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The Angel of the Lord

By Henry Altmiller

Henry Altmiller is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry at Saint Edward’s University.

The deed itself did not take very long but I had thought about it for some time. Mike Singleton was a problem for me and, as far as I could tell, for the State as well. He lived in a small hollow between a creek, the railroad tracks and the street. There were a couple of small houses and mobile homes down there arranged in a circle around a large dirt patch. When I drove down into the circle, there were some kids playing and Singleton was sitting in front of his house on what looked like an old kitchen chair. I stopped, turned off the car and he came over.

“Well, well” he started. “ Look who’s slumming today.”

“I know what you did last night”, I said, “and I know you’ve done it before. You’ve crippled her.”

“She deserves it. She’s evil.”

“You were her customer.”

“Makes no difference. I would do the same to you. You make all that possible. You just put a pretty face on the picture.”

Then I did it.

“Come here Mike,” I said. “I have something for you.” I had my small pistol on the passenger seat under a newspaper. Mike leaned down so his face was in the passenger window. In one quick motion, I pulled the gun out aimed and fired.

I can shoot. A customer told me that I might need protection and gave me the pistol. Actually it’s not small. It’s a 45. The shot went through his forehead with a neat hole but the back of his head exploded with a red spray. He fell away from the car onto the ground. The sound was deafening.

The kids ran back into their houses. After the noise of the shot the birds stopped singing, the cicadas stopped and everything was very quiet. No one came out of the houses. I just sat there.

After a while the birds started up again and I could hear a train coming in the distance. So I started the car, drove out onto the street and went home.

It was the 1940’s at the end of the war. I was very young then. I have never married but I had a daughter who was about two or three at the time. She’s a nun now. She teaches in a little school in Peru and seems to be very happy. Sometimes I envy her. I had two small businesses past the City limits on South Congress. At that time Congress was the main highway going south. Outside the City, it was a three lane paved road with wide gravel shoulders. It started at the Capital and came up the hill through south Austin. It skirted several small towns south of here, went through San Marcos and New Braunfels and eventually wound up in San Antonio. We thought that there was a lot of traffic on it but it wasn’t anything like it is today.

The businesses started small and I didn’t have much money but I do work hard and have an eye for what the customers want. The businesses were in two white houses set back about 100 feet from the highway. Both had nice front porches with comfortable rockers. The houses were surrounded by a grove of oaks and the trees were twisted as only old oaks can be. They kept the place cool and provided some privacy. We were close enough to the road for easy access but there was still some privacy from passing traffic.

We had a nice operation that catered to most every appetite of a man. In the front house there was a dining room whose colors were primarily black and red. It was a little dark and small lights hung from the ceiling on what was supposed to look like wagon wheels. It was very tasteful with white tablecloths and cloth napkins. Given the clientele, the menu was limited to steak and potatoes but we did a good job with those. This was not a restaurant whose primary attraction were the physical attributes of the waitresses but we did a good job of that, too. They wore black fishnet stockings, and a very short red skirt with black trim. The uniforms were not bashful about the cleavage. We might have made a go of it just as a restaurant. Couples would come to eat and you wondered if the women had any idea of what went on in the second house.

The house in back had a nice front porch too. The girls could sit on the front porch or if they preferred more provocative attire there was a nice parlor in front. The rooms were upstairs and everything was very clean – fresh sheets after every use. I had an apartment in the back and some of the staff lived in the back too particularly the girls who were single or who didn’t have boyfriends. I sort of preferred that. It kept them out of trouble.. It was a small operation. There were six tables and six girls. The restaurant was only open on weekends except when the legislature was in town and it had a good reputation. People talked about the legislative deals that were made in the restaurant and I had a waiting list of girls who wanted to work in the back.

I kept the books and handled the money but I was very lucky and had an assistant named Gerontius McCarthy who ran the daily operations. He is a large impressive Irishman with black hair and a thick brogue. He always spoke slowly to us because he said that Texans were not yet used to the English language. He told me that Gerontius was the name of an obscure Irish saint. His parents named all their sons after Irish saints. The first one was naturally named Patrick. Then there was Shawn and Eamonn, but by the time they got to him they were out of the common Irish names and an uncle who was a monk suggested Gerontius. After hearing the story I looked up the name and found that Saint Gerontius was an Italian bishop. I didn’t tell him that. He said that he was on the train to California and that the train stopped here. He liked the looks of the place so he got off. He still owns and runs a large restaurant close to downtown.

One night I was back in my place with my daughter. Business had been good that night and several of the girls were still busy. There was a knock and Gerontius came in with one of the girls.

“You need to come up quick”, he said. We left my daughter with the girl and went up to the second floor to one of the rooms. Gina was on the bed moaning. Another girl was holding an ice pack to her foot, which was a bloody bruised mess at a weird angle with the rest of her leg.

“What happened?

“Mike Singleton was her client. He left and when Gina didn’t come down we found her like this.”

Singleton had a bad reputation and whenever he was on the property Gerontius was supposed to keep an eye on him. But of course there are some places where that is not possible.

I knew exactly what happened. I’ve seen him do it. He takes the foot and twists it around and then he has a hammer that he uses to break the anklebone. It’s very painful and usually the person will never walk right again.

I didn’t want to leave Gina like that all night so I called Dr. Robinson and asked or begged him to come out. In those days, you didn’t go to the hospital like you do now. The doctor came to you. Robinson takes care of all the girls. He’s good and doesn’t ask too many questions. Robinson came, gave Gina some pain pills and told us to bring her in to the office the next morning.

The next day, after Robinson was through I took Gina to the Sheriff’s Office to report the incident. We sat around for a while and finally were taken in to see a Sergeant Steiner. He was a big man with a large stomach with his shirt stretched across it. I kept staring wondering how long the buttons were going to hold.

Steiner asked Gina to describe what happened and he dutifully wrote it all down. When Gina finished he thanked her and said that they will take care of it.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

Steiner looks at his boots and is quiet for a minute. Finally he said, “Everyone knows Singleton and everyone knows that he’s not exactly someone you’d want taking up the Sunday collection but he’s not going to confess and without that it’s just her word against his.”

“But he hurt her. He crippled her”.

“Well everyone knows what Gina does too and if you lead a rough life, you have to expect some rough things to happen.”

“Are you a poet or what”, I thought but did not say.

It was obvious that we were not going to get any satisfaction so we left and Gina spent a few weeks chopping lettuce for salads in the kitchen until she wanted to work in back again. Lettuce was our attempt to introduce vegetables into the menu.

Things went back to normal for a while, but then someone shot out the lights by the road. Next the mailbox was smashed in. Not good but is it just a bunch of kids? The Sheriff wasn’t too interested.

Then one morning Gerontius brought me a rum bottle filled with what smelled like gas with a charred rag in the top.

“What’s this?”

“Found it in front by the porch. Looks like a Molotov cocktail to me. This could have set fire to the building.”

We reported it to the Sheriff and not much happened again.

The next week I heard about Sheila Hurst. Sheila’s professional name is Crystal Ball and some wags say it should be the reverse. She wanted to work for me but I didn’t hire her. She seemed a little rough for us. Sheila had been beaten up pretty bad reminding me of Gina. The girls’ underground rumor mill fingered Singleton.

One day I was at the Big Bear grocery store down on Congress just south of the river and happened to see him.

“Hello Mike” I said nice and friendly.

He just sort of grunted and tried to walk away but I’ve never been known for subtlety so I went after him.

“Heard what you did to Sheila. Shouldn’t do that Mike.”

He turned to me. “What’s it to you?”

“One of these days you’re going to get caught.”

“It’s always my word against hers so long as no one else is around so butt out.”

“You been messing around with my place – like busting a mailbox? Not a good idea, Mike”.

“What are you going to do about it? All of you out there are going to rot in hell. You’re doing the work of the devil.”

Even though I am not noted for my sensitivity I could see that further discussion was pointless. Nonetheless the whole matter disturbed me.

I don’t know about you but one of my favorite notions, or maybe superstition, is the idea of angels. They are common to both the Bible and the Koran and are usually portrayed as perfectly groomed, tall, and fair-haired with prominent snow-white wings. Then there are the Guardian Angels. Everyone has at least one Guardian Angel and if you are a Muslim you have two. God charges them with protecting you.

I love the idea of a protecting angel but one of the hard lessons I have learned in life is that, aside from politics, the line between good and evil is not sharp. It’s frequently difficult to understand what is best. Most everyone wants to make things better but it doesn’t take long to realize that people have vastly different understandings of what “better” means and how it can be realized. And then there’s the dilemma of when, if ever, does the end justify the means. 

I know what an ethicist would say but I’m not so sure. There is a monastery in the mountains of northern Spain that has statues of a different kind of angel. These angels have bent wings, broken swords and torn and blackened robes. They look totally disheveled and exhausted. They have been through a lot. If I have a Guardian Angel it must be from this second group. I try to do what is right but sometimes the right way is not obvious. My angel is not bored.

I’d worked hard on my business and it had a real good name. It was even somewhat famous. It helped that it was in Austin. There’s an air force base not too far from us full of young men, several colleges and the Legislature is in town every other year. They only meet for 140 days but when they’re here business is real good. I’ve heard that more than one piece of legislation was settled on in our dining room. A big reason why my place was so successful was that it was seen as safe and classy. Things were done right and after some tight years we were doing well. It was not like an establishment in Boys Town on East 2nd. Stories about a girl being crippled in one of the rooms or bombs being thrown at the building could be the end to it all.

I didn’t do anything for a few days. I kept busy with routine business – the dining room menu, laundry, who’s supposed to sweep the damn porches - that sort of thing. At night when we finally locked up, I didn’t sleep well at all.

Finally, I decided what had to be done and I was convinced that it would be for the good. I would be solving a problem both for me and for everyone else. So I got into my car and went over to Singleton’s.

After it was over, I knew that I had solved the problem but it didn’t feel good. Some years later, I told my daughter about it and asked her if she thought I was going to hell. She said that she doubted if God would send someone to hell for helping some defenseless women but I shouldn’t do it again. God might forgive but the State of Texas probably wouldn’t.

I went home but I felt dirty. I set a fire in the fireplace and started taking off my clothes. I was dirty and they were dirty. I had tried to remove evil but had probably made more. It was a futile effort. I threw everything into the fire, even my bra and my panties, and stood before the raging fire naked and shivering.

I asked God, “Where is my angel?”

There was no answer.

PO Box 1162 | Buda, TX 78610 Email

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