Closer to Heaven
Richard Stim has written for Newsday, Interview, Spin Magazine, AudioFile, and California Living. He is the author of numerous legal books and a middle-grade mystery series, and he is a founding member of two bands, MX-80 Sound and Angel Corpus Christi. He lives with his wife in a houseboat in Sausalito.
In the 1970s I worked as the HOT LINE editor at the Butterworth Daily Telephone
(circulation 22,000). HOT LINE provided answers to readers’ questions. Typical queries might be: What kind of guns were used in the Gary Gilmore execution? Where is the statue of Christ in the Ozarks? How can I get cat pee off my carpet? Think of HOT LINE like a pre-Internet version of Google … that is if Google took weeks to answer a question, or sometimes didn’t bother answering at all.
In my early weeks as HOT LINE editor, I encouraged readers and sympathized with their problems, but that proved to be too time-consuming. The southern Indiana callers liked to chat and often repeated themselves. So, to save time, I dropped the hand-holding approach and perfected a dispassionate tone, absent any hint of sympathy or encouragement. By April, 1977, when Joan Lee Henderson called, my voice was flat as a pancake.
“HOT LINE,” I said.
“This is HOT LINE?” she asked. “You don’t sound too excited about it. You seem like you couldn’t care less.”
“What's your question?”
“This is Joan Lee Henderson. I live here in town and my question is this. Can a tenant stop paying rent just because the landlord died? We have a tenant who stopped paying rent four months ago when my husband died. This tenant says his rental contract is with my husband not me, and that under the law, he’s … ” She took a moment to find the word. “He’s… exonerated.”
“Have you tried evicting him?” I asked.
“He told me not to bring the law on the property and that if I started any trouble, he would finish it.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I think he’s on drugs.”
Joan’s plight—a widow frightened by her tenant—had more urgency than the typical HOT LINE, so I spoke to a sympathetic deputy sheriff who paid a visit to the tenant. The next day, the deputy called to say that the tenant was gone. Also, the deputy had a HOT LINE question of his own. Could a man fit inside the Statue of Liberty’s nose? I worked it into that day’s HOT LINE column.
Rats in White House
QUESTION - I have heard that the White House has a rodent problem and that some animals have even been spotted in the Oval Office. Could HOT LINE please check? W.L., Butterworth.
ANSWER - Yes, according to Associated Press reports, rodents were spotted in the Oval Office during the meeting between President Carter and Crown Prince Fahd. The outbreak is due to the construction of a subway near Pennsylvania Avenue. Precautions have been taken to keep the animals away.
QUESTION - Can HOT LINE find out if the singer Dolly Parton has recently had any medical operations? If so, were the operations successful? L.K., Elletsville.
ANSWER - According to the public relations department at Dolly’s record company, the “Jolene” singer has not had any recent operations. Dolly’s new album, Here You Come Again, will be out soon, and she’ll be performing in Indianapolis on July 14.
QUESTION - Is the nose on the Statue of Liberty big enough for a man to fit inside?
ANSWER - According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the nose on the Statue of Liberty is not hollow so a man cannot fit inside. The nose is four feet in height, and two and a half feet at its widest point.
No Free Rent
QUESTION - My tenant hasn’t paid rent ever since my husband died four months ago. He says that under the contract he’s only obligated to pay my husband. What can I do? J.H. Butterworth.
ANSWER - Attorney Ron Feldon said that the tenant is incorrect. The agreement makes you a “successor” to your husband and the rent should be paid to you. This may be a moot point, because the Sheriff’s Department told HOT LINE that the property is now vacant. For more information on evicting tenants, the county clerk has a guide, “This Place Ain’t Free: Indiana Eviction Procedure.”
* * *
Joan Lee Henderson would have faded into the sea of HOT LINE callers but for an unexpected development. She called to thank me for getting rid of her tenant and she confided that she was wary of renting again unless she could rent to someone reliable … like me.
“Why do you think I’m reliable?” I said.
“You write HOT LINE six days a week,” she said. “That’s reliable. You’re the one who writes it, right?”
“And from what I can tell, you’re smart, and fair.”
Like an actor might be confused with his part, Joan was confusing me with my job. She offered to rent me her property—a two-bedroom/one-bath house—for $125 a month. I turned her down, politely. It wasn’t much of a savings from my then-current rent.
That’s when Joan offered to sell me her house for $12,500. Again, I was wary and thought something was odd about her misplaced gratitude. And again, I turned down the offer.
But for reasons known only to herself, Joan persisted. She had a real estate agent call me and offer to sweeten the deal: I could buy the house for $12,000 on a ten-year loan-to-own contract, no down payment, no bank or mortgage company, and an interest rate of 4.5% (the fixed rate mortgage at the time was twice as much). “Just take a look at the place,” said the agent.
I toured the house with the agent, and except for a hole punched in the wall, the place was in good shape. In fact, it was in much better shape than my current digs, it was in a nicer neighborhood, and my monthly payments would be less than my rent.
“You’ll need to get that gutter fixed,” said the agent. About six feet of gutter hung down from the roof, almost touching the patio. “That’s where it happened.”
“Where what happened?”
“The accident. He was fixing the roof when the ladder went over.”
“Yeah, Buck,” said the agent, pointing to a faded brown stain on the patio. “Poor guy went over head first.”
We walked to the sidewalk in front of the house.
“It’s a damn good deal … you know that, right?” said the agent.
“Why does she want me?” I asked.
“She’s sentimental about the house. She and Buck lived here for years, and it’s where he died.”
“But why me?”
“She trusts you and she thinks you’re honest.”
When the real estate agent dropped off the contract, it had two additional conditions: (1) Buyer will personally deliver the monthly payments to Seller; and (2) Buyer agrees to answer all of Seller’s HOT LINE questions.
I was okay with the first condition—I assumed Joan was lonely and wanted visitors—but the second condition, the unlimited HOT LINEs, wasn’t going to work for me. There had to be a cap on the questions, so we settled on four HOT LINEs a month.
“This is a material condition of the contract,” said the agent. “If you don’t answer her HOT LINEs, you lose the house.”
“I don’t think that’s legal,” I said.
The agent shrugged. “I’m not a lawyer but it seems fair to me.”
I signed the contract.
Read more of “Closer to Heaven” in the print edition of Issue 153.
Vanessa Hua's Commentary
“Closer to Heaven” intrigues us from the start, with questions in a small-town advice column—The Hot Line—that reveal much about a community in southern Indiana and its editor, a loyal and reliable sort of guy attempting to be of service in the world. The setting is evocative, and the dialogue funny and memorable. One of the editor’s biggest fans strikes an unusual deal with him. The Hot Line questions, which are interspersed throughout, are by turns quirky, poignant, and dark until the final ones force us to consider the mystery within each person, the nature of loneliness, the ache for connection, and the meaning of family.
in conversation with
How long did it take to complete this story from initial spark to the final published version? What were the most challenging passages to write or revise?
I pulled Joan from the wreckage of a novel I had abandoned in 2018. In the novel, Joan was killed in the nursing home as part of a cover-up. When I made Joan the star of her own story, I needed a new reason for her death; and once I figured that out, I wrote the story in a month—borrowing the nursing-home setting, the dogwood tree, Velma the nurse, and the HOT LINE character from the novel. The challenging bits were drafting all the new additions: Joan’s daughter, son-in-law, husband Buck, the real-estate agent and the family’s backstory.
What was the genesis of this concept, or your creative “entry point” into the heart of this story? Was it the nature of HOT LINE’s profession, Joan’s conflict, or a particular scene?
The entry point for me was the “pee so green” sequence in the nursing home. I worked in a nursing home in southern Indiana for a year and that’s where I witnessed the manner in which patients like Joan, after a lifetime of humiliation, were humbled and demeaned by their final caretakers. Her pact with HOT LINE lets Joan battle with her humiliators.
The naming convention of HOT LINE serves interchangeably between the identity of the narrator and the printed column he writes. As the story advances, the line separating the character and the occupation practically disappears, as if the two have synthesized into one state of being. Was there a point where a different alias for HOT LINE was considered or was this choice fixed early in the drafting phase?
Patricia Highsmith has said that humiliation is one way of attracting sympathy for a character. Originally, I gave the narrator what I believed was a humiliating surname—Stuart. But that was a bad choice and the character seemed to rebel against subsequent choices. Giving him a surname seemed to split his personality. So, I gave up on the surname and referred to him only as HOT LINE. Like the tattooed character in Elmore Leonard’s “The Tonto Woman,” HOT LINE has been named by the community. Once I made that decision, I had an easier time with the narrative.
Who was the more challenging to develop: Joan or HOT LINE? How did they alchemize into their final published versions from earlier drafts?
The challenge I had with Joan was to reveal her small-mindedness without turning her unlikeable. HOT LINE was more difficult to develop because he seemed to have secrets that are not revealed. The challenge with both characters was to avoid going for the laughs or for irony. Both of them say funny things but neither one is comedic.
HOT LINE serves as an interesting contrast to the jaded and cynical newspaperman archetype. In many ways he is an uncomplicated, passive character made morally complex by the nature of his profession and transformed by his unique relationship with Joan. He is reminiscent of a priest without faith fielding the congregation’s confessions. Yet by the end, HOT LINE does become an agent of external change. How did you modulate HOT LINE’s initial indifference toward his readership with his burgeoning fealty to Joan? Was this journey outlined or was it revealed through the process of writing?
The characters had minds of their own and my outlines were useless. HOT LINE’s initial indifference toward his readership is his way of coping with his outsider status. But when he chooses to enter into a relationship with Joan, he begins what Martin Buber might call an “I-Thou” relation—a nonjudgmental association that (despite Joan’s sin) affirms a spirituality in both of them. Two short stories that inspired and revealed this direction to me were Bernard Malamud’s “Angel Levine” and O. Henry’s “The Last Leaf.” And in a similar manner, Nathaniel West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts” pointed me to a spiritual resolution.
There are many references to Christianity in the story, especially in regard to HOT LINE’s role as a sort of “savior” for Joan. In the context of the narrative, the HOT LINE responses could be considered as a kind of small-town gospel. In line with this, Joan’s arc could be considered as a kind of parable in the HOT LINE doctrine. The story’s culminating series of questions from Joan function as a confession of sin. Were these religious references included from the very beginning of the writing process or were they woven in over time? What was your creative philosophy toward balancing these aspects of religious iconography?
The religious references were always part of Joan’s story. I imagined that as a Christian who didn’t question God’s motives or existence, she found herself unhinged by her own sin. What kind of God would permit her to behave so badly? How could she seek forgiveness without confessing? Her secret made her an outsider.
HOT LINE is also an outsider, a Jew among a Christian community, and at some level of mutual outsider-ness, he connects with Joan. When HOT LINE’s actions later result in the nursing home windows opening (allowing for Joan’s departure), HOT LINE truly has become Joan’s savior. She leaves her confession (and her gratitude) under her pillow.
How did you determine the modulation and inclusion of the question-and-answer interludes? Although the inclusions alternate between eccentric, hostile, practical, and spiritual, they all register as complementary to the tone of the story. Are there any questions you particularly enjoyed that didn’t make the final version, whether for pacing purposes or tonal consistency?
I have a big fear of losing the reader’s attention, so I often used HOT LINE items like spices, sprinkling them for flavor. About half of the questions are actual letters sent to me when I worked as HOT LINE editor at a southern Indiana daily (where I also wrote obituaries and TV listings). The rest of the HOT LINEs were written for the story. I had many real letters that I didn’t use and which could also become the basis for stories. Maybe someday.