The Good Man by.Richard Thieme is a “Minnesota story.” It was published by the Review Americana (https://americanpopularculture.com/review_americana/contents.htm) and the Scarlet Leaf Review (https://www.scarletleafreview.com/short-stories8/richard-thieme-the-good-man).
Everyone knew Tom Olafsen (his given name was Eggert Thomas Olafsen but they called him Tommy, or Tom, a few called him Eggert, or Eggo, his childhood name based on his breakfast preference when he was ten. What they called him was not important, nor was it anyone’s business, what a family did at home. Everyone in town knew Anna, his wife of thirty-nine years. They called her Anna, naturally. She was not the kind of woman given to clever nicknames.
His beloved helpmeet’s name had been Anna Koskinen, which gave rise to jokes about “mixed race marriages” for a dozen years after they married. She was sometimes called Asta but she corrected the mistake politely; she was no divine beauty as one might think her translated name implied, but no one cared–looks were not as important as character and mien, bearing and appearance, attitude and behavior, as Anna would have said in fewer words than I just used, plainer words, shorter words. Anna was a plainspoken woman with a face that seemed to have been chiseled from timbers by a man who knew how to wield an axe, and she never used makeup of any kind, not even lipstick. She dressed throughout her life with moderation and propriety and frowned on inappropriate language and behavior. She sometimes repeated what her father Fredrik often said, referring to Finns who balanced diplomacy and bravery during “the war:” “You live between the Russians and the Germans, you learn a thing or two.”
Fredrik was born in Toivola, up north, not far from Meadowlands and only a little further to shopping in Duluth, where his parents had moved from the Torne Valley, or Meanmaa as they called it, distinguishing it from the Lapplander valley, over a good ways. Norwegians and Finns were sometimes hard to tell apart. Fredrik and his siblings and his parents and grandparents before them had lived in the valley until they decided to move. Conditions change over time and you wait for them to change back but they never do, so you make a decision based on reality, when you realize reality has once again won. They decided to go to America. In the new country they tried their hand at reindeer farming which the family had done back home–people tend to do what they know how to do and not strike out in new directions unless compelled to do so, which is what happened, I believe, to Tom Olafsen. He was compelled to adapt a different strategy. Things changed and Tom changed too.
I always thought what he did was consistent with who he had been, what he had done, all his life. He knew what was happening but kept his own counsel. Because he seemed to be the same old Tom he had always been, everyone thought he would live and die as they expected, doing what he had always done.
Fredrik had grown up with his wife, sweet hardworking Lotta, who was the first to suggest that raising reindeer wasn’t a good idea. He nodded and thought about it for a few years and then sold the herd and they went south to a settlement west of the Cities. They did not like the milder climate. Warm breezes did not develop character the way the cold up north did, making a man a man, and that too might explain the character of the man Tom trusted with his hard-earned money. Tom thought Norgaard was like most people in town.
It might sound like I think what Tom did was right, but understanding and excusing a man are two different things. I leave judgement to Almighty God. It’s way above my pay grade.
Anyway, Fredrik opened a general store that prospered for a good while. He managed to stay open during the depression, living close to the bone but serving his customers with minimal margins. That earned him a reputation as something of a local saint. He carried debts for months and often forgave them entirely. That good reputation stuck to Anna too and she wore it with gracious modesty. The value of their good name was so deeply ingrained she did not give it a thought. People gave her a lot of room to be herself because of that and I never heard a critical remark about her, ever.
Tom worked as a boy in Fredrik’s store, stocking shelves and making deliveries, learning the value of a hard-earned dollar, and that’s how he and Anna met. She used to come into the store to “help out,” because, she said, times were hard, but I think she did it to be around Tom.
Anna was, with her kind heart and character, a contributor to the general good. She was always ready to help, but seldom first in line like Agnes Petersen, who practically pushed people out of the way to be first to a place of bereavement or misery. But soon enough, after the calamity had settled down as they all did, Anna was there to help. She never fought big blazes, so to speak, the kinds of conflagrations that razed a person’s life to the very ground, but came in time to stamp out remaining fires in the brush. When there was a sad affair of whatever kind, she trembled inside where others couldn’t see because it shook her beliefs and she needed to gather herself together. Anna would inhale deeply and hold her breath for a long time until she could let it out slowly as she grasped the harsh reality, that such a thing could happen in God’s creation, because she believed that the Lord’s hand was on every event and that was hard to understand, what with the indiscriminate destruction of so many innocent human lives. She sought refuge in sayings like “well, it was meant to be” or “the Lord will bring good out of this, you just watch” or “the ways of God are beyond our ken.” She said all of those things after Tom had acted until she gave up and said nothing at all because the familiar words were inadequate to the task. Her considerable powers of rationalization, already hinted at, always damped down her anxiety eventually. The modern world was a real challenge so no one blamed her for needing time to realign her belief in the Lord’s goodness with random evil deeds. There was so much pain in the world these days. Bad things had always happened but not so often to good people. So everyone understood that Anna’s temperament, her need for a day or two of quiet prayer and reading the scriptures and some busy work, catching up with darning that needed to be done, for example, until the realities of life on a dangerous planet had been reconciled with her belief in an all-powerful God who acted in a general way everywhere but also in a local way right there in Minnekona Lake where they lived. Then she could quietly arrive at the home of the distraught with a suitable expression of sorrow, betokening empathy.
That challenge, in one way, is what this story is about. It is about the good woman’s soul and what was required when a tornado hit the town (as it were) and scored a direct hit on their house and tossed it and a bunch of other homes around like toothpicks and survivors were left sobbing among the debris, searching for keepsakes. After everyone learned what Norgaard had done, there was plenty of crying, believe you me.
In another way, the tale is about Tommy and why he did what he did, which once you know the whole story, will mostly make sense. Once you understand the ins and the outs of a situation, you can as a rule understand the whys and wherefores. When you grasp why a person did what they did, you can see that you might have done the same thing, had you been them. If there’s a lesson in this story, maybe it’s that, but lessons are hard to pin down when things get complex.
So everyone thought they understood Tommy and Anna and one another. They had all grown up together and gone to school together and attended one another’s weddings and if they went away for a job in the Cities, they often returned, even for less money, because “you can’t put a price on a town where everyone looks out for one another and you don’t have to lock your doors.” They wanted their kids to go to the schools in town, attend one of the Lutheran churches, and learn the value of a dollar and a good work ethic. Most people who grew up in the state never left or came back right away if they did. Only Louisiana had more like that, and that would be the Cajun influence–where else could a Cajun live, after all? Those good Minnesotans made up the heart and soul of the community and they tried to stick together in the face of an onslaught of “others” from outside. Newcomers came in droves, buying up houses and talking about how cheap they were, which was insensitive and offensive. The surge of young people from the Metro shortened the comfortable distance between the cities and the town, once a buffer zone they had thought would always hold like the levees before Katrina. Newcomers made it a “bedroom suburb,” a clone of so many others, a landscape dreamed up by developers with the same stores and restaurants that you found when you got off the interstate anywhere. Even worse, there were growing numbers of misbehaving kids from broken homes, some with only one parent in the house. The standards by which everyone had always lived were turned inside out.
The erosion of identity paradoxically intensified the need to hold tightly to prior norms. Their touchstones never had to be stated–everyone knew the rules by which decent people lived. Only when they were challenged did they say them aloud to one another, usually by way of critiquing those who didn’t know any better. They fought the good fight against the ex-pats. “What do you expect from someone from Chicago?” they would say. (The ones from the Dakotas were excused because they were more like cousins.)
But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I was saying, people were grateful when Anna appeared at a scene of sadness or loss, wearing the oven mitts her mother gave her when she married Eggert (her mother looked him up and down and said, this one is going to need a lot of feeding, Anna, you better let me copy all my recipes, and she did, bless her heart, by hand, on index cards in ink, which Anna still used)–bearing in those stained old gloves her well-known and much-admired tater tot hot dish.
Minnekona Lake was still by modern standards a small town. When Tom and Anna were growing up, it was thought to be a fine place to raise children, and the older generation could remember when there were stars in the sky and the glow from the city lights did not white them out. There were a number of Lutheran churches so you could pick the one that suited, based on habit, above all, then the pastor, and whether or not a building fund was in progress, and for the theologically inclined, a doctrinal nit or two. About forty different Lutheran denominations had spread like Darwin’s finches and the ones that lasted were islands defined by doctrinal distinctions. There was a Catholic Church too, and Father Bonnard was liked and respected by Lutherans until it came out, what he had done, how often, and with indifference to what it did to the children. Child rape was frowned upon by the church so Father Bonnard went into rehab for three months and when he was cleared, he was sent to another diocese and never heard from again.
The ones moving in seemed to be getting younger and younger. If someone asked, which they did not, because it was not polite, why they moved to Minnekona, they would have said, “we like it here,” but they showed their affection in strange ways. They criticized the schools and tried to change them by electing people like themselves to the school board; they didn’t like the way the town council managed affairs and challenged the mayor, old Norm Anderson, who was only trying to do right by all interested parties; they avoided the Main Street Diner and dined instead on vegan fare and bubble tea at that new place downtown where the dollar store had been. In the last election they ran a lesbian for an empty seat on the town council. She didn’t win, but she came frighteningly close.
The ex-pats complained quite a bit, that is, about the town to which they had chosen to live. They didn’t see it as a town, is what dawned on the older folks, nor a community at all, but as an extension of their lives in the Cities. If cartoon balloons showed the thoughts of old-timers, they would say: “you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from?” It would have been rude to say that, so it was expressed in conversational stance, the angle at which one stood when speaking, so anyone with a clue (i.e. anyone who grew up there) understood completely.
So things were changing, but not for the better: the prices of houses were rising, strip malls and big box stores put Main Street stores out of business, and crime was rising. These changes injected anxiety and fear into the community which gave the communal state of mind an angrier vibe. The vanishing past was idealized, memorialized, and celebrated, It was like a Ponzi scheme, borrowing from a non-existent past to buy an impossible future. And like all Ponzi schemes, it was only a matter of time until the fraud became apparent.
So when the story I am trying to tell began to unfold, there was no playbook.
I had better begin that story now or you’ll stop reading right here.
The real story, however, does have a backstory so indulge me a little more while I spell it out. Without understanding how the context changed, what Tom did will not entirely make sense, as much sense as it can make, given what he did.
The metro swallowed the town like an anaconda swallowing a pig. The sense of a shared history which even if mythical was true, the way myths are, was like something glimpsed through waves of heat on a summer day. Identities, it turned out, were written in disappearing ink, and the moral structure, the bedrock of their confidence in life and God Himself, went along for the bumpy ride. The shaking of the ground under their feet made them doubt even the the tenets of their faith. The benchmarks of right and wrong were not as secure as everyone had thought.
The outwardly visible sign of that profound shift was the explosive growth of a huge non-denominational church, the Church of the Living Waters, out on the edge of town on Purgatory Creek. A small band of Evangelical Bible-believing Christians from a shrinking branch of the Christian Missionary Alliance formed a posse one Sunday afternoon in the living room of Ansel Tull and decided to build a “real church” on the site of the old Schwinn factory. The rapid inroads the megachurch made into traditional churches was stunning. The enterprise was a combination of a modern jazzy style and folksy sermons that delivered three simple lessons a person could remember, programs for the children, and counseling as needed. The package was delivered through all the new media. A church that relied on a newsletter printed once a month and mailed out did not stand a chance.
Traditional churches did not grasp what was happening until congregations and budgets shrank. Their frantic attempts to imitate what they did not understand about marketing and communications exposed their lack of savvy. A competitive marketplace in which young families “shopped for a church” precipitated their demise.
The first to fill the modern chairs (not hard wooden uncomfortable pews) were the unchurched. As the excitement grew, the buzz spread by word-of-mouth and older people began migrating from Lutheran churches. Tom and Anna ignored the call of the growing enterprise until they couldn’t ignore it any longer because it was everywhere on people’s lips and on the radio every week. Still they resisted until someone they trusted brought the message home. That was Jack Haupman, who told Tom at a Lion’s Club lunch about the excitement, the energy, the great message on Sunday morning. Even Gretchen, he said, loves going to church there. Now, nothing against Pastor Norquist, the much older clergyman who had baptized and married and buried so many. But, you know, Tom–Jack paused and picked off and studied a tater tot from the top of the hot dish they were eating in a private room in the Park Lane bowling alley–I mean, you do get tired, hearing about all the ways you’re sinning, while at the Waters–his face brightened like a new light bulb screwed securely into its socket–they have a team of preachers and they speak about real life. There’s not one that isn’t way above Pastor Norquist, not a one. And the sermons are much shorter, too. It’s like they read my mind, Gretchen says, like they’re talking just to me! Why don’t you let us pick up you and Anna on Sunday and take you there so you can see for yourself?
So the Olafsens went because the Haupmans were old friends and they were surprised how many other old friends were there. It almost felt familiar, despite the lack of trappings to make them think they were in a church. Pastor Bob talked about the real pressures in their lives and he told stories anyone could recognize. The music and clapping and spirit of joy was infectious and by the time they went past all the brochures and announcements in the lobby to have a glass of juice, they had to admit, it did lift their spirits.
Tom and Anna returned to their old church the next week but that just made the contrast sharper. Pastor Norquist had three academic degrees but he talked in ways that no one understood. They were impressed by his language but had to take the value of his messages on faith. It seemed to be getting worse, too. Every time they thought the sermon was ending, he started a new paragraph, and he did that three times. It was like the more he sensed the unhappiness of the graying flock, the more he poured it on, as if more verbiage was a cure. Parishioners twitched on the hardwood pews and looked at their watches a lot. So the Olafsens returned to the Waters and pretty much went there after that.
Pastor Bob preached a lot about money, He called it “treasure.” God wants you to manage your treasure right, he said, because hard times are coming and you need to build a future on the rock of secure investments. He said how much it cost to put a loved one into one of those facilities. He didn’t say right out, not at first, what a good Christian ought to do with their money but after a month or so he got specific. He introduced a lay pastor, Carlson Norgaard, who he let preach on Sunday. Then he gave him the reins of the radio show. Pastor Carl preached a gospel of prosperity and said that those who were faithful would be rewarded, not only in the next life, but in this one as well.
That made sense. If God was the God of everything, it meant he was the God of money too, and who would God want to bless, if not the faithful sheep who heard the voice of their shepherd and followed his call?
Pastor Bob spoke warmly of his confidence in Pastor Carl. In one of his own sermons, he told how Norgaard made millions in a company he started, He explained that Norgaard hated to give so much of his hard-earned wealth to the left-leaning government–you know what they do with your money, don’t you?– making everybody laugh, no need to spell it out. They were all on the same page. He said Norgaard traded currencies and figured out how to beat the odds. He had a computer program that let him trade seconds before the rest. Those few second made him a rich man.
Norgaard, he said, wanted to share his success with fellow Christians. He has a fund that promises a return much bigger than a bank. The money you make is kept in a separate account so no one else can touch it.
Like an alter call, the tag team of the Two Pastors invited them to invest, not in a fund, but in their families and the future.
Tom and Anna listened to Norgaard week after week after week. His repetition made his message penetrate. They started hearing from friends how much money was amassing in their accounts. They received documents each month showing the transactions. All the details were there in black and white, certified by accountants. And if anyone needed cash, they could get it out the same day.
Those who stayed with traditional churches didn’t understand how people like Tom and Anna had fallen under the spell of the Church of the Living Waters. Why had they given up the easy parking in a small half-filled lot to drive in a long line of cars from the highway into the huge lot at the Waters, where men with walkie-talkies directed traffic from the roof? Didn’t they miss the organ? Didn’t they miss the comfort of doing what they had always done?
Tom had no answer for them when they inquired politely over coffee at the Main Street Diner, why he made the change. Tom was a quiet man, sort of withdrawn, a man of few words who like many of the men in town was like a totem pole, tall and solemn and silent, so you had to read the signs with a practiced eye to know what was going on inside. The men who had known Tom for years knew when not to press. They respected his silence as a full stop.
Outwardly he was the same old Tom. He would not have been successful in selling wares in the family store and expanding lines of goods at the right time had he lacked a good practical down-to-earth brain. He was thrifty and he chose not to adorn his modest home with things he knew he didn’t need. He and Anna were practical people. They saved at Old Reliable, ten per cent of what came in, deposited every Friday. He went there in person to give the money to Hilda, the teller, and to chat about this and that. His father taught him to move his money at a certain point into a CD. Then leave it there and let it grow. “Put it into a guaranteed account and forget it, Eggo,” he said, “and when you turn around one day, you’ll be a wealthy man.” Tommy followed that counsel, and in his late fifties, almost sixty and aware of what it might cost, up ahead, if they needed long term care or expensive medicine, while he was a wealthy man by his own standards, he was not rich by the standards of the truly rich in the big houses on the lake with their spacious lawns and docks or the mega-rich he read about. He didn’t feel rich, and he had no idea, really, what he might need if things got bad.
So Tom had a nest egg, more than he thought he would ever have, what with his retirement account and CDs protected by the government and a liquid money market account at Old Reliable. But he felt more anxious and insecure than ever. Aging does funny things to a man. The emotions, not just the body, go through a phase change. Energy declines and so does one’s faith in one’s recuperative powers. One doesn’t bounce back so quickly after a bad patch. So he began to think, below the surface at first, then in words in the silence of his mind, I might not have enough. He had to protect his wife, he had to protect himself, because what if the bankers destroyed the economy again and everything collapsed? Or what if he or Anna had Alzheimer’s or ALS and everything gets spent on drugs and then you go on medicaid and have to live in a nursing home for the last years of your life? The Olafsens had no children, no one to rely on, and what if–God forbid–one of them should die? All that worked on him. He could not fall asleep, thinking about it all, and he woke up in the night and looked at the glowing numbers on the clock and despaired at the early hour. He had done things right, he had done as he was taught, so why was he so anxious? Why were the “golden years” so tarnished by his fears?
So Eggert was ripe for the picking. He had company, sure, they all took that crazy ride, but this is his story, not theirs, or Anna’s story, I am not sure which. But in the end, I think it might be hers.
It mattered to those in the trance induced by the music and rites on Sunday morning that Pastor Bob presented Norgaard as a worker in the vineyard of the Lord, a good Christian man from a good family that went way back. The stories of how he grew up were repeated so often, people believed them and nobody thought to check. Norgaard’s powerful sermons were intermittent reinforcement for his pitches. His confidence and conviction carried his words into their hearts. He did it, he told them, to help them achieve peace of mind. He guaranteed 10-12% return at the very least.
If you were paying attention, you were thinking, that sounds pretty good. Norgaard quoted texts from the Bible and intertwined his promises with promises from God Himself. When he finished, people even applauded, and Pastor Bob came out from the wings to give him a big hug, the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Tom and Anna listened every week to the same message on Wednesday nights when the Sunday morning show was repeated. “That man knows what he is talking about,” Tom said to Anna, and Anna nodded over her knitting, either in agreement or to cover the fact that she couldn’t hear what he said. That was happening more and more. He inferred that her silence meant consent. “Let’s do what Pastor Bob and Pastor Carl say. Everyone we know is making a lot of money.” When she didn’t object, he called to make an appointment to see Carlson Norgaard.
Norgaard had purchased the Van Der Graf Mansion downtown about thirty miles away, not a bad drive if the traffic wasn’t too bad, but one which Tom seldom made, being content as he was with what was around the town. The grand old place looked like a castle. It was built of pink Sioux quartzite brought in from Luverne. The roof and turrets were covered with Maine slate and one soaring slender turret was topped with a copper finial. Tom stood on the walk and looked up with appropriate awe before he went through the heavy wooden front door and paused to admire a beautiful tile mosaic. He wandered the downstairs rooms, where there were French, Tudor, Romanesque and Elizabethan styles all mixed together, before he saw the sign directing him to a receptionist upstairs. He climbed a grand staircase, impressed by the carved woodwork, and was met by a woman who was young and rather comely and welcomed him warmly. She rang a bell with a soft chime and he noticed an earpiece from which she must have heard an instruction because she said, “Mister Norgaard will see you now.” She rose from behind her massive desk and led him toward a door in front of one of ten fireplaces, wood piled neatly in it but not yet set ablaze. “Would you like coffee or something else to drink?”
He said no thanks and entered the investment manager’s office when she opened the door with a bright smile. Norgaard rose and came around the desk to shake his hand and welcome Tom to the luxurious office. Tom had never been in such a beautiful office, designed to communicate wealth and success.
As was the pitch presented by the smiling friendly man. He emphasized safeguards and guarantees, showed Tom the printout he would receive every month, repeated that cash could be withdrawn at any time. His proprietary software and electronic network, Norgaard said, allowed trades to be made three nanos faster than traditional means. That fraction of time meant a fraction of a penny saved which made a huge difference when one was managing millions and millions of dollars.
Are you ready to open an account? Do you have a check with you?
Yes, said Tom.
Tom had transferred all of his accounts into a checking account. Norgaard looked over the desk as Tom entered the amount of everything in his CDs, IRA, and savings account. “Just make it out to Caribbean Global Investments,” he said. “That’s the holding company that handles all of our transactions. They get the lowest fees for currency trading because they’re based in a nation that favors free trade.”
They shook hands and Olafsen left the office feeling as if he was walking on air. All of his fears for their health and well-being had vanished. The sun was shining, birds were singing, and the glory of the Lord shone all around.
Norgaard scanned the check and sent it off at once.
Tom was a man of character and expected the same of others. He was loyal and true, and he seldom called attention to himself or his modest achievements, thinking that the brash young people moving to town who talked of themselves and their activities and interests were nothing but walking billboards for their egos, proclaiming how smart and successful they were. Had he any idea of their constant self-promotion on Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and the rest, he would have been aghast. A man who made his way in life successfully did not need to be always telling everyone what he had done. He did not need the applause of others to shore himself up. That he ignored such behavior by Pastors Bob and Carl was simply one of the inconsistencies that make humans interesting.
Tom was a good man, he was trusting and generous and took his religion seriously. He would sit in his comfortable chair, Anna rocking and listening to the radio with him, his head wreathed in great blue-gray clouds of fragrant smoke from a blend he mixed himself for his pipe, and listen to Norgaard reassure not only himself but many others. They never dreamed that what happened might ever happen, but it did, and that’s the rest of the story.
I am sure you guessed by now what took place. It took a long time for the unraveling of the clever well-wrought design to reveal itself, but even with the best dikes, it’s hard to keep out the sea. Reality seeps tin, makes bigger inroads, then pours through. There were hints and rumors, whispers and accusations, all denied by Norgaard and, on his behalf, by Pastor Bob, who was never charged with a crime himself, but admitted to “poor judgement” in channeling contributions from the Caribbean Holding Company, an entity that Norgaard owned behind layers of shells and off-shore accounts, into a discretionary fund. The fund was to help the poor and needy, and it did, but it also enabled Pastor Bob to build a large beautiful home in Arizona. The charges were all leveled against Norgaard and despite the best lawyers money could buy, he was found guilty on all counts of fraud and a Ponzi scheme that took in two hundred million dollars. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.
I won’t waste your time with the details of how the Ponzi scheme was done and undone. They all seem to fall apart in the same way. Someone tries to get their money back and it isn’ t there, and the word goes around, and then there’s a run and there isn’t any money anywhere at all, it’s all gone, it is all gone.
The first few who did get their money back had to return it to an account for salving the pain of the investors, so it didn’t matter than Tom was late in requesting the return of his investment. After a decade of hard work, following trails through layers of shells around the world, a team of lawyers recovered about ten million dollars which was distributed after taxes and their fees to those who were still alive. The rest had vanished.
Tom and Anna were still alive but they weren’t the Tom and Anna of old. They were destitute, having lost everything, and above all, they lost faith in their fellow man and the church in which they had believed uncritically. On top of that, Anna had been consumed by crippling anxiety and lapses in memory which they attributed to aging but it turned out, she was showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. She did, as I said earlier, need time to gather herself together when some traumatic shock shook her belief in the benevolence of the Lord, and this was the biggest one yet. She simply could not get her mind around the enormity of Norgaard’s crimes and their impact on so many people and, most importantly, on herself. She slept-walked in denial as they sold their home and tried to survive. She never did get herself together again in a way that would enable her to praise the Lord with whole-hearted sincerity, nor could she deal realistically with her anger at Tom, because she could not allow herself to think that he might have been at fault for the tumble they had taken, on top of which, anger was not something she liked to think she felt.
Losing the money was one thing, but the shattering of their beliefs was far worse. The onset of Alzheimer’s was, some said, a blessing in disguise, because (1) they still believed in blessings, disguised or not, and (2) her deteriorating brain was unable to grasp in the most elemental terms what had taken place and the complicity of her husband in their downfall.
Tom had his own issues to deal with on top of losing everything and then losing Anna. He monitored the sentencing of Norgaard to incarceration in a hospital prison because of age and infirmities. Night after night he sat in his chair and smoked his pipe and thought of that injustice. Anna was in a nursing home on medicaid and Tom was in the drafty shack that replaced their home, alone. Anna’s influence for the good was gone. The house was cold and so was his heart. Both grew colder and colder. The words of the scriptures–“Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay!”–sounded like an empty promise. The Lord was conspicuously silent throughout the catastrophe, as he seemed to be everywhere in a world beset with miseries, as had been his habit since Biblical days when he spoke in unmistakeable ways.
You can never get inside the mind or soul of another human being, and Eggert Thomas Olafsen is a case in point. All one saw if one peeked through the window of his shack in the woods was a man sitting alone. One sometimes saw him visiting his Anna and sitting by her bedside for hours waiting and hoping for recognition from his wife. Once in a great while the fog seemed to clear and he could swear she knew who he was and why he was there, his devotion having become a long-ingrained habit. But one could not see inside him to the process by which he decided that if vengeance was not being taken by the Lord, someone should do it for Him. He read and reread the Book of Judith in which the elders said, after Judith had killed their enemy, “God saved us,” but it was pretty clear that Judith had done it.
At some point, he decided to act.
The people up at the hospital prison all knew Tom. They had known him for many years. They added him to the list of allowed visitors for Carlson Norgaard because he told them he wanted to forgive the man and say so to his face. That was consistent with the Tom they had always known, so they bought in. That was Tom’s scam, in its own way. What he really wanted to do was kill the son of a bitch.
But just as the investments did not work out as hoped, neither did his simple scheme to visit Norgaard, proclaim the justice of the Lord, and take a knife out and plunge it into the neck and then the heart of the evil man. He got as far as getting it into the neck but not, alas, severing an artery, when they grabbed him from behind.
Now, the criminal justice system is imperfect, as all things are in God’s creation. If humans can mess things up, they will. Tom pled guilty to a lesser count and was sentenced in his declining years to the very same prison hospital in which Norgaard spent his last days. Tom died there too, a year after Norgaard, having the satisfaction only of knowing that Norgaard preceded him in that sad march to the grave.
But this is Anna’s story too, or maybe mostly. Anna is the emblem of how hard it is for humans to reconcile reality with naive beliefs. The enormity of the destruction visited by Norgaard on everything in which she believed was too much. She could never again appear at the scene of a tragedy with a hot dish in her hands because she was the scene. She was never “herself,” again, if she ever had been.
But there were moments in which the fog seemed to lift and Anna was back, the light of the old Anna in her eyes. She was accessible for those few moments. In Anna’s case, that happened when Rosita, the nursing home aide, was cleaning her tray after her meal had been partially consumed but mostly scattered on the tray, Anna was eating less and less, and that would take her away soon.
Anna spoke. She definitely said something. Rosita paused in her task, looking at the drawn pale face of the sick woman, and said, “Que? Que dice, Anna?”
She said again as Rosita leaned in close to hear: “He is a good man.”
Rosita leaned around to look into her eyes but they were already returning to where they spent their time, deep in the darkening woods of her soul. The loud speakers in the hallways outside the door suddenly blared: “Juliet, call the desk. Juliet, call the desk.” and that set off Margaret Lundstrom who had been asleep in bed in their shared room and began shouting, “Stop it! Stop it, Harold, you bastard!” which interfered with Rosita’s concentration.
“Quien es?” she said. “Who is a good man?”
The grid of time and space in Anna’s brain was variable and fluid, so Rosita never learned if Anna meant Tom–Anna might have been thinking of his courageous attempt to right wrongs, to serve justice and mercy and walk humbly with his God, and she might have forgiven Tom and held him once more in her warm embrace–or she might have meant Norgaard, whose promises she still believed, locked in the treasure box of her hopeful heart. All we know is what Rosita told the duty nurse who mentioned it to her grown child Clarence who repeated the story in the Main Street Diner so it got around that Anna came back for a brief visit–she must have done, we have to believe, because she said, Rosita was nearly certain, “He is a good man.”
And once more, in the stillness of the night, with no one there to hear:
“He is a good man.”
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