“Well, you know about Disney World.”
“And you know about Genesis Extreme.”
“Genesis Extreme? No.”
“Doesn’t your family watch America’s Got Jesus?”
“I’ve heard of it. Something about a boycott, last year.’
“They won’t even let us have a TV show anymore.”
“I’m guessing you have something in mind that’s somewhere between Disney World and a biblical talent show?”
“More like, a cross between Disney World and a biblical theme park.”
“I don’t know how much Hugh told you, or how he put it. How’d he put it?”
“He said this was your retirement project.”
“Makes it sound like I’m painting a sailboat or something. Anyway, I know he wants to keep me busy and away from the company. But I’m also looking at this as a businessman, Prin. As a way to help out a town and a lot of folks in need. Because, if we get this right, well, I think there’s a lot in Dante that would appeal to a whole lot of people. Different types of people.”
He tapped his nose.
“Can I clear?” said a young Hispanic woman.
She was wearing a black-and-ketchup apron over a white shirt and black bowtie. Charlie thanked her. We were having lunch in an empty Steak ’n Shake. We hadn’t gone into either arena. I’d wanted to, but Charlie said it was premature and that we would startle the horses. I asked what horses, and Charlie had suggested burgers.
“People like her, Prin. She can’t take her kids to Disney World on Steak ’n Shake money, but she can take them down the street, to a real American theme park. Couple of rides, some games, maybe learn a little, too. And she’s not alone, trust me.”
I nodded and sipped my malt. Charlie’s eyes were bright, his pale cheeks red. Sitting against the hardback booth in his red-plaid hunting shirt, his face flushed, it looked like the restaurant’s deep-red walls were bleeding into him.
How convincing was I, so far?
“Prin, we should play poker sometime. I can see it all over your face. But hear me out. A couple of years ago, when I was getting ready to leave the company, I leased our town’s two empty basketball arenas for a dollar-a-year for fifty years. Hugh and I talked it over, went back and forth, back and forth, you know. Anyway, eventually we landed on a plan. City Hall was probably just happy we cleared out the addicts from the arenas after they built the new one to attract a WNBA team. Which, news flash, didn’t work out. What I’m doing isn’t some crazy old man idea. Or just a retirement project.”
“Of course. Hugh didn’t just say this was your retirement project, Charlie. He told me this was serious. A big deal.”
“Did he say that too?”
“Glad to hear. Not the kind of thing he’d say directly to me, of course. No fault there. Fathers and sons.”
“And believe me, I’d love to learn a little more about you. But first, business. Just think about this like I do, for a minute. Basically, the value proposition is this: anybody in Middle America who’d go to both Disney and Genesis Extreme can cut the difference and save money by coming to Dante’s Indiana, instead. Did you know, Prin, that something like half of all Americans who call themselves middle-class—and by way the way, all Americans call themselves middle-class—live within a day’s drive of right here, Terre-Haute, the middle of the middle of the middle of America? That’s the main market. And then there’s homeschoolers and private-academy types, wanting to bring their kids to something entertaining and educational, and then there’s your unicorn-blood types who think Inferno’s the only thing he ever wrote, and general amusement-park people, who’ll go anywhere, and then the regular people from around here who’re looking to go somewhere safe and clean. There used to be lots of good places you could drive to and get home the same day, but now there’s only one left. It’s outside town. I used to take Hugh there in the summers. No one takes their kids there anymore. Did Hugh really say that?”
“That this was serious? A really big deal?”
“A sequenced investment in the town and company.”
Charlie gave me a funny look.
“That’s the way he put it?”
“Something like that, yes.”
“Charlie, I’m still having trouble imagining what this is.”
He half stood up and stretched out his arms.
“Picture a Great American Heaven and Hell!”
I looked around the empty restaurant.
“Everything will be based on something in Dante but also make sense for your everyday American. Masstige, remember? So there’s going to be rides, floor-shows, I don’t know, acrobats, sorcerers, spaceships, choirs. People walking around dressed like angels, devils, demons, fireworks, light shows, ice capades. We’ll get some iPads set up so you can learn more about Dante, serve some devil dogs, angel-food cake. I’d like to donate my collection and have a dedicated room for it—”
“Your Dante stuff, from above the garage?”
“Not stuff, Prin. Believe me, not just stuff.”
“I want to do it, and he won’t let me. Says it’s too valuable to let the public see it.”
“No. Somebody else you’d be working with.”
He crossed his arms.
“Anyway, the theme park consultants who worked up the initial feasibility report pitched staying on all the way through—the turnkey model, and I was tempted, and obviously Hugh wanted me to do that, but I like going with my own people. So we compromised.”
“They retrofitted both arenas for indoor-theme-park use. To qualify for the state credits, they had to hire 50 percent local labor, and Prin, they hired 50.1 percent. But still, those were good jobs, and there’s more to come. The next step is to fit out the arenas with rides and concessions, and then hire the service staff and park performers. But we’re behind schedule. We’ve already missed the summer market and so now we’re pegged for the fall. Inferno will open on Halloween, and Paradiso twenty-four hours later.”
“What about Purgatory?”
“Fair ball. Look, there were only two vacant arenas, and, well, everybody gets Heaven and Hell, Prin, and no offence, but Purgatory is more of a, well, you know.”
I looked around the empty restaurant, the smudged daylight, the listless streets outside. How long was I going to be in this place?
“Anyway, at the current pace, that’s not going to happen either. But before I call in the consultants to take over, I want to try one more approach. Hugh agrees. I need to add someone to my team. Make a change.”
“You want me to replace one of your own people?”
He made a sour face.
“Not exactly one of my own. The guys and the young lady are fine. More than fine. Good people. The problem is, when this all started, we found out that we’d also qualify for a stack of tax breaks if the project could be designated as educational. It made good sense, business-wise, and so I asked the fellow who helped me put together my Dante collection to sign on as the academic resource. He said yes right away. Maybe too fast. But I can’t blame him. As usual, he was between teaching jobs, and the private-rare-books-library-building business isn’t booming these days, and it turns out we don’t even have to pay him. He qualified for a state retraining program and asked me if he could bring along a couple of his friends. I said sure. Didn’t touch our bottom line and we could list them and their PhDs on our reports. Everybody’s happy. But then things went sideways.”
“You ever watch mob shows, Prin?”
“So you know what a no-show job is?”
“Yes, I know about no-show jobs.”
“Well, tell them then! They show up, every day, and they think they owe it to the taxpayers of Indiana to make sure that every part of our park is educational and based on Dante. They keep saying this is their ‘stated academic duty to the project.’ Must be in the fine print somewhere. And guess what? There’s a problem with every idea! Nothing from the consultants is educational enough or faithful enough to Dante!”
“And you don’t want to be arguing with them, yourself.”
“Me, in the same room with them? Telling old stories and bringing the donuts? Now that would be a retirement project.”
“But you can’t get rid of them without losing your tax credits.”
“Exactly! See? You get it. I wish we’d found you earlier.”
“So it’s a good thing I’m not a Dante scholar? I mean, I’m no expert.”
“Which is the last thing we need in this country! Look, you’re a believer but you don’t swing your rosary around, and you can read a footnote without sounding like a footnote. A Catholic professor but not too much of a Catholic professor. Am I right?”
“So I’d be working with the other professors?”
“More as part of the main team. You’d be working with the project manager and the other team leaders already working with her—in operations and procurement—and you’d check in with me once a week or so. I’m looking for a one-year commitment. Six thousand a month, and all the help you need with taxes and immigration. We’ll give you an apartment and a car and a travel allowance to see your family or bring them here. That’s up to you. There’s also a budget for research,” said Charlie.
Seventy-two thousand dollars for a year. American. Most of that I could bank. I’d live on jerky and water. Molly and the girls would come home to a new house, a new pool, new life savings.
“Sorry. You said a budget for research? You mean books?”
He snorted and jerked his thumb at the restaurant window.
“I have all the books you need.”
“Well, if you want to visit Disney or Genesis Extreme to get some ideas.”
“Wasn’t Dante from Florence?”
“Good one. I once dragged a teenaged Hugh there with me. Maybe I’ve had my Purgatory already, right?”
“He mentioned the two of you were going back this spring,” I said.
“He said that, huh? Who knows? Maybe it’ll actually happen. You travel a lot with your kids?”
“Not lately. As I mentioned, they’re in Milwaukee.”
“With their mother. My wife. That’s right. I mentioned this to Hugh as well.”
“None of our business, of course. And Hugh’s one to talk about family life.”
“So what now?” I said.
“Well, it’s four o’clock and the Sycamores are playing Valpo tonight and I want to vacuum the car before tip-off. Or I can TiVo it and tell you why, I mean really why, I’m doing this. Decision time. What’s it going to be, Prin?”
“Show me your Dantes.”
“I went to Vietnam in 1971. My father was at Normandy. My grandfather fought in the Argonne Forest, under Black Jack Pershing himself. You can find Tracker tombstones in Union and Confederate cemeteries. Military service is something we take seriously, and always have. Hugh could have gone to Afghanistan, even Iraq. He gave out sandwiches at the Superdome during Katrina. Which is neither here nor there, I know. Anyway, I’m telling you this so you’ll know that when I went to Vietnam I was a different kind of cherry. I was ready to do what was needed, like my father, and his father, and his fathers, but what a mess. By 1971, nobody who wasn’t a career officer could say what was needed in Vietnam, except more drugs and don’t be the last man to die for no good reason. And the career officers just said shoot more of them. I won’t use the term. I always hated it. I didn’t like that shoot-first, shoot-always attitude any more than I liked the lack of discipline with the other grunts. So I was kind of in no man’s land.
“Two weeks after I arrived—picture a tailgate party in the jungle, but you were always waiting for somebody to shoot you—our firebase was attacked in the middle of the night by fifty little guys in swim shorts and grease. We were supposed to hand over the base to the South Vietnamese at the end of the month, and they already had a small detachment with us. They weren’t touched. Zero casualties, and zero shots fired from their position. Eighty of us were killed. Bodies burned all over the place. To this day, Prin, I cannot be anywhere near a pig roast. It was suffering and burning hell and nobody, not even Dante, not even Dante, has anything on the real thing. I know they say he saw men being burned alive in Florence, and that he would have been sentenced to the same thing if he ever came home, but in the poem—in your Purgatorio—the most he says is that he remembers the sight of it, not the smell. I don’t think anyone can say what it smells like. I don’t think anyone should. Anyway, while the brass were planning investigations and who to relieve of duty and that kind of thing, the ARVN guys, the South Vietnamese, wanted to prove their innocence. They wanted to prove they were on our side. Remember, the VC didn’t go anywhere near their part of the base, and during the attack they didn’t defend. They had a big howitzer mounted, and no shots fired.