On a March day in the year 1980 a traveler stopped beside a sign posted in a vacant lot which read "The best grasses are variegated." In another area, or at another time perhaps, it could have been a warning against trespassing; but here, on the outskirts of this small quaint town tucked away behind its variegated grasses, hedges, forests, houses, factories, stores, out buildings; here, where the road itself seemed to reflect the apparent respect for variegation, or mimic it, or satirize it, macadam mixed indiscriminately with concrete, perhaps patchwork of one by the other, both indistinguishable as road base, clumped and caked dirt, brittle slivers of wood blown from nearby trees having cracked open, even a gentle matting of precious variegated grasses; here, sitting in the middle of a plot of ground perhaps an acre or so, sparse earth, its bluegrass, its green, its crabgrass and whatever else slowly balding, upturned pebbles like flakes of dandruff showing every passer-by an aging lot's embarrassment -- here, there could be no fear of trespassing, nothing to post a warning for. It was just a sign, somebody's idea of a good one; it handed out perfectly, without cost, to anybody who cared to read it this notable information: like a public service, to make one a little the wiser when considering his own landscaping. No one could be faulted for not practicing what his sign preached: these grasses followed its instruction scrupulously; but a most literal translation of its wisdom, and apparently it application, had done very little toward effecting a beautiful landscape, or else some more sinister means had been fast at work undermining the scheme. It would be a sad day, the traveler resting himself before continuing his journey thought, if the land did not lend itself to variegation; or, worse still, if the message displayed itself falsely -- if in fact the best grasses were not variegated. Now that was something worthy of regret, that somebody should follow a sign so zealously, should exert so much effort seeking to bring what was inherently barren to fruition. But then perhaps it worked elsewhere, and only here failed: something in the soil perhaps. The traveler was tired; and, in spite of everything, found himself impressed with this nearly ruined lot. He could not for the life of him imagine a bad person responsible for such a sign, or such a lot -- or such an odd looking section of road, or, beyond the bend, what he could see of it from here, such an unpicturesque town. No, it did not have the look or the feel of evil; it had simply the aspect of a vacant lot, though he doubted its vacancy. And far from repelling him, he eagerly looked forward to a closer look, once he had rested.
He took the time to undo his collar; the need to accomplish which did not surprise him, in March, where a chilly day held nothing inimical to a traveler becoming suddenly quite warm in the Spring sun. He knew March, he had traveled it before: The March Circuit, he called it, never taking the time to think through exactly what he meant by the term; it sounded good to him. He had once worked for the government and in the course of traveling had come upon the term circuitous routing, something considerable and always subject to proper authorization; the term half stuck in his memory, primarily once a year, March, when fortune seemed to take him by the hand and set him, like now, in the middle of nowhere on a road headed, from where: he could not remember; to where: he could not know. That he was once again on The Circuit was about all he dared vouch for. The button had come loose, part of its string stuck out, any day now he could expect to say goodbye to that button. One time or another in his life he had toyed with becoming a button collector - he never doubted there was such an occupation; they surely went, those buttons - happy must be the man who could round them all up, resell them to their proper owners - since one could never find a true match. Happy the owners, to get them back. Just an ordinary white button - ha! he thought, anything but ordinary! There is an infinity of shades of ordinary white buttons. He had to turn at this point and give the sign a pat. "Maybe," he said, "there is more than passing wisdom in you after all." The button would have to go, regardless; to leave it was to risk losing it. "There," he said. He put it in his pocket.
He felt more comfortable, a little cooler, though one always had to take care not to become too cool along The March Circuit. It took him through the most temperate of regions, therefore the most changeable: it was one of those strange misnomers. His shirt, a plaid wool giving out red as its base color, some blacks and greens and browns and yellows and a healthy addition of white addressing the world from that base - his shirt was of a common variety; it could be bought at a country general store, in a retail department chain, in a regular haberdashery, even in a specialty shop. It was in the fashion of what people think of as The Old West: who knew or cared what they really wore? It was the idiom people sought in life; that was as near as they could come to the real thing. He noticed some of the trees beginning to come out, a good mixture of types; same with the shrubbery. Variegation again
"Do I go into town?" he asked, not seriously, but just for talk. Of course I'll go, he answered silently. "Town town all around. No, that's not right." He was about to make a poem, but it did not seem to be working out. "Town town everywhere. No, that's even worse. I'm a traveler, kind of a troubadour, I'm supposed to be able to make up a poem everywhere I stop. So who's lot is this anyway? my little feet must think it queer."
Suddenly from the bushes came this warning: "Hold it right there mister and don't make a move or say a word. Freeze. And if you have a gun, I wouldn't try it! I've got a beady eye on you from up here." The passer-by slowly raised his hands as they did in the Old West when accosted, outnumbered and at the mercy of desperadoes. Even before the reference to "up here" where there was a clear rustling in the bushes low to the ground gave it all away, the tiny voice helped set his mind at ease. He raised his hands anyway, played along. He froze like a jackrabbit. In a minute, out from the bushes came a little boy attired as his town's deputy marshal - kids being always the deputy, never the marshal, everyone knowing which was really the more exciting occupation, else why give it an additional word?
"You can drop 'em," the boy said, "but if old man Hicks sees you in his lot he'll shoot first and then have me question you."
"You the sheriff?" the stranger asked.
The boy seemed insulted. He pointed to his badge. "I'm the deputy," he pointed out. Incredibly - maybe it was the setting, or the sign, or the crazy March air, but somehow the boy's response seemed like a true statement.
"Where is this place?" the stranger asked.
The boy's eyes lowered, to a slit, his brow wrinkled every muscle in his face. He was seven, he spoke softly now. "You are entering Nowheresville, your honor," he said with deep intensity. Then he thought a moment and grew more intent; he shook his head. "Not your honor," he corrected himself, "I didn't mean to say that. I was just talking to the judge and the name stuck. What is your name?"
The boy seemed caught here between eagerness to tell his name and reluctance to compromise the oath of anonymity he had seen fit to take as a necessary part of his deputization. His eagerness won out. "Abraham Roosevelt Johnson Specialton the third," he announced. "By the way mister are you looking for a wife? Because if you are, my big sister's been talking about getting married lately and running off to New York. She's one of those people who one minute you can't hardly stand the sight of, then she'll say something to make you laugh. Life'd be like a roller coaster with her, mister, you'd end up having to slit her throat or yours." The boy made a face and put his hands to his throat as if to secure it from such a happening: one could never tell what might come out of the bushes. "Do you believe in lions and tigers?" the boy asked.
"Yes, I do."
"Me too. I heard 'em one night and I wrote the zoo to see if any escaped. That's been a month and I haven't heard back yet. Oh!" he suddenly exclaimed, "look what the cats drug in!"
Along came a little girl of about ten, conveying her dolls and what appeared to be a baseball glove in a red wagon. "Hey sis," the boy called to her.
"I cannot talk now," the girl answered, "I'm practicing to be a famous fashion model. I must throw my head in the air -" here she almost giggled "- and carry on. "So au revoir mon frere," she said.
Her little brother tried to roll his eyes, and he made gestures to suggest his sister had lost her sanity. "Before you run off you might be interested to meet the man who wants to marry you," he informed her. He went on to explain how the stranger would be willing to give his life for her if need be and that he could be counted on to kill any man who stood between them.
"But I can't be tied down," the girl explained, "I'm going to New York, to be a fashion model with the Ford Agency." With this she walked on.
Again the boy made the faces and gestures. "Did you get that?" he asked, then burst out laughing. "Crazy as a bed bug. And you know where she gets that from? From me. She's so dumb, no one can tell her anything. There's no Ford Agency. You want to know where she gets that? From me. She's so dumb. I have my model cars I put together, and they just all happen to be Fords. You see what she does? She's confused my model cars with her model agency! My Ford models, little plastic cars for kids, and it makes her so confused she thinks there's a model agency named Ford for real people! Isn't that dumb for you? And if you should happen not to believe me mister, you just go check right with her teacher at school how poorly she does in English comprehension. She is number three hundred on the totem pole in a class of fifteen or twenty, that's how bad she is. How's anyone going to give her a job as a model when they can't understand what she's saying? Did you ever have model cars when you were a kid?"
"Yes," the stranger replied. He had had them, he remembered them well. He used to paint them, and the figures especially, the people who rode in them.
"I race 'em," the boy said, jumping down on his hands and knees to demonstrate. He moved all along a pathway which took him from the lot into the road and back again, cutting a rough quarter moon worth of demonstration. He spoke while he showed how he might race his model cars. "That's if I ever get 'em together right," he explained. "They have too many parts. Rrrm! Crrrash! Rrrrr! Sometimes I just say 'it doesn't need this part' and throw it away. Rrrm, rrrm! I could really get 'em to go if I'd get 'em together. Once I got so mad - so mad - rrrr! - that I took my model and threw it against the wall and smashed it into a triple zillion pieces. Mom called upstairs 'What was that precious?' So I really had to think quick - Scrrreeech! 'It was the cat burglar mom!' I said. 'He broke in and busted up my model 'cause he couldn't find no jewelry!' 'Oh,' she said. Vrrom, vrrom! 'Where is he now?' 'Oh he's gone,' I said. Was that quick thinking, huh? Crraasch! Oh boy could I ever run those cars!"
The boy suddenly jumped up. He happened to look down at the knees of his pants. "Oh no," he moaned.
"Look," said the boy. "My pants. Oh no. Look at these, they're all scraped, mom'll never understand. Hey mister, you have to promise you won't tell her. Please? Don't tell my mom."
"How will you explain it?" the stranger asked.
The boy puzzled a moment. "I've got it," he announced. "You can say maybe you knocked me down and tried to kill me or something, she'd go for that, I'm sure she will. Will you? Tell her you attacked me?"
The stranger shook his head. No, he didn't believe he had better do that. Perhaps some other tactic, for instance saying the boy simply fell and scraped his knees. The boy doubted that would work; no, she'd see right through that he was afraid. "Maybe she won't notice," the stranger suggested.
"No," the boy said. "Maybe I'll take 'em off, say I lost 'em. I don't have underpants on today either, sometimes I just don't feel like wearing underpants. Just to be mean. And some kids in my class dared me. Did anyone ever dare you?"
"Uh, once in a while," the stranger admitted.
"Do you think there really are cat burglars in this town?" the boy asked.
"You mean who bust up model cars?"
"Oh my poor pants," the boy moaned.
"Maybe you shouldn't have demonstrated how you'd race your cars," the stranger suggested.
"How will you ever learn if no one ever shows you anything?" the stranger was asked. "That's the first law of school, you learn by example. But oh these pants, mom is going to be so mad. Soo mad! She likes me to take care of my clothes, the way she takes care of everything in our house. That's why she was so relieved that the cat burglar didn't steal anything. I don't want to boast mister, but we really have some nice things in our house. I mean really really nice. You wouldn't believe some of the things if I told you. God they're nice. I'd run away from home if I ever broke anything. they're really just that nice - that nice. Not that I'd be afraid to invite you over, because I wouldn't. You know why? It's because I like your shirt. My grandpa has one just like it. He always wears it all the time. They even buried him in it, otherwise I'd think you have his. Did you ever have a grandpa who wore that kind of shirt?"
Yes, he had had just such a grandpa. The boy assured him that was good news any day of the week. And did the stranger miss his grandpa too? Yes, he certainly did. And had they buried him in the ground or thrown him into a furnace? In the ground. Well, that was the best place for them, they were more at home there. And did he know, this stranger, that for everyone there was his very own little piece of ground, already marked and everything? He had guessed as much. By the way too, if he were hungry, he knew a great place to eat - that is, if he was hungry.
"I am," the stranger admitted. "Very hungry, in fact."
The boy knew how that felt, he too was very hungry - especially for a really great double burger - although he could not come right out and say so since it was so near supper and, besides, he had no money. Anyway, he had to use the bathroom, only you couldn't use the restaurant's bathroom unless you first ordered something. And him with no money! Could you beat that? That really took the cake, didn't it? Hungry, and having to use the bathroom - not only that, but Number Two to boot! - yet no money. Of all the luck. Unless of course....
"But money from a stranger?" the passer-by asked. "Was he not cautioned about such things? Well, yes, he had been; and no, he could not take the money - and him having to go to the bathroom so bad too! - but, as long as it was legal, he might accept a double burger from a stranger. And, incidentally, just to make conversation as they walked, did the stranger ever have to do both "one" and "two" together? because he never did. That was one thing about him: he never did.
"I'll go in and sit, and then ten minutes later I'll be back again to do number one! Even when I was a baby, and my mom changed me, I'd mess my diaper then turn right around and have to pee. Mister, you are looking at one mixed-up kid! Not to mention a pretty hungry kid!"
And how far was it to the restaurant?
"Oh just down the road. I'd race you, but...well: I'm not so big a boy that I might not have an accident. Come on, it's not far. And talk about a double burger! You know that kid that has his own show on TV where he sells Big Mac burgers and dresses in a clown suit and has to always chase away the Hamburglar pirate? Well, he'd go crazy if he'd try one of their double burgers - he'd never be able to beat up that pirate! He'd have to slit his throat. Is that what they tried to do to you? What's that mark on your throat?"
"Oh nothing," the stranger shrugged. But he pulled his collar up tighter. "Lead the way," he said in an effort to discourage the boy's scrutiny. Let that mark be, he vowed.
Together they left the vacant lot, heading toward town. As every rough road, this one too became eventually a treadmill, difficult to traverse. Fear of stumbling, painful steps into potholes, sharp rocks poking as if by design where the shoe heel gave least resistance: these were the things encountered on the way to Nowheresville. They slowed one down. Alongside the road March made everything meek; any sharp branches seemed to have become smoothed, rounded, like fried onions; the undergrowth had softened, stickers and all, as if left overnight to soak in hand creme; the ground, the dirt, was like an HO Train mat; even the sky had had its harsh winter layers peeled off - nothing raw or threatening crossed anyone's path. March was cruel perhaps in its overall way, its driving way, but kind in its attention to minor details; it cleaned up after the sloppier seasons, just as September had a way of doing: Spring and Fall cleaning, and the world looked it and felt it.
Off somewhere were fields readying for planting; somewhere else were pastures; and there was a stream, a number of its branches watering the land for miles around. Off in the distance was what appeared to be a boat dock, an incredible sight, if that was what it was, on what seemed to be so small a stream. One way or another the stream must work its way under this road, the stranger thought as he and seven year old Abraham Roosevelt Johnson Specialton the Third followed the road into town. And sure enough, up ahead, around a bend, was a bridge. A sign warned away any traffic "In excess of one ton." It seemed to do its job, there being no traffic at all, and little sign of there ever having been any. Not a very sturdy bridge; perhaps the engineers should have allowed for greater stress. Cobwebs, even so close after winter, and it had been a severe winter, but cobwebs hung from the bridge's intricate latticework; also present, just under the roadway, visible as one made the turn onto it, were enormous wasp's nests, though the boy referred his companion's attention to them as mud diver's homes - like apartments, sort of, then laughed as he tried to picture large numbers of mud divers going up stairways, knocking on doors or ringing bells, going into the laundry room tugging their dirty clothes, and finally carrying out the garbage. He announced himself the recipient of at least a few thousand stings: he just couldn't keep away from mud divers' nests, he kept looking for honey, and it didn't matter how often he'd been told they made none, he couldn't tell them from bees - who could, they flew so fast? Could the stranger tell them apart? No, indeed, he didn't think so, no one could.
Now houses were beginning to show up. The boy began identifying each, as if naming the local variety of flowers; and there was indeed a variety, not all the houses were the same, even right next door to each other could be seen fine, big houses and tiny, slightly run down houses almost shacks. "But the best is at the far end of town" the boy declared awesomely. "Colonel and Mrs Grove's Country Club. It's really - really - exclusive! You have to be a member, and only the best families ever get asked to be members. We're going there next week on a picnic. Twice every month in nice weather they give a picnic. You can come with us if you promise not to cause any trouble, Mister. But if you're bad or you try to take your clothes off and run around or pee on old man Grove's shoe like I did, they'll send you right home! Oh there it is, there it is! See? Can you see it from here? Just over there - and wait till you taste their double burger! You'll think you died and went to heaven! See? Right next to the five and ten. You can't miss it unless your eyes are closed or if birds pecked your eyes out."
By the side of the road were huge cakes of what appeared to be salt, at least twenty lined up on either side. "I see you let your cattle roam loose," the stranger noted, thinking the salt there for the benefit of cattle. The boy looked all around, quite surprised at this; he expected to find evidence of loose cattle, but finding none his excitement turned to irritation.
"I don't see any cows," he announced in somewhat of a bad temper. "Where are they?"
"I didn't say I saw any," the stranger tried to explain, "I was just commenting on the salt."
Now the boy was truly puzzled. He went over to inspect one of the cakes, stepping carefully just in case there should be manure. "That's for our road," he explained upon resuming the journey. "It's when we have ice and snow. Salt melts it. Why would the cows eat it? Is it if they drink something too cold and get their intestines frozen, like my grandmother warned me about eating Popsicles right after coming in from the cold? Is that why they take our road salt?"
That could be it, yes, the stranger could vouch for that - why not? And did he feel that cows were dumb? Well, he preferred reserving judgment on that. He should be glad of one thing though: he did not have to reserve a seat at the restaurant! It was every man for himself there. That was good because unless the stranger missed his guess, there were two mighty hungry travelers on their way to get double burgers - right? Right!
"Welcome to Nowheresville. Please drive safely. Children at Play." The sign noting the town's existence proclaimed this information and seemed to want to proclaim a host of additional information, such as population, there being a blank space for it next to the word "Pop"'; elevation, half the word "Eleva" with almost the entire figure gone, all that was left looking like a zero and a two; and certain town oriented slogans, chiefly the town motto "Biggest little city north of the Mississippi," the words "Bigge" "North" and "sippi" its only remains. It sat on a wooden pole, a metal sign with black lettering on a white reflective background.
"How many people are there here?" the stranger inquired.
"If you include cat burglars, there's a million. I'm helping dad with the census. He's on the city council, but he don't want to run for mayor, and old man Harness's retiring. You can talk to dad about all that if you're really interested." Suddenly the boy poised to announce his hometown just as the first buildings began enveloping the traveler. "Coming up, on your right, and left, and center ring: Nowheresville, U.S.A., in the great state of The Great Lakes. The biggest little city north of the Mississippi, situated along the great air corridors where jets lag behind the speed of light on their way to the International Date Line! Do you know if you go to the International Date Line and look back you wouldn't see me because you'd be in another time?"
Indeed, was that a fact? Yes, that was. Most remarkable. And you certainly wouldn't want to place your double burger on it or you'd lose half! Ah but which half? Why, the best half of course! Oh, of course, the stranger should have thought of that.
"Oh look!" the boy cried in great excitement. "If you've got any good eyes in your head I suggest you use 'em now, because see that? just up ahead? just beyond town? there - can you see? - where they're working on the new roof - see that ladder? and that man on the roof banging his hammer? Well, that just happens to be none other than where I live! And you can even tell from here: that's a really neat house, isn't it?"
"It certainly is," agreed the stranger.
The town was perhaps five, maybe six, blocks, depending if the row of buildings separated by an alleyway were counted as one or two blocks; on either side of the street were its buildings. Sidewalks ran parallel the street, and there was parking space. The road was a little better than the stretch outside town, with fewer potholes and less cracking of the pavement, almost no debris save for some careless litter, perhaps understandable in light of the trash cans posted, it appeared, at each street corner, the cans being of a mesh type, but with spaces between the vertical and horizontal wiring of such openness as to allow all but the very largest pieces of trash to escape. The wind could easily coax these crumpled papers through the mesh holes, as it apparently had quite a few already. Separating each block were intersecting streets, one of which appeared almost as big as a freeway.
"Looks like quite a street up there," the stranger observed.
"Oh yeah it is. We always have to wait for the policeman to cross it," the boy explained.
"Lots of traffic?"
Well no, not so much traffic; but it was a big street, and children had ought to learn safety. Didn't he think so? Yes, he certainly did think so.
"I present you," the boy announced before the first block was three quarters traversed, "the Gravee Train, best little restaurant north of the Mississippi."
As with most of the town's buildings, all those in a given block connected, this one had a stucco front, a medium sized window, a storm door over a regular door, a step below the door, and a street number posted in black. This one was number 00.2. After a final few praises for its great food, Abraham Roosevelt Johnson Specialton the Third led the stranger inside, got him situated at a table, advised him to "hold the fort," then made for the bathroom in a hurry, passing a little gas as he went. Soon he returned; in the meantime the waitress had approached, said "hello," left a menu, and walked away to await the order. The stranger looked up and, noticing the road stains still on Abraham's hands, inquired if the boy had washed.
The boy thought a moment. No, he hadn't. Perhaps he should go do that. "Oh my God!" the boy suddenly cried as a related thought came to him. "I forgot to flush it! Don't let no one in there!" With this the boy took off for the bathroom again; a few minutes later he returned, showing his hands. The stranger nodded approvingly. He looked up from the menu to inspect the place, and to give his order. The waitress wore black, she had blonde hair and a hair net, she stood with her arms crossed waiting. On the counter was a sign which read "No coloreds served." Behind the counter was a pie case, its tiny windows displaying an apple, a lemon meringue and a blueberry pie. To the left of it, on an aluminum work table, was a big coffee urn; to the right an oven toaster. The lighting fixtures were of a western motif, of the kind referred to as "wagon wheels"; so were the tables, except they were called "barrel," but either term would have sufficed. Out from the kitchen came the owner, a tiny man with a white outfit vaguely in the "Nehru" fashion, the collar at least. He came over to personally greet his patrons: it was the slowest part of the day, mid-afternoon, making it possible to bestow such extra attention.
"Good day to you sir," he greeted the stranger, "and welcome to the Gravee Train. May I introduce myself please: I am A.J. Gravee, proprietor." Here he bowed a little. It was very good to meet him, and he seemed to have a fine eating place here, one that seemed to live up to its reputation. Oh, but the stranger was much too kind; and where had he heard of this little out of the way place? Why from a very reliable source, the stranger could assure him that much. The little boy grinned from ear to ear upon being winked at by the stranger. Ah, now Mr Gravee could see it all beginning to fall into place.
"Tell me sir," the stranger started to ask but was interrupted.
"If you'd be so kind as to first give your order to this lovely lady," Mr Gravee suggested. That way she could get started on it.
That was a splendid idea. "We'll have two double burgers - one for me, one for my young friend. I'll have coffee, black please. And my friend here?"
"Coke," said the boy, adding "black please."
"Will you have your drinks now?" inquired the waitress. Yes, they believed they would. She went to get the drinks. The stranger proceeded with his conversation, the proprietor indicating a desire to seat himself at their table if he might so prevail upon his patrons. Of course, they were pleased to accommodate him, for which he was grateful, being given to conversation as some men are "to drink," if they followed him. Only too well, for indeed every man had his failing. How true, how very true. The stranger sought to raise his collar a bit higher; he found himself regretting having torn the button off in his effort to keep it from becoming lost. Proprietor Gravee sincerely hoped his patron was not suffering from the chills, as these often led to something more serious. No, he'd be alright once he had his coffee. And speak of the devil, there it was, piping hot and as black as unexposed film. The stranger took a sip and that seemed to warm him.
"I couldn't help noticing your sign over there," he said, pointing to the counter.
"Ah, the 'No coloreds served' sign. Yes, we had that printed up years ago. In fact the printer's moved to a bigger shop now, that's just how good his business is any more. The truth is, he's sky high nowadays, I doubt if I could afford a nice sign like that."
"But what I was thinking," the stranger explained, "was that it might be a little illegal now to discriminate - no offense."
"None taken, sir," the proprietor assured him. "It's quite illegal. Fact is, we had a bus load of very fine black folks come through here not three weeks ago, seems the driver got lost. It was a boon for me though, my business hadn't seen a day like that in ages. Must have been sixty people, and each one got a full dinner. Wonderful people too."
"So you did serve them?"
"Of course, why wouldn't I?"
"I thought," the stranger pointed out, "you know: the sign."
"Lord no, it's just a sign, it don't mean nothing. I just thought I ought to have the sign. But look here what's on its way: do my eyes deceive me or do I see two big delicious double burgers coming at us? Oh boy oh boy! Should have ordered one myself they look so good!"
Indeed they did look good too. Piled almost six inches high, bottom, top and middle layer roll, two big burgers, sauces, pickles, three kinds of lettuce, two of tomato, Bermuda onion: everything, all held in place with a big toothpick wrapped at the top in colored cellophane ruffled like a bow. Out came the toothpicks, down came the burgers, the top layers spilling loose. Try again. The two hungry travelers lifted the top layer onto the bottom and tried to grip it before it could come apart again; to no avail, the burger faster than the hand. Several more times they tried, and failed. The little boy laughed: he'd eaten these before and this was part of the fun. Gravee the proprietor laughed along, but his mouth twitched. The stranger managed to smile once, but only for the sake of protocol. Finally he had to call for a knife and fork, which tickled his dinner companion no end. The boy was about to note the cow jumping over the moon when he happened to drop the topmost burger into his lap; it left a stain. This seemed to make him more reflective. Finally they both got finished their double burger, the boy's hands and face a mess, the stranger's plate like the bottom of a soup bowl.
"Well?" the boy asked. "Was I right? Best burger North of the Mississippi?" The stranger smiled, but did not answer. Taste wise, there was no question; but a burger that must be eaten like a regular meal, well, just wasn't a burger. The MacDonald's kids need not worry much over the loss of revenue.
"Oh by the way," Mr Gravee asked his patrons as they were leaving, in a tentative sort of voice, "what do you think of our name: The Gravee Train?"
The stranger reflected where he might have heard it before, if he had, and it seemed to him he had. "I like it," he said, explaining how it was a "bold stroke in merchandising," a phrase so pleasing to the proprietor that he immediately went and wrote it down on every menu as his restaurant's new motto. No longer The Best Restaurant North of the Mississippi," his establishment had become "A Bold Stroke in Merchandising." He's from out there, Mr Gravee reminded himself; he carries its culture with him. That must be the latest phrase. Mr Gravee, smiling, went to the window to watch his patrons on their way through town. A little bit more of the world beyond Nowheresville touched his life, his plane, and was recorded forever on his luncheon menus. An interplay, in which the constantly renewing culture of the outside world reached way up here to regenerate his own thinking. Quite a world, he mused as he finally lost sight of the travelers at the big intersection, where because of a slight bend in the road his view ended.
"Well?" the boy suddenly asked as they approached the huge roadway intersecting this town's Main Street. He stopped walking; the stranger followed suit, but could only stare. "Aren't you going in?" the boy asked, pointing to the building on the corner. It was like the Hotel Merrimac and Monitor. Still the stranger insisted upon being stupefied, till the boy spelled out his thought completely. "Aren't you going to get a room at the Hotel?" he asked, pointing out the perils of vagrancy, whereby he would get "locked up quicker than if you killed someone."
The stranger smiled, but had to explain that he was not certain of remaining in town overnight: he was after all just passing through. Ah, but how could he even think of passing right through? especially with the big election coming up, and he might have to run for mayor, and wouldn't he enjoy being mayor of Nowheresville? Although he couldn't think why the stranger might have to run for mayor but he had heard his dad - who, please be informed, was a member of the city council - talking about the election and about there being some difficulty somehow. So he should by all means plan on staying awhile, and would most assuredly be needing a room so as not to get mistaken for a vagrant.
"Perhaps one night," the stranger consented. Besides, he had to stay somewhere; it might as well be here, where he had received so warm a welcome - a thing not everywhere accorded him. These were nice people; a little bit of a strange town, but wonderful people, if those he had already met were any indication. So yes, he'd stay the night. At least the night.
"Good," said the boy, genuinely pleased. "And after you're all signed in at the Hotel - which, by the way, if you didn't already know it, happens to be the best hotel North of the Mississippi - when you're all bedded down for the night, maybe you can come home with me and explain how you tried to molest me so my mom won't get mad at me for getting my pants all dirty. She'll believe you too, honest, you don't have to be afraid she'll say you're lying. Just say you hit me and knocked me down and dragged me across the ground and were about to kill me when you were suddenly converted by Jesus Christ and Reverend Sacristy, that's our minister. You already know who Jesus Christ is, don't you?"
Yes, he did know. Oh how well he knew. He pulled at his collar again. Still, he would have to give serious thought to the boy's request that he confess to attempted murder just to protect the boy from having soiled his clothes. Besides, maybe they changed the law and murder was now more serious than vagrancy. Well, the boy could not see why that would matter, but he like everyone was a free agent. The boy laughed at this term; he had heard his father use it, and did it mean something like a talent scout who took no percentage? - it was only because of his sister he was asking, since she wanted so badly to become a fashion model for...the boy burst out laughing: for General Motors! How was that? Pretty dumb, huh? But so typical of his sister! And the stranger met his sister so he already knows how crazy she is. But for now he'd better help the stranger get registered, hadn't he? That is, if it was alright. Was it? The stranger agreed.
The lobby seemed to substantiate the majestic claim that nothing ever died, everything lived on eternally, most especially that entity named the past. Or perhaps, to broaden the mystics' creed into one that was scientific, a thing did not have to live, merely exist, to insure its immortality; so it wasn't the soul responsible for it. Red carpet, drapes and arm chairs were here responsible for it, all of a like genre of fabric, velvet over the windows to velveteen arms to plush on the floor: there was immortality. Perhaps too in a crystal chandelier and potted palms and a fine old staircase whose banister was polished walnut, and in delicately blossomed wallpaper. All so unintentionally trite: not that of being so but only of having always to be perceived as trite, a thousand settings in a thousand novels and movies throwing the blame on the real thing, which had sat in innocence perhaps eternally while the world around it, in an excess of imitation, damned it to eternal ridicule, like an honest emotion that when one feels it one is ennobled but because a thousand artists have copied it the world laughs at the poor person who experiences it in reality. As if to say, so much the worse for reality that art has run it smack into the ground and made a cliché of it. A sad immortality, not like anything one might have hoped for so lovely a lobby. Behind the desk - and, of course, on the desk was a bell - stood a well dressed night clerk: called night clerk, not just clerk, after the advertisements one sees occasionally in the help wanted section of the classified pages. He wore a coat and tie and on his breast pocket was the logo of the Hotel, the two famous Civil War ships about to crash into one another. One additional thing had helped suspend time, from the ceiling it was suspended: a huge fan, its blades slowly turning like spokes, heading East and West when it should be going North and South, or up and down, not sideways. Another caricature by association.
The boy accompanied the stranger to the desk; behind it the night clerk readied himself, pretending he had not yet seen his prospective guest, or at any rate had not identified him as such, yet acting as if he somehow had a feeling and would get everything ready just in case someone came in. He distributed papers, and took a feather duster to anyplace a guest registering might touch; then he fixed a nice smile.
"Good day to you," said the stranger as he reached the desk. He put his elbows on the desk top, right next to a tiny bit of feather the night clerk had unintentionally left behind; the feather was sent flying, the night clerk chased it a ways, the more he chased the more it stirred. Finally he caught it. He felt confident his movements had practically escaped notice.
"May I help you sir?" he inquired.
"Yes please, I'd like to see about a room," said the stranger. Ah, so that was it. And had the stranger ever registered here before? No, he had not. Yes, but was he sure? He was sure. But could he possibly be mistaken? The stranger was afraid not.
"Oh," said the night clerk. "It would make registering a little easier," he pointed out. "I'd have a record, you see - something on file. I could simply go to my file, you see. Like this: I'll show you." He proceeded to the far right where a filing cabinet stood; next, after showing, by a smile, presumably how simple a matter it was, he opened a drawer and, again turning to smile, feigned to withdraw a card. "You see," he summarized, again smiling. "Ah sweet mechanization!" he declared with great contentment. After a pause and another quick smile, he proceeded to second guess the stranger. "Maybe you were here before and merely forgot," he suggested. "In fact, I'm going to check just the same. What is your last name sir, especially the first letter?" With this information he again made for the cabinet, conducted a thorough search, shook his head, turned and, smiling, finally admitted the stranger was indeed a stranger. "Too bad," he concluded; "it would have been so much easier. Well, what's done is done."
"You mean what isn't done isn't done, don't you?" quipped the boy, who then burst out laughing. The night clerk grinned uneasily. It meant a lot to him to get an expression just right; and, there being a scarcity of business, he took the opportunity of practicing up on the kinds of expressions he was apt to need in the course of a day. He felt he had them pretty much under wraps; soon he hoped to be able to match them with their appropriate situation.
Yes, indeed, of course he meant that: how silly of him. And would the stranger he so kind as to register - which, it went without saying, would have been greatly facilitated had he registered previously. So the stranger registered. He filled in his name, the date, how long he anticipated staying, whether he had luggage, if he planned to use the telephone, if he preferred the American Plan to the Continental Plan (and it was hoped, by means of an asterisked note, that the registrant did, as only the one Plan was presently available), and finally the license plate number, state of registration, and year and make of his private automobile or, if a member of a bus tour, said information as pertained to the bus.
"I have no car," the stranger pointed out the deficiency in his registration.
"Oh," said the night clerk, perturbed. "Then you won't need our free parking. And we have such a nice sticker made up to put on cars. Do you have anything at all you could put it on? It's a lovely sticker, it's got the Merrimac and the Monitor, the one in yellow, the other in green, and the water's red. We just thought the blue might tend to hypnotize drivers who might pull up behind you. We're safety conscious here in Nowheresville. You know it might stick to the back of your jacket. A beautiful sticker. Or you could just take it with you and put it on your wall when you get home. But I'll have to ask you please not to put it on the walls upstairs. And please don't use any more toilet tissue than you absolutely need; it tends to stop up the commodes. What we recommend our guests do is take a little basin of warm water - not too hot - and bathe the anal area after they're finished. But you be the judge of that."
All this time the boy was desperately suppressing a giggle; even so, he was, turned to the side, making all manner of faces: rolling his eyes and so on to designate his impression of insanity. Finally, when the night clerk turned to get the stranger his key, the boy muttered "He's whacko!" At last the key was found and handed to the now officially registered guest. The room number and how to reach it - by ascending to the top of the stairs and turning left - was given the stranger, after which, plus a pleasant "Have a nice stay," the night clerk immediately made an infinity of notes on the carbon copy of the registration and proceeded directly to the cabinet to file it. The guest, accompanied by his guide, Abraham Roosevelt Johnson Specialton the Third, made for the room to inspect it, emerging not ten minutes later to continue their tour of Nowheresville.
"Be back in a little while," the stranger called to the night clerk who, after a hasty "Very good sir," made straightway to the cabinet, extracted the copy he had just filed, made an appropriate notation on it, then re-filed it. He had written on it "Guest out" and the time and, in parentheses, "will return." He smiled, the way a man smiles when he's done a good day's work; he reached up to scratch the back of his head, where as it so happened a boil was beginning to form - sensing this, he scratched very carefully. He was bald headed, and right on top a ridge extended from his forehead to just above the little depression at the back of his skull where the boil was forming, and beads of sweat were surrounding it as if it were one of those volcano islands rising from the ocean floor.
Outside, the boy continued his gestures and faces geared as they were to the depiction of craziness, something he evidently found signs of in the night clerk. They were, if anything, intensified out in the street, notwithstanding the passage of time. Indeed, that clerk was whacko, most assuredly whacko, the boy had little doubt of that; but that did not prevent him from going to seek a thorough bathing of the anal area at the very first good opportunity, a good suggestion - and could it be doubted that this was one - worth its weight in gold dust. Gold dust? Yes, that was right, the stranger had heard correctly: gold dust. Was this, then, once a mining town that the boy should employ such an expression? Yes it was, the boy could heartily assure him. And gold was mined? Oh no, not gold.
"Then what?" the stranger asked.
Through the breaks in his bursts of laughter, the boy responded triumphantly "We mined clichés!" The stranger smiled, thinking it a clever thing for a seven year old to quip, not knowing the boy spoke sincerely; he thought it funny to mine clichés in Nowheresville, yes, but he didn't doubt the possibility of its being done, not after hearing his father say so more than once.
Up ahead the great freeway luxuriated in the brisk March sun: brisk air enveloping warm sleepy photons, like a Hindu mystic depositing rings from one spoke to another in an endless ritual. They lay unhampered in the middle of the freeway; it might have been a puppy on its back, the rays of sun warm playful fingers gloved in cool satin. No traffic disturbed its tranquility, and the roadway in gratitude was perfect, no potholes, no cracks in the pavement or splitting at the seams where asphalt melded its slabs together. They built the road to traverse Nowheresville on the chance the world might one day wish to pass through; and who knew but that a great trade route might at some time exist right here? It was their finest achievement, they called it their finest hour and, before anyone could detect the error in time, they invited the late Sir Winston Churchill to officiate at the road's opening - not that they expected him to oblige them, it was purely an honorary request but they had not at the time counted on his being dead. Some news seems to travel slower than others; and they were mortified at their unintentional insult. Every time a car failed to show up on their freeway, they could not help but wonder if the British Isles, understandably offended by their bizarre invitation, had used its influence to keep traffic away. Through an oversight - lack of proper attention to the outside world, or whatever - their finest hour became instead their most infamous. They swore from then on they would never through carelessness or inattentiveness or anything allow such a thing to happen again. The local mortician, Arno de Rigeur, ended up officiating at the opening - not a comfortable choice, all things considered, but he was mayor at the time. Some people even doubted his name, they found it a little too convenient; they distinctly recalled a time when his name had been der Rinziger or something very close to that, but they kept it to themselves, especially when a thorough search of the county records turned up no such person as Arno der Rinziger and did, in fact, turn up an Arno de Rigeur. The road was said to have been "born bad"; but some people, misunderstanding, thought it to have had "bad blood," a step just a little too anthropomorphic for the general taste. There were no signs along it advertising the way out of town, or the route it was, or the routes it led to, or the towns next in line. The road linked to no Interstate system; in fact, it led nowhere but to a dead end, where the eight lanes all merged into someone's driveway, an old man named Hierophant's shanty surrounded by hedges and posted against trespassers its only terminus. Where it began was a mystery, a flood having washed an entire hillside down onto the road three miles North of town; some people wondered if it even had a beginning; others if perhaps it was a living entity having emerged from a cavern; still others felt tempted to see it as proving the world to be flat after all and the moon was actually only a couple miles high. One could easily see how a boy of seven could put so much store in tales of cows jumping over such a moon: they need but stand in the middle of the Nowheresville Freeway and leap. It wasn't so very far.
"I play here a lot," the boy confessed. "I pretend there's invisible cars coming everywhere, and I have to be quick. But I always get run over, I have to lay there in the road and bleed. Then I go to old man Smucker's lot and pretend to race my model cars. That's a lot of fun for just one boy to have, isn't it?" he asked. He did not sound enthused, but reflective, even lonely. "In a way I want to grow up," he said, "but in a way I don't. I like dreaming of growing up and moving away - going all over the world. But I'm afraid when I really do grow up I won't, I'll just stay. Did you feel that way?"
The stranger said yes, he did; but then, as the boy could see, it happened the way he had imagined himself growing up and not the way he feared. And was life ever so much better because of it? Well, that was hard to say. He kept on the move, true; but all places tended to look alike when seeing them up close. Was that the same, did the stranger think, as the grass looking greener elsewhere? Ah, but the boy was forgetting something, wasn't he? And what was that? The best grasses were variegated, were they not? And if so, then they were not all green, were they? from close up or at a distance.
"But from a distance," the boy pointed out, "they all look green. They blend. You can't tell which is which."
"Well yes," the stranger admitted, "that's true." No grass grew in the freeway, though it almost choked the shoulders, and the rim of the median strip was nearly invisible: this was of course down the road, on either side, the intersection itself being free of grasses and most debris, a hard intersection to cross, dangerous in heavy traffic, the danger theoretical however, the traffic unfortunately also theoretical. It stayed with the travelers, this crossing, as something vaguely unsatisfactory: one tries to avoid danger, but its complete absence where something of it is called for is unnerving; the traveler fears incompleteness in the terrain he must traverse more than he does anything dangerous lurking about.
"There's the jail," the boy said ominously. "Act natural," he cautioned. "Just be yourself, don't do anything suspicious. It just takes twenty seven steps to get past - maybe less if you have big feet. Whatever you do, don't look guilty or they'll nab us and lock us up and throw away the key." The boy reflected on this. "They can't," he corrected himself. "My dad said they lost it. Somehow they got the cell locked then lost the key. They can't lock anyone up in it. They just sit there, and watch people, and grow mean, and think how nice it'd be to arrest someone. But till they find the key they can't lock anyone up. Okay," the boy sighed in relief, "we're past, we can relax." And by the way, what did the stranger do for relaxation? Did he look at pictures of naked girls and fantasize? But let the stranger ask the boy this: where did he ever hear the word fantasize and what did he suppose it meant? He didn't suppose, he knew: it meant to get undressed and pretend he was doing number one - he did it all the time himself, so he knew. Oh; not to change the subject, but weren't they getting pretty close to the boy's home? wasn't that it just ahead? with the roof being fixed? The boy was impressed with this.
"You remembered," he said in a congratulatory manner.
"A man doesn't soon forget a house like that," the stranger conceded.
The boy cried "Yahoo!" and, beaming, took off in the style of a horse at gallop. "Hey mom!" he began calling. "Hey dad! Guess what? We got a buyer!" Then he slowed to a trot long enough to motion the stranger onward, picking up speed once his message was delivered. A moment more and out of breath, Abraham Roosevelt Johnson Specialton the Third came to a halt in his front yard; he paused to await the stranger. The boy's parents meanwhile had come to the front porch, drawn by his news, stunned almost by it, looking back and forth from each other to this prospective buyer who had appeared out of nowhere. They were eager to question him, but had to first greet him. Their son made the introductions, noting that they just happened to be making the mutual acquaintance, his parents and this stranger, of the best mom and dad and the best passing stranger anywhere North of the Mississippi.
"Pleased to meet you," the stranger said.
"Oh the pleasure's ours," Mr and Mrs Specialton the Second insisted. "Our boy's told us so much about you," Mrs Specialton said, growing quickly embarrassed at the realization that in fact all the boy had said of note was that the stranger was interested in buying their house. She kind of gestured and mumbled a few half phrases to indicate what she had actually meant: it seemed the boy's enthusiasm had made them feel as if they had known the stranger all their lives - and wasn't that a nice feeling? an odd one, but a nice one. The stranger nodded; it was a nice feeling. An awkward moment passed before Mr Specialton finally spoke.
"Well, get out your wallet, we haven't all day," he said, rather bluntly. It was his way to speak his mind, but he may have gone a little beyond that in this instance.
"Why don't we invite him in dear?" Mrs Specialton suggested.
"When he buys the house he can come in all he wants," Mr Specialton pointed out proudly, beaming at his uncanny ability to get right to the heart of matters.
"It's quite an investment," the stranger felt compelled to muse. "I'll need a little time to consider it." He did not wish to come right out and say that he had no more interest in purchasing this or any house than he had the resources to make such a purchase. It just seemed polite. No sooner, however, had he said these words than Mr Specialton turned and went back inside, calling to his wife to see if she was going to dawdle all day on the porch. Well, now that he mentioned it she just might. In that case she could damn well stay out there till the cows came home. The only cows being their son's imaginary moon jumpers, however, this expression seemed peculiarly ill chosen, and Mrs Specialton intimated as much before returning indoors.
"That's some kind of folks, huh?" observed the Specialton boy with considerable pride, an assessment the stranger had little trouble accepting. "Well I gotta go play so I can work up an appetite," the boy announced, but I'll visit you later if you want. I know how it is to be alone in a strange town - I pretend that a lot. And don't worry, I'll talk to dad about you running for mayor."
Oh, but perhaps the boy should not trouble himself. It was no trouble. Yes, but the stranger was not convinced he had made a good impression on the boy's father. That didn't matter; he wasn't to worry: no one ever made much of an impression on him, so what was new? Mr Specialton did not trust strangers very much - and did not trust his fellow townspeople at all. It was his nature, so the stranger ought not to take it too much to heart. And the boy must be off now, he was constructing a tree house in the hedge out back; he did not know if it would work, but he would try it and see, so good bye for now and he'd see the stranger later. And you've been warned; the boy laughed as he said this, running off to try his carpentry skills upon the branches of a variegated hedge in his backyard.
The stranger watched him go.
* * * *
On a hill outside town, as evening began to distinguish itself from late afternoon, he stood, having found the hill on his own, and watched the town adapt itself, as every day it must, to the change in daylight, no less a change for its occurring daily than the seasons, which everyone admitted the need to adapt to, even if they overlooked the subtler cycles all around them. Every rooftop took shade from one direction, hoisted it high overhead to deposit it on its other side. Such silent labor - how many ergs did it engage? who could say? It ranks among the most noteworthy phenomena, this transmigration of shadow; yet let a new transistor or a radar or a module of any description be invented and it drops altogether from our awareness. The grasses truly revealed themselves as variegated at the changing of light, each blade displaying a subtle undergrowth, like a five o'clock shadow of whiskers, depending upon its individual bent, all the grasses collecting their individual differences to extract a pattern of light and dark worthy of an Impressionist pasture. And where a breeze played, the world sprang to animation, shadows at once here, blades there, then reversing, springing back as the scene shifted. Should flowers intersperse their colors into this world, or birds fly so low their bellies touched grass, it became unbearable, the beauty, for its being so subtle; too subtle, too delicate. At such times you doubted the possibility of further existence, for the world below you, for yourself. Will it all survive till noon, when it is again coarse, whole without any trace of its parts, somewhere to tred a path, no longer a portrait of its own inner life? Will it last that long? Will the darkness, when it gets here, in blanking out its shadows, preserve it one more day? Will you stand here again tomorrow? Or can you endure the tenuousness it takes as its theme?
The stranger somehow doubted it had ever been seen from up here before. It was overgrown, there were no signs of wear. People as a rule did not perceive their homes from above; they stood their ground. No one likes to see the earth dissipate before his very eyes - and to see its circuit of shading is to see it all fall away like crystals dissolving in water. Every town he had ever been through he had endeavored to witness from this perspective, in its closest moment to non-existence. All towns dissolved alike, all substances reduced to the same shadows, all birds and flowers finished the disintegration. Then night, and by morning the stranger knew he was, in leaving it behind, leaving very little, for always at its point of greatest and subtlest beauty it was least real, least its own self; easiest to leave behind.
The sky had looked as if it might lift a blazing tail to the night; but when it came time, it showed nothing. Sunsets, as we know them, were not the province of winter or spring, only summer and fall. He had never in his life seen a sunset - brilliant, beautiful, golden or blazing - sunset anywhere on the March circuit. Not till late May or June. And April? It was not a month, it was a plaything; no accident it began with April Fool's Day. There was a noticeable chill, where barely half an hour ago there had not been. The stranger pulled at his collar, had to hold it in place, without the aid of a button. No, he thought, the conveniences of this world are not to be lightly dismissed as trivial; buttons do count for something. So do model cars, and fashion models, and bumper stickers, and signs stipulating who may be served. But when you've seen the shadows beneath even the best grasses, you can no longer center your life around things. They are inconsequential. That's why I love the March circuit so dearly, the stranger mused, why I experience it so intimately; it's then that I see most clearly, and having seen, I carry the shadows with me the rest of the year. In March, besides, by evening almost everyone is indoors. At no other times does it show so clearly how different people are from their land. Peeking through it all, the lights are beginning to appear on their windows. Amidst the shadows is a vibrant, living race of beings. Their town is dying, maybe dead, but they go on living, as if forever.
The stranger came down from the hill. No higher now than planks and slabs, he walked back to his room for the night, stopping only long enough to monitor the intersection where the great freeway went past. Silent, invisible traffic streamed beside him, back and front, as he stood in the middle. All the traffic, from all the stops along the circuit, drawn to this dead roadway at evening's end, cars revving their engines, taillights blinking their stops and starts as if Christmas twinkles, headlights fast upon you, just as fast gone, trucks intimidating everyone else with their size and speed and especially with the importance of their business - and you shouldn't complain, all you were out for was a Sunday drive, but they kept commerce alive: hail Caesar! - and occasionally a hitchhiker, all drawn from a stranger's memory to play out their collective stylization at the intersection of Nowheresville North-South and Nowheresville East-West. They had no idea, filling in the various dots of March's detail map, that they would all end up here in the middle of Nowheresville, penned in by a cliché. They made about as much noise in the stranger's mind as they did, ever, in their unhewn state.
He'd listened enough though; he continued on, back to his room, for the night. No sooner had he ascended the stairs than the night clerk - who really shone proud and true at this, his namesake in time - hastened to extract the copy of his receipt from the files. He made the appropriate notation and returned it. A record - my God! - a record was something to cherish forever; a complete record was a celebration of existence. You couldn't say too much. He just wished, found himself wishing, could not but wish, he only had a computer to store all this in - then these would be records worthy of the name! Not only the time and the date and what happened, but even an estimation, the drawing of conclusions, establishing a probable course of ensuing action, an aphorism or two, perhaps a parable, even a graph, and above all else a note of praise and thanks for your having made all these records possible. What a glory was your life, that it allowed so much to be said about it.
* * * *
In the morning, and the mornings generally came early to Nowheresville, the sun was filtering out the last traces of pre-dawn mist from the air, making shafts of light where a few of the clouds clustered around its pathway. The loose gravel on the streets was drying out quickly, growing lighter, as were the streets themselves; how the gravel got there no one knew, so few automobiles passed through town it did not seem likely that they would have kicked it from the shoulders just outside town, and there seemed to be no particular predisposition on the part of the children to haul it around in their pockets. It remained just another of the great mysteries of life. Some citizens maintained it came from the sky, as part of the great hailstorm; but as this occurred fifty years ago, others were quick to point out its inherent improbability. Yes, but what were they thinking of? hail frequently contained gravel. But gravel deposited on a dirt road does not generally turn up once it's paved, or did they think it had gotten turned right side up? Ha! that was right side down! But it still didn't answer the question. The factions grew, peaked, subsided; the controversy faded, eventually the children picked it up as they would their parents' abandoned clothing.
On this beautiful morning, a delegation of Nowheresville's leading citizens decided to pay the stranger a visit. They tramped along Main Street to the Merrimac and Monitor Hotel, where they all went in.
"Good day gentlemen," exclaimed the night clerk, busy at work composing a possible design for what appeared to be a new automobile sticker. "You couldn't have come at a better time," he went on to point out; this made them all smile, as nothing in this world pleases people so much as to be timely. "The management is thinking of changing our designation from Hotel to Motor Lodge. What do you gentlemen think?" They thought well of it. Yes, it sounded like a winner. They proceeded to ask for the stranger that they might call on him; that is, if he took visitors.
"Well, he does and he doesn't," said the night clerk. "He's very particular who he invites up. Just a moment, I'll check his file. Let me just get it here. God knows I'll soon be needing a new filing cabinet. Ah, here it is, just as I thought. He will take visitors up till eleven, when he must check out. He prefers small boys. And - oh dear, I can't quite make out this last entry. Something about - oh yes, I see. He will not entertain guests while evacuating his bowels. I've made a note here that quite possibly he worked for the Civil Service Commission as a management hygienist." There were some "Ah's" at this possibility; it looked hopeful for their purpose. And was there anything else they should know about the stranger? Only that - according to this note anyway - he had perhaps once been the victim of burglars. And why was this? Well, gentlemen, he had almost no possessions with him. "Oh" was said all around. And could they go up now to see him? Well, unless they cared to wait till the intercom system was installed - it had been ordered and was due to arrive in the mail any day now - they had perhaps better do that.
The delegation thanked the night clerk and, upon being informed which room the stranger was in, began to ascend the stairs. No sooner had their flight begun than the night clerk pulled out a notepad and began taking down notes of every description, his hand, together with the pen in it, a minor whirlwind of activity. It took him the better part of an hour, but he finally had it all down. He mopped his brow with the blotter, then made two additional notes: to get a new blotter and to keep a box of facial tissue on the counter.
The president of the city council, the town's physician, a certified public accountant, the banker, a visiting psychiatrist whose parents lived just outside town, the local undertaker and a psychic who vacationed here every Spring all climbed the elegant staircase to the second floor. Down the hall they went, stopping to rap at the stranger's door. It was opened, they all took turns introducing each other, and they were graciously admitted. "Thank you," they said. They were here, they explained, for a number of reasons: to ferret out his good intentions, which they knew were there; to assess his fortunes, which they were so sorry to learn had fallen to burglars - but they felt certain they could help him rebuild them; to probe as deeply into his psyche as was fitting for new acquaintances - here, of course, the psychiatrist and the psychic had the advantage, just as the banker and the accountant had clear advantage with respect to his fortunes; just in general to get to know him; and, last but by no means least, to invite him to run for mayor.
This last one surprised him the most. "To run for mayor?" he asked, with such incredulity that immediately the delegation rushed to assure him the cost of campaigning would be absolutely minimal as he would be the only candidate.
"So in effect," the president of the city council interpolated, "we are offering you the mayoralty."
"But why are there no other candidates?" the stranger asked, to which question the delegation grew silent, some of them actually blushing.
"Well," they each took a turn at initiating an explanation, so that among them the reason finally came out. As it so happened, no one had thought to enter himself as a candidate. As well as they could figure it out, everyone thought someone else had exceptionally strong interest in the office and would go to any length to win the race; consequently, nobody ran. And now it was too late, the deadline for entering one's name in candidacy long past. In fact, the election was today at three o'clock, to be held at the school house. The children of course were pleased to have a day off from school, even though technically school would be out by three anyway; but when they discovered it was customary to close the schools and all bars on Election Day, they naturally followed suit. There being no bars in town, what they had done was to issue the Gravee Train a liquor license so that he could be closed on Election Day in compliance with the tradition. So could they expect the stranger at the school house by three-thirty to give his acceptance speech? Or his concession, should he lose - though as the only candidate it looked very good for his winning.
"But how?" he inquired. "If I've missed the deadline to register as a candidate, how can I be one?"
Ah, that was simple: he could still become a write-in candidate on the ballot. That way it only took one vote - and just between he and they and the lamp post, he could count on their support all the way! But then: why not some of them enter as write-ins? No, that was out of the question: everyone would wonder who it was had voted for him and, this being a small town where everyone knew everyone else, under the pretext of recounting the votes, the winner - or anyone else - could identify the voter from his handwriting. That smacked a little too much of influence peddling. No, there was just no other way but for the stranger to run as a write-in candidate. What did he say? Well, could they let him think about it awhile? But what was there to think about? Oh, a little of this, a little of that: there were two sides to every question, don't forget. God, but he would make a perfect man for the job; and yes indeed, they were pleased to have him think it over - even honored.
"I'll let you know my decision by noon, I promise," the stranger agreed. His word was as good as gold with them. They went away the most contented delegation that ever was. Descending the stairs, expressing a good day to the night clerk, they left, the occasion being marked by a volume of notes which considered the event from every conceivable angle. On an irresistible impulse, the night clerk dialed the long distance operator to get the phone number of IBM headquarters - and would she place the call please? He was determined to strike a deal with them for one of their 360 computers, this very day, and they could name their terms!
Outside, the delegation remembered it had failed to carry out all the tasks it had assigned itself. In particular, the stranger had not had his psyche probed - and that was one of the primary objectives of the visit. Was he a good man? of good character? a good risk? He had a firm chin and jaw, did that mean anything? He stood straight and was almost of a height to be considered tall - would they say about five feet eleven? Something like that. And wasn't that too a good sign? Of course, psychiatry did not address itself directly to such things, and should not be confused with physiognomy, which was spurious at best. The psychic, however, too exception to this untoward evaluation, and in no uncertain terms. The psychic had received some excellent vibrations from the stranger, who was most probably born under the sign Sagittarius, which had rulership over the ninth house, being the depository of travelers and of philosophers. Yes, the two were similar, weren't they? a philosopher was a kind of traveler, and vice versa. Well, not everyone knew about that: after all, an escaped lunatic was also a traveler. Ah! but also in his own way a philosopher of sorts, albeit of the most radical sort. Then how about an escaped killer? What about Jack the Ripper? Had anyone detected bloodstains, or surgeon's knives? Only on old Doc Doofus. What, did someone perceive a connection? Did they mean to infer the stranger might be a long lost son of Doc's? No, not really, any more than that he was Jack the Ripper, at least not the real one; an imposter at most. But a good man, didn't they think? And wouldn't he make a good mayor? They all had to admit that he would; he showed every sign of being a born politician. He would be elected by a landslide; they would just all have to watch he didn't catch anyone in a dark alley - just to be on the safe side. He seemed much too hotheaded to be a killer. Hotheaded? Yes, that was how the psychiatrist perceived him, there are subtle signs, which he would not expect the layman to pick up on. Well, couldn't he be hotheaded and cold blooded both? Please, that was quite enough of this, with so much work waiting to be done. Slowly they disbanded; each went to where he belonged, except for the psychic who belonged at once everywhere and yet nowhere. He just wandered, scrawling the signs of the Zodiac on the sides of buildings when no one was looking.
Soon the stranger emerged from the hotel, his egress duly noted in his file. He went straight to the Gravee Train to take some breakfast. Half the way there, he was halted by a call to him, so he slowed up to let his friend the Specialton boy catch up to him.
"Some day," the boy exclaimed. "Some excitement. Biggest day of the year. Election Day here we come! No more teacher's dirty looks! Whew! What a day, I can hardly wait!"
A thing which had puzzled the stranger since arriving in town strayed once again into his immediate awareness, providing him his first opportunity to clear it up. "Why," he asked, "do they hold elections in March instead of November?"
The boy burst out laughing. "The joke's on them!" he cried. "They're all cracked up, the whole town! I heard about it on the radio. March is when they have primaries - only they don't know that's not an election! Can you believe it? Anyone that dumb? So they have elections in March! They can't tell the difference between an election and a primary! Are you running?"
"I haven't yet decided," the stranger replied. They walked some more; they arrived at Gravee's, to the great amusement of the Specialton boy, who found it a riot that the stranger was so dumb as to forget already that this was Election Day: the restaurant was closed.
"So it is," said the stranger, who found himself wondering why the boy had not so informed him, it surely being obvious he was headed here. A glance at the boy, however, told him everything. The same faces and gestures aimed yesterday at the night clerk of the Merrimac and Monitor were today reserved for behind his back. He felt like picking up the kid and throwing him through Gravee's window.
"Since you can't eat, let's go horseback riding," the boy advised, more as an order almost than a question. At this, the stranger was about to tell the boy to get himself and his impudence away from him, when suddenly the restaurant's door flew open and there was its proprietor, a face full of smiles and grease stains on his Nehru cut service jacket.
"Come on in," he declared, "don't mill about outside. Don't you see it posted 'No loitering?' Come on in and have a nice breakfast."
"I thought you'd be closed," said the stranger, puzzled. "Election Day," he went on to explain, Mr Gravee seeming not to comprehend him.
"I'm supposed to be, sure," he said. "But when I have customers, what am I to do? No one's ever come by on Election Day before, so I never had to serve anyone. But here you are, so. I mean, I'm here to serve, it's my business. What am I do do? So come on in, take a seat, sit a spell, order a good hearty breakfast, chew the fat, whatever you want."
Here the Specialton boy began moping about just outside, busying himself muttering how - just his luck! - he had no money on him - of all the rotten luck! - and here the place was open - what bad luck, can you believe it? - and not only that but the Gravee Train had - and anybody could take it on his word too! - the best breakfast North of the Mississippi - had anyone alive ever seen such miserable luck? Temptation held the stranger silent, but something else had evidently gotten hold of his arm for he no sooner took two steps into the place than he turned around to motion the boy in, to a round of 'oh boy's!' and innumerable praises of that inestimable Gravee cuisine, which he was pleased to inform the stranger the whole world would likely beat a path to one of these days, just wait and see.
"Two eggs, sunny side up, bacon, toast, juice, coffee, home fries," the stranger placed his order.
"I'll have the same," the boy ordered tentatively, looking over at his provider to make certain his order was acceptable.
When they were finished and outside again, the boy's humility deserted him. Once again he took charge, once again all but ordering the stranger to take him horseback riding "At the Stables," he noted with a touch of awe.
"So," mused the stranger, "you have stables here too."
"Do we ever!" exclaimed the boy. "Beautiful, I mean beautiful stables, the longest paths you ever saw, you could ride all day. And a golden palomino stallion. And it's only two dollars, for all day long. And don't forget: next Saturday. The big picnic at the Grove. You coming?"
"We'll see," said the stranger.
They paid the stable keeper their two dollars, they were shown to the stable. Behind a door a horse's head peeked out. He seemed to smile when his riders approached. A horse that likes being ridden? thought the stranger. It seemed odd to him; but not for long though. Once the horse was brought out, the eager greeting became clear. The horse's name was Buttercup, he was vaguely golden, a kind of tawny beige, with very little mane. He was quite thin, and so swayback that no one would have ever dreamed of climbing up to ride him. He couldn't be ridden, and his gentle, almost pleading, face removed all thoughts of any such activity; it would have seemed almost a capital offense to subject the poor creature to the trauma of having to carry anyone. So he was led about. For two dollars you could lead him around all day long. He preferred the pasture and tried to steer you in that direction; but he was docile, so if you preferred the paths he would go along peaceably. And if he was busy chewing when you wanted to get moving again, a little nudge on his rein was sufficient. He might look up at you with a hurt look, but if you insisted he'd oblige. He never got unruly or took off at a gallop; you could lead him to water too if you liked, there was a small pond beside the trail deep in the woods, and he'd drink for you if you prodded him a little. Of course if he did drink, it'd be no time at all till he'd have to stop and relieve himself; he seemed to sense it if people watched, and he seemed to sulk afterward if they did. Then at day's end, when he realized you were bringing him home to his stable, he'd endeavor to paw in the dirt for you. He had once been a circus horse, left abandoned nearby one day, apparently too old to be of further service to his trainer. He would paw up to five for you, in addition and subtraction, if you cued him properly; otherwise he just scrawled at random. You could pat his head and scratch behind his ears. He seemed content here at the Nowheresville Riding Academy. So did everyone else seem to find his being here a source of contentment. He had been near death a few times, this horse, but he always managed to pull through. Even in the dead of winter, not a day went by but what he had visitors, each with some little treat for him. It didn't seem to matter to anyone that he rode them as much as they rode him: he was their horse and they were proud of him, and they boasted far and wide of their Riding Academy, a boast they did not consider idle.
"Whoa Buttercup!' the stranger called, a little louder than he meant to; it seemed to frighten the horse. So he had to gather up some delectable tidbits, which his fellow rider the Specialton boy pointed out as Buttercup's favorites, to make up to him: that was the only "incident" the whole morning. By eleven thirty the horse was back in his stall, the riders, sore feet and all, left the Academy to go get some lunch.
"We'll eat at my place," the boy announced enthusiastically, then he thought a moment as they walked the distance from the Academy back to town. "That's if you've made up your mind to buy it," he added, recalling his father's bluntness with the stranger: Mr Specialton could no more afford to waste a meal than he could his time on someone who was undecided whether or not to purchase his house. Perhaps the restaurant again, the stranger began suggesting. But Mr Gravee'll be mad though at having to break the law twice in one day, huh? Oh, the stranger didn't know about that: wait till supper, then let him be mad one time for three misdemeanors, how was that? Whew, that was heavy. Heavy? Yeah, heavy: an expression you used when you took drugs or LSD or peyote or some other such stuff. And how did a seven year old boy know all that? From records, and reading the papers, and putting two and two together; and besides, he was half way thinking of becoming a drug pusher for the Mob when he reached puberty. And, by the way, did the stranger know what puberty was? Yes, he believed he did. Well, just the same, the boy would tell him: it was like a lady trying to get a size one shoe onto a size six foot! You were soon covered in agony and longing and frustration. And that was puberty for you - pretty hairy, huh? Hairy? What, hadn't the stranger ever heard of puberty hair? the boy asked with a burst of laughter. By the way, did the stranger have any, and could he see it? Yes to the first, no to the second. Oh; and the boy was content, he dropped the subject.
The Riding Academy was two miles outside of town, just off the main road, on a side street, or lane, really. Its trails covered hills, valleys, meadows and forests, plus the small pond alongside it. From the summit of the highest hill, you could look out over a nice distance and see the great freeway meandering aimlessly toward old man Hierophat's driveway, without traffic or any other commotion. Once there was a hitchhiker on the road, a young man of seventeen, a lifelong resident, on his way out of town, to seek his fortune beyond the confines of Nowheresville; from the Academy hilltop you could have seen him standing along the roadside, a backpack full of his belongings, a jacket thrown over his shoulder, holding it with his left hand, his right thumb stuck out. He wore jeans and boots and when he had gotten a little ways from town, he unbuttoned the top three buttons of his shirt, a flannel plaid, to expose his bare chest, with its little bit of hair. He stood there, like a statue looking to get to a museum, until dark. Not a single car had gone by. Soon the owls began hooting, and swooping nearby. And a bat could be seen flying just above the treetops. He grew frightened. He began to run, toward town, picking up speed along the way, the familiar lights finally just ahead of him. Slowing down, as if he were an immense train which had better start applying its brakes long before its appointed stop, he reached up to button is shirt. He had not bothered to ask how to get away from here, and no one had bothered to tell him. He never tried again.
"Pretty soon I guess I'll have to start calling you Mr Mayor, huh?" the boy mused. "And you'll need a mansion to live in maybe, so I'd advise you to take our house while you still can. And I guess Saturday," he went on with greater enthusiasm, "you'll have to officiate at the picnic. You ever officiated anywhere before?" The stranger admitted that he hadn't. Oh, so he was probably scared, huh? A little. Well, the boy would show him the ropes, so he should not worry himself about it; the worst they could do would be to impeach him - and by the way: did the stranger also think of fruit when he heard that word? Yes, he often did. Oh, just often; the boy always did. Then he had quite a metaphorical mind, didn't he? Yes, he had a mind like a brick outhouse, if that was what the stranger meant. Something like that.
"I like to take off my clothes and pretend I'm a snake," the boy said. "Did you ever do that? Or maybe not a snake but some other animal?"
"I can't recall," the stranger replied.
"Hey, why do you do that?" the boy suddenly asked, pointing to the stranger's neck and collar, the stranger's habit of pulling his collar tightly about his neck a source of annoyance and interest to the boy.
"Just a habit."
"Like picking your nose? Yeah, I know what you mean. That's something I just started doing, but I have to stop, it's nasty. You know what I'm going to be when I grow up? I'm going to be one of those guys who donate their blood. I don't know why though. Maybe I won't. Maybe I'll be a fashion model, just to make my crazy sister jealous. Wouldn't that be funny, to see a man in a dress and with lipstick?"
The stranger did not answer; the boy seemed content not to press him for an answer. They went on to lunch, then it was time to go be elected mayor. The school house was a hub of activity, which the boy found as much like the way it was when school let out as "two peas in a pod," at the deliverance of which cliché he broke into laughter and indicated his crotch, a buzzing sort of noise made to suggest the sounds of a boy urinating, in turn suggesting his having made a pun. His laughter, however, was short lived, for he was soon chased away, this place being not today the place of children but that of adults, with important business to attend to. He was told to go play with his friends. But he did not have many, so couldn't he stay? No, and having no friends was his problem, not the city council's. So he left, greatly disheartened not to be part of the great election process which would usher in, he was certain, a whole new era, with his friend the new mayor leading the way. It was quite an exaggeration, however, that he had no friends; in truth he had many, and when he was sent away he sought them out. They played a game in which everyone got undressed; the boys were horses, the girls cows: the horses could be hidden, the cows milked. But, as kids will do, they soon tired of the game.
Everyone congratulated the new mayor. It had been a stunning upset, the stranger's victory; never before in memory had a write-in candidate won the town's highest office. which all went to show, everyone agreed, that hard work and perseverance paid off. And would the new mayor expect to officiate Saturday at the picnic? Yes, he would be honored. Good, and would he care to make a little speech just now? Well, he truthfully preferred not to; if no one objected, how about if he simply thanked everyone? That was fine; after all, he was the boss!
How did he get to be, he wondered. Of all the things he had ever wanted, and never gotten, how was it he had come to have gotten this, one of the things he never wanted? Of all he had looked for, and never found, how had he come to find this? What in the world was anyone trying to prove? And he must not forget to submit a budget to the city council. They had just this year begun considering collecting taxes, they would appreciate some good sound executive advice on how to go about spending the revenue once they had it. Oh my God, he thought: where were your taxes when it could have saved my life? More tightly than ever did he reach to pull his collar about his neck. I've been to the block, and back. The hangman, the chopman, the Robespierre: he's been at me and gone. Had I taxes at my call, I could have bought him off. But no. I had to have a failed moment to go on living. All his plans, and all his dreams, the poor defeated hangman hangs his head, retreats in shame, his rope it failed him, get thee gone sinner man you're free, God saved you, spared you His wrath, go, you've cheated the hangman, go, wander this earth in doing penance: go. And now: mayor of Nowheresville, manager of taxes: go, be a stranger no more. Go, everything you've ever been. "And thank you all so much for this great honor, I only hope I can live up to it. You're the finest people I've ever known, this is the finest town. I'll try and be the finest mayor." Some thought it just a bit much to speak of being the finest of mayors, especially considering how at one time or another most of the townspeople had held that office; but they kept their reservations to themselves. For the present anyway.
* * * *
Until Saturday, looking out his window at the Merrimac and Monitor, I can be mayor, the stranger thought to himself. Why he could be mayor no longer than that he felt no need to say or even to wonder. I must return to the circuit; a man cannot so easily be pulled from it. You can't vote him out of it, it isn't an office, it's a condition of his life. How well the twilight knows that. Its shadows tell of it, its spots of light slowly retreating no matter what, until you must finally admit blindness. The street has shadows too, he noted; he could see the freeway from his window, though at a slant, his room faced outward onto Main Street. Is it because I see it at a slant, or does some other cause create shadows? Are they real, trees' fingers or dimples in the pavement at other times invisible? or are they the illusions of sidewise vision? He smiled, in the manner of a sigh. Oh for a truly metaphysical moment. Oh to really be able to wonder what is real, what is not. But he very well knew they had given off such speculations two decades ago. No one wondered what was real, what was illusion, anymore. It no longer seemed so important to distinguish between the two. Was a town real, where nothing was quite as it was intended? Or did that perhaps prove its reality? Was a double burger real that fell apart the moment you touched it? Or a street admitting the existence of no traffic? Or a horse that walked in tandem with its rider? Or a boy who attached himself to you as if he were a poor trite Virgil to your tenth-rate Dante? and led you not through eternal metaphor but through transitory fashion? and who could show you not the miseries of the damned or the exaltations of the saved, show you nothing at all of sublimity, but only show you the absurdity of a people stooping to masquerade behind their institutions? Could you believe, as H. G. Wells and a host of others, that man dwarfed his inventions? or must you accept the reversal as your truth? Were a people connected to the world through frayed transmission tubes real? Was it nourishment they were receiving? or their life blood they were giving? Where was the flow, in what direction, from where to where? Or did it too end abruptly at some old Hierophant's driveway? The stranger's eyes grew blind to the outside. The shadows had won. And so what would he do, what could he do? Well, he would do this: he would follow the advice on the advertisement someone had slipped under his door. He would "Take An Inventory" of his life, and that would "Convince" him he should visit "H. J.'s Health Spa," for "The Total" him, which he would "Discover" in six short weeks. That was what he would do; but he was resolved not to "Put It Off Until" it was "Too Late." He'd go first thing tomorrow.
* * * *
Down a side street of Nowheresville you'd find a run down frame structure out by itself, gray boards, the kind of boards no writer would mention: all old, weather beaten boards are gray, or should be, and as such are always portrayed that way, to the point of triteness - it's not trite if you see it, only if you read its description; a run down place, shutters taken from the wall not too long ago, leaving stains where wasps or birds or bats or God knows what had been housed; downed rain spouting standing upright against the wall; loosened shingles on the roof; unconnected to any other building, though nothing but a narrow walkway separated it from its neighbors on either side. A small side street, not the great freeway, a street called Frame, named, some said, for the manner of structure situated along it, but which others insisted derived from a panhandler who, having once passed through, created a stir of some description along the street, whether for good or ill none could recall. Frame Street, North East; it dead ended at Main Street, there was neither South or West to it, so there needed to be no North East, but there was. Along this street, in a run down building, you'd find H. J.'s Health Spa, Limited. You'd see the sign, go up the steps, cross the porch, it would creak, and you'd knock. A sign said "Please Knock." You couldn't just walk in. A very tall, distinguished looking gentleman of about fifty would come to the door. In a movie, he might be the butler; in Nowheresville, he was the health instructor. His name was Heb Jerm, a name, owing to its suggestion of septicity, he hated and reduced to its barest form: the initials H. J.
"Good day to you sir," the gentleman greeted the stranger to his health spa. And what could he do for him this fine beautiful morning? Well, the stranger had read his handout - Ah! Mr H. J. interrupted, and it was quite a compelling ad, was it not? Yes it was, because it had gotten the stranger's attention - And, Mr H. J. again interrupted, it had gotten him all the way to the front door, had it not? Yes, it had, and now that he was here, he wouldn't mind trying for the Total Him, if he could. For that, the stranger could take it on good authority, one always needed help, did he not? So it would seem.
"Then please come in," Mr H. J. advised his new member. It was a membership club; you filled out an application, which was officiated by Mr H. J. both as instructor - this was to certify that you were physically fit enough to undergo the regime - and as proprietor - this being the certification which extended you the privilege of full membership. He used a signature stamp instead of actually signing the two places he needed to sign; having once seen this done, he endeavored to get his own signature stamp made. He practiced his signature for days to get it right before going to the Stamping Ground for his stamp. He was thinking of changing the membership application to add yet a third signature blank, but as yet had not come up with anything appropriate.
"Congratulations," he informed the stranger, "you are now a full member. I suppose we had better get right to it, had we not?" The new member agreed. The office was just inside the door, separated from the gymnasium by a divider; otherwise it was all one room. The stranger was now led to the gym to begin searching for that elusive totality of being. A moderate sized room with mats covering the floor except for aisle ways where one could walk, while off to the side was a shoe rack, complete with shoe trees in case you felt your shoes might need help retaining their shape. There appeared to be no equipment; neither was there much light, just an overhead lamp and the morning sun from two narrow windows at the back. The stranger was explaining that he had had a little trouble finding the place, owing, he felt, to the slight confusion in the address: it was the "North East" which had fooled him. Ah, and how so? Well, there was no compliment, that was, no South or West Frame Street. Ah yes, now Mr H. J. understood: that could be confusing, but someone had once visited the nation's capital, Washington D. C. - had the stranger ever been there? Yes, he had, and had he liked it? no comment, as he reached for his collar - anyway, someone had been so impressed with the infinity of street designations there that he - supposedly it was the original Mr Frame - had designated his street along similar lines - and by the way, had the stranger been similarly impressed? well, not entirely so; oh, but surely a city which had no fewer than four separate Capitol Streets could not be unimpressive, could it? It could also be confusing, if you were trying to find, say, South Capitol Street, or O Street South West, or simply if you were trying to find your way out of the city: it was an appropriate location for a government, the stranger felt, because once caught up in it, there was practically no escape! Ah, so the stranger either had a sense of humor or was perhaps an anarchist! Or both. No, it was a fact that anarchists lacked a sense of humor, Mr H. J. remembered reading that someplace, and he could vouch for it out of personal experience because he once suspected someone - right here in this very town! - of being an anarchist, and the person in question had no sense of humor whatsoever. In fact - and this was the strangest thing anyone had ever heard of - this same anarchist had once accused him, Mr. H. J., of being a homosexual - which they called queer in those days, by the say! - if anyone could believe anything so stupid. Admittedly, he was exceptionally fond of young boys, and often invited them in to watch them tumble and wrestle one another; but that was strictly for business reasons, you could rest assured of that - it was just to see how those at the peak of athletic perfection performed, so he could better design his regimen. But heavens, look how he was going on, when such an important task as the discovery of a new totality was waiting to begin.
"No," he explained in response to an inquiry by the stranger, "I'm afraid we're a little short of equipment right now. We're pretty much limited to calisthenics. Some of my boys express a desire for weights - you know boys: they want to make their muscles big and hard. Just like boys, is it not? I am planning to get jump ropes, you might be interested to know. I'm planning a new advertisement campaign. My new handbills will read 'Jump Into Health!' What do you think? And of course, my boys often express a preference for athletic supporters and gym shorts, so I may have to stock those too. I'd like to put in lockers for the boys out back, but I'm afraid it's too costly. Well, enough of that, let's get to work."
Sit-ups, push-ups, running in place, deep knee bends, rhythm breathing: these formed the nucleus of the physical fitness program. Assisted by H. J., who held the stranger's feet while he did sit-ups, and timed him while he ran, and pressed his chest to demonstrate the proper breathing rhythm, the stranger began soon to work up a sweat, at noticing which the instructor asked if his student wished to rest awhile: he would not want to overdo, and the sweat could just be an early sign of fatigue. No, that was alright, the stranger would continue his work-out. Alright, he knew best, but at least let Mr H. J. wipe the sweat from his brow.
The gentleman went and got a clean towel and, as his student continued exercising, he gently mopped his face and, very gently, his touch so light it felt to the stranger almost like a breeze, he wiped his arms, then a little where beads of sweat were forming on his hair at the back of the neck and behind his ears. A very gentle, kind look brightened the gentleman's face as he went about cleaning the stranger of sweat. "There," he said when he was finished. He was thanked; his student continued exercising until, perhaps half an hour more and time again to be dried off, Mr H. J. insisted he take a rest, going to prepare a cool drink for him. "Here," he said, "lemonade, but not too cold, it's bad for you to take beverages too cold when you're hot. That's what I tell my boys, even on the hottest days. They must not take too cold a beverage. And they must rest, they mustn't wear themselves out. Imagine anyone thinking I was homosexual. Everyone knows homosexuals are bad for boys, and every boy in this town swears by me. I've never done wrong by a one of them. Imagine even an anarchist calling me queer."
By noon the stranger's workout was over. The gym was still empty except for him. That was because it was a school day, H. J. explained as he assisted his student in a few last sit-ups; having perceived the stranger growing tired, he insisted upon helping him perform these final sit-ups, and absolutely forbade his attempting any more for fear of straining his muscles. But if he really wanted to see it when it was crowded, then come on a Saturday afternoon: the place was jammed then. With the greatest difficulty did he assist in the final sit-ups; his height made it difficult to stoop down low enough to help his student lean forward then lift up again, but he was determined not to let this workout fatigue him. Nine, ten - he was huffing worse than his student - and that was absolutely it, the workout was over. And now that it was, how about a shower? And where was the shower? Out back. So the stranger went out back, but saw no shower, only a hose on the ground which his instructor explained he used to hose off his boys after their workouts, at least temporarily, until he could afford to install real showers.
"Of course," H. J. pointed out, "we can't use this in the winter, it's too cold out here. Not usually, anyway." It was private out back, fenced in, a small area, and the grass looked inviting, so the stranger got undressed and, feeling the grass with his bare feet, was hosed down by his health instructor, who then handed him a fresh towel to dry off with. The water had been fairly warm so drying off was easy.
Back out on Frame Street North East, his instructor waving goodbye to him one last time before shutting the door to the Health Spa, the stranger felt good, felt as if he had gained something from his workout. Nothing new, or Total, but something nice nevertheless, and he felt good about it, though he doubted if he would go back again. He tightened his collar as he neared Main Street. The gentleman, it occurred to him, had seen his neck very clearly, the mark on his neck, the rope burn, yet had said nothing. A very nice workout indeed, in a very - perhaps understandably - discreet, if poorly equipped, spa. But now it was Main Street again, and on the corner the building wasn't so run down, it was a drug store, in it was the remains of a fountain: a counter, six stools that swiveled, if you sat there awhile you might get the sensation of being taken back in time to when such places were the rule, and various pieces of equipment, a milkshake machine, a dispenser for chocolate, and a few others all abandoned like tanks in a jungle somewhere left behind by hastily retreating troops.
The stranger bought a few shaving and other personal items, asked why the fountain had been closed, was told it had been a maneuver to cut overhead and thus lower prices; but as there was no other pharmacy in town, a point the stranger made, it seemed an unnecessary move which, actually, the pharmacist owned, it was although it seemed sensible at the time, all the big drug chains were doing it, so he simply followed suit. He missed it though. And who knew: maybe some day he'd reopen it. He missed the children stopping in after school for a soda. Yes, who knew but what the future might see his fountain reopened? That was, unless the Health Department refused him a license. And did he think they might? the stranger wondered. Well, once they got a health inspector, which they did not have a present, nor had they ever, but once they did, then yes, he very much doubted if he'd be granted a license. But why? wasn't his place clean? Indeed it was! but he could not afford the new equipment specified by Health Department regulations; it all had to be stainless, and that, as everyone knew, could get to be quite costly. Some people maintained that the Health Department was in fact primarily in the equipment business; this, based on the apparent equation of new and costly equipment with good and glowing health - did the new mayor have any thoughts on the matter? Well, no, he'd have to study it, that being what mayors did. So true, so true. Well, good day. Yes, a good day to you too Mr Mayor. The stranger left with his personal supplies. The pharmacist went to sit among his thoughts, revolve a bit, maybe even get a little dizzy, as the kids used to often complain of, which they claimed accounted for their sometimes forgetting to pay for their soda before leaving; but revolve as he might, he could not return to those times, he had abandoned them, and now it was stainless, or nothing, and the cost was too great, so it was nothing.
The stranger stood a moment on Main Street. It was slightly overcast; in places the sun's rays filtered through the clouds and would have presented a stunning landscape but for the haze, always the haze, in March - in Spring, in general - the haze was everywhere, it kept the sun at a distance, either blurry or veiled or else like a fog. From October to May you could see no sun, there were almost no sunsets or sunrises, no spectacular color, and no radiant blue sky. The cold kept dust out of the air: was that why? Did the sun require dusts to elicit its aesthetics? Perhaps it did, everywhere there seemed a need for decay, nature had evidently commissioned this world to run on death. Life and joy and beauty: merely fuel for its fires. The stranger turned. Time to eat, he thought.
"Oh thank God I found you!" exclaimed an alderman, or some sort of city official, no one knew exactly what he did except to go for things, or deliver messages, or call people to put them on hold while someone waited to speak to them. He was elected though, not appointed; the slot on the ballot read "Extra," referring to his being extraneous to the actual needs of city government, although, his services, whatever they were, being deemed a requirement, his position was kept open, his name kept on the ballot. His name was Rondo Lisp, he had been named, so he insisted, for a famous author, his first name anyway, though he was at a loss to refer anybody to anything this author had ever written. He was a young man, barely thirty, but stood with a slight hunch to his shoulders, and was very thin, he claimed from not knowing his precise place in the scheme of things. At one point he was accused of murder; it had proven an awkward situation for the town since no victim was ever discovered, but that was the sort of bizarre thing which periodically happened to him.
He held firm to the stranger's arm, as if he feared his escape, while he explained the cause of his excitement. Unfortunately, he spoke so rapidly that his message came out as if from one of those voice scrambles.
"Nairs pte mneed a ny s ab lulie tential jewb dare sat dem surm," the alderman was pleased to inform the new mayor, who believed he'd very much like to have that repeated, perhaps a little slower. In time the alderman calmed down enough that, after the sixth or seventh repeat, the message was able to be discerned.
"There's a PTA meeting tonight. It's absolutely essential that you be there. It's at seven thirty." Then the alderman asked "Can you make it?"
"Yes, I'd be honored," replied the stranger.
"Hot damn!" the alderman declared and quickly ran off to deliver the good news to city hall. Pretty soon there came a clanging and a crash from the side street where, seconds earlier, the alderman had disappeared. In a few more seconds he came limping around the corner. "Don't worry," he called to the stranger, "I'm alright, it was just the street cleaner's cart." With this he waved goodbye and turned, again disappearing down Hall Street, named for city hall, which stood at its terminus. A moment later the street cleaner came along, pulling his open cart in which sat a single garbage can. Strung from the tubular steel frame were a dust pan and a whisk broom. He took off his hat to his new mayor who, even though he had not voted for just in case he should prove a crook, he nevertheless supported wholeheartedly. He swept everywhere he spotted dirt or paper, and noticing the mayor's shoes a little dusty he offered to sweep them clean but that was alright he was told. Well, if he changed his mind, look for him over at 33rd Street, where he'd be for awhile: it was a dirty street, some riff raff lived there, and they had been observed time and again putting their cigarettes out right on the pavement! They should be fined, Mr Mayor, shouldn't they? Well, he'd look into it. This pleased the street cleaner, who was also the disc jockey at the local radio station. He cleaned streets because he believed in it, and in the evenings he liked to think he cleaned the airways: he only played wholesome music, and he had found the key of G sharp major the most wholesome of them all.
"There's a trend," he would say, "toward preserving our morals in this great country nowadays. I like to think I'm part of it. I won't play hard rock or erotic jazz unless it's in the key of G or C; I've never known anything bad to come from those keys. As for easy listening, it can be even in the minor modes as far as I'm concerned!'
It was beginning to look as if he would never get to lunch this afternoon when just then his old guide the Specialton boy came along, with no less than an invitation to dinner at the Specialton household "whether he bought the place or not!" And Mrs Specialton, the stranger should please be advised, was none other than a famous escaped concubine of the King of France, noted the world over for her exquisite cuisine. How in God's name could anyone refuse such an invitation? The stranger was forced to admit that, in fact, no one could, under no circumstance.
In March the houses were all cool, in the mornings the furnaces ran; the sun as yet could do little to heat people's houses, it was too early. The stranger - the new mayor of Nowheresville, elected by unanimous write-in vote, fully a third of the voters designating him their choice - had never entered anyone's home in Nowheresville till the Specialtons had him to dinner Thursday afternoon. They quibbled politely over the correct nomenclature: was it dinner or was it rather lunch? They drank toasts, before and after the meal both, to the health of the various tasks facing the new mayor; he thanked them. They served roast duckling, which the Specialton boy insisted was cackling, though when pressed for a proof he simply laughed. Dinner finished, the party retired to the den for coffee.
"Being the mayor you'll want a mayor's mansion," Mr Specialton took the liberty of pointing out. "And one equidistant from all parts of town. This one you're in now's been surveyed, it sits square in the middle of the town's circumference, all four corners face into it, it's a perfect polyhedron from back to front, top to bottom. Far as I'm concerned it's all things to all men and I wouldn't dream of putting it up for sale if it weren't so perfect a spot. Now I know all your belongings were lost in some sort of catastrophe - the sea stole upon the land or some such calamity: hurricane Guinevere or some such, wasn't it? - so I know you can't make an outright purchase, all your money's at the bottom of the ocean just waiting for treasure hunters 200 years from now. But if you'll look around you'll find something new in the world and that's leasing. Well that's fine too if it's your preference, but what I was thinking was more in terms of the city purchasing this house of its new mayor outright. Now it's true we don't have the money just yet but we've been thinking for years of introducing sales and income taxes - the one on what you buy, the other on what you earn, being a politician you may already be familiar with the principle, in fact there's some talk of you being an economist with the Brookings Institute, I don't know if it's just talk - but anyway, the point is we've never been able to come up with any expenditures so we couldn't start taxing. Now I know a lot of our citizens are disappointed, they feel the world's passing them right by, so I've introduced a measure to allot money for buying a mayor's mansion. If it all works out alright, me and my family's going to have to be looking for a new home. You look around you now, you see we've got a lot of memories collected, lot of nice things, we hate to just pack up and move, but when it's for the good of the town we just have no choice. Our duty's clear. What do you say? As mayor do you support the resolution?"
Could he think about it awhile? the new mayor wondered. What was there to think about? Well, to be truthful, he hated to be the instrument of initiating taxation in Nowheresville. Why? he was mayor wasn't he? who better than the new mayor to do it? Besides, Mr Specialton vaguely hinted that as the mayor received no salary and as the stranger had no other visible means of support, it seemed to follow that he was by definition a vagrant; now this posed a problem for the city council, which had often drawn up laws concerning vagrancy: they felt the people tended to forget the old laws so they drew up new ones every year or so; and frankly, without a place of residence - and one, that was, verified by the postal authorities, who tended not to view a rented hotel room as a legal place of residence - it would be difficult not to have a summons issued to the new mayor on a charge of vagrancy. So, all things considered, it looked to be to the stranger's advantage to support the measure.
Nevertheless, he preferred to think on it. That was of course his prerogative, but it would be advisable to decide one way or the other by Saturday - and, of course, he would be at the big picnic, wouldn't he? Yes, he certainly would. Ah, excellent, the Specialton's would be sure to look for him. And did he know how to get to the Grove? Yes, he believed he could find it. Good, then till Saturday, goodbye, and thanks for joining them for lunch, or dinner, or whatever it was called.
The stranger was summarily ushered out immediately upon completion of the parting amenities. The air was chilled, the sun had gone in, the clouds had won this go around. Rain threatened; for a while it threatened, then in a sudden downpour fulfilled it threat, the stranger, being conversant with March's ways, initiating a brisk run to the Merrimac and Monitor Hotel which, when Mr H. J., passing along lower Frame Street with an umbrella, saw it he took it to be a jog and smiled approvingly, just barely made the hotel before the downpour hit. Out of breath.
"Something the matter?" asked the night clerk upon observing his guest slightly panting.
The stranger said with a wink, intending to indicate the weather, "They're after me." Then he went up to his room. In no time at all the night clerk had filled three-quarters of a sheet and tucked it away in the stranger's file; he had desperately feared his guest might stop and chat, which could have done him two disservices at one: he might have forgotten to note this strange, mystical statement - and it had to be transcribed absolutely verbatim - and he might, almost as bad, have found himself with too much data to handle. Oh God, he thought, for a 360! It was quiet in his hotel from three o'clock, when his notes were completed, to quarter after seven, when his guest reappeared to inform him of going out to the PTA meeting.
"And what time does it start?" the night clerk asked right off.
"Seven thirty," replied the stranger.
"Do you plan on coming straight back, do you know? Or perhaps you don't yet know at this point. I'll want to have a little snack ready for you," the night clerk hastened to add lest his prying expose his underlying motive. He did not choose to have it generally known that he maintained such complete records. Partly he didn't wish to be seen as a spy or a town gossip; but primarily he wished to avoid being questioned about things. He considered his notes his private business, which he might elect to make public if the occasion warranted but which he preferred to file safely away.
"I should be back by nine-thirty," the stranger replied, then went on to add "you might want to make a note of that," a perfectly innocent quip which, nevertheless, mortified the night clerk, who came away from the encounter so shaken that he could barely write it all down. He waited until the stranger was well out before going to his files, muttering a string of disbeliefs every step of the way. So it was true after all, what everyone generally believed, that a man upon becoming an elected official became at once endowed of an uncanny insight into people's hearts and minds and souls, into the world around him, and indeed into the very nature of things. The night clerk always wore a black string tie, sometimes tied into a bow, sometimes hanging loose; it always seemed to annoy the stranger. He now undid it, his neck was warm, he wished not to soil his freshly starched shirt collar. He had heard once that there was in this world such a thing as having unsightly rings winding as if little strips of gangrene about one's collar; God forbid this should befall his clothing. A sudden peal of thunder sent his pen flying from his fingers. Oh but this felt like a portentous night; he felt like the last monk alive, perhaps hiding in the basement of an abandoned abbey on a fortress overlooking a desert, writing his theology in anticipation of an imminent attack by infidels who were certain to sack the place and with drawn scimitars martyr any poor monk they discovered, upon which they would defile his precious notes with his own blood. Oh they must be carefully hidden. Oh for a 360! Oh God for a 360!
The night became thunderous, its hollows filled with lightening, a syncopated pattern as of heads springing out at a funhouse took hold of the sky for miles around, light dribbled into the shallows between buildings and disappeared into valleys long after it had actually faded, so that it flashed in perfect time with the thunder. It had not yet started to rain, except for nine or ten big drops that smeared like spit when they struck something. The school house was just up ahead. A noise, at first muffled then growing stronger as it neared, approached rapidly; it would soon overtake him, the rain was pursuing. It came from the East, and as he began to run Westward it sounded as if it too were running. In a last minute leap, as if clearing a precipice, he alighted on the porch, under cover just as the rain hit, escaping getting drenched. He straightened his demeanor and, after a moment of holding firm to the faded bronze doorknob with beaded notches tapering its circumference to a good grip, he opened the door. It was a likeable doorknob, your hand didn't slip when you tried to turn it, it wasn't very polished, and it didn't seem to require matching sets of keys to coax it unlocked, or dead bolts to preserve it from forced entry. It made you think of your own childhood; you didn't imagine - couldn't imagine - the day would ever come when you would fear your fellow man's entrance; only that of monsters and wild beasts whose paws were capable of the most intricately skilled manipulations of doorknobs and light switches - they could suddenly turn on your light or creep over to lift up your covers and there to expose you no matter how still you kept. But as your fear of wild beasts diminished, your fear of...yet wilder beasts...grew. A one room schoolhouse was all there was. The PTA all smiled and said hello to their most welcome guest. Some members even stood up; some remained seated. At her desk at the front of the room was the teacher. She never once got up. She seemed to be afraid to, as if someone might as a prank pull out her chair just as she was about to re-seat herself.
"You all know the new mayor," someone said, at which everyone, even those who had never gotten a good look at him, not up close, and had never been introduced, agreed that yes they did know him, quite well in fact. And of course he knew al of them? Well, in a general sort of way he did. Ah! that was the best way! And everyone laughed. Someone offered the stranger a seat, but warned him he would not likely get away before rising to address the gathering. Everyone laughed again. The stranger sat down. The teacher looked at him very hard, about the face especially, as if to detect sighs of gum chewing, which made him a little uneasy, which in turn made him tug at his collar.
"It is a bit brisk in here," somebody noted, at which the teacher, without wanting to seem pedantic, felt it her duty nevertheless to point out the infelicity of the statement. "In the very strictest sense," she explained, "it can never be brisk indoors, as churning winds and icicle raindrops are ever inferred in the term. But if it could be brisk indoors, I should like nothing better than for it to be so in my classroom." Here she laughed, and actually spoke a few words, evidently to herself. She sat off a ways from the others, her desk naturally removed from the student's desks. She did not entirely feel as though she were speaking to these people, but about them somehow. It troubled her that while her pupils were vividly real to her, these the members of the PTA often seemed like part of a lesson plan she was preparing for tomorrow's class. She found herself longing for the meeting to be over, for the day to be over, for tomorrow's classes to begin. It wasn't quite that she lived to teach but that she lived for the hours of the day when she could be a teacher; an she felt less like a teacher among these, the disinterested observers who were no longer part of the process, who had become separated from, had gone outside, the dynamic, and who cold not experience the intensity or understand the urgency of the classroom. It was like a secret, closed society, where only the initiated could partake of the ritual. These were not students, these were outsiders, and she secretly wished them gone.
"We have to settle on the school budget," one of the city council members was explaining. "Normally, we just all chip in and pay the expenses, but what we'd like is to have the school budget come out of our taxes."
"So really," someone else joined in, "this is more a political forum than a PTA meeting," at which statement the teacher began reciting things to herself, her lips moving but no sound being emitted. One or two of the PTA thought perhaps she wished to say something, was getting ready to, but wanted an opportunity; at several points they were about to say something to that effect; but each time the teacher would suppress a laugh, finally turning away altogether, causing them to conclude her conversation to be entirely private, making them feel slightly embarrassed at intruding on her privacy.
"We've got to hash this thing out once and for all!" someone else insisted. Everyone agreed, several repeating the statement verbatim, prefaced by a "Yes" or an "Indeed" or a "By all means" or a "There can be no question of it." The stranger found himself getting hungry and was frankly stunned when somebody came right out and suggested they all retire to the Gravee Train for a bowl of corned beef hash. The one or two who had been embarrassed at catching the teacher talking to herself now turned a deep red, as if this incident had given them the perfect opportunity of blushing. No one, however, seconded the motion, so the PTA did not betake itself to the Gravee Train for a snack.
"Do we want taxes or don't we!" an impassioned moderate implored.
"Think what it would mean to the future economy of our town," a dry goods retailer observed. But when asked just what it would mean, he pleaded rhetoric: his question had been rhetorical, he didn't see how anyone could have failed to detect that.
The question is, do we want our children to starve!" exclaimed the local grocer. And did he think without taxes they would. Well, no. Ah, then with taxes they would? It was looking bad for the proponents. Well, no, they shouldn't be so hasty, he was not really saying that either. Then what was he saying? Well, actually, only that as a grocer he harbored an abiding animosity toward starvation, and he did not want to live to see another single child in Nowheresville starve to death.
"Another?" the stranger asked in great alarm, which everyone took to be a manifestation of that heightened sensitivity to the needs of humanity his being a politician had naturally engendered in him. "Do you mean a child has actually starved to death here?"
"Well not exactly," the grocer was compelled to admit. "It just seems to me I distinctly remember an incident some years back. I can't quite recall the details, but I'm just sure there was something about a child being found in the old mill. It's been abandoned for years though. Just outside of town. They used to ground wheat. But it cost so much to have the wheat - we can't grow wheat around here, soil's not right. We found it was cheaper to buy bread than make our own. We would have liked to have made our own though. Never is the taste so sweet as when it comes from your own sugar bowl."
Several people blushed, began to squirm in their seats, grew hot around the collar. The teacher began moving her lips and suppressing laughs again, taking up a few pencils to sharpen with a little clear plastic sharpener that left shavings on her lap.
"What about the child?" the stranger again asked.
"Well," explained the sheriff, "we tried someone for the murder."
"The murder?" cried the stranger. The sound of his voice distracted the teacher, who was forced to go back over her last few words.
"We had to acquit him," the sheriff was forced to admit. "We couldn't find the body. Strangest thing though how we all could have sworn there'd been a child starved to death. We took a census, couldn't find any missing children. So we had to acquit him. Sent him on his way. Came that close to hanging him though. Not that we'd ever hang anyone for real, just kind of to make an official entry in the register, then maybe let him off - what else can you do? What's done is done. Killing two won't make the third's grief go away. That was as close as we ever came to having a murder. Just a vagrant, passing through, going nowhere. Gotta do something with him. Try him for murder -"
"Or make him mayor!" the stranger quipped. No one laughed, except the teacher, whose laughter was afterward speculated not to have proceeded from anything the stranger had said.
"But what about taxes?" someone cried in desperation. "How will the widows and orphans survive?"
"But we all chip in when anyone's in need," it was noted.
"But we might not always!" it was pointed out.
"We might choose not to pay our taxes too!" was retorted.
"We have to do that, once they're approved! It's the only sure way of getting things done," several proponents observed in unison, though each in slightly different words.
"For my part," said a lady who had hitherto remained quiet, "I trust people better than I do laws or institutions."
"Just the reverse madam, just the reverse!" cried the owner of the local hardware store, whose son was at present away at law school somewhere. "You can put your trust in steel not to rust! Show me a person you can say that about!"
The teacher, her thoughts once more disturbed, tapped her hand on her desk to get everyone's attention. "An inexact metaphor," she stated ominously, then once again retreated from her surroundings, this time shaking her head as if keeping time to a musical selection.
"I say we put it to a vote," somebody said, but upon receiving questioning glances hastened to point out that it was the issue of taxation, not that of metaphors, he intended to put to a vote. Everyone felt relieved at this; they preferred not to vote on intangibles, as you never knew where they were likely to lead. Anyway, who would be foolish enough to say what made a good metaphor, what did not? especially when it all depended on what you happened to like, which in turn depended on how you perceived and evaluated the world around you. Just such a discussion in fact once came up in Nowheresville, in this very classroom. Playing the devil's advocate, for aesthetic matters, somebody took the position that there were hard and fast, rigid rules, to the guardians of which application must be made before any - repeat: any - metaphor could be set to paper; this, in order to maintain both consistently high standards and taste and a direct link to the culture proper. Somebody else maintained that as individuals, not whole cultures, created works of art, it was not the business of anyone to regulate the artist's psyche. A third held the middle ground, that since the artist had gotten his ideas mainly from the external world, he ought to be responsive to its preferences. A passing hobo, having stopped to rest in the shade of the schoolhouse porch, overhead the discussion; it was a hot day, the window was open, he peeked his head in and whispered an opinion or his own, to the effect that all art was bunk inasmuch as it seemed not to matter if the holiest saint or the vilest sinner created it, and if a man could beautify the world with blood and gore still on his hands then the world gained very little from art. But the hobo was forgetting something, wasn't he? And what was that? He was forgetting that the artist was above all moral concerns. Here the hobo shocked everyone present by stating that as far as he was concerned morality was as much bunk as was art or politics or economics or religion or anything else, and while the artist was above morality so was everyone else - but what, please, did that have to do with anything?: you did not have to be moral to refrain from hurting others, beyond what nature seemed to mandate, that was. No, he said he would as soon live on garbage as on haute cuisine prepared with soiled fingers. And what, pray tell, was haute cuisine? It was French, it referred to the supremest delicacies one could possibly eat. Oh yes, now that he mentioned it that was what they thought it meant. After he bid his farewell, they had somebody take down the expression, which they found a use for that very week. The country club, recently opened, advertised itself as specializing in "Oat Cuisine," which everyone expressed having had an impatience for all along.
"Who's in favor of taxes?" it was asked, but immediately objected to as requiring a referendum placed on the ballot; this objection, however, was overruled. The tally was counted. "And who's against having taxes?" was now asked. Once again the teacher broke in; she asked them please to use parallel construction whenever possible: they had voted in favor of taxes but against having taxes. It was confusing. So they re-voted, strictly adhering to observing the rules of grammar, with the same result: it was decided to initiate taxation. The vote was unanimous, even the opponents at the last minute rallying behind their community's interest.
Everyone was stunned when the stranger arose to address the PTA. He had not been officially asked to do so as yet, but it was something else which stunned the PTA: it was what he had to say.
"As mayor," he said, "I hereby veto the motion. I object to having the citizens taxed. It is not needed, at least not at this time. I am not opposed to taxation per se, where there is a clear need demonstrated; but I am opposed to anything being arbitrarily undertaken. You seem to feel you need taxation solely because others have it. Don't assume everything you see around you to be worthwhile. You have here one of the finest towns I've ever been in. And why is it so fine? It is fine precisely because you have so much difficulty making the senseless, meaningless stupidities of the outside world work for you. If I may say so, you are too fine a people, the institutions you have sought to import into your town neither fit you nor would wear well on you if they could be made to fit. Don't throw away what you have for the sake of other people's castoffs, or other people's chains, or other people's meanness, their pettiness or their foolishness. You reach out and help one another when you perceive it's needed - don't throw something so precious away by institutionalizing it. You don't need taxes. Act out, live, even be all the clichés you care to be; except one. Don't let death and taxes become the only things certain or inevitable. When you need taxes - when you cease being the generous, loving people you are now - have no fear: they'll be there waiting for you. But for now I'll say goodnight; I know you'd like to think this over, maybe discuss it; and it'd be easier without me here. If I don't see you before Saturday, I hope to see you at the picnic. Good night."
With this, and a courteous bow, the stranger left, and walked through the March night back to his room at the Merrimac and Monitor Hotel. No sooner had the door closed behind him than everyone began to wonder if they had not just been insulted, at first silently then, as first one then another voiced his concern, with increasing intensity, till at last it was boldly suggested that their new mayor might even be a foreign agent sent to subvert their political system, thereby rendering them vulnerable to all manner of sabotage, perhaps even to a military invasion. And look how skillfully he wormed his way into office, all the while pretending not really to be interested. Yes, and don't forget his open attempt to win over the minds of their children. Oh yes, that was one of their traits alright: they always try to turn the children against their parents. And he was in cahoots with Mr H. J. - yes, it was true, he'd been seen talking to him just outside his Health Spa, and that silly old man wouldn't realize till it was too late that he was being duped by the stranger, who clearly meant to use him to brainwash the town's boys - and as everyone knew, boys were harder to brainwash than girls because they thought of nothing but hotrods and jock straps. It was all falling into place now. The only puzzle was why it had taken them so long to see it. But if they acted quickly there might still be time to save their community; but they had to stick together. Yes, absolutely. The only thing they needed to learn in order for their strategy -
"Counter strategy," the teacher corrected the PTA.
Yes, counter strategy: all they needed to make it work was to discover which foreign nation he was working for. Well, he had a kind of German look to him, did he not? Yes, but that could be a clever disguise, don't forget: he might be an Arab in German's clothing. And for God sake don't leave out the Russians: it was just like them to pull something like this, didn't everyone think so? and weren't they well known to pretend to be Arabs pretending to be Germans? Or the Chinese: didn't they have operations now to fix the eyes and even to put a curl to one's hair? A permanent wave was not really an operation, however; perhaps they should be more attentive to their vocabulary, the teacher recommended. Yes, ma'am, they would have to.
"Could he be British?" someone asked, and instantly a hush befell the PTA. Everyone there had precisely the same thought, which someone ventured to make explicit.
"The freeway?" he said, almost in a panic.
"Our invitation?" said another.
"The late Prime Minister?" yet another added.
"Oh my God," expressed several members of the PTA simultaneously. "The Queen of England, or the Queen Mother, we forget which: isn't she related in some way to Sir Winston?"
"She must be: otherwise why would there be a Winston Castle?"
Here the teacher banged her hand on her desk passionately. "Learn the lessons of history!" she stormed, "and you won't have to repeat them! It's Windsor Castle, not Winston Castle! There is no royal residence named for Churchill!" History was of all subjects her favorite.
"Actually, we were thinking more of a cathedral," somebody tentatively suggested, but the teacher at once got up, called the unruly person to the blackboard, and made him write fifty times "Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it." He misspelled the word "doomed" toward the end; it came out "doomer." At last, however, while he was carrying out his sentence, the rest of the PTA resolved on a plan to determine the stranger's origin, which they would put into effect at Saturday's picnic. Satisfied that all was not yet lost, they adjourned the meeting and left; except for the one who had been punished. He was suffered to remain after the meeting to clear the blackboard.
* * * *
Friday it rained all day. Everyone feared the picnic to be in jeopardy; luckily though it began to clear toward evening. The town seemed even quieter than usual. From his window the stranger found himself wondering at several points whether he was not holed up in one of those Western ghost towns one met with, mostly in the movies, but if one traveled, as the stranger did, met with in person. He kept expecting tumbleweeds at every turn to show up at the periphery of his view, from there to advance, first slowly then as the wind picked up more quickly, ever deeper into the streets of Nowheresville, like a gang of outlaws; but they never showed. It felt like the traditional mining town, abandoned when the ore ran out: a town built entirely on something the town itself could not use, had no earthly need for, still all the same lived and eventually died for, something evidently needed or wanted elsewhere, the town's unwary inhabitants conned into providing, as it turned out at their own inevitable loss. And so it went, always went. People serving some intangible requirement, using themselves up, draining away their energy, their vitality, their lives, in order to preserve some cultural hocus-pocus which in a thousand year, or a hundred, or even by March of 1981 will have vanished anyway, supplanted by some other burning issue or some other absolute code or some other divine plan. The Powers That Be in this universe had a back pocket chucked full of Eternal Plans and Truths and all the other goodies which sleight of hand could display to unsuspecting mankind: God too had His snake oil. The Romans, the Greeks, the Mayas, the Aztecs, the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Incas: they had all had their Nowheresville too, their rules, their ways, their very latest, up-to-datest fads, which set undoubtedly every bit as well and looked every bit as enticing up there on Cloud Nine - which institutionalized as perfectly as anything the stranger had encountered in this the Biggest Little Town North of the Mississippi, which on a rainy Friday, the 21st of March in the year 1980, appeared to be deserted. You cannot have people without culture, the stranger knew it. Professor Marvelous, who toured the cosmos with all the absolutes of his menagerie stuck under the middle shell, always the middle, the people of this universe always chose the middle - the good professor had said so.
The stranger knew what would happen. He had not lied when he called these citizens of Nowheresville generous and loving: they were. But he knew what would happen come Saturday, He knew he would be turned out of office, perhaps run out of town on the traditional "rail," if they had one here in Nowheresville to run him out on. He knew. He had not nearly been hanged for nothing: not for nothing. They too had been loving and generous, they too had taken him in, they too had tried as best they could to incorporate him into their community; they too had turned on him when they found him still unconverted, still not one of them after all their efforts. They tried to hang him, but more to scare him than to hurt him. They had not known the horse they had set him on, half in jest, half in tribute to an old ideal, would bolt just at the last minute. It was a miracle he was saved, his neck unbroken, his windpipe uncrushed. They hauled him down, revived him, apologized, sent him on his way, a free man. For the sake of adherence to some abstract formula laid down sometime, somewhere, by someone, a human being was almost killed. Without the cohesion of a culture, life as we know it, on this earth, would be impossible.
The stranger smiled. The wind was blowing a few dead grasses along the street.
* * * *
The day of the picnic opened with a rainbow. Sort of a rainbow. The true rainbows, it seemed, appeared only at evening, only in the East, from the sun in the West; this one was faint, as if a mirrored rainbow from somewhere very distant, and of short duration, as if a summary of last evening's rainbow, wherever it may have been. A very brief shower had marked the end of the rain, very early Saturday morning, then it fogged up, not really fog but mist as sometimes the aftermath of a rainstorm becomes before it finally dissipates: lingering traces which when the sun rises high enough catch something of its spectrum and hold it a moment. Not a true arch but one broken at one end, and a rather smallish one. Then it faded, just about the time everyone was awakening so that no one saw it except the son of Mr and Mrs Specialton, who had been awakened several times in the night by what he took to be the cries of his little brother, though they were actually the rumblings of his stomach: he had eaten too many homemade candies which his mother was preparing for the picnic and in the dead of night they became transformed into a baby's whimperings. He had no brother, his brother, who would have been three years his junior, had died at birth. The death was never officially recorded, everyone thinking everyone else had done it. The boy had been born, his birth certificate filled out, then it was realized he was stillborn, and everyone was too stunned to do anything. Nowheresville had no record of the boy's death, and now his spirit had taken, it would seem, the form of chocolate mints in his brother's belly for a restless, rainy night's duration. The boy saw the rainbow, thought of his dead brother, then went back to bed. In half an hour he was again awakened, this time by a pain in his belly, a familiar pain the significance of which he understood. Hurrying to the bathroom, he vomited, then he began crying into the commode, wishing the day would get on.
"You shouldn't have eaten so many candies," his mother advised him. "I warned you, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did," the boy replied, getting up to go back to his room, feeling a bit better now that his belly had been relieved of the previous evening's burden. He slept awhile more, then arose feeling much better and ready and eager, full of excitement, enthusiasm and anticipation for the big picnic on The Grove's front lawn. The sun was fully arisen, and the boy counted sixteen distinct kinds of rays emanating from it, precious information which he kept to himself. "I have X-Ray eyes," he looked into his mirror sidewise to announce; this too to be kept to himself. He took off his clothes, danced and ran and feigned boxing his shadow around the room, then got dressed in his corduroy pants, plaid flannel shirt, sneakers, and headed for the hall closet for his navy blue golf jacket - "for croquet!" he observed with a burst of laughter.
"Mom I can't eat breakfast, I'll die of stomach cramps if I do, I'll get something later at the picnic, bye." And he was off for the day's adventures, heading into town to the Merrimac and Monitor the very first thing. He stopped at the freeway, looked both ways, waited a moment as if allowing traffic to pass, then ran across, feigning to be out of breath from a near brush with death. A sight suddenly caught his eye, from a distance, coming toward him along the freeway: old man Hierophant at whose driveway the road abruptly ended just in time to respect a huge "Keep Out" sign, drawing a cart of some description after him. The boy, frightened of him, withdrew to an alleyway and down behind a garbage can where, after a short wait, he would be able to observe the old man going past, hopefully get a glimpse of whatever was in his cart. It was not a wheelbarrow; no, not a wheelbarrow, but a little hand drawn cart, as one might expect to find in an agricultural museum. At last he drew beside the alleyway; the boy strained his eyes. The boy gasped, but old man Hierophant seemed not to have noticed for he kept right on, heading down the freeway beyond the other side of town. The boy crept to the corner and watched him disappear, but dared not follow him. In the cart lay the severed head of a pig, or what looked to the boy to be that. Blood...blood? was there blood? yes, yes, there had been, the boy was sure of it, the head lay swimming in blood. But was it pig's blood? or perhaps human blood? or red dye? No, it was blood alright, it was blood, it had that look about it; it was blood.
The boy ran as fast as he could to the hotel to inform the new mayor, slowing down, upon his entrance, just long enough to call to the night clerk: "There's been a murder!"
The night clerk grew feverish, sweat began trickling from his armpits to stain his shirt and from his forehead to sting his eyes: he had not washed his face yet this morning and the oils in one's skin tended, when one laughed or cried or sweated, to burn one's eyes, or so he had been told by his physician. What could he do? he wondered. Here was the most significant piece of news he had ever heard or very likely would ever hear again, and he burned, ached, longed to write it down. But where? Everything was so neatly filed, all his files so carefully maintained, so orderly, a name or a room number or a date of registration carefully labeled on each file, a perfect cross referencing index. Where could he put this news? Under whose name? what number? what date? Where?
The boy shouted out as he raced up the stairs: "I've got to go tell the mayor!"
"Ah yes yes yes, tell him, oh yes, dear God yes tell him!" the night clerk began muttering feverishly. He had been given the salvation to his dilemma, by the very boy who had given him the dilemma. He knew in a flash where this news was to go, had to go, where destiny decreed it go, and it clearly, so clearly, could not go anywhere else but there. Into the stranger's file, the new mayor's file, it must go. Filed with him, yes, right there with him. Of course: it was his affair, was him to whom it must be consigned, attributed, filed, placed, left, kept. Forever. The one to whom the message was delivered was the one to whom it must be forever affixed. Thank God for the logic of files, oh thank God thank God! Or else this most awesome bit of data must forever be lost to posterity, as if it had never happened. The night clerk shuddered a deep shudder at the dreadful thought that were it not for the existence of paper and pen and cabinets this terrible deed committed this the 22nd day of March in the year 1980, a Saturday, might never be made real to humanity, might never be brought to a clear focal image, might remain forever a faint, indistinct blur, a shadow, a smudge which at the last moment of time could render eternity imperfect, existence incomplete, and which God would have to strain His eyes to see.
A moment later the boy raced back down stairs, alone, crying out: "He's gone! He's not there! He's gone! The mayor's gone!" This too was noted. But before the boy could get out the door with this latest news, the door opened and in walked the stranger. And where had he been, my God where had he been all day? Why, he had been out, walking, since early this morning. But how? how could he have gotten out without the night clerk detecting him? Well, the night clerk had been fast asleep, his head on his desk, and the stranger had not wanted to disturb him. But he should have! he should have disturbed him! why had he been afraid to be seen leaving? what was he planning that he must be off so stealthfully? Was he planning - oh no, the night clerk dare not suggest it, it was too horrible to contemplate. Surely no guest of the Merrimac and Monitor Hotel/Motor Inn could ever be thought a murderer! Surely not! What, had the stranger murdered someone? the boy wondered aloud. He was growing so confused, the son of Mr and Mrs Specialton, and his stomach was beginning to hurt him once more, and he was beginning to remember his little dead brother again too. He began moaning, holding his stomach.
"Oh, my baby brother," he moaned, "my baby brother. He's dead. Dead and gone. Dead. Dead."
Both the mayor and the night clerk were stunned. The boy was led to a bathroom where he vomited, then he seemed to be alright again. But the thought lingered in everyone's mind: there had been a murder, the boy's baby brother was dead, and the stranger had been out walking all morning. Oh God, they all thought, how awful.
"You ready?" the boy looked up into the stranger's face to ask, his own face so eager, so innocent, it was as if nothing of what had just happened had really happened; and of course to him in a sense it hadn't happened, it was like his early morning dream, so real for a fleeting instant then gone and forgotten. He knew his brother had not just this day died, he knew there had been no murder, that maybe there had not even been the pig's head in old man Hierophant's cart - he knew all this, even if others did not, so he could forget it all as quickly as he fabricated it; even if they could not.
Yes, the stranger was ready, if reluctantly. Then had they not better get going? after all, a picnic awaited. But isn't it a bit early? Oh no, not if they wanted to watch the first croquet tournament of the season. And where was that being held? Why, at the Country Club of course! - that was, if the new mayor was a member: was he? Well no, he wasn't. Then they couldn't watch; this was terrible, just terrible, the boy was genuinely put out at this, he had so wanted to watch the tournament, but it was members only at the Country Club. Two families owned and ran the Nowheresville Country Club - well, no one was really sure about that - but as the stranger would see when they arrived at The Grove for the picnic, it was limited to members: posted as such, plain as day for anyone to see - what a pill! what a pill! a bitter pill to swallow! and did the stranger ever get choked on trying to swallow an aspirin tablet? Yes, he had. Then he damn well knew how the boy felt!
"You mean the same people who own the Country Club give the picnic?" the stranger asked. It seemed to him this very point had once before been raised, but the memory was indistinct and at the time it could not have held any significance for him, though now it seemed to.
"Sure," the boy replied, while the night clerk, patiently eavesdropping, nodded his head and made a mental note of the incident.
"But they give the picnic at their house?" the stranger further inquired. The two respondents nodded in the affirmative. "And not at the Country Club?" Now they looked puzzled: didn't the stranger realize their house was the Country Club? But then, didn't that make the picnic members only? The two laughed: of course not, who ever heard of limiting a picnic to just Country Club members?
"Let's go!" the boy insisted. It had just occurred to him that with the mayor along for safety, he might go investigate old man Hierophant's cart without fear of reprisal. And he had to know - he just had to know - if that really was a pig's head swimming in blood. "Come on, hurry up!" he cried as he ran for the door.
When the door had shut behind them, the night clerk went to the telephone, dialed the sheriff, related his suspicions and, especially, warned him to keep an eye on the stranger as he had taken the son of Mr and Mrs Specialton out God knew where and for all anyone knew intended to murder the boy, who most likely had witnessed the murder of his little brother early this morning. The sheriff thanked his informant and hung up, just in time to see the stranger and the boy go by; he watched as they turned the corner of the freeway and started up. It was isolated up there, where the road's origin had been buried under tons of dirt: plenty of room to kill a boy and bury his body, and no one would ever discover him. The sheriff crept outside and along Main Street, sticking close to the buildings, stopping in his tracks and breaking out in a cold sweat whenever he heard a noise, finally reaching the intersection of the freeway where, upon peeking around the corner, he spied the suspect and his victim on their way out of town. He waited till they were almost out of sight, then, breaking off a section of variegated hedge - the kind, luckily, which retains its green throughout the year - he placed it in front of him, as a camouflage should the suspect happen to glance around: not that he considered himself very well hidden behind it or that he imagined a moveable hedge inconspicuous, he was too well trained a lawman for that, but simply that from a great enough distance it would not appear to be moving, his camouflage, and furthermore only the uppermost part of his torso, the part mostly hidden, would show. But they never turned around.
Once outside town limits, the sheriff ducked into the gradually thickening woods, from there to effect while pursuing his suspect a relatively secure vantage point. Coming upon what appeared to be a fresh mound amid all the other mounds at the freeway's extremity, the stranger and the boy stopped. The road ended abruptly, covered in great mounds of earth out of which dozens of smaller mounds protruded, like graves in a hilly graveyard. The boy pointed to the fresh mound. Apparently old man Hierophant had already gone back home: it hadn't taken him long, or else had kept on going with his little cart into the uncharted regions lying beyond, in which case he would probably never again he heard from.
What lay out there? the stranger wondered, but the boy had no idea - no one had any idea. It had been as much to find out as for any other reason that the freeway had been built, the idea being that a great roadway would open up this vast unknown tract of wilderness; but who could have foreseen that the wilderness would descend down upon the road to block it? And now old man Hierophant had evidently gone beyond the limits of civilization, into the unknown, his little museum piece of a cart in tow, leaving behind him this, whatever it was he had buried here.
They had no shovels: how were they to unearth whatever he had buried without shovels? They must return to Nowheresville, there to get shovels, if they still wished to dig whatever it was up, perhaps get together a party of diggers. Did the boy think it was a body, was that it? had the old man buried a body?
"Or maybe a buried treasure!" the sheriff excitedly exclaimed before realizing that he had just given himself away. He had crept so close undetected, and was so proud of his effort, that he could overhear everything that was being said. He felt like a kid playing cowboys and rustlers, and only realized too late that he was acting like one too. Buried treasure indeed! he chided himself now, still holding his camouflage, oblivious apparently to its having in the space of five words become obsolete.
"Been picking flowers?" the boy asked, pointing to the hedge. The sheriff threw his camouflage down, it seemed suddenly to have become just the opposite of what he intended, he felt almost naked holding it; and he ran behind a tree and drew his gun, more out of embarrassment than anything else. Then on a sudden inspiration, evidently realizing how preposterous he must appear, he called out to the two he had been following "Stay where you are, I think we're being followed!" as if a fourth party had suddenly appeared on the scene. He picked up some twigs and tossed them to feign a distant noise; just to make it look good he fired his gun once, then he reemerged from behind the tree, or what he thought had been behind the tree, although he had been more to the side, from where the stranger and the boy stood, than actually behind the tree, so that they very plainly saw him give the toss which he then tried to palm off as somebody's movements; they were shocked by his unprofessionalism. He was unaware, however, of having been detected; he assumed then when he rejoined them that it had been only a jackrabbit and nothing really to be alarmed about. At the first chance the boy got, when the sheriff's back was turned, he googled his eyes, and spun his fingers around in circles next to his head, whispered "Whacko!" and burst out laughing. The sheriff did not hesitate to assume the laugh to be directed at himself, and he blushed a deep crimson, but gave no sign of humiliation; he simply walked on back to town, his murder suspect trailing some ten steps behind him the whole way. Every once in a while he forgot he was being followed and would break into a brisk hum, once even skipping a step or two before the muffled laugh in back of him shook him out of his reverie as if he were an old rug being shaken by the maid from an open window.
"You see?" he said when they had gotten back to town, "there was nothing to be afraid of, now was there?"
The boy feigned a mighty trembling and answered "N-n-n-no s-s-s-sir." The sheriff turned red again and excused himself. He went straight to the cell once he was safely inside his jail and lay down on the cot that lay outside the locked cell whose key was lost. He shut his eyes and tried to rest, but found it next to impossible; besides which, he was still on duty and had to be ready at a moment's notice to meet the next crisis when it arose.
The boy's store of grimaces and "Whacko's" spoken aloud seemed almost endless as he and the stranger proceeded along Main Street, until a parade of boys, older boys on their way from their Saturday workout, rounding the corner of Frame Street, interrupted his assessment of the sheriff's recent conduct. They caught his eye in mid-word. "Wha-" he said and then broke it off before completing it the instant he saw them. He began waving wildly and calling "Hello" to them, but they ignored him: they were older boys, they were young athletes, they had just come from their weekly workout at the gym, cut short this Saturday that they might attend Colonel and Mrs Grove's first picnic of the season. Rounding the corner, they took time to stop a second and peer into the pharmacy window at the pharmacist who sat twirling himself slowly on one of his defunct fountain stools. They waved; he smiled gloriously and waved back. Then they moved on and his smile faded to a sigh. A few of the boys' hair was still wet from the hosing down, but carefully combed back, their health instructor having been only too glad to help them groom, so as to look their best "for the young ladies at the picnic" he had said with a sly wink. Queer indeed! Mr H. J. had thought bitterly: I want them to look good for the young ladies, not for me. Queer indeed!
"Whacko God damn punk snob queers!" the snubbed son of Mr and Mrs Specialton exclaimed to the boys' retreating backs. He hoped they heard him, and being under the new mayor's protection he had no fear of reprisal, even if they were known to occasionally pick on the smaller boys: only when in a group though, doubtless to impress their peers with their heartlessness and their courage; when meeting the smaller boys alone, however, they were the very soul of propriety and decorum, even going so far as to find the little ones cute, charming and playful. But just let them get in a group of their own kind and...the lessons of history went on and on, ever unheeded, as if, unlike those at school, these lessons were a pleasure to repeat. And for this shortcoming they were "Whacko God damn punk queers" today. Who could say what they would be tomorrow? Or tomorrow. Or tomorrow.
Up ahead, the intersection everyone traveling Main Street must turn down if they were to arrive at Colonel and Mrs Grove's for the picnic - or if, on another day, they were headed for the Nowheresville Country Club, to play croquet in one of the tournaments. Grove Street, a wide, lovely street lined, as you would expect the finest street in town to be lined, with stately ash trees and some lovely flowering trees, as yet of course unflowered, as were the ashes unleaved save for a few dead autumn leaves still clinging to their branches. You could not drive your car up the road its full distance, however, as there was a median strip which, unlike any other median strip yet devised, crossed perpendicularly over rather than paralleling the road, so that all traffic was absolutely halted. It was apparently felt that there ought not be traffic back here; and yet when you continued on the quarter mile or so more to the Country Club you found a large parking lot, empty of course, and a lovely portico out front of the Colonel's house under which automobiles could drive to let off their occupants, except of course that no automobiles could reach it. Evidently at different times different ideas of traffic prevailed, unfortunately creating cross purposes which undid everything previously done, or subsequently done, for there were some who to this day maintained that the Colonel's portico and his parking lot had been built subsequent to the median strip's installation and despite the very best advice: he couldn't be convinced that a parking lot could ever be a superfluous entity, and as to the portico, well, he was said to have remarked that only a Philistine would design a swank Country Club and leave off the portico. But it was really only his house, they reminded him. "Yes," he supposedly remarked, "and the Great Pyramid was only Cheop's house!," the implication that it was ever so much more than only a house too clear to require elaboration. And here you were at last, at the Colonel's, which pray you don't make the mistake of calling "only a house!"
It was the biggest estate in Nowheresville, the Colonel the town's wealthiest citizen; even so it was not huge. The Colonel's fortune had derived not from manufacturing or any other commercially viable enterprise but simply from his savings; having worked some thirty years, supposedly, though no one knew for sure, in the military service, having presumably attained the rank of Colonel, he had managed to save a considerable sum of money, with which to maintain this his family's old house and grounds, to make such improvements to the structure as he deemed in order, to construct a parking lot, and to have the grounds landscaped. Where the story seemed to go into a bog was at that point most crucial to it: the thirty years the Colonel spent in the military acquiring his savings. Some swore time and again he had never left Nowheresville a single day of his life; they recall having seen him, talked to him, done business with him, argued the merits of culture with him, been called a Philistine by him, and been summarily snubbed. Others dismissed such claims as pure bunk: the Colonel had never lived here, nor had his family; he was a European, something like a marquis. Then how had he gotten the old Grove estate? A land grant, pure and simple - besides, it was never a Grove estate till he moved in. Still others held the middle ground, maintained the Colonel to have been raised here, gone away to seek his fortune, returned with it. Then how come no one else ever left to seek a fortune? No comment. One thing, however, everyone agreed on: the Colonel had a silent partner helping to finance his Country Club. Just who that was, they were unsure; but rumor had it this partner was none other than old Mr Hierophant himself, who had discovered buried pirate's treasure on his isolated property. But there was no ocean nearby so how could there have ever been pirates? Ah, but the Great Lakes had their own pirates, don't forget! And what a bunch of cutthroats! But wouldn't their treasure have been iron pyrites? Oh there used to be gold and silver galore nearby! Then why does no one speak of it? The Curse, that's why! What curse? The Curse of the Pirate's Blackbird. And just what was this Curse? Shh! Don't speak of it!
There was a frame something like an arch, a mechanism for there one day being a gate where the Colonel's driveway branched off from Grove Street; but as yet no gate stood, only the wooden frame. Vines crept along it, and great hedges just beginning to show the faintest trace of buds wound along the roadway separating it from the Colonel's property. You walked along a paved driveway, on either side of which was grass held in suspension until the Spring; trees dotted the landscape on either side, a few much too big for what was actually little more than five acres of ground: huge fir trees, and spruce trees, and one or two towering locusts with trunks spiraling into the ground but which overwhelmed the dogwoods, the mimosa, the wisteria and the yews. Flowers suggested themselves where mounds stood slightly raised: it had to be for flowers these mounds were put there, even though nothing but a few stalks accounted themselves proof of it. Some quarter of a mile farther along was the Colonel's house, so justly acclaimed for its portico. It was a frame house, of that type distinctly characterized as "farm houses." It was ample, but very unimposing, with green shutters and a green roof gabled at either end, covering two stories plus an attic. To this otherwise unassuming edifice was appended a magnificent front porch so massive as to accommodate two limousines beneath it together. It cut a semi-circle in space, had two somewhat Doric columns supporting the roof, and was balanced by a stairway beneath it leading up into the house, five steps high and semi-circled also, with wings at either side. It had been necessary to cut a new doorway into the house so as to have the steps and have them lead someplace too, then to add inside first a little landing or foyer and secondly a set of fine marble steps leading back down to ground level. All it wanted to complete it was a limousine out front, which sadly could never appear unless dropped like manna from the sky. Tacked onto the front frame had been a temporary sign announcing these grounds as The Nowheresville Garden and Racquet Club, an early draft having read Croquet in place of Racquet, with the original word erased, the new one inserted, so that it appeared to read Cracquet Club; but it was only a temporary sign, the real designation existed on a bronze plaque emblazoned into the front wall of the Club, a very impressive sign indeed.
Few people had arrived as yet, except mainly for Mr H. J.'s boys, who being still in their minority could not truly be said to qualify as guests. On the plaque it read "Members Only"; the result of this seemed to be that although you were genuinely welcome to attend these picnics and were encouraged to conduct yourself as if you were a member, you were not really taken account of by those who were members, upon their arrival, in figuring how many persons had already arrived, so that if fifty persons were there and no members were among them, the newly arriving members might well be heard to declare themselves "the first ones here," a declaration made with some sort of sigh: early to bed, early to rise, yes of course, but not early to arrive, no sir, not at all. It was gauche; and when you were written up by the local gossip in their correspondence as "goash," you were generally understood to have arrived someplace special a little too early.
The boys were busy looking for things to do, not for now though, for later, when the girls began arriving; something to occupy them, but not just anything: something the girls would be impressed with. The girls always arrived with their families, whereas it would have branded a boy a sissy to have arrived with his family rather than with his peers, except the little boys who, not being as close to puberty as the older boys, were accounted in with the girls under the general heading "children," much to the chagrin of such boys as the son of Mr and Mrs Specialton who saw himself as a boy not a child, his place as a peer not an inferior.
"The Colonel used to slit the throats of his prisoners of war," the boy announced to the stranger as they stood looking up at the front portico. The frame farm house seemed the appendage here, not the portico. The stranger felt disinclined to comment on the boy's statement, its preposterousness was at face value enough to satisfy him it lacked what one generally thinks of as comprising the truth. Undaunted, the boy tried another time to direct his friend's attention from the Clubhouse, as the house was called. This time he almost whispered.
"He also castrated them," the boy informed him.
The stranger, thinking to tease the boy, asked if he had done so to the female prisoners as well. Ha! did the stranger think the boy was an ass and didn't know what it meant to be castrated? because if he did, the boy would pull down his pants and show him exactly which part was involved. Then the boy turned and began walking away, his head low, a classic study of dejection. So if the boy were nothing but a stupid punk queer ass kid, then of course the exalted new mayor would sooner be hanged than be seen with him!
Seeing the boy's dejection, the stranger was prepared to go after him, retrieve his spirit from the deep bog it had sunk into, show him he was not regarded as an ass but as a very great friend who he would be proud to have for a son. This was his intention, but at the boy's reference to hanging, he became incensed, his resolve to help the boy became transferred into an urge to hurt him. He indeed went after the boy, but not to hug him, rather to grab him up by his shirt collar and shake him about, then let him drop, trembling and practically in tears, onto the lovely variegated grasses of Nowhereswille's finest lawn. He turned his back on the boy, who even after all this reached up to him as if wanting to be picked up and comforted. He had only taken two steps till now he began trembling, tears threatened to disrupt his equilibrium.
"Oh God," he moaned. He turned back, but only to find the boy scrambling up to run off. "Wait!" he tried to call, but his voice, choked, barely came out. "I'm sorry," he sighed, watching the boy disappear behind a hedge. Another friend lost, he thought silently. Oh dear God, I'm so sorry, so very very sorry. He thought, perhaps not seriously, but he thought nonetheless about going after the boy, doubting if he could catch him; besides, people were beginning now to arrive in considerable numbers. It looked in the space of these few minutes as if the whole town had made a sudden appearance; and as mayor, the stranger had to go greet his constituents, not go running through the hedge chasing after a seven year old boy. Advancing away from where he lost the boy, toward the citizens of Nowheresville, he had no way of knowing the boy had stopped just behind the hedge of bushes, he could not see the big wet eyes peering through a slit between two branches like peacock feathers; so he missed forever his chance of making up to his little lost friend for having hurt him. The eyes closed, but remained wet. Somewhere nearby the bigger boys roamed, their memories bigger also than a seven year old's.
"Ah, Mr Mayor, how nice of you to honor us with your presence!" the stranger found himself greeted very formally by his host, Colonel Grove. They had never met before, and the stranger expected formality from anyone who would build a portico onto a farm house, but even so he found the greeting much more stiff than it needed to be. Then he began finding the same excessive formality in the other citizens' greetings. He had to conclude from this that they had not looked favorably upon his promise to veto any bill for taxation put before him. Nevertheless, courtesy demanded he overlook their all too obvious reserve.
"Colonel Grove," the stranger exchanged greetings with his host, "this is indeed a pleasure, sir. And may I compliment you on these lovely grounds? and on your Clubhouse? Indeed: on the entire Country Club?"
The Colonel nodded. "You may," he replied, standing before his guest in an expectant manner, as if waiting to be saluted or at the very least further complimented. And was the Colonel retired? the stranger thought to ask after an awkward moment. Well, yes, in a manner of speaking he was. Ah, excellent; and was his rank of an honorary nature, if it was not impertinent of the stranger to ask? Actually, sir, it was a bit impertinent, but as it was asked, did the stranger demand an answer? that was his prerogative as mayor, was it not? If it was, sir, it was a prerogative better served, as they say, in its breach. And pray, sir Mr Mayor, what did that mean? was it a yes or a no? or quite possibly a maybe? Begging sir the Mr Colonel's pardon, it was a way of saying that the stranger would not be so uncivil as to demand a reply. Ah! then he should have said so right out and not splattered the issue with so many clichés, Mr Mayor sir. And begging once again Mr sir, your Colonelship, or whatever's, pardon, but the stranger was of the opinion that clichés were well regarded here in Nowheresville. Pulling the stranger to one side, the Colonel asked him if this tête-à-tête did not evoke memories of reading those wonderful British comic novels of his youth? the Fieldings, the Thackerys, the Goldsmiths? It did, save that this conversation was an exceedingly poor facsimile of them. Ah, the stranger was developing a critical attitude: would he next be ordering up an oboe to blow upon perhaps? Sir, said the stranger, according to Mad Magazine, the oboe is an ill wind that no man blows well. I will ask you sir, said the Colonel, not to bring trash into my compound. And I sir, said the stranger, piqued at the Colonel's last remark, will exercise my prerogative as mayor and demand to know if you were ever in the military service or if your title is strictly honorary? Why? asked the Colonel: was the mayor thinking of calling him out into some kind of military service, such as heading the national guard? No. Oh. So? I refuse, Mr Mayor, on the grounds...on the grounds.... The Colonel faltered. On the grounds.... Then his face brightened. On the grounds, sir, he brought forth proudly, that these are my grounds and as you are my guest on them you are obliged to respect my privacy, save in the case of a national emergency; so unless you're prepared to declare martial law - which frankly, he let slip, as a foreign national I don't see how you possibly can - I suggest, sir, that we terminate this conversation before it becomes self-parody.
The Colonel took his bow and started off, suddenly remembering the slip he had made. He got a peculiar look on his face and, turning once again quickly toward the stranger, endeavored to see if his careless remark had been noted. It had been and the stranger was about to ask him about it but his look said everything, so the stranger simply turned and walked away. This greatly relieved the Colonel, who had on his dress blues and looked very dignified once again as he proceeded to greet his other guests.
So, the stranger thought, I'm a foreign national, am I? Ah, but of what nation I wonder? And why? So that I can appear a spy of some sort? He wandered about, pursuing these thoughts just as if they were a trail on the ground which he could follow to discover where they led. The Colonel, meanwhile, once safely out of earshot of the stranger, began recounting his conversation with the stranger to the members of the City Council and the PTA.
"There can be no possible doubt of it," the Colonel concluded authoritatively, "the man is British. I just fed him a dialogue which he responded to exactly as one would expect a Britisher to. I strongly suspect, gentlemen, if we searched him we'd find a miniature of the Queen somewhere on him. These people are fiercely loyal to their monarch; they'd go to the ends of the earth to satisfy an insult. Mark my word: he's British, quite possibly the Crown Prince himself!"
This of course astounded everyone, but even so, and even with so unequivocal an assurance of the stranger's nationality, they decided to go ahead with their plan. This had been merely the first phase of it, to test him for being British. Next, however, must come the others before a final judgment could be made. The Colonel was sent out to once again seek the stranger out, then to sound him out on the next possible nationality. The Colonel had readily agreed to this when it was suggested to him by the members in attendance at the PTA meeting Thursday evening. He naturally assumed it was owing to his reputation for sophistication and his knowledge of worldly ways that he had been asked to help out; actually, it was because everyone considered him something of a natural actor, one of rather extraordinary talents, his being able to so successfully pass himself off as a Colonel when the consensus was that he had never spent a day outside Nowheresville the proof of his ability to become and to remain something he was not.
The stranger had gone among a group of ladies who were gathered about a young pregnant woman; apparently it was decided to make the picnic a baby shower as well, though of course only the ladies could be in attendance at these functions. Nevertheless, the stranger was immediately and without the slightest reservation or ceremony brought into the little fold.
"Perhaps," he started to express a reservation of his own, but was silenced by the ladies, who would absolutely not hear of his being sent away.
"It's just a rule anyway," someone pointed out, "that no men are allowed at baby showers. The truth is, we're always a little disappointed when they don't break it." All the ladies seconded that.
"Then why observe it?" he asked.
"We're supposed to," the lady replied. Everyone laughed.
"You know," someone else said, "men's things, women's things: how silly - don't you think so? Why, they even, we're told, have two entirely separate movements dealing with that very issue: one trying to keep the old ways, the other trying to change things."
The stranger felt inclined to ask the lady which one she tended to support, and although her reply did not give a direct answer, it seemed somehow the best of all possible answers.
"I don't understand big movements," she confessed; then she leaned in a little closer and in almost a whisper admitted not entirely trusting them either.
"But do you believe in the equality of the sexes?" the stranger persisted.
"I don't believe in it, no," she answered, stressing the word "believe." Then she got a strange look on her face; evidently something had occurred to her which seemed now to contradict her reply. "But I practice it," she said, in a voice almost of awe.
"I don't know if I will or not once my baby's born," the pregnant woman observed very studiously. She wore a pretty black tee shirt with ruffles around the neck and sleeves; on it, just above her belly, was printed the words "This has never happened to anyone before!" in a rhinestone effect. She endeavored to explain. "If it's a girl I might; but if it's a boy I can't. A boy's supposed to think men are better than women, isn't he? It wouldn't be fair to him otherwise - I guess that's why they made the rule."
"I don't like it, I think it's a stupid rule," someone else admitted, and was immediately asked if she could see her way clear to agree that it was principally that very rule which was keeping civilization going. No, she could not see her way, etc. How on earth could anyone fail to see it?"
Just then the Colonel stepped into their midst. He had approached and had been listening some moments when he decided the time was perfect to interrupt, the present discussion affording him the perfect opportunity to test the stranger some more.
"Ladies," he said, acknowledging them, "and I'm sure the mayor would agree with me," he thereby acknowledged the stranger, "if I posited to you the essential metaphysics of what you have been doing here. The term ladies is dialectic. On the one hand you have your thesis, on the other your antithesis," he acknowledged each of the proponents in turn as he spelled this out, "and after a hard battle, which must ever end in a draw, you have the final resolution, or...or..." here the Colonel feigned to falter, "oh dear me, I've lost the word. Perhaps Herr Mayor could help me out?" he suggested.
"You then have your synthesis," the stranger helped out the Colonel, who promptly repeated the word then groped for just who had first come up with this essential metaphysical scheme. Expecting to hear the German Hegel mentioned, the Colonel was disappointed upon the stranger's reply that it went back as far as human history itself: at least as far back as the Greek Socrates, he informed the ladies. Well, this was enough to convince the Colonel the stranger was not German; he promptly excused himself and left, seeking out the stranger at every occasion which presented itself that afternoon, his determination to fix upon the exact nationality grown into practically an obsession with him. He tried his skill at every major nationality within reason, devising sometimes impromptu the scheme he would use; but nothing else seemed even to approach the likelihood, indeed certainty, of the stranger's being British. Each of the others had to be discarded: the German, the French, the Italian, the Arab, the Jewish, the Hindu, the Balkan, and all the rest, some more subtle in their design, some more subtly executed, others rather obviously based on popular stereotypes, still others almost ridiculously ill conceived. All tried, only one proven true.
"The man is British through and through," the Colonel reported back to the PTA in confident tones. "Right down to his little toes," he went on to speculate, but the PTA was not concerned with the stranger's physique, only his nationality. And did the Colonel perceive in the stranger's conversation, or in its style, anything of a spy? He did, and yet again he didn't: should he explain? It would be helpful if he would. What he meant was this: as he was conversing with the stranger, he had gotten a very definite impression of a certain literary flair, if not to say genius, in him. Indeed? Yes, there could be little doubt of it; right away who should have come to the Colonel's mind but Matthew Arnold. And did the Colonel think the stranger was Matthew Arnold? Well no, for reasons which the Colonel could not go into just now, he did not think so - but there was a chance he might be somebody like E. M. Forrester, except that he should have then known more of the Hindus; of course, he might have been only feigning a literary genius, it wouldn't be the first time it had happened. Then maybe he was a spy after all: did the Colonel think so? Yes, he did, most definitely.
"I'm afraid what we have here," the Colonel speculated, "is a classic case of historical regression. The man thinks himself the incarnation of George the III or my name isn't Colonel Grove!" This was little help, as very few citizens of Nowheresville actually believed that was his name.
"Or," someone else suddenly spoke up, "Jack the Ripper!" Everyone was shocked, notwithstanding that the possibility had been already considered. The person speaking explained just having come from the Merrimac and Monitor Hotel/Motor Inn where the night clerk very discreetly showed him the stranger's file. Did they knew he had been under suspicion of the most grisly murder Nowheresville had ever seen? Good God! what was that? The person nodded vigorously: they had heard him correctly. But shouldn't the sheriff be notified? Don't worry, he had been - in fact, the sheriff had just returned from a stake-out and was recuperating in his cell from what seems to have been a savage attack on his person, judging from his extreme nervous state: he was lucky to be alive. Good God! all of this happening right in their midst! what was to be done? And to think they had elected this cold-blooded villain mayor, in a landslide - had the world ever seen the like? Never, gentlemen, never.
"But who was killed?" the Colonel asked, feeling somehow that as military adviser to the town he should endeavor to get as many details as he could.
"You all know the Specialtons?" the person carrying this grave news asked. Of course they all knew the Specialtons. Why?
"Well, it was their boy he murdered," the messenger was pained to have to inform them. Oh my God no!
"Oh my God yes, I'm afraid," came the reply.
"A terrible child yes, but who on earth would want him murdered?" the Colonel mused. Then it occurred to him he had better ask for the particulars, however unpleasant they may be. When? where? how? was there much pain? did the stranger leave a trail of blood? or clues to follow? and when and where would he strike again?
One word was spoken, with such intensity that it might have easily filled a good sized treatise. "Decapitation" was that word. Oh dear God how horrible! how horrible! He must be Jack the Ripper - he just must be! how could he be anyone but? Oh my God, what was to become of them? How would their fair town survive this terrible plight? Could the human mind comprehend such a thing, let alone cope with it? Everyone nodded no, it could not be done. One or two fainted away, but the grass was like a soft cool carpet, even if it were scratchy in places where it was still in the grip of winder, so they were left lying where they fell. One man, thinking them dead, lowered his head and began to pray, but upon removing his jacket to cover one's face, he got such a shock when the person stirred that he too fainted; like the others, he was left lying on the croquet lawn.
Then it dawned on them how ironic, and how irresistible for the stranger it was: a croquet lawn. Of course! they should have known all along: no Britisher could resist a croquet lawn; and Jack the Ripper was no exception. When you were British, you were British through and through, right down to your little toes! God Save the Queen! The Colonel had it right by golly!
But what was to be done here and now? was the question. First, the murderer must be apprehended; if possible, without additional bloodshed. Then, there seemed but one course open to them. He must be gotten rid of.
"Hanged?" someone asked. "Shall we hang him? Show him a taste of our Western justice?"
"Good God no!" someone else replied. "We are not a lynch mob! Nor are we a pack of barbarians! Nor are we Westerners either." "All good Americans have a little Westerner in them!" someone objected. "We'll just scare him a little, just feign hanging him, just enough to get him to leave town, to leave us alone, forever, at last, in peace. That's all. That's what we'll do. What else can we do?" "But then he'll just go on to murder again!" "But that won't be our problem!" So it was settled. "My God, the citizen objecting to even a faux hanging went away saying to himself, "you can't just up and hang someone, least of all someone you just elected mayor." "Somebody has to get a rope," someone said. At first a small committee was chosen for this task, but it was feared the murderer might become suspicious should he detect several making an exodus, so one citizen was finally selected.
"May God go with you," they urged him on.
The stranger approached; everyone on the PTA tried hard not to panic. Later, when it was spoken of in retrospect, some would insist it was the members of the city council who had maintained order; others would insist the council had been disbanded ad hoc, therefore the distinction of preventing a panic clearly belonged, if only inadvertently, to the PTA. A few dissenters would swear they had witnessed wholesale panic. The older boys had met up with the older girls who, having arrived in the company of their families, had skillfully separated from them; together, they had all slipped undetected into the woods at the back of the Colonel's grounds. Some of the younger children banded together to go see what their older brothers and sisters were doing in the woods. Some of the older citizens of Nowheresville had fallen asleep on their picnic benches and teetered perilously: would they fall forward and bang their heads on the tables, or backward onto the Colonel's croquet lawn? A few bets were laid. Somewhere in the distance you could hear Buttercup out at his stable faintly whinnying, whatever significance that might hold. Perhaps the horse sensed his name bandied about on the Colonel's lawn; he was mentioned as a good prop to set the murderer on for the ritual execution, but that was ruled down: who ever dreamed he could support the weight of Jack the Ripper? Why, the legend alone must weigh a ton, someone suggested.
"Have you made your decision?" the stranger asked the members of the PTA. Sensing a strangeness in their mannerisms, he assumed they had decided to override his veto; they would have their taxes it appeared. So be it; he must resign as mayor. He had just pronounced the words "I resign" when suddenly, the PTA perceiving the approach of its rope bearer, who held one end of the rope to one side to let them know he had it, he - the stranger: the mayor: the murderer: Jack the Ripper - was apprehended. The PTA held him fast.
"Quick!" someone cried, "the rope!" They held him firm in their grasp while the rope's noose was placed around his neck. The stranger was at first too stunned to say or do anything; he gave no resistance as they prepared him for the hanging. They cut loose some foot or so of rope so that they could bind his hands.
"In front or behind?" somebody asked. No one seemed able to recall which it was - they found it so hard to think just then, so they put it to a vote.
"All in favor of in front say 'aye.'"
"All in favor of behind."
"The 'ayes' have it. Tie his hands in front." His hands were tied.
"Blindfold?" Did anyone have a blindfold on him? Or did anyone know if it were necessary to have one? No one seemed to know, let alone to have one on his person, though everyone searched his pockets on the chance one might have somehow worked its way there.
"Okay, no blindfold. The murderer will have to simply shut his eyes at the proper time." And was that agreeable to him? or was it asking too much? It was an embarrassing question, they admitted, but a necessary question.
They sought out a tree. They tied the rope to an overhanging branch. Did the murderer have any final words? He said nothing; he was still too stunned to speak or move. Then let them say, in all fairness, that the new mayor had done a splendid job and would have been a great asset to the community had he not stooped to beheading little boys. A few words were said against self-indulgence, but nothing approaching a lecture, just a brief comment or two apropos to the occasion. Finally the murderer was raised upward, to be dropped suddenly that he might be hung, though it was only a formality: they had no intention of actually hanging him. What they had in mind was that he would take advantage of their ineptitude to make his escape; they wondered why he had waited even this long, but they had faith in him, they knew any minute he would break free. Any minute now.
But he was still too stunned to move. He had used to watch a show on television called The Twilight Zone; it had had a great influence on him. Now he felt like a part of it, as if his life had suddenly become a script, himself caught inside invisible transmission waves propelled through the air, striking antennae and slithering down a cold metal shaft, then through a wire, as if wrapping around it, and finally passing through a series of cathode tubes to end up inside a box, waiting his cue to make his entry. "Take one stranger, just an average stranger, a transient in the Northern wilderness. Suddenly he comes upon a little town tucked away in the woods. A quiet town, unobtrusive. He enters. What he doesn't know is: he's just passed over...into The Twilight Zone." That seemed to be the only way left to make some sense of things: live it as if it were a show on television. Who could say, maybe it was? And now the climax, the point where the past reopens, where he finds himself slipped through a time warp back to a previous moment, where like a pulley the past and present keep each other aligned in perfect equilibrium, himself being conveyed in either direction. He had been hung before: falsely accused and hung. A boy then, there, wherever it had been, and it had been somewhere, perhaps in the South - a boy had been thought murdered. A stranger there, at first taken in, given some official status, he had been accused then. Not as Jack the Ripper, but as the infamous Bluebeard: he wore a beard in those days, a long one, very black. Some had insisted he was not Bluebeard at all but Blackbeard the Pirate. But no, it was decided he was French - and wasn't Bluebeard French? So it was as Bluebeard he was hung. Now it was all happening again. And he was too stunned to move.
It might have all been lost, the good citizens of Nowheresville might have been forced to go through with the hanging, had not a sudden apparition chased them off. Terrified themselves, they took the time to set the stranger down, even to cut him loose; they could not bear the thought of leaving him behind to face the ghost. From out of Colonel Grove's hedges it arose, at first to just stand there, its head all that was visible; then it stepped the whole way out. It was him: his ghost. The son of Mr and Mrs Specialton, murdered - beheaded - and now returned to haunt the Colonel's croquet lawn for all eternity.
That was what had done it! some thought to themselves as they scrambled off to seek shelter: that cursed croquet lawn of the Colonel's! Of course, they could see it all so clearly now: a croquet lawn being eminently British, of course it sooner or later had to summon forth a spirit! Were not practically all ghosts British in origin? peculiar to the British Isles? So did it not follow as day does night that wherever a little of Britain went, they would eventually turn up too?
The ghost at first stood still, once out of the hedge. Then it raised an ominous hand and pointed. At him: pointed at him, Jack the Ripper, its murderer. Pointed the accusing finger. Woe to the stranger. Let him down, let him now make his escape if he still could. Free him from the pain of being hung, he has far worse to burden him now. God grant him the means to escape the ghost's retribution. But hurry, the good citizens all thought as they watched from the safety of the Clubhouse: for God sake Mr Mayor hurry or you'll be smote dead!
Because of the murdered boy's ghost, come apparently to seek revenge, the murderer was set free. Jack the Ripper was still at large. The sight of the boy helped jar him loose from the past; he could escape now, if he chose, into the present, there was nothing stopping him. The noose was still around his neck, but it led nowhere; he could easily rid himself of it. The rope, cut from its full length, having draped over his shoulder. He reached to take it loose, then stopped; he chose instead to leave it. "Take it with me wherever I go," he murmured, then he laughed, but not loudly. He looked all around, back toward the Clubhouse where the PTA and city council and all the citizens of Nowheresville were gathered, and then to the hedge again. He lifted his hand and waved, then he walked off; the boy waved back, watched him go, then turned and retreated once more into the bushes, leaving the croquet lawn deserted. All that remained was some rustling out in the woods, and some muffled giggles, where the older boys and girls had escaped into their own private world to try and realize their fantasies if they could; while locked within the Colonel's Clubhouse, where a specter had driven them from their Saturday picnic, peeking vaguely from the windows overlooking the portico, the citizens of Nowheresville watched and waited, to make certain it was safe to come out again.
* * * *
Saturday evening. A little bit of sunlight, but fast disappearing behind clouds which were dark at the bottom and at their centers but gradually lightening around the edges and as they ascended. In a place or two the clouds were thin enough to allow a weak ray to penetrate, but from among these vague openings there was nothing to permit the kind of spectacle one expects from such a hallowed description as "the sky opening to let the sun's beams flood the good earth." These were not floods but clots of light; they were clumsy in their progression earthward, they looked as much like a shower of boulders, each distinctly apart from the others, as though each fell with a different speed, as they did like an indistinct, unintegrated beam. They seemed, for that very reason perhaps, more appropriate to this, the stranger's scene of escape.
He had gotten free of the town; he had made his way at first almost blindly, as if he had never till that moment seen the place, and could not conceivably know where to look for an exit. In this manner he found his way from the Colonel's grounds, sheer instinct propelling him along the driveway and through the makeshift gates onto the road, and even part of the way down the road until, his sense of being unpursued coupled perhaps with his growing re-awareness of his surroundings enabling him to regain some measure of control over his emotions, he gradually slowed to a complete halt. He stood for a moment on the road divide, looking all around. He thought a moment. While there was no way to avoid his going through town, at least part of the way, he nevertheless decided not to retrace entirely his steps of entry into Nowheresville, even if that meant giving up the surest way out: the way he had come originally. He knew that path led to safety, and in a way he wanted to go that route; he particularly wanted to stand again in the vacant lot whose sign had first caught his attention. He had forgotten some of its words, and it seemed crucial that he rediscover its exact message.
"Good grasses are variegated": it was something like that. To be variegated meant...meant what? Meant to be a composite of a variety of influences all coming into a unique pattern? Or no, did it not rather infer the absence of pattern? Or no still, not the absence of pattern but the attempt to sublimate pattern into an affected integrity? and where there really was none? But no, not that either: perhaps there was one, had always been one - an integrity, that was; only it had itself been sublimated early on into this artificial convergence of things from the outside world, until it was no longer recognizable, this variegation then made to appear the true - the one and true and only - integrity. Who could say?
Let the sign be, let the lot stand vacant, let the chips of bark and clumps of cement and mounds of earth and withered stalks of grass lie where they were, along the roadway, undisturbed. Let the way in remain an entrance; find another to be the exit. Then of course it came immediately to him which way he was to take. There could be only one. He hurried on the rest of the way, first to Main Street then the final few blocks until there it was, his escape route: the Great Nowheresville Freeway, that led straight into the outside world. But metaphor ended after a short while, a very short while, so that the freeway ceased being in fact and in reality a way to and from the outside: it remained so in symbol, but that way only. The stranger ended up at the driveway of old Mr Hierophant, which if he had reflected a moment before beginning his escape he would have realized was inevitable. There must be a way out though, he thought as he stood facing the blackening woods covering the long driveway and reading the ominous sign that advised everyone to "Keep Out." I won't go back now, he resolved. I know I'm headed in the right direction, I know what I'm looking for lies beyond these woods, I know if I just follow this driveway I'll eventually, somehow, come out on the other side. I know I will.
A drizzle had set in, but having ignored the sign posted, the stranger quickly became submerged in the overhanging branches of the forest and felt no rain. He had to maneuver well to avoid the fearsome potholes which seemed to plague this ancient path, and to do it in almost total darkness. Otherwise he might trip and fall. A certain terror slowly gripped him; he began to wish he had not come this way at all but had taken instead the sure way, even if it meant being re-captured, even if it meant being hanged all over again. The sounds of night in a deep forest surrounded him, added to his fright. Still he kept going, when everything sensible told him to turn back.
He thought he heard a voice just up ahead which asked a very simple question: "Why are you here?" for which he had no answer.