BY: JOE BENEVENTO
When Professor Veronica Teuma decides to spend part of her sabbatical visiting and studying the “intentional communities” of rural Missouri, Tony Cupelli believes she is at least partly motivated by a desire to escape their complicated relationship. When Tony loses contact with Veronica, he convinces his NYPD detective brother Mike to accompany him to search for her at the two communes where she was last seen. Tony and Mike, two Italian-American working-class born and bred brothers from Queens, are enormously out of their element in both small town northern Missouri where they first search for clues, and are appalled by the town’s version of pizza, and then all the more at the “Champions of Possibility” and the “Discerning Wolverine Ecovillage” communes, where a group of highly educated “woo-woo” loving millennials, are immersed in a world focused on sustainability and a rejection of conventional society, a world featuring compost toilets, sun ovens, oddly constructed houses, neo-pagan celebrations and rituals, and the periodic tolling of the “Bell of Mindfulness.”
The Cupellis decide to rent a cabin at the Discerning Wolverine, and immerse themselves in the daily work of the community in hopes of finding some clue to Veronica’s fate. This plan upsets Jonas Lundquist, a part-time member of the Wolverine community and a chemistry professor at the local university, who insists that Veronica left the Wolverine alive and well. A woman from the nearby Champions of Possibility commune, Angela Tramontana, seems attracted to Mike, but also anxious to get the brothers to give up their search. With the help of two other women from the Discerning Wolverine, Tillie and Starr, the brothers locate a tremendous field of Datura, otherwise known as “moonflower,” and later an ambitious plot to cultivate and mass distribute the unregulated, highly hallucinogenic, and toxic plant, which they discover Lundquist has been studying in search of a way to make it less dangerous to use.
While most of their suspicions center on Lundquist it becomes less certain whether he is the mastermind or an unwitting participant in a major new illegal drug scheme. The deeper the Cupelli Brothers probe into the secrets of the Discerning Wolverine, the more they recognize that to find Veronica Teuma and save her, and themselves as well, they will have to figure out which if any of the members of the two intentional communities they can actually trust with their lives.
Tony was worried about Veronica. She had given him the times when it would be okay to call at the Discerning Wolverine, which weren’t many, and she had warned him that sometimes even those would be inappropriate, if, for example, the “Bell of Mindfulness” had just been rung. Still, he had called five times in the last twenty-four hours, all at times Veronica had said were permissible, and she hadn’t answered one call. Multiple texts had also gone unanswered. Tony was set to try yet again when his father called out to him.
“Hey, Tony, get your head out of the refrigerator for a minute and come in here, will ya?”His father yelling at him was as familiar to Tony as the rest of this house in Queens where he had grown up, from the Sacred Heart picture of Jesus staring at him from the door out of the kitchen to the dusty chandelier whose lights never all worked at the same time, which he passed in the dining room on the way to see what Angelo Cupelli wanted from him in the living room. He moved quickly since he was home for the day precisely to keep an eye on his elderly parents until his sister Beatrice returned from work. His urgency seemed unwarranted when his father looked at him calmly, pointed to the television and asked:
“Who’s this one guy there?”
“That’s Kirk Douglas, no?”
“No, not him. Sure that’s Douglas, but who’s the other guy, the stocky one?”
“I don’t know. He looks a little familiar, but I don’t know his name.”
“Geez, I thought you knew everything,” Angelo chuckled. “Ain’t he the guy from that old show, you know, the one with the, oh, yeah, The Life of Reilly, right?”
“That’s a little before my time, Dad.”
“You ain’t never seen the reruns?”
“Maybe, I guess, but I still don’t know the guy’s name.”
“Big help you are.”
“Well, I can be. These days you can find out about anything, and quick. What’s the name of the movie?”
“How should I know? I just put it on.”
“Do you recognize it, Mom?” Tony asked his mother, who was listening to both men with a look that registered even a little more annoyance than usual.
“No, why would I? I don’t even like detective movies, but you know your father—anything with a gun in it.”
“Sorry, Mom. Maybe it doesn’t have too much longer to go?”
“I don’t think it’s close to ending, but how would we know that? It was on already when I found it. Plus we don’t get the Guide no more since we got all these cable channels. I mean, who can keep up?” Angelo said.
“Well, here, give me the remote and I’ll show you something. Look, anytime you want to know what show is on, just push this arrow and then it’ll tell you the name of the movie and even tell you how much longer it’s got. Plus push it again and it will tell you what’s on next.”
Tony pushed the arrow, found Detective Story, with more than an hour to go, with The Strange Loves of Martha Ivers to follow. It must be Kirk Douglas noir film day on TCM Tony thought, but decided not to share that news with his mother.
“So, look, on this smart phone here now I can google Detective Story and we can find out the whole cast in a second.”
“Nah, don’t do me no favors,” Angelo responded.
“Because it ain’t smart, it’s stupid.”
“Everything now’s gotta be computers. You can’t watch a movie or ,say, argue over who hit the most homers in 1959 without you or one of your sisters running to find out on the computer, which they even have now in your telephones. That’s a stupid phone, not a smart one.”
“So wondering and not finding out or just sitting here arguing is better somehow?”
“Yes, believe it or not, wise guy, it is. Why ain’t it better to have a conversation, to use your brain, test your memory? I’ll figure this out in a second; I don’t need no computer.”
Tony was accustomed to his father’s famous stubbornness, which he traced back proudly to his Calabrese heritage, people so known for being thick-headed that they had sayings about them all over Italy, but this seemed sillier than usual to him. But before he could get to pointing that out, Angelo blurted:
“Bendix. William Bendix, that’s who it is.”
Once he said the name Tony knew his father was right. “How’d that come to you?”
Angelo Cupelli’s eyes twinkled with self-satisfaction as he explained:
“I was thinking of that time we was watching an old movie, that war picture with Brando and Dean Martin and that tall blonde that was married to Sammy Davis for about two minutes, and you kept complaining about your stomach, and your mother there, she said you wasn’t never one to complain so it must be something serious, and, me, I didn’t want to hear it. I figured you’d just eaten too much, like usual, plus it was a pretty good movie, so we waited till the next day and you was feeling even worse and they said it was your appendix, it almost burst, and old Dr. Meltz was mad at us for waiting too long, which I guess was only fair, plus he was a good doctor, not like today when they won’t ever come to your house—as if they’re afraid they’re gonna catch whatever you got. But, anyway, I always felt bad about that, but you came through it okay, thank God.”
Tony was used to his father’s style, so his eyes were registering more amusement than frustration as he asked. “What the heck does any of that have to do with this movie?”
“Again you’re not listening. Appendix—Bendix! For some reason this guy was making me think of that time with your appendix, which is, I guess because it rhymes—and you, you’re the one that likes poetry, but I figured it out. See, that’s how you figure something out.”
“But, Dad, I mean, seriously.”
“I am serious. Sometimes it’s better to just figure things out for yourself.”
Tony retreated back to the kitchen. Before he called Veronica, though, he could not resist looking up Detective Story and William Bendix, somehow to confirm what he already knew was true, followed by a quick investigation toward discovering that it was Eddie Matthews who had led the major leagues in home runs in 1959 with 46. He then could not help thinking what a great trivia question his father had supplied him with, since most people would probably guest Aaron or Mays or Mantle for that honor. Now feeling guilty about the delay, Tony put his phone to its most fundamental use to call Veronica Teuma, off somewhere in the wilds of northeast Missouri, at some intentional community. Her cell phone rang five times, two more and it would go to message, but this time a voice interrupted the ringing. A woman’s voice. But it was not Veronica’s.
“Yes, hello.” The voice was soft and might have passed for soothing if it hadn’t surprised Tony by its unfamiliarity.
“Hello, who is this please? I’m calling to speak to Veronica Teuma.”
“Oh, hello, Moonflower,” Tony responded to a name that seemed too stereotyped not to be real. “This is Veronica’s cell isn’t it? Can I speak to her?”
“No, I can’t speak to her? Why not?”
“No, not that. My name isn’t Moonflower.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said it was.” Tony was quickly getting the impression that this woman was maybe high on something other than life.
“Well, it isn’t. You asked about Veronica, right? So I told you ‘moonflower.’ Don’t you get it? She’s flying, flying now.”
“Flying? How? Where? She’s left Missouri?”
The woman giggled. “Yes, yes, I bet she has, although I can’t say for sure, of course.”
“I don’t understand. Is there someone else I could talk to, Miss, Miss….”
“Kissed by the moonflower. Don’t worry. It’s beautiful, wonderful—not like before. I’m going to fly soon again myself, but I wanted her to have her turn, and I—hey, hey that’s mine; I found it, I…”
The woman’s last words were interrupted, the last few barely audible. It seemed someone had wrested the phone away from her.
“Hello. Hello. Who is this now? I’m calling for Veronica Teuma. Excuse me, I…”
The phone went dead. Tony hastily called the number again. It didn’t go to message. Veronica Teuma’s cell phone did not ring at all.