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I began to follow Zeke’s ice-store directions as I recalled them, driving just below the 25 mph limit. Within a couple of blocks I saw the fire department sport ute in my mirrors, pacing me about a third of a block back. I took a few turns off my route to verify that it was actually following me and found myself heading back to the highway, still north of the store’s represented location. Near the highway I pulled into a feed store parking lot on my right and hung a quick U, to face the street I’d come on. The sport ute went by, the driver not looking at me, and I headed back into town the way I’d come.
Within half a mile the sport ute was behind me again, but I was getting near the main commercial area of the towns and the surveillance no longer seemed threatening. When I turned into the street that lead to what appeared to be the main grocery store, a small supermarket, the SUV didn’t follow. At the entrance to the store parking lot there was an FLDS-uniformed  man on a radio, not looking at me. I eased past the front of the store, looking for parking and there was a second FLDS man leaning into the driver’s door of a different SUV. As I passed, I saw the inscription on the passenger door: “Town Marshal.” I parked and walked back toward the marshal’s vehicle. The FLDS man looked up and asked brightly, “What can I do for you?”
“Just getting some ice,” I said, walking up to the outside ice chest. I looked at the size of the bags, 8 lbs., and then walked into the store. Other than one woman who walked in just ahead of me, holding a young boy by the hand, everyone in the store wore the FLDS uniforms. I meandered a bit, looking at the selection and the prices, and when I turned toward the front of the store around a display rack, there was the FLDS man from the marshal’s SUV. “What can I help you with?” he said, smiling broadly.
“Everyone here is so helpful and friendly,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Frederick,” he said. “I’m an assistant manager. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Just getting some ice,” I said. “What did the marshal want?”
“Oh, nothing,” Frederick said. “We were just talking.”
At the check-out stand I pre-paid for a bag of ice with a credit card and told the check-out girl – extroverted, perhaps 15, pimples and, of course, in the uniform – that I needed a receipt because the marshal was out there and I didn’t think he liked my earring, showing her my recent left-ear piercing. She laughed warmly, a young girl being generous with an old man. “Well, if he gives you any trouble, you just tell him Nancy sold you the ice.”
Outside, the marshal was gone but as I walked away from the store with my bag of ice, the FLDS man from the parking lot entrance was there, now standing near my car, facing away and just lowering his radio. “Can I help you with anything?” he said, turning toward me as I approached.
I decided my melting ice could wait and I walked up to him. “My name’s Skip,” I said. “What’s yours?”
He smiled broadly, not in an overtly phony way, but in the way our Mike Harrison, back in the day, used to call a “shit-eating grin.” “Robert Feldston,” he said.
“Robert,” I said, “this is the friendliest town I’ve ever been in. Everybody’s on a radio and everybody wants to help me. Well, everybody but Zeke. It’s like people are on their radios saying, ‘Here comes Skip; see if you can help him.’ What’s going on?”
He gave me the big grin again but didn’t answer. “What was the marshal here about?” I asked. “Frederick didn’t want to tell me.”
“We had a report of someone taking pictures in the parking lot,” Robert said, matter-of-factly, as though the legal import of such behavior were obvious.
“Well,” I said when it became clear that no other explanation would be forthcoming, “it is a particularly charming parking lot,” letting my gaze sweep the nondescript asphalt, “but why would the marshal be interested in that?”
“People like their privacy,” Robert said, “and don’t want to see their picture on the cover of Time magazine.”
I held my arms out to show him I wasn’t packing a camera or any other recording device. I decided against the clever retort ‘Nobody reads Time magazine any more’ and opted for “Why would anyone want to take pictures in your parking lot?”
“Well,” he said, after a contemplative pause, “we have this peculiar religion and people sometimes come around taking pictures.” I was intrigued by his choice of the adjective “peculiar” and we launched into a 25-minute discussion of religion, pop culture, media bias and criminal law, all while my ice continued to melt. He seemed well-read and not overly defensive; it turned out that he was the manager of the supermarket.
At one opening between subjects in our discussion, I asked abruptly, “What do you hear from Warren?” assuming he would know that I was referring to their “Prophet” Warren Jeffs, now serving that long, Texas criminal sentence.
He paused again. And didn’t give me the grin. “This isn’t a conversation for a public parking lot,” he said. I wondered if he would talk more openly to me in his home and thought briefly about how that might be arranged. Part of me wanted to hang around and have a shot at that. But life, plans and obligations beckoned.
“Why not?” I said. “We’re here. Nobody’s listening to us.” (Or are they? I thought.) “Have you heard anything since his bad luck in Texas?”
Robert’s look became quite serious. “It wasn’t bad luck,” he said. “It was religions persecution.” We then discussed the dominant culture’s religious attitudes at some length. Basically, Robert agreed that governments have a legitimate right to prescribe a minimum female age, below which we guys could not legally have sex with them. (I had assured him that, from an evolutionary perspective, I appreciated the attraction of young female skin, to which his only response was the big grin.) His criticism of the Texas prosecution of Jeffs was not with this right, but because he understood and believed that the Texas legislature had openly changed their child sex laws in response to the establishment of the FLDS “Yearning For Zion Ranch” compound there. He saw this as pure-and-simple, unconstitutional religious persecution. While I was ignorant of the legislative history of the subject Texas statutes, his position did not seem absurd to me.
At another point I asked him if he knew “Zeke.” “I know a number of Zekes,” he said, but he was equivocal about knowing the one who guarded the “clinic.”
I said, “Well, you can’t miss him. He seems to be the only unfriendly guy in this town. By the way, what kind of a clinic is that anyway?”
The big grin. “Just a regular clinic,” Robert said.
I looked at him. We had, it seemed to me, established some sort of minimal bond of trust, particularly after I disclosed to him that I, too, was a holder of a “peculiar” and deeply disliked, even hated, minority worldview: atheism. “Robert,” I said, “What sort of regular clinic needs high walls, guards and a carded gate?”
“Patients have a right to privacy,” he offered, without enthusiasm.
“Here’s what I think,” I said, “and you don’t have to answer.” Then, mischievously, “Just blink twice for Yes, once for No.” The big grin. “I think this is a clinic for prenatal, postnatal and other Ob-Gyn care, where the women patients will never be asked who their husband is or how many wives he has.”
The grin continued and I had to say, “Ha. You blinked twice.” He didn’t stop grinning.
Toward the end of our discussion, I told Robert that it appeared to me that I had been followed by a fire department vehicle since I first drove past the clinic. I said I could appreciate that as a clever and non-threatening approach, to use a fire vehicle to do moving surveillance, and did he know anything about that? The big grin, but no answer.
When I sensed that I had presumed upon him long enough, I said I had to get my melting ice into my ice chest, and I moved toward my car. He came with me and we talked while I emptied out the old water and dumped in the new ice. At some point earlier in our discussion, to exemplify the needlessness of any supernatural agent in a human moral scheme, I had claimed to be one who acted on at least a somewhat elevated moral plane. As one moral aspect of my behavior, I told him that I didn’t litter. And when I asked him where I could throw the plastic bag the ice had come in, he said, “Here, I’ll take it.”
I watched him walk toward the front of the supermarket with my crumpled-up plastic bag in his hand, and he did not seem to me to be some foolish dupe of a goofy religious fantasy or a sex-crazed harem master, but just another guy trying to get by in a world that didn’t quite make sense to him.
As I drove out of town back to the highway, I was not followed.
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