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Red Road (final draft)

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Larry Lentz property near Taylor, Nebraska

Red Road

 

“What the hell do you want!”  It was more of a statement than a question. 

            I hesitated only a moment before taking a step forward toward the fence that separated me from the property.  It did little, though, to separate me from the blue heeler, who slipped his head and shoulders quite easily between the wide wire fencing as if preparing to lunge.  I decided then and there that frankness and honesty was the best approach.  It hadn’t failed me yet, and there were several occasions this summer where, if I hadn’t been accompanied by a disarming smile, I am certain my “poking around” may have appeared, shall I say, odd. 

            “Howdy,” I replied, raising my hand in a casual greeting.  I discovered in my few short years spent living in small town Nebraska and getting to know small town folk that a simple “howdy” garners much less distrust than a more formal “hello” or a more suburban “hi.”  The dog snapped and snarled even louder.  “I’m A.J..  I’m a grad student from UNO and I am traveling 91 for research on my thesis.”

            The man was unconvinced.  He took a few steps forward, and the dog ran back towards him, circling around his legs once before again charging me and resuming his canine “greeting.”  When there was about twenty feet between the two of us, the man stopped.

            He was a curious figure to look upon, perhaps six feet tall and of slender build.  As he stood there staring at me, the sun overhead cast a shadow beneath the brim of his hat, partially shielding his eyes and facial features from my view.  Yet jutting out from beneath his hat was long, flyaway, straw-blond hair streaked throughout, even from this distance, with grey that wasn’t hard to miss.  The man pulled his hair back into a simple, long ponytail that gave him that look of rugged individualism one often sees in advertisements for Harley-Davidson motorcycles or in a Clint Eastwood western.  A modest, though full, moustache was the same color as his hair, also spotted with traces of grey.  He wore blue jeans, a bit worn and faded in places but in good repair, nonetheless.  And the man had on a light blue, horizontally striped shirt that complimented his golden brown skin, tanned perhaps by quite a bit of time spent outdoors in the sun.  I squinted just a bit, partly from the glare of the mid afternoon sun and partly in an effort to better make out his facial features.  He eyed me cautiously, as though I had come to steal something and had just caught me red-handed. 

*          *          *

Waiting at the junction of Nebraska State Highway 91 and 183, I turned my head, curious to see the view just west of the junction.  I had spent much of the summer traveling up and down Highway 91.  The places and personalities I had visited were as varied as the land itself, the hills, fields, ravines, prairies, and forested lowlands reflecting the very nature of rural East Central Nebraska residents.  Some stood higher, some lower, on the social order of life, yet all in some way mirrored the values and traditions that represent Great Plains towns and inhabitants.  I had met many people along my travels that summer, but the most interesting person – and the most enigmatic – was soon to come.

Peering at the property, the first thing I noticed was a car that had no wheels.  In fact, its rear axel lie on the ground just below the wheel well while the rear of the 1970s red and white, four-door hatchback was on blocks.  There were, in fact, several cars in various states of disrepair: four pickup trucks, a couple of muscle cars, several large and mid-sized sedans, and even a red tractor.  Judging by the odd assortment of parts and pieces sitting on the property of the isolated little residence, it seemed at first glance as if it were an aspiring junk yard.

            The residence on the property, if one could call it that, wasn’t a “residence” in the traditional sense of the word.  An old camper that appeared to be part of the home buttressed the house, a faded orange, ranch-style stucco with a grey and white shingled roof that was in dire need of repair.  One could not be certain if the occupant resided in the house or the trailer, but an outhouse-like entryway, which presumably, sheltered emerging occupants from the rain led me to believe that this was the home’s most-used entry.  The foyer was made of particleboard and was faded almost grey from the sun.  To the left of the property was a single red barn with badly chipped paint and white double doors that slid to the side.  A few pieces of tin were employed as patches for the outer walls, and the entire left side of the building was covered with particle board, maybe ten foot high and eight foot wide.  It spoke to some past mishap.

There was no fencing along the property line in front of the barn; instead, there was a twenty-five foot long, four-foot wide, one-foot thick strip of cement that separated the property from the shoulder of the highway junction.  Anywhere else, such a sight may have contrasted drastically with the otherwise uniform wire fencing that surrounded the rest of the property, yet here, the discontinuity seemed rather apt.   Near the back of the yard, a U.S. flag hung on a traditional, zinc-coated flagpole, while perched precariously upon a rickety, tilted, partially improvised flagpole to the right of the house were three flags of unknown origin. 

Along with the nine or so American-made, 1960s-70s automobiles gracing the property, there was a menagerie of items that would keep even the most inattentive  mind occupied.  Boxes and wood, fencing and tools, engine parts and cinder blocks lie strewn about the yard.  A rusting, flatbed trailer, probably used once to haul the inoperable vehicles to the property, sat in the very front of the yard.   Along the front of the property line, six-foot tall bushes grew alongside the poorly constructed wire fence but did little to hide the cluttered yard from view. 

I noticed, too, a large red and white stop sign mounted on a thick wooden post located to the left of a weed-choked, gravel driveway. Another sign warned “Private Property, No Trespassing.” Oddly enough, located just beneath the stop sign was an eighteen-inch long, rectangular white sign with black lettering clearly reading “Pleasant View.” 

Pleasant View?

            Seeing no one in sight on the property with whom I could speak, I pulled to the side of the road and planned to take a few photos, scribble a few remarks in my notebook, then depart.  I walked casually toward the “driveway,” took two photographs of the automobiles and sign, and scribbled in my notebook before turning toward the other side of the yard to see what items of interest may lie in that direction.  Walking along the front of the property as I approached the fence, I was startled to find myself suddenly greeted by the first visible resident of the property, a large, brown, white, and grey dog. 

            Teeth bared and barking loudly, the creature snarled and jumped at me, forcing me instinctively to take a step back.  I had encountered blue heelers before, and most turned out to be quite intelligent, friendly animals, but my status as stranger and apparent trespasser did little to endear the dog to me.  I was fairly certain that had I made any sudden movement, either forward or in retreat, the animal would have responded with keen hunting instinct.  Blue heelers, I had discovered previously, to my vast displeasure, were fond for giving chase and literally nipping fleeing victims from behind.  I would do nothing to encourage this behavior today.  I had to take another tack.

            “Hey, boy!” I said in baby talk, whistling to show the animal I was not a threat.  “It’s ok.  Here, boy.  Come here!  Good boy . . .”

            The dog barked louder. 

            After a minute or so, I decided there was little more to see here.  I lifted the camera before me to take one last photo before returning to the vehicle, when the door to the “front” of the residence – in this case, the camper - opened suddenly, and a figure emerged.

*          *          *

            “I’ve been traveling around looking for examples of Americana,” I told the man.  “I noticed your place here and thought I’d get a couple of pictures for my thesis.”

            Slowly, the man stepped forward, approaching the fence until we were just a few steps apart.  His companion seemed somewhat reassured by this behavior and quieted down, if only a little.  I could see, now, that the owner of the property was probably older than he first appeared, perhaps sixty or so, and that the lines that marked his unassuming face were deep, as though time itself had touched him with age and wisdom.

            I continued.  “Would you mind if I asked you some questions?”  I held up my open notebook and pencil to show the sincerity of my words.  I had opportunities to practice this much throughout my journeys and discovered that most people were open to the idea of speaking with this impetuous, if unassuming, student.  How many people don’t like to talk about themselves and their interests?

            Yet the man stared warily not at my notebook or me but rather at the camera I held in my other hand, peering from it to me, then back again, frowning. 

            He coughed once, twice, then after some time, he finally spoke.  “I thought you were from the State.  They been coming out here, getting out of their cars and taking pictures.  They’re trying to say it’s a junkyard, so when I saw you out here taking pictures . . . well, I figured you were working for them. ” 

            “No,” I reassured him, laughing. “I’m not with the State.  I’m nobody that special!”

            He smiled, finally, a faint, gentle smile and took the hat off his head, wiping his brow with his forearm before placing the hat back atop his head.  His face was almost as tan as his arms, and his forehead was deeply furrowed.  His air of reticence seemed lifted, somewhat, and he approached the fence so that now only a step or two separated us. 

            “I noticed the sign in your driveway.  ‘Pleasant View.’  I thought it was funny,” I said, sweeping my hand across the boundaries of the property as if it was self-explanatory.  “It seemed ironic.”  As the words came out of my mouth, I was just a bit self-conscious that I may have inadvertently insulted him.  Yet his demeanor never changed.

            The blue heeler retrieved something from the weeds just beneath flatbed.  When he brought it over, I could see it was the remnant of what may have once been a brown, leather ball, though it was difficult to tell.  The animal stood by the man’s side, wagging his tail and looking alternately from me to his owner, all the while holding the object like it was some sort of makeshift Frisbee.  Perceiving I was no longer a threat, the dog wagged its tail ferociously, sniffing at me while shaking the item in its jaws.  The owner and I began to casually chat.

            “I’m Jim,” I said finally, extending a hand over the fence and finding his in return. 

            “Larry,” he replied.  His hand was larger than mine, and his handshake was firm.  “Where’d you say you’re from?”

            “I live in Blair,” I explained.

            Larry nodded in reply.  He stared at the car, parked only a few feet off his property, and I thought he may have been trying to make out the “29” county number on my license plate, to see if I was still telling the truth.  After a moment or two, he turned his attention back to me.  His voice was tinged with a rugged sound that was not altogether unpleasant, and it certainly complimented his rugged looks.  In the intervening silence, I felt compelled to continue.

            “I’m taking an extra year to teach so I can get as much experience as possible,” I explained.

At this, Larry cast his eyes down to the ground, and an uneasy quiet filled the intervening space between us.  I glanced down at the dog which seemed unmoved by anything we had just said, and he shook the “toy” a few times, periodically dropping it to the ground and barking at both of us before picking it up in his teeth again.  I was unsure how to proceed, so I remained uncomfortably silent.  Finally, after a time, with the southwest breeze blowing with the smell of fresh cut hay from not too distant fields, Larry lifted his head and scanned the horizon ahead of him.  I peered into his eyes until his gaze met mine.  There was an untold depth of sadness in his eyes and in his tone when he finally spoke softly.

“My wife taught at the University of North Dakota.  She was a PhD candidate.”  He looked down at the ground a moment before looking back at me.  “She and my daughter were murdered.”

I didn’t know what to say.  Nevertheless, I felt compelled to respond to this deeply intimate revelation and had the feeling that he told me this for a reason.  I responded, compassionately, “I’m so sorry . . .” 

A few brief moments of silence again ensued.

Then quickly, the man drew his shoulders back, as if having resolved something in his mind, and he spoke further.  “It was twenty years ago.  My daughter was twenty-one.”

This seemed significant, and I found my eyes moving from his to the scene all around me, the cars, the flags, the flowering bushes, the unusual home.  When I turned my gaze back toward Larry, I saw that he was still looking at me yet looking even further, somewhere in at distant past that clung to him like the shadow of a waning summer moon.  There was still more he wanted to say.

“How did it happen?”

Larry exhaled softly but noticeably before continuing.  “It was a break in.  It’s never been solved.”

Now, I knew that often times the first person police suspect in cases such as these is the husband, but looking into those soft, deep-set eyes, I knew then and there that he had nothing to do with it.  I have heard it said that experienced, intuitive investigators can determine if a subject is lying just by observing their eyes, but in Larry’s eyes there was only sadness and grief.  And anger, too?  I wondered inwardly what it must have been like when he first heard the news.  I tried to imagine in that brief moment what my own feelings and reaction would be were something similar to happen to me, and I felt, thinking about all I had seen and all he had shared with me thus far, that the man standing before me was more complicated than anyone I had yet met on my summer travels.  There was a story here, though I was not to recognize the intensity of this event until we were to meet a second time, some weeks later. 

“I’m really sorry,” I said, tilting my own head and nodding ever so slightly.  “You have my empathy.”

This remark seemed to somehow resonate with Larry, and I felt as if this honest expression, this understanding of his grief, lifted the last remaining veil of distance between.  His face softened, and his eyes returned to the world around him.  He quickly changed the subject.

“There ain’t much left in America that’s American anymore,” he observed, grimacing and pointing to his left.  “See those flags?” he asked me.  “Do you know what they stand for?”

I glanced to my right and looked at them once again.  I didn’t recognize them but could hazard an educated guess as to their significance.  I let him continue.

“The top one is the Chinese flag.  Everything we sell now’s made in China.  Nothing’s made in America anymore.”

I nodded, quietly listening, and that seemed to encourage him to continue. 

“The next one’s the Indian flag.  All of our high tech jobs are going overseas.”

            I began to understand, now, just why he put them up.  I wondered, even then, as he continued to lament the failure of globalization, if everything on his property had some symbolic meaning, some significant message of silent protest.

            “The bottom one, that’s the Mexican flag.  We import all our labor, now, from Mexico.”

            “That’s all true,” I observed, adding, “But that’s what a global economy is all about.”

            Larry didn’t seem to like my comment though he clearly couldn’t disagree.  He began talking about the Bush administration and cost of globalization in the lives of the everyday American.  He moved from topic to topic – the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, even the war in Iraq – with a deftness and thematic clarity that left me looking for something to say.  His language, though plain, was filled with ideas and expressions that reminded me of a Michael Moore of the Midwest.  It was clear to me, then, that he had a message, a purpose, in everything he did.  I stood there listening intently, taking notes while he spoke.  I had to agree.

            The dog had begun to get quite friendly with me by this time, and I tossed the ragged toy a short distance several times throughout my conversation with Larry, each time the animal growing increasingly excited by the prospect of a new friend with which to play.  Larry seemed unbothered by my act of friendliness with his dog, and we alternately talked and watched as the blue heeler danced around the weeds and gravel chasing the familiar object.  Both the man and the dog seemed quite comfortable in my presence, reflecting the Midwestern tradition of casual conversation even among strangers.

            The conversation turned, then, to his health, and as he shared with me a personal history of the malignant tumor removed recently from his lower spine, I was quietly intrigued by how he dealt with all that he had experienced. 

            “The doctors said I was born with it.  It must have been there since childhood.”

            “Did they remove all of it?” I inquired.

            “Most of it,” he said, “but they can’t get it all.  I may have to go back in for surgery again sometime, but it’s never really bothered me much.”

            For some reason, I felt that this last statement was his attempt to minimize its seriousness.  I wondered whether this was an attempt to placate me or to convince himself that it wasn’t that bad.

            We spoke outside for about forty minutes until the conversation began to die down.  I took this as a sign that my welcome had been worn out.       

“Well, I should probably be going now, Larry.  I have a long drive.

            Larry nodded in agreement.

            We both took a step away from the fence, and I lifted my notebook, filled with some of the details from our chat, and asked him what his last name was.  Oddly, his reticence quickly returned.

            “I want to have it for my notes so I can include it in my bibliography.”

            The same look of quiet pain seemed to wash across his face as it had once before, and I suspected that the mention of the academic nature of my visit brought back another memory from an anguished, distant past.  He eyed me for some time before answering.

            “Lentz.  Larry Lentz.”

            “How do you spell that?”

            “L E N T Z,” he spelled as I wrote in my notebook.

            “Thanks Larry,” I said, moving forward once again and extending my hand in gratitude.  He took it once again into his own, and I felt a familiarity in his handshake that only two men who have shared something significant can feel.  I thanked him for his time.

            Before turning back toward my vehicle, I asked him one more question.

            “I’ll probably be back sometime to continue my research.  I’m not sure when.  I want to focus primarily on the personalities of this area next summer before I have to begin writing.  Would it be alright if I stopped by again sometime?”

            Larry turned to look at me and nodded.  “Yeah.  That’s fine.”

            During the entire four-hour drive home, I could not stop thinking about Larry Lentz and the unusual events of his life.

*          *          *

            “Police are seeking two men today for questioning about a double homicide after officers found the partly decomposed bodies of a UND Indian language teacher and her daughter in their Grand Forks apartment late Thursday.”

            As I read the Grand Forks Herald article dated March 28, 1987 detailing the slayings of Dorothy Lentz, 56, and Pamela Lentz, 21, of Grand Forks, North Dakota, I feel a terrible dichotomy of emotions.  The excitement of having finally found factual evidence that the tragic event Larry had briefly communicated was, indeed, true after all was balanced by the horror of the details.  Yet after finally seeing those names – Dorothy Lentz, 56, and Pamela Lentz, 21 – in print and confirming the year their lives were taken – 1987 – I knew then that everything Larry had said that hot and humid afternoon along the property line of his home was true. 

            Each article, each headline I read from succeeding newspaper articles, compelled me to want to learn more and more about this man and his enigmatic life.  “Police probe GF slayings of 2 women,” “Material witness found in GF slayings,” "Friends remember murder victims at memorial service,” “Victim was well-liked UND Indian educator” (this one included a black and white photo of Dorothy), and “Police find slain woman’s pickup truck.”  Lastly, there were the obituaries of Dorothy and Pamela Lentz, one right above the other in the paper. 

            The details of the deaths were gruesome.  Both women were stabbed to death although there were no signs of a struggle.  Each lie in separate bedrooms when found and were only discovered several days after the murders, residents of the low-income housing calling police to complain of “the smell.”  Dorothy’s body could not be positively identified for several days due to decomposition.

The two women had last been seen at 11:00 pm on Friday night, March 20 at a bar with two men, Keith Bishop, allegedly Pamela’s boyfriend, and Alonzo Davila, a distant relative through marriage. Additionally, Pamela’s truck had been missing, too, and police felt certain that whoever had committed the crimes might have taken the young woman’s vehicle. 

            When the older Lentz hadn’t called or appeared for her Tuesday evening class, her colleagues at the University became concerned and knocked on her apartment door Thursday morning, although there was no answer.  Later that night, responding to residents’ complaints, police showed up to find the two bodies.  It had been six days.

            Since the timeline of events was a bit sketchy (it was, after all, more than twenty years ago, and newspapers are notorious for concatenating specific details such as dates for the sake of brevity), I pulled up a calendar from 1987 to better understand the timeline of events.   There were so many questions the papers could not answer.  Six days before anyone had inquired as to their whereabouts?  I continued to read.

            Apparently one of the two material witnesses – police were not yet calling them suspects – was apprehended in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, on Saturday, March 28, after a nationwide manhunt.  Keith Bishop, 20, was already wanted for a felony probation violation on an unrelated burglary charge.  Investigators from Grand Forks were to interview Bishop the following Monday.  Bishop had attended the same college as Pamela Lentz, and some witnesses told police the two had been seeing one another, although residents in the apartment where she and her mother lived did not think they were exclusive.  The other material witness, Davila, 44, was still at large.

            Shortly after Bishop’s arrest for the probation violation, Pamela’s pickup truck was found in Fergus Falls.  The link seemed ominous.  Sometime later, Grand Forks police arrested and charged Bishop with the double murder. 

            According to other articles, Pamela, whom Larry had mentioned earlier, was born January 22, 1986 and was a student at North Dakota State School of Science in Wahpeton.  The girl had resided with her paternal grandparents in Illinois for some years before graduating high school in Grand Forks.  After attending Black Hills State College for one year, she joined the US Navy in late 1985 and served duty in Illinois.  She was currently in the Active Naval Reserves at the time of her premature death. 

Dorothy, Larry’s wife, was born November 9, 1930.  After graduating as valedictorian from Wakpala High School in 1949, she pursued post-secondary education and eventually earned her undergraduate degree from Northern State College in 1960. Shortly afterward, Dorothy moved to California where she taught elementary school, and in 1965, she and Larry Lentz wed.  She returned to South Dakota in 1966 where she taught children and worked as a consultant for both Ogallala Lakota College and Standing Rock Community College while also directing the Head Start program across the border in North Dakota.  Dorothy moved to North Dakota some time later and worked for United Tribes in Bismarck.  Then, after receiving her master’s degree from UND, she began doctoral studies and was working on her dissertation while teaching a course in Dakota Language before her death.  She left three surviving children.

Those were the cold, hard facts, printed in black and white.  Two lives, summed up on two-dimensional paper and print that did little to convey what I still wanted to know.  What were they like, Dorothy Lentz and her daughter, Pamela?  What were their favorite foods?  What were their hopes and dreams, their fears and pains, and where would both women be today had this tragic, brutal event not taken place?  Moreover, what would Larry Lentz’s life be like today had these two women he loved still been alive?  There were answers to at least some of these questions, but obtaining answers would prove daunting.  Yet I knew where I could find them.

*          *          *

“Hey, do you know where ‘dingy’s’ at?” the forty-something woman behind the register at the Sinclair gas station on the corner of Highways 91 and 183 asked two old men who were sitting at the table drinking coffee.  “The guy who lives down there.”  She pointed out the window where Larry Lentz’s abode stood. 

The two men looked at one another, then at me, and a period of brief silence ensued before the older man finally responded. 

“At church.”

Within moments, the place erupted in laughter, and I felt as though I was witnessing something important, now, in this moment, something that spoke to more than just a cruel joke at the expense of a grieving and disillusioned man.  There was a callousness in their remarks that represented all I had come to regret about our species, our lack of empathy and our unwillingness to understand and accept others.  I made note of this in my notebook and soon exited the station.  I glanced at my watch.  11:16 a.m., and I was still unable to find Larry Lentz.

            I had arrived in Taylor shortly after 10 am Sunday morning on that mid-September day, after a four-hour drive from Blair.  I waited patiently in the parking lot along the northeast side of the Sinclair, debating how early good manners and Midwestern propriety would allow me to show up at his doorstep.  I glanced from the gas station to his property, the latter of which was in plain sight about 500 feet west, and observed that some of the vehicles had been moved.  The old, yellow sedan saw him driving last August, when I stopped off to fill up the car before heading home, was no where to be seen.  I wondered whether he usually drove that big V8 dinosaur from the days of fifty cent gasoline or if he drove another vehicle, since he did mention in our initial conversation that all but one of the cars in his “junkyard” were licensed and titled: a fact he was quite proud to communicate. 

My earlier attempts to contact Larry by phone had failed, the bland, prerecorded operator’s voice informing me in no  uncertain terms that the “number is not assigned.”  I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I knew that it did mean I wasn’t going to speak with him prior to our meeting.  I wasn’t even certain if the man would be home at all, and I began to have misgivings about undertaking the eight hour round trip “blind.” 

But when eleven o’clock arrived, I turned the key in the ignition, pulled out of the parking space (everyone who came to purchase fuel that morning – nearly always diesel – eyed me, the stranger with the 29 county plates, curiously as I sat alone in my vehicle), and turned onto the highway, stopping at the junction before crossing the road and pulling carefully into his weed and gravel driveway.  I read the words again just under the stop sign, “Pleasant View.”  I glanced around casually, assuming that if anyone were home, they would have heard me pull into the drive, and turned off the ignition.  When I opened the door and stepped out of the car, notebook and pencil in hand, the blue heeler greeted me once again.  The only difference was that before, I stood outside of the fence and posed only a moderate threat to the animal’s domain.  Now that I stood on the property itself, closing the car door behind me, the “greeting” was much different.

The dog arose from its resting place beneath the rusting flatbed and began howling loudly, barking and bearing its white teeth.  The animal lunged at me several times, turning in circles around the front of the trailer before repeating its hostile behavior.  Speaking gently to the dog only seemed to incense it further, and I decided that if anyone was home, they indeed knew an “intruder” was present by now. 

As I made my way toward the particleboard foyer of the trailer, the animal would not budge, blocking my path, growling even louder and snapping its fangs in the air.  Its tail was straight and held low beneath its body. 

Sidestepping the dog, I approached the plain wooden door of the house itself, thinking I might knock there instead.  There was no answer.

As I approached the front of the trailer where the blue heeler was now lying on the upper step of the foyer, the animal rose and resumed its snarling and barking, and it was clear to me that I was not going to be able to approach the entryway of the trailer anytime soon.  Before walking away, though, I took notice that the food and water dish for the dog, lying on the upper platform of the homemade wooden structure, were both full.  Someone had been there recently. 

Returning to my car, I thought the best thing to do was to return to the gas station where I had last seen Larry enter after our first meeting, hoping that the people there may have some clue as to where he might be.  That’s when the “church” comment was made.

When the laughter finally subsided, I asked the attendant, “Do you know about how long he’s lived here?”

She shrugged, turning to look at the young woman who was standing behind her holding a child. 

“About ten years,” the younger woman responded, peering out the large, glass picture window at Lentz’s residence just down the hill.

Most of the people working at and hanging around the local gas station knew who Larry Lentz was, although most did not recognize his name or much else about him.  Yet there were things that Larry had done while living in Taylor that readily drew the attention of nearly everyone with whom I spoke in and around the community of 186 people. 

“Does he still drive that yellow four door?” I inquired, feeling the need to press them further for information that they were not eager to readily divulge.

“Hey Gene,” the older woman yelled, looking at an older man in overalls and flannel shirt who had just come from the restroom.  “Do you know what car he drives?”

“Who?”

“That guy down there,” she said, motioning with a casual hand toward Lentz’s property.

But the man just shook his head, joining the others for coffee at the table.  No one seemed particularly interested in my inquiries about someone whom they seemed to discount as significant. 

Still, it was Sunday morning, about eleven thirty, and surely there must be someone in this tiny community who knew something about the habits and whereabouts of this enigmatic character.  After driving the quarter mile or so into the heart of town, I circled the main “strip” between Third and Fifth Street and between William and Murry Streets very slowly, searching for the vehicle that I believed Larry may have been driving.  No luck.

When I drove by the Cavalry United Methodist Church on the corner of 5th and William Street, I stopped and peered at all of the cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks parked outside the building and on the lawn of the adjacent neighborhood.  “At church!” I scoffed, still thinking about the joke made back at the Sinclair.  I imagined that the last place Larry would be found was at church, and the earlier sarcastic remark only affirmed my belief.  Nonetheless, here was a “captive audience” of maybe twenty or so local residents.  Surely, one of them knew Larry Lentz. 

I parked alongside a Ford Explorer and a late model F350 pickup and turned off the ignition, listening to a Rascal Flats CD droning softly on my stereo.  Observing the building for a few minutes and seeing a couple of people casually entering and exiting the church, I decided to simply walk inside and make my inquiry.  Stepping out of my car, I wondered if the reaction to my questions would be any different.  They were.

Opening one of the large, white double doors and stepping inside, the hallway upstairs was dark, lit only by the light streaming in from the glass windows set in the doors.  As I moved up the stairs, I heard voices, and I followed the sounds along the short stairwell until it turned, and I came upon the first room.  There were four people sitting within, and sunlight from the windows along the south and east walls provided ample light by which to see.  As I stood in the doorway, the talking continued.  There were open bibles and pamphlets sitting in front of the people, but the conversation seemed not to concern any of those items.  After a short time, a woman lifted head and spied me standing at the threshold, and soon the room grew quiet as they all peered at me with some curiosity.

“Hi,” I said, taking a step inside the small study room and offering them my traditional introduction.  “Does anybody know Larry Lentz?”

The four individuals, a man and three women all between the ages of fifty and seventy, looked at one another and shook their heads.  I explained further.

“He’s the man who lives off of the 91/183 junction, at the end of the intersection.”

This seemed to jar their memories, and the man nodded at this recollection.  He explained to the other women who Larry was, and once all were reminded, the things they had to say were revealing.

“What are you writing about?” the woman sitting closest to me inquired.

I had rehearsed this line for months.

The ladies laughed and looked at one another before turning back to me.

“Well, if you want to learn about the people of 91, don’t talk to Lentz!”  Everyone in the room nodded in an exaggerated fashion.

They began telling me stories, stories of their childhoods and of off things that happened over the decades in their community and outlying ranches and farms.  I let them reminisce awhile, making notes of curious incidents, before turning the conversation back to my subject.

            “So tell me about Larry.  What do you know about him?” 

They knew much, yet so very little.

“He moved in about, what?” the oldest woman asked the man.  “Maybe ten years or so?”

The man nodded.

“Where did he move from?” I asked.

“Some reservation up north, I think,” he responded, adding, “somewhere in the Dakotas.”

The man, I learned, had been a commissioner for the town or county, and he and Larry had met on more than one occasion.  The locals grew frustrated by the way Larry accumulated items, such as the cars, on his property and attempted to get his residence declared a junkyard so as to regulate the property’s use and, therefore, its value.  By dictating the land’s use, they could, in effect, control what Larry does with the property.  The women chuckled at this story, yet it was a battle that the county had thus far lost.

“Well, that house or trailer or-”

“If you can call it that!” interrupted another, laughing aloud.  “It’s more like his ‘living quarters.’”  This seemed to draw more chuckles. 

The man continued.  “It’s been hit so many times by cars missing the stop sign and running through his property.”  He noticed my head tilted in confusion, so he explained further.  “They kept running the signs coming back from Burwell-”

“Drunk!” interjected another woman, adding, “They come back drunk early in the morning and forget there’s a stop sign there.  They’d end up crashing into the house or barn.  Took out his fence and everything a couple of times.”

That, I thought to myself, explained the missing fence and the patched up barn.  I imagined the trailer, sitting buttressed to the home, likely covered an east wall that no longer existed.  It explained, too, the thick cement barrier and cars parked throughout the front yard.  Any drunk driver flying past the stop sign at this three-way intersection, now, would likely stop long before any more damage could occur to the buildings.

The conversation moved abruptly from one subject to another, with no apparent focus or theme.  I took notes as quickly as I could and interjected with a question now and again for added clarity.

“I see him at the post office all the time,” the man said, pointing to where the building, if we could see it, would be.  “He caught me in there one day after somebody else ran into his property and unloaded on me.”

“You were a commissioner at the time,” one of them interrupted.  “You should have made him do something about that junkyard.”

The man ignored her.  “He wanted us to do something about them cars running into his property.”

“And, did you do anything?” I asked, seeing the former commissioner reticent to share anything more on what was apparently a sensitive subject around town.

The women all began to debate what should have been done, all of them possessing little empathy for Larry’s circumstances and turning the conversation back to the eyesore that was his home.

“But he has such beautiful hedges,” one of the women commented, a soft-spoken woman who seemed to deride the man less than the others, if only a little.  “I wonder what kind of flowers those are?”

“I don’t know,” another woman replied, as the conversation began once again to drift off into another topic, as country living often allows one to do.  It’s an inherent of a way of speaking and living that is indicative of rural, Great Plains life, one unfettered by most cares and concerns beyond what Mabel is doing with her new kitchen or what needs to be done before bringing the cattle into town.  It stands in polar opposition to the way in which Larry Lentz spoke. 

“-she put in a brand new garden, and those hostas are growing taller each year.”

“So tell me,” I interjected politely, waiting patiently for an opportunity to speak.  “Does he ever go around town much?”

The women looked at the commissioner who spoke first.

“Well, I see him at the post office all the time.  He picks up packages there.”

“Does he talk much?” one of the women asked.

“Oh, yeah, he’s friendly enough.  Depends on the day,” he responded.

“And he’s got one of those huge boxes that he gets packages in,” the lady closest to me responded, adding, “He’s always getting large boxes and mailing stuff out, too.”

“Probably his computer programs and stuff,” the quieter lady piped in, “don’t you think?  I think he buys and sells things on the computer.”

The others all nodded and chatted, speculating freely about what all that “stuff” must be.

“So, does he have a computer business?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t know,” they all admitted, shaking their heads.  “I don’t know how he gets his money.  I just know he gets all them packages.”

“And he used to feed them squirrels, too,” the woman closest to me recalled, providing details about the times she watched him in the town park.  “He’d buy walnuts and throw them to the squirrels, and by gosh if those things didn’t run across the street and bury them, then come back for more!”

Everyone laughed at this, familiar with the ways of squirrels.

“I’ll tell you, he did that for a while then stopped giving them to them.  Too much money.”

Again, laughter.

I recalled, then, of the makeshift wooden foyer just down the road where sat two bowls, one filled with water, the other filled with dog food.  Their tales continued.

“Remember his flag pole?” the man asked, smiling broadly while the faces of the women lit up brightly and everyone started to chat. 

The woman closest to me turned in her chair to relate this obviously humorous tale.

“He put up this flag pole the other year and flew the flag upside down!”  She said this as though nothing more needed to be said.  I followed up with more questions.

“When did this happen?”

“Oh,” she said, turning her head toward the others as though seeking confirmation of her answer.

“It was after the Iraq war broke out,” the man said.

“He flew that flag upside down for I don’t know how long.  We told him what that meant!”  The woman turned to me suddenly and asked if I knew what that meant.  I nodded my head in recognition.

“Well, they went down there and told him, ‘You can’t do that no more.  That means distress!’  But he flew it anyway, plain for everyone to see.”

I recalled the flag pole out in front of Larry’s house and the small one out back that flew a modest US flag – in its normal position.  Her story intrigued me, and I encouraged her to continue her story.

“Well,” she began, her smile drawing back to the corner of her lips and a sharper tone in her voice.  The others in the room nodded their head with obvious pleasure. “Some of the teenagers from town snuck down there one night and took that flag down.  They tore his pole down, too.  Broke it off right at the bottom.”

            I formed an image in my mind, suddenly, picturing a dark night, moon not yet risen, and three or four young men sneaking through the alfalfa fields adjacent to the Lentz property and committing their crime while the unsuspecting victim slept.  Children can be uncannily devious and spiteful when encouraged by their peers.  I had a feeling, though, that this occurred not because of peer pressure but rather because of conversations in the homes of these truant young men, the fire of indignity and patriotism burning in their veins.  And, of course, patriots that they were, they acted accordingly, never letting the irony of their actions – suppressing Larry’s right to free speech – get in their way.

            I stood there in the small room of this small church in this small town in this small county and dwelled on this story, taking notes all the while.  The small group went on unabashedly, smiling and nodding at what they perceived as a wrong being righted.  No one in that room fully considered the paradox behind their tale.

            I had gathered quite a bit of information and anecdotes about the community in general and about Larry in particular.  Before I left, however, the woman closest to me recalled one last story, perhaps the most insightful yet.

            “There was this man who came here some years ago.  Quadera was his name.  He bought up all this land,” she continued, the others sitting back in their chairs and listening casually as though they had just curled up with a good book and hot cup of coffee.  Everyone knew the story.  Soon, she came to the important part, the part that I was sure wasn’t intended for me alone.

            “He hired a bunch of men around town and got them to do some work for him.  Then he never paid them.”

            “That’s right,” another woman spoke up.  “He got enemies.”  This last word was said with some emphasis, and I listened intently not only to the words but also to their meaning.  She told this story, having on the surface nothing to do with Larry Lentz, for a purpose.

            The original storyteller continued.  “Anyway, folks around here didn’t like him much.  They found him dead one day in his house.  Six bullets in his head.”

            I didn’t know what to say, and my pencil trailed off the paper as I looked into her eyes.  She stared back at mine, nodding.  She leaned forward, then, in her chair, her eyes never leaving mine.
            “That’s what happens around here when people don’t like you much.”

            “The sheriff never even investigated,” the former commissioner added, “they just cleaned up the mess and buried him.  No more was ever said.”

            The four people in the room, even the quieter, less critical one, nodded their heads in silent assent, sitting back in their chairs.  Within minutes, they would be talking casually about the week’s events, today’s chores, and the stranger from Blair who came asking questions about the man who had harmed no one, yet nobody liked.

            I obtained a few more leads and followed up accordingly, pulling into the driveway of a Mr. MacEnroy.  The scenery reminded me of one I had recently witnessed, nearly as cluttered as Larry’s property yet lacking the impact of metaphor.

            I stopped just feet from the door and knocked loudly, hoping the resident who was Larry’s friend was home.  After a few moments, the door opened and a man appeared.  I gave him my standard greeting before asking about his friend, Larry Lentz.

            “Um,” he hesitated, unsure of himself, looking off first to one side, then at the ground, then at me again before answering.  My hope for a candid, revealing interview was quickly fading.  “I . . . I had a stroke some years ago, and I don’t remember nothin’.  I don’t remember nothin’ before the stroke.” 

            I offered a sincere, though disappointed apology, and thanked him for his time.  Returning to my car, I drove around town a while longer, unsure what to do.  I thought, since I had the time, I would drop by Larry’s house once again prior to my departure.

            When I pulled into the drive, I saw no yellow car.  Everything, in fact, looked the same as when I first dropped by several hours ago.  Before getting out of my car, I glanced over and saw the blue heeler getting up from beneath the flatbed, and I was certain that this was going to be a repeat of that earlier morning.  I stepped out of my vehicle, nonetheless, undaunted by the now barking dog.   I stood outside a moment, assessing my chances at getting by the animal and toward the door.  I picked up some object on the ground and tossed it in the air and away from the trailer, but the dog wasn’t in any mood to play.  Then, the thought suddenly rose along the horizon of my consciousness: Larry was home.

            Though no sign, sound, or movement revealed any evidence to support my wild claim, I felt certain, or better yet, I knew for certain that the man with whom I came to interview today was somewhere within.  After a while, as I stood still, the dog walked up the foyer and sat down upon the wide top step, curling up into a circle while eyeing me intently.  The animal had done something similar when I had first tried unsuccessfully to knock on the trailer door, almost as if something – or someone – within required guarding.  I glanced at the bowl of food and water, now a bit lower in level, and the thought ran through my mind of a group of nameless, faceless adolescents, sneaking through the fields, intent on destroying free speech.  I knew now, for certain, that Larry was within.

            “Hello, Larry?” I called aloud, so that he would surely hear me.  “Mr. Lentz?” 

No response.

            The dog arose and growled a bit, unsure of how to react to this new tactic.

            “Mr. Lentz, I’m A.J. Williams, we met August 6th outside your home?  We spoke for about thirty or forty minutes, remember?” 

Still no response.

            “Larry, I’m the graduate student from UNO,” I yelled louder, certain that someone other than the dog and insects was hearing my words.  I tried to think of anything relevant to our last conversation that would jog his memory.  “I was doing research on the people and culture along Highway 91.  Do you remember me?”

            For a third time, all was quiet.  Even the dog settled down.

            “I was hoping I could have a few minutes of your time.”

            After a while, I returned to my vehicle and sat quietly within, beginning to doubt my intuition.  I sat there for, perhaps, a minute, and was about to start my car when I heard movement and saw the dog rise and begin wagging its tail.  Within seconds, the face of a tired, haggard, hunched over man appeared around the foyer, wearing shorts and a plaid short sleeve shirt, unbuttoned.  Missing was the hat I had first seen him wear, and his hair was long and flew in various directions in the wind, unkempt.

            I opened my car door and stepped outside, walking around the back of the vehicle until I was only a few feet from the man.  The dog responded by retrieving the round, floppy object we had played together with almost two months ago, and as I gave the object a casual toss, I looked into the eyes of a man succumb by great depression.  He was holding a cigarette in one hand, and moved the other through graying blond hair as the wind swept it into his eyes.  I spoke first.

            “Larry, I’m A.J., the grad student from UNO?  We met in August.”

            He nodded in recognition, head down.

            “I was wondering if I could have a few minutes of your time to ask you some questions.”  The words that came from my mouth, though, suddenly seemed hollow and immaterial.  He never made eye contact with me.  This was a man broken.

            “I’m ah . . . I’m . . . ah . . .” he said pausing between words as though they were difficult to get out.  “I’m . . . not having a good day.”  That much was plainly evident.

            I apologized for disturbing him on such short notice and told him that I tried to call in advance but that his phone number wasn’t working.  I asked him if I could contact him in the future to schedule something in advance.

            “Sure,” he agreed, looking at me briefly before returning his gaze to the ground.  “You can call me.”

            I said goodbye and wished him a better day.

            As I got back into my car, I looked at the number he had provided me and compared it with the one I had gotten from the phone book.  The numbers were the same.  I was perplexed, for although he seemed reluctant to speak with me today, he didn’t strike me as the kind of man to agree to something just to placate.  I watched as he walked slowly up the steps and back into the trailer, the dog following behind him.  I started my vehicle, backed up as before and drove to the Sinclair as I had once done so several weeks ago.  I sifted through my notes and decided that I had enough to write a story, although it was not to be the story I had hoped to write.  In a while, I headed back east on Highway 91, thinking about all I had seen and heard.

*          *          *

            A hundred people showed up at the memorial service for Dorothy and Pamela Lentz.  The modest crowd filled the Native American Cultural Center to hear songs sung in the Dakota tongue and to celebrate the untimely, brutal deaths of the two women.  The director of Indian Program Development at UND, Art Raymond, a Dakota Sioux Indian himself, presided over the affair.  The service was symbolic, but the intent was real, as he prepared an offering of food for the two women’s departing spirits.  Red lines were painted on the forehead of each victim, symbolizing their departure down the road of holiness.

            “They are on the good road,” Raymond said at the service, “the red road.” 

            He continued as the onlookers, most of them Dakota Indians suffering from the tragic loss of a friend and a community leader, listened intently to the words:

                                    “Now a Mystery thing is going over the Ghost Trail.  Now, where your

                        Grandmothers and Grandfathers are gathered, there you have arrived.  They

                        have come to greet you and hold you . . .

                                    “On level ground we, who are still here, will make a step with our

                        faces to the North.  Pray for us, that the people will live.”

*          *          *

            Although most of us will survive such a tragedy, clearly there is a difference between living and being alive.  For Larry, that red road of holiness has not yet been found.

 

 

Bibliography

Anonymous. Personal interview. 23 Sep. 2007.

Beals, Coleen. Personal interview. 23 Sep. 2007.

Breckheimer, Janelle, and Kevin Wymore. “Material witness found in GF slayings.” 30 Mar.

            1987: 1A+.

Lentz, Larry. Personal interview. 06 Aug. 2007.

---. Personal interview. 23 Sep. 2007.

NewsLibrary.com: news research made easy. 2007. NewsBank, Inc. 28 Sep. 2007 <http://nl.

            newsbank.com/nl-search/we/Archives>.

Wymore, Kevin. “Police probe GF slayings of 2 women.” Grand Forks Herald. 28 Mar. 1987.

---. “Victim was well-liked UND Indian educator.” Grand Forks Herald. Mar. 1987: 8A+.

---. “Police find slain woman’s pickup truck.” Grand Forks Herald. 30 Mar. 1987: 1A+.

Nixon, Lance. “Friends remember murder victims at memorial service.” Grand Forks Herald. 30 Mar. 1987.

 

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