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Ellen Tinsley lived with Mike Campbell and three dogs in Jefferson Parish,
twenty minutes outside the French Quarter. The living room, with its stacks
of CDs — Robert Johnson and Emmylou Harris and John Prine — and its
bookshelves filled with the accumulations of decades — Dorothy Parker and
W.H. Auden and a warts-and-boils biography of J. Edgar Hoover — would
not have looked out of place on our block.
Mike, who is one size short of leading sweeps for the Dallas Cowboys, had
a shaved head and Fu Manchu mustache. A former inspector for the Texas
Food and Drug Administration, he had decided in his mid-forties to become
a Delta blues musician. Now he played in front of the courthouse on Royal
Street. When tourists give Mojo, one of the dogs, a dollar, he put it in Mike’s
hat. Ellen, a handsome, red-haired woman from the Smokey Mountain region
of North Carolina, wore a washed-out tank top, black jeans and sandals.
She had come out of the University of Connecticut in the late 1960s to work
with multiply handicapped children in the Detroit ghetto. Her father, a Lt.
Commander in the Navy, was descended from Harry Morgan, the pirate,
and Charles Kingsley, co-founder of the Christian Socialist movement. Her
mother’s family had followed The Mayflower into port; and, later, the process
of “civilizing” the natives had brought some Cherokee genes into her mix.
She was a Daughter of the Republic, a Daughter of the Confederacy, and
a former Miss Country Club, who describes herself, with a wicked smile,
as someone who could be “a perfect lady in public, but, then, close the
Ellen was neither the mother of the daughter who had brought the charges
against Dwaine, nor the woman to whom he had been married when the
offenses were said to have occurred. But she had been married to him the
last five years of his life; and she fervently believed him the innocent victim
of a vengeful, drug-addled young woman, a politically ambitious district attorney,
and the lynch-mob mentality of an ultra-conservative community.
She had attempted, unsuccessfully, to interest other writers in Dwaine’s story
and, when that failed, to write it herself. Now a mammogram had revealed
a lump upon which a biopsy had been inconclusive. “You have made my
Monday,” she had said when I called.
Ellen had sent me twenty-five pages she had written, so I knew she considered
Dwaine to have been a wonderful husband, a fine father to his two
other daughters, and a masterful satiric artist, who had lifted himself, through
extraordinary effort, from dire poverty to a professional peak. He was also
“an enormously complex man,” “a non-stop talker, [who] in a five minute
conversation could tell you a truly awful joke, discuss Monet’s use of light,
dispense ‘Uncle Dwaine’ advice, and give you the latest in political intrigue,”
someone who “mixed a massive vocabulary with a gutter mouth,” who “read
everything from cereal boxes to Sartre,” who “laughed as easily as he cried,”
who was “quick to anger and to admit mistakes,” who had friends “from
every ethnic background, all different colors, sexual orientations, economic
groups, and social classes,” who was “as comfortable with auto mechanics as
he was with movie stars.” Now she asked why I was interested in him.
I told her about cartoonists with extreme visions and extreme lives.
She and Mike waited for something more.
“I don’t have an agenda,” I said. “This will be a lot easier to write if I
believe he didn’t do it; but, right now, I don’t know. All I can promise you is
an open mind.”
Ellen answered my questions for two hours. Then she asked us to dinner.
Mike had smoked a turkey. Ellen had made red beans and rice. After dinner,
she invited us into the garage. When we left, we took away two storage boxes
filled with Dwaine’s case documents and personal papers. Back in our motel,
two items caught my eye. One was a picture of Dwaine and his daughter. She
is in her teens, when the abuse was supposedly raging. She is seated behind
him on a rock. Both her arms are thrown around him and her chin rests on
his right shoulder. She has a broad smile and he a light one. She appears totally
relaxed, totally at ease, totally trusting. The other was a shot of Dwaine
and Ellen. He is nuzzling her neck from behind.Both his arms embrace her
and she holds one of his hands. Deep affection fills both their eyes. “This is
a man who desires women,” Adele said, “not little girls.”
I was happy to hear that. However it turned out though — whatever
madness or perversion explained the behavior at the story’s core — it could
not be treated with my accustomed style. Whether I was to meet a bestial father
or deranged daughter — whether I was to find doubloons in the storage
boxes or Pandora’s demons — I saw pain and tragedy dripping from this tale
like Spanish moss. I heard shrieks and moans and skeletons rattling and garments
rending. I saw no place for humor — no room to layer in effrontery.
I felt terribly excited. I felt the thrill of entering the realm of the taboo. I felt
like a character in a Hitchcock movie, drawn into a plot over which he has
no control, headed for a destination he cannot foretell.
Across the room, the frog grinned through its formaldehyde cloud.
Featured books by Bob Levin (click covers for complete product details)
Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester
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