hollywood alone because she’d wanted to screw one of his close friends. It honestly hadn’t occurred to her. It just happened. Eric Hays had stopped by, just to help settle her down and replace a damaged front door. They’d watched TV, and talked, and smoked some weed, and, typically, she and Riley smoked weed before they made love, and, when Melissa was high, she felt like making love.

Perhaps it was slightly Pavlovian. Perhaps she was just a creature of habit.

It still didn’t make it right. She wasn’t supposed to be as stupid as a dog. She sat down at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and feeling ashamed. Eric was out on the back porch. Melissa was satisfied he was bawling like a young’un. She felt badly. He felt worse. She poured him a cup of coffee, not because he asked for it but because she was going out there to console him. She put her cigarettes and lighter in her pocket so that she could carry the two cups.

Eric’s cheeks were flushed, eyes reddened. He had the sniffles.

“Cheer up, kid,” she said. He was in the porch swing. She didn’t sit beside him, just handed him a cup of coffee and pulled the rocker a bit closer.

“What’s done is done,” Melissa said. “I regret it. You regret it. It just happened. It didn’t mean anything. We just caught each other in a moment of weakness.”

She lit a cigarette, Marlboro Ultra Light. She was trying to cut back, her goal being to stop smoking cigarettes when she wasn’t smoking weed. She hadn’t smoked weed this morning. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Or dismantled. Eric didn’t smoke. She didn’t see how he did it. Everyone else she knew smoked when they were high. Everyone was different. Some people smoked when they drank. Melissa might smoke when she drank, but not because she was drinking. She craved one when she was high, though.

Eric still hadn’t said a word.

“Eric. …. Eric.”

He looked at her. His eyes seemed to register a small bit of life.

“You don’t love me,” she said. “I don’t love you. I love Riley, and I regret what happened, but it did. It did. It’s not gonna happen again. No one else needs to know. I don’t want to tell anyone, and I don’t think you do, either.”

“I love Riley, too,” Eric said, “I mean, in its way.”

Melissa took “in its way” to mean “not in a homosexual way,” but, rather, an “I love you, bro way,” which she, while thinking it juvenile, understood. Eric was younger, oh, by five years or so, she figured. It had been a long time since he’d cut his hair. He bore the look of a wild child, but he wasn’t. His soul was older than he was. He was a man less simple than he thought himself to be.

It was nine o’clock in Kentucky. Riley almost surely wasn’t up yet in California. Perhaps he’d gotten himself laid, too, Melissa thought. Wouldn’t that be funny?

“You caught me on the rebound,” Eric said. “Me and Penny broke up. That ain’t an excuse. It’s just what happened.”

“Drink your coffee, Eric. It’ll be okay.”

He still wasn’t much for talking. Somebody had to.

“I had a dream last night, Eric,” she said. “I was underwater, just sort of … dog paddling, but not on the surface. I was about three feet under water. It was clear and blue, like a swimming pool. I couldn’t reach the surface, but I wasn’t sinking to the bottom, either, and I wasn’t having any trouble breathing. I wasn’t in danger of drowning. I just didn’t have anywhere I could go.

“I don’t know what it meant. I don’t know if it meant anything. I just think what happened, happened, and there’s no use in doing anything but forget it. Don’t tell anybody. Don’t talk about it. I guess there ain’t no good to come from it, but there doesn’t have to be anything more that’s bad. The two of us, we both just had a moment of weakness. We did it ‘cause, at the moment, it just seemed good. Too good. But there ain’t no need to make no more of it.”

Still, Eric didn’t speak. He nodded.

“The truth will set you free,” Melissa said. “That’s what they say. I think the truth can be locked away sometimes, too. The truth can ruin things. If I told Riley all about it, he’d forgive me, and if I knew he’d done something like this, I’d forgive him, too, but it might not be the same.

“And I want it to be the same. I’m gonna ask Jesus for forgiveness,” she concluded, “but that’s all. It’s just best, Eric. That’s all there is to it.”

Melissa got up and sat next to Eric in the swing. She took his hand and pecked him on the cheek.

“You’re sweet,” she said. “You really are. When I see you, I want you to be my friend. I want to give you a hug, and you can give me a little kiss on the cheek. That’s all, though. When Riley gets back, him and me are going back to Henry. We’ll be back before long, a month, two months, who knows? That’ll give both of us time to get over this.”

In Los Angeles, Riley had a crisis brewing, too. He just didn’t know it was there or what it was.

Riley Mansfield, stoned in his store-bought cowboy hat. (Monte Dutton sketch)
Riley Mansfield, stoned in his store-bought cowboy hat. (Monte Dutton sketch)
  1. A FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY

Riley Mansfield had no sixth sense, at least not any more. Whatever intuition had guided him back in 2008, when he had been pursued and hassled and damn near killed, wasn’t anywhere near Los Angeles as he bided his time, waiting to tape yet another late-night talk show. He felt wonderful. The Hollywood party hadn’t exactly been his preferred way to spend a Thursday evening, but he’d managed to avoid the various destructive temptations placed strategically and randomly in his path. He’d sipped a little wine, which he could take or leave. He’d smoked a good bit of marijuana, but, hell, Riley didn’t think it was bad for him. It was good for him, creatively, which was why he was up relatively early on Friday, ordering room service, sipping coffee, enjoying one of the joints that had been courteously provided him by his short-term friend and chauffeur, Boris Nitschke. He had a tune in his mind and his electronic cocktail napkin, his iPhone, to record some lyrics as he hashed out a song with his guitar.

Round and round and round she goes / Where she stops nobody knows / Tends to all his wants and needs / Empowers all his works and deeds / Uh, huh.

              Too much of life is superficial / All can hum but some can’t whistle / One turned water into wine / Happens to me all the time / Uh, huh.

              It’s ordinary / And quite contrary / Just who I am.

Riley enjoyed allegories. They weren’t often that successful. Most consumers didn’t really pay attention. They might learn all the words, but, half the time, they didn’t really consider what they meant. At the same time, he was writing about Melissa, but he was also writing about the weed he had just smoked. It didn’t make him lazy. It made him creative, as long as he was doing something he loved – writing a song, reading a book, watching an old movie – and it helped him focus on what he was doing as long as it wasn’t something tedious like balancing his checkbook, or washing dishes, or folding clothes, or emptying the trash. Weed made Riley love what he liked and hate what he didn’t, and, for the second day in a row, time, which he didn’t much like, slipped away, and he had to stop abruptly when Boris sent him a text message saying he’d be by to pick him up in thirty minutes.

He needed two more verses, and he wanted those verses done by Saturday, when Buddy Lugoff, his best West Coast friend, and he were supposed to get together and allegedly write, but what would really happen was that each would listen to the other’s latest tunes and help hash them out. That way he’d get a credit on Buddy’s song, and vice-versa, and it would be legitimate because both would have participated in making each song better, unlike all the songs that were supposedly written by four or five, one of whom was the star who recorded it, another the big-time producer or record executive, and out here, quite often, the man or woman in charge of soundtracking a film. In one sense, it was a well-oiled but corrupt system that had been in place so long it wasn’t deemed corrupt anymore.

Riley tried to keep a safe distance. He’d told himself and others he was going to pitch some songs, but he just never got around to setting things up. Buddy was a pal, and how he managed to thrive out here seemed like a miracle to Riley, who thought Buddy was about as hardheaded as he was. He loved sitting in Buddy’s garage, though, which hadn’t had room for a car in at least a decade, and just get high and swap songs. Hollyweird was different, but, in its way, it was liberating. Yesterday, he had taped the Passineau show wearing sneakers, a tee shirt he purchased down the street, and a once-fancy jacket that was now too old to wear except he found it comfortable, familiar and, quite possibly, lucky. In Nashville, he would have made sure he had on a flashy pair of cowboy boots, a western shirt with pearl snaps, and jeans that didn’t have holes in them. In Hollyweird, it didn’t matter. Shabby was fashionable. His shabby was especially fashionable because it had been imported from the South. Back there, it would have been simply shabby.

His shave was once over with his Remington electric. He wouldn’t have shaved at all, but his neck was scratchy, and he hated that. The shower was wonderful in a way that was only possible with a nice weed buzz still coursing through his bloodstream, speeded up and reinvigorated by the rush of water almost as hot as he could stand.

Riley didn’t have his boots. They were too heavy to put in checked luggage and too hard to get on and off to take through airport security. He decided he wanted a cheap straw hat, though, and got Boris to find him a boutique where he could buy a real shabby one for less than a hundred dollars. He bought a denim shirt, too. He was spending too much money. He didn’t care. He was high. He was happy. He’d gotten a good start on a song. He had something new to spring on Buddy Lugoff. There weren’t any dishes to wash.

Riley hadn’t been to any of the states – Colorado, Washington, Alaska, D.C., Oregon on the way – where weed was legal, at least not since the referenda had passed. He couldn’t imagine it being any freer than California, where it was only legal for medicinal purposes but it appeared almost everyone had a qualifying condition. He wondered if California was better from a consumer’s point of view. All the legalization programs had been passed, at least in part, because those states could tax the hell out of marijuana. California was missing out. Buddy had told him that it had failed to pass in California the most recent time because the weed dealers turned against it. Riley thought about how similar it was to Southern states where counties stayed dry because the preachers ran campaigns the bootleggers bankrolled.

He watched people, standing on street corners. Half of them were high. Hardly anyone smoked cigarettes, but it seemed as if an inordinate number had little instruments that looked like fancy pens, and Riley figured they must be vaporizers, similar to e-cigarettes, and there wasn’t any smell. It was another sham, like medicinal marijuana, and for everyone, it was just another example of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” They had “don’t ask, don’t tell” in South Carolina and Kentucky, too, but it was unreliable when the Sheriff was up for reelection. If, in California, it was a sham, well, it was a better sham than other places. Hell, in Texas, they even picked on poor Willie Nelson from time to time. It wasn’t right. Out here, Hollywood wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been so weird.

Riley broached the subject with Boris, his loyal squire, his Sancho Panza. Boris said he’d never smoked it. He said he liked to drink but seemed to have less and less time for it.

“Is not that harmful, I think,” Boris said. “Most people out here, they do it. Is just not me. I don’t know why.”

Riley almost said “good for you,” but it would’ve been insincere.

He was looking forward to For the Love of Night because he loved Kristine Carlton. She was too irreverent for prime time, another Jewish comedian with a Gentile name, an iconoclast who was defiant and unexpurgated. She kept a bong on the set, hit it during commercial breaks, made no secret of loving weed, and derived a goodly portion of her material from defending it and poking fun at those who were against it. No one appeared on her show without being “outed,” whether for being a pothead, gay, radical, or controversial in a wide variety of other ways. Kristine was aggressively heterosexual herself, and she liked Riley a lot, too. He thought she had a space reserved for another notch on her figurative belt. His. She wasn’t devious. She was straightforward. When he declined, she accepted it, but he didn’t think she’d ever give up her aspirations. It was tempting because, he knew, no strings were attached. Promiscuity was almost Kristine Carlton’s religion.

It was okay. She loved to get high with him before the show, shoot the shit with him on it, and he could play two songs if he wanted, as long as one of them was funny and preoccupied with weed. Riley’s periodic appearances on her show were enough to keep him edgy. Riley loved her for her bubbly personality, her courage, and, perhaps most, her wondrous boobs. She had his favorite titties. Melissa was number two, there. His wife’s were just the right size. Kristine’s were larger, rounder and bouncier. If he had been of a mind to cheat on his wondrous wife – and he wasn’t – Kristine Carlton would have been his first draft choice. He was confident, but not completely secure, every time he felt the opportunity to succumb. Faithfulness was a chore for sinful Man. Another of Kristine’s assets was that she was an unapologetically sinful woman. Perhaps Riley would reach the age where thinking of Kristine Carlton didn’t give him a boner, but he wasn’t there yet.

On Johnny Passineau’s show, Riley had rehearsed his number with the band, and much of what was on the show seemed spontaneous but really wasn’t. That was Passineau’s great gift. Kristine didn’t care about that. She threw caution to the wind and thought it belonged there. They spent a half hour talking, but the talk wasn’t as significant as the fact that they got positively stoned. Riley liked a buzz. He preferred not to get fully faded. It wasn’t an option with Kristine, but when they got through blazing, it was a half hour before the taping, and it gave the both of them a chance to find Earth’s orbit again. Riley was almost speechless while the makeup woman was doing her magic. All she had to say was that every man who appeared on the show seemed to be wearing the same cologne.

“Eau de weed?” Riley asked.

“Ain’t no other kind on this show,” Rosemary said.

Riley watched her laugh. She couldn’t have any name other than Rosemary. She was more a Rosemary than anyone had ever been. Riley decided her last name was O’ something. O’Mara. That must be it. If he’d asked, and she’d said her name was something else, he wouldn’t have believed her.

“Everybody always asks me why I love to have Riley Mansfield on my show,” Kristine said to the audience. “It’s because he’s No. 1 in all the rankings. He [bleeping] brought Sam Harmon down. They tried to kill him. He’s, like, really and truly bold and brave and warm and caring, and, like, humble, and the only reason he even comes on my show is that I always make sure we can smoke some really good weed beforehand. I love talking with Riley. And toking with him, you know? That’s where he’s, like, a hero. He’s the positive role model who, by just his being there, who he is, he’s, like, the number one stoner. He, like, needs to start a football team and play Oregon, man.

“He even played football, once upon a time. I love his songs. He’s going to sing a couple of them. Now he’s going to come out here all embarrassed. And high, and that’s why I love him, ladies and gentlemen. Some people think, like, whatever happened to that dude, man? He’s just out there, minding his own business, writing cool songs, staying out in the country with his woman, Melissa, and loving life. We all should be so lucky. He doesn’t get out often, folks, so enjoy my great friend, Riley [bleeping] Mansfield.”

Kristine’s band, which wasn’t but three pieces – lead, bass, drums – and made up of apparent Rastafarians, rolled into their funky version of “This Land Is Your Land,” and Riley strode out, stopped on the way to place his guitar on the stand next to the stool that had already been placed onstage for his performance. Any other show would have had it placed there for his convenience, but Kristine’s wasn’t any other show. It was amazing shit ever got done, and Riley, in his pleasant disorientation, thought, Well, I bet the fucking trash never gets taken out around here.

Riley waved to the crowd, bowed, embraced Kristine, and sat down.

“So … how you feeling?”

“Pretty good.”

“That was my impression backstage,” she said, drawing a smattering of laughter.

“Kristine, Kristine, you don’t know what this does to me when I get back home. My truck gets stopped by the cops more than the freight trains coming through.”

“If everyone in the South was like you, I’d move there.”

“Then the whole South would be, oh, like Asheville, North Carolina,” Riley said.

“I’ve heard that’s a cool, trippy place.”

“Yeah. I’ve heard that, too.”

“But, what, I understand you’ve moved to Kentucky?”

“It’s just a little cabin up there in the hills, a place where me and Melissa can get away. I can hole up and write songs. It’s beautiful. The people are nice. Not as many people know who I am. I love it, but I love Henry, too. We’re going back there in the next few days.”

“That’s Henry, South Carolina.”

“Yep,” he said. “Lived there all my life, except when I was in college. You know, I grew up with kids who couldn’t wait to get out of town and see the world. I travel all over the country but still live at home. It’s the best of both worlds.”

“So, Riley, you got some new CD for us to, like, publicize?” Kristine asked.

“No, Kristine, I wouldn’t besmirch your show for something blatantly commercial. What? Do you think I’m just some shameless whore? I came out here to see you, because being on your show is a real thrill, and I’m going to try to sell some of my songs to the stars of stage, screen, and Hollywood. I’ve been in Hollywood the last two nights, and tomorrow, me and my songwriting buddy, coincidentally named Buddy …”

“Buddy Lugoff. He’s so great.”

“Next time I’m out here, you should have the two of us on.”

“Does he love weed as much as you?”

“Oh, more, Kristine. He lives out here, and he doesn’t have to worry about the local sheriff hassling his ass. Buddy has a permit. Buddy must have lumbago or something. … What were we talking about?”

“How, uh, you don’t have a CD.”

“Oh, I had a CD out five years ago. I made a little money off of them when I was recovering from being a national hero. Now they just sit in boxes. Where I make my money is when others record my songs, or when, you know, they put my songs in movies. That’s a tidy way to make some money.”

“So your CDs, they’re just …”

“Yeah,” Riley said. “Weed money.”

They both laughed.

“So, what are you going to play for us when we come back from break?”

“Uh, you’re a big fan of animals, right? You love dogs.”

“Oh, I love dogs,” Kristine said. “I got the most beautiful Saint Bernard.”

“We had a Newfoundland when I was a little boy, and that’s pretty much a black Saint Bernard. Newfoundlands are always getting busted, man, but, anyway, I, uh, I’m always traveling, and going from Henry up to Kentucky, and Nashville, and out here, and I just don’t have time to have a dog anymore. I’m too mobile, but I do love dogs, and so, well, I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s just a little novelty song that compares a dog to something else.”

“Your penis?”

“No, but it’s a bold stab, Kristine.”

“Folks, we’ll be back after these messages from two different prescription drugs that are bound to get you laid if you don’t grow a third testicle and start hatching dinosaur eggs, so stay with us. The great Riley Mansfield, my favorite person on earth to get high with, will be back to entertain you, so burn one at home and get ready to rock.”

Kristine pulled out her bong and lighter.

“Why do you not just do the show straight through and have them insert the breaks?” Riley asked, off air. “It’s, like, four hours before it goes on, right?”

She exhaled, directly upward, and slid the bong over to the edge of the desk along with a little bag. “Want some?”

“I’m good,” Riley said. “I’m exactly where I need to be in order to perform a couple songs with the delightful absence of tension that marijuana provides, and, yet, I don’t lose the facility for remembering the lyrics to songs I, myself, have written.”

“Didn’t you forget a verse one time here?”

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I made up two lines off the top of my head. They were better than the original ones. They’re the ones I sing now. It was, remember, the line was, uh, let me see, ah’ight, I got it. The line I remembered was, ‘Sometimes folks like to buy me shots, most of the time I’d rather they not,’ and then my mind just went blank, so I sang, ‘Some folks sneak outside to smoke pot, you can tell when you see ‘em ‘cause their eyes are bloodshot.’”

“See, if you’d hit this bong right now, honey, you could have that kind of creativity again.”

“Thanks, darling, but I think this song’s, like, already good enough, and, besides, I’m getting more mature as I age.”

“Say that again and I’ll fucking kill you,” Kristine said.

“No, you won’t. Weed doesn’t make people murder. I better mosey over there to my guitar.”

Riley was glad he bought the straw hat. It kept the spotlight, one that was beaming downward, out of his eyes. He hit a “D” chord.

I got this dog / She’s good to me / Always helps me watch TV / Never keeps the remote control / I never leave her in the cold.

The only time she barks is when I touch her wrong / But when I pet her right / She tags along / Doesn’t mind it if I want to take her far / All my dog really is is this guitar.

When I’m down / She smiles at me / Continues to act cheerfully / When I want to raise some hell / She harmonizes very well.

When my old lady’s / Mad at me / I take me dog and leave her be / When I want to drink some beer / Tells me when the coast is clear.

The only time she barks is when I touch her wrong / But when I pet her right / She tags along / Doesn’t mind it if I want to take her far / All my dog really is is this guitar.

She don’t brag / Ain’t got much hair / Just requires loving care / Only howls at a shooting star / My only dog is this guitar.

The only time she barks is when I touch her wrong / But when I pet her right / She tags along / Doesn’t mind it if I want to take her far / All my dog really is is this guitar.

When the applause subsided, Kristine, still sitting behind the desk, either wasted or acting like it, yelled, “[Bleep] that! I want to hear a [bleeping] stoner song.”

“It’s your show, Kristine, my dear.”

“Oh, [bleep],” she said. “This little bug in my ear tells me we got one more commercial break. We’ll be back, and my bud Riley Mansfield’s gonna sing about some bud when we come back.”

“Good,” Riley said as the band cranked some blues. “That’ll give me time to remember one.”

Later that night, after Riley and Kristine had gotten higher and gone to dinner at a Beverly Hills bistro, Leeds McCormick and Kurt Hasselbeck watched For the Love of the Night with Kristine Carlton.

“Can you believe this?” McCormick said. “I didn’t realize shit like this was on TV.”

“World is changing,” Hasselbeck replied. “It’s unbelievable.”

“This’ll be over in a little while. I’d say our Mr. Mansfield will be getting back before much longer, and, this time, he hasn’t got a clue we’re waiting for him.”

“He’s probably stoned out of his gourd right now,” Hasselbeck said.

“You think?”

The bewitching Kristine Carlton. (Monte Dutton sketch)
The bewitching Kristine Carlton. (Monte Dutton sketch)
  • COMPLETELY UNAWARES

Riley prevailed upon his trusted chauffeur Boris, whom he’d known for well over three days now, to provide transportation for him and his dear friend Kristine Carlton. He told her they could drop her off at her home later, and he’d take her back to the studios to pick up her car the next morning, when Riley would be headed back to LAX for the flight back to Kentucky.

“I’m sure we’ll work something out,” Kristine said.

Her smile was lovely, her skin softer than her age, and her hair was a brown so dark that it was barely distinguishable from black. The brown richness was in her eyes, but Riley valued her personality more than her beauty. She was a little ungainly, but everything about her was precocious. Her laugh was that of a little girl’s, and she never erred on the side of the tactful. She left nothing unsaid and examined all the options. Weed didn’t make her any more irreverent. Nothing could. It just made her horny.

Riley was more stoned than he generally liked to be. Smoke had engulfed his brain. It wasn’t figurative. It was exactly how he felt, though the fog was delicious. He just told Boris to drive, and drive is what he did. Neither Riley nor Kristine had any idea where. When the pace slowed, Kristine wanted to open the sun roof and stand up. Riley had enough sense to know that it would not be good for his knee, which he couldn’t feel but suspected was ailing. He told her to go ahead, and she misperceived it as a slight.

“You’re no fucking fun, Riley Mansfield,” Kristine said, plopping back down. “How do you feel about oral sex?”

“I wouldn’t want it done to me in a moving car,” he said. “That’s just my first thought on the subject.”

“I mean, you know, it’s not really sex, I mean, not in the reproductive sense,” Kristine said. “It’s more, you know, recreation. It’s like … I can’t think what it’s like right now. It’s better than anything I can think of to compare. It’s stickier than walking. And faster. It requires rhythm, like jumping rope.”

“Let’s jump rope.”

“Are you kidding? It’d kill your knee. I think I might be able to heal it. Spiritually, you know?”

“You’re a fascinating woman,” Riley said. “I can’t begin to understand you. There’s such a cultural divide. Where’d you grow up? Brooklyn? Queens?”

“Philadelphia,” she said. “It’s like being a Jewish princess from one of the Thirteen Colonies. It’s unrecognized by the Crown.”

“At least it’s royalty.”

“Easy for you to say, you racist hick!”

Riley laughed. “I’ve never met anyone remotely like you,” he said. “Married, we wouldn’t last ten minutes. Do you carry a gun?”

“Do you?”

“Some say it is.”

“You should carry a gun, Riley. There’s still people out there who want you dead.”

“Nah, I’m not into it,” Riley said. “I just carry weed so at least I’ll die happy.”

Kristine tilted back her head and tossed her hair. “I love you, Heathcliff!”

“And I you, Princess Kristine!”

Riley pushed the audio button. “Find us a pretty place to look at the ocean,” he instructed Boris.

Ten o’clock at night. Riley and Kristine decided they wanted to go down to the beach, sit on a rock or something, and watch the waves crash. Boris could not understand the stoned Americans. He sent a text to Leeds McCormick.

Silly lovers decide they want to go to beach. No telling when bullshit end. Hey. What happen if they want to go back to girl’s place, not Rileys hotel room?

McCormick wrote back.

Do what you can to prevent that from happening. If you can’t, let me know. If you can, let me know you’re on the way.

              10-4.

On the beach, Riley and Kristine found a good-sized rock, embedded in the sand, that was fairly comfortable.

“Do you, like, smoke shit like this all the time?”

“Pretty good, huh,” Kristine said.

“Damn straight. How’d you get that thing lit in this wind?”

“It’s sort of mini-blow torch,” she said. “I got mad one time and burned down a restaurant with it.”

“Soup too cold?”

“Nah,” she said. “I fucking ordered medium rare. Bastards cooked it medium. ‘Fuck this place,’ I roared, splashing gasoline about, this way and that.”

“Have you ever been to the South?”

“South Jersey,” she said. “The last Jewish kids came south wound up buried in an earthen dam. That’s what I was taught.”

“It’s not quite that bad anymore,” Riley said. “That actually occurred before either of us was born. Now they only do that to Muslims. Maybe the occasional Mexican.”

“And abortion doctors.”

“Kristine, shit. The humor burns. Damn.”

“Well,” she said, “I’m sorry. I just want you to fuck me. It’s, like, becoming my lifelong ambition.”

“I can’t,” Riley said. “I just can’t.”

“You’re weakening,” she retorted.

              At one in the morning, Riley got out of the limo and gave Boris every bill above a five he had left. He was stoned enough that he wasn’t sure what had just happened and what hadn’t, other than Kristine Carlton was no longer about, and his knee seemed to be a bit more swollen than it had been. He’d forgotten to call Melissa and had the text messages to prove it. Fortunately, he had the sense to remember it was four o’clock in Hyden. Boris had to chase him down to remind him he had a guitar. Staggering through the courtyard, he bounced the hard case off his knee several times and thought, well, maybe it’ll have a numbing effect.

Mental note: Never agree to appear on For the Love of the Night again without bringing Melissa along.

He sat the guitar case down, fumbled with the plastic key, got the door opened, walked inside and sat the guitar on the coffee table. He opened the case, took the guitar out and leaned it against the couch next to him. He had his stash, which he had smuggled on the plane from Kentucky, in the case. He had half a joint in the baggy that he pulled out, so he fetched it and went out on the balcony. A full moon hung above the horizon.

I’m a sinful man, Jesus. Forgive me of my sins, of which are there many. Christ name, amen.

Riley sat there, basking in the chill, fixated on the moon, taking deep breaths to get, theoretically, more oxygen in his bloodstream to find, somewhere in there, a train of thought. He wanted to play guitar but just wasn’t up to going back in and getting it. He was sleepy and likely nodded off at least once. The oxygen was enough to fight his conscience to a draw. That was about it.

He had to get some sleep. Not here. In the bed, with all those extraneous pillows piled up, floating serenely beneath the covers. He got up and had to feel his way along the sliding door. He opened the door and stood in the opening, legs apart, forming a stable foundation, listing left against the stucco wall. Deep breathing. Innnnnn. Outttttt. Ah. Innnnnn. Outtttt. Okay. Easy does it. Around the coffee table. Over there is the bedroom. Proceed with caution.

He felt for the light switch and flipped it. He felt a jolt of sobriety. A man in a navy-blue sweatsuit was sitting on the bed. The man turned around. Riley didn’t recognize him. He suspected it wasn’t an admirer.

The man was government issue. Muscular, though middle-aged. He had hard eyes. He looked like an actor. Robert Stack.

“Hello, Riley. My name is Leeds McCormick.” Someone walked in behind him. “My associate is Kurt Hasselbeck.”

McCormick looked like Stack but sounded like Charlton Heston, and Riley thought, Well, for the first time in my life, I actually wish I was on the Planet of the Apes.

Danger felt oddly relative. The future looked dim. Riley hadn’t been caught with his pants down. The danger came later.

“Let’s go sit in the den and talk a while,” McCormick said.

“Don’t worry about me,” Riley said. “I can’t run nowhere. My knee’s as fucked as I am.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Hasselbeck said. He looked like Charles Bronson and sounded like Richard Widmark. Being consensually raped by Kristine Carlton didn’t seem so awful. Riley felt kind of proud he’d gotten it done. She was a woman to have once before a man died. Riley was so high he wasn’t afraid of dying. He took the prospect matter-of-factly. When a man was stoned, it didn’t shake him as much to find out his paranoia was legit.

Riley sat down. McCormick turned on the TV.

“Something to drink?” he asked.

“It’s late,” Riley said. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Kurt and I were associates of Jed Langston. As you know, Jed is in the penitentiary. We both owe him a lot,” McCormick said. “We could be in prison, too. We were with Jed on a mission that was partly responsible for his incarceration. He protected us. He took the fall. He could have turned us in. He went to a considerable amount of trouble to get rid of any evidence that connected us to what happened.”

“What happened, Mr. McCormick?”

“It involved a man named Philippe Tiant.”

“A.K.A., Fatih Ghannam,” Riley said.

“That’s right.”

“Well, I just got one question.”

“And that is …”

“Just what exactly did I do wrong?”

“What do you mean?” McCormick asked.

“How did I fuck up? How did I do something that was wrong, or immoral, or even criminally stupid? I got on a fucking plane. A dude tried to blow it up. I stopped him. Then your friend Jed Langston, to whom I’ve spoken once, decided I was a threat to the republic.”

“Which, as it turned out, you were,” said Hasselbeck, joining the philosophical discussion.

“I wouldn’t have,” Riley said, “if you motherfuckers would’ve just left me alone. I had to be a man. Goddamn it, you, above anybody else, ought to respect that.”

“We do,” McCormick said. “You made us look bad. We got the message. Now sit back. Relax. No need to worry about that which you cannot control. We’re just going to show you a little video. Kurt, pop that CD in the machine over there.”

“I’m going to smoke a cigarette,” Riley said.

“Go ahead,” Hasselbeck said. “I doubt it’s going to be an issue in the morning with the hotel.”

The DVD began, introduced by a light blue background with a chintzy font in white that read, “Jed Langston, 14 February, 2015, 9:42 a.m.”

And there was Jed Langston’s flushed face, veins popping in the cheeks, wearing the garb of federal incarceration.

“Well, Mr. Mansfield, I hope you don’t mind it if I call you Riley because I feel like I know you, son, and I bet you feel like you know me, but you don’t, son. You don’t.

“I hated you, and I let it destroy me, but never let it be said that Jed Langston failed to learn from his mistakes. It humbled me, and when I got here to prison, I asked the Lord’s forgiveness for all that I had done, and it wasn’t the first time. But it was the first time I ever meant it. It was earthly hands that put me on your trail, and it was earthly temptation that led me to try to kill you. I felt like I was the only person onto you, and I thought I was God’s disciple whose duty it was to remove you from the earth.

“I was wrong, though, and I was willful, and I was myself a false prophet, and I didn’t realize it till I got sent here, an exile, living among unrepentant sinners, left alone with nothing but the Scripture to bring back my salvation. You know, I found I had been taught the Scripture, but I hadn’t ever learned it. I hadn’t ever known the Jesus that was right there in front of me, and Jesus wasn’t a warrior. He was a vehicle of love and forgiveness. He is still a vehicle of love and forgiveness.

“I don’t need to forgive you. You didn’t do anything to forgive. I hope that you will forgive me because I hope that, in your heart, too, there is Christian love. I will pray for you, Riley Mansfield, and I’m sorry for what I did. I’m sorry I had to go to all this trouble, but it was important to me that you know that I was wrong, and I was sinful, and I regret what I put you through. That’s all I got to say.”

Hasselbeck removed the DVD and place it in a briefcase. Riley’s hands trembled. He didn’t know what to say. Finally, he just muttered, “I reckon that was a heap of trouble y’all went to.”

“It was the least we could do,” McCormick said. “We knew Jed was a little crazy, but we were all caught up in fanaticism after 9/11, and it got to where it was, do what it takes, no matter what.”

McCormick got up.

“We bid you good night, Mr. Mansfield. Hope you stay out of trouble. Have a safe trip back to Kentucky, and I’d say we’ll see you later, but don’t neither of us, nor you, want that to happen.”

###

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